When He Sprang from His Bed, Staggered Backward, and Fell Dead, We Clung Together with Faint Hearts, and Mutely Questioned Each Other
By Christopher Kang
Green Mountain Review Books
Reviewed by J. G. McClure
When He Sprang from His Bed, Staggered Backward, and Fell Dead, We Clung Together with Faint Hearts, and Mutely Questioned Each Other: 880 Stories, the extravagantly-titled winner of the 2016 Green Mountains Review Prize for Fiction and Christopher Kang's debut collection, is not quite like anything else I've read. Sure, comparisons are possible—Lauren Groff describes the book's "steady accretion of Robert Walserian feuilletons," Dean Young remarks on the stories' similarity to so many sword thrusts/lions/jewels/tequila shots, and I'm reminded of Calvino's wry mythologies—but these comparisons don't fully capture the book's strange originality. The collection begins:
He finds a man lying face down in a public restroom with an open book entitled Understanding Anger resting on his head like a hat. After a formal interview with the police, he heads to an art gallery opening where a kneeling, naked woman screams into a leather box held delicately in her hands.
This story charts the course of what is to follow: nameless characters who briefly exist in an uncannily abstracted version of our universe and strangely encounter one another. At the same time, it provides our first glimpse into some of the book's obsessions: What constitutes art? What makes a story a story? What (baseless?) distinctions separate sense from nonsense? The second story reads:
After his life sheds itself of all the particularities that bind together his apathy, he decides to kill himself by drowning in a black lake behind the house he should've grown up in. He gathers up what little money he has and walks into a nearly empty casino where all the dealers refuse to look him in the eye. He bets it all on one hand. Whether he won or lost is unimportant. So is the fact that he did not kill himself.
Particularly striking is the way Kang creates an emotionally complex character in a single sentence: we know the man is a passive observer of his life (which "sheds itself" on its own); we know he has a flair for dramatic symbolism (not just any death will do—it must be drowning in the "black lake"); we know that despite his apparent "apathy," he has his yearnings and regrets (if only he had grown up in that house . . .). We see him in the casino, outcast, alone, and while we may not particularly like him, our empathy is laser-focused on this man—till all at once Kang pulls the rug from under our feet.
Kang's speaker gives us a compelling character and story only to tell us that characters and stories—even life-or-death ones—do not matter. It's postmodern self-reflexive irony with a difference: despite what the speaker would have us believe, that tour-de-force first sentence has made us feel strongly that it is important how this man's story ends. While the story invites us to bring the intellect to bear on purely metafictional concerns, it simultaneously insists upon the importance of the emotional and moral dimensions of fiction that such cold intellectualizing may obscure.
Or take Story 55, which, in five simple declarative sentences, makes a remarkably complex intellectual and emotional argument:
He paints portraits of horses. Only one critic of great importance admires them. Soon the world admires them. They see everything in these horses. Nothing made sense before these horses.
Again we see Kang's masterful blending of the wry and the poignant. The story asks us to hold in balance two conflicting impulses. On one hand, we roll our eyes: once one influential critic praises these horses, everyone else is suddenly onboard, lavishing comically exaggerated praise upon the pictures: "nothing made sense before these horses." But at the same time, there's a tenderness here. The world sees "everything in these horses" because we must, that is, precisely because "nothing made sense" before them. If we can make sense of the chaos of our lives by looking at pictures of horses—even if our epiphanies are mere delusions—who can blame us for how we cleave to them?
That tenderness working with and against irony is, to my mind, what makes Kang's work so exciting. Take, for instance, the touching Story 170:
Her presence is pure insistence. The days change shape when she moves across the room. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have known her and to forget her now. When the period arrives at the end of this sentence like a nail into a coffin, despite the commas that pause and delay her disappearance, which I have dreaded and celebrated, I will lose the origin of the curling, coherent, clairvoyant, careless breeze inside, inside, inside me.
The language calls attention to itself as language; we watch the writer watching himself write. But it's not just a linguistic game: the writer drags out the sentence because he knows that when it ends he will lose, at last, the fantasy of the beloved's ongoing presence. Of course she is already gone; of course he knows this; of course her presence is "pure insistence," that is, the writer's insistence upon it, upon the illusion of presence that is description, upon the dream of presence that can never be enough and yet is all we have. This game of comma after self-aware comma is clearly a linguistic performance, but it is no less heartbreaking for that. Indeed, the intense self-awareness of the writing amplifies the beauty and the pain: the vain attempt to delay loss is all the more poignant because we all know it is a vain attempt, but we go along with it anyway—what else can we do? As the sentence reaches the limits of its grammar and we're left with the borderline nonsensical repetition of "inside, inside, inside me," how can we not feel deeply the inevitable failure?
When He Sprang from His Bed . . . is a wonderful book that defies attempts at tidy description and reveals more with each rereading. In the end, perhaps the best description of my encounter with this collection comes from Story 10: "He smashes the metaphor to find what is inside. It refuses to break open and only chimes like a bell each time he strikes it."