Like Austin, Texas, I picked up Amber Spark’s story collection The Unfinished World thinking Let’s get weird. Full disclosure, I actually clicked that wishbone toggle on NetGalley and Norton granted my wishes. Thank you, fairy [odd] grandfather, W.W. The wishbone toggle is kind of a fitting romance for this book of stories, which I didn’t know had a novella, but apparently that is what the readers are saying. It’s fitting because these stories were all a bit dreamy, a bit other sphere of imagination.
On the outset, they reminded me of A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel, a collection that I could read again and again. This is also what I would think Miranda July would create if put out into space in a retro yellow space suit and asked to write until her fingers bled dry. Something like this odd creation that Amber Sparks has developed. Don’t get me wrong, I was enthralled from the beginning. There are pages on pages of quotes from this collection hidden away in unrecognizable font in my journal. A few of the stories I particularly loved were, “The Janitor in Space,” “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” “The Logic of a Loaded Heart,” “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly,” “The Process of Human Decay,” and “The Fever Librarian.”
I thought each of these stories was doing something either quite new, or those made famous for their oddness had done something similar and this was a new take. For instance, “The Logic of a Loaded Heart” is a word problem. It seamlessly blends the math of third grade, with the math of the every day world telling a narrative that makes the reader question the ifs and buts of their life, the way it looks on paper like a math resume of sorts. It became like a “choose your own adventure” type of story, rather than a math problem, in parts, but that didn’t diminish the effect of it being thoughtful and not at all redundant. t know that Margaret Atwood has done something similar with “Happy Endings,” but who doesn’t want to be referenced in the same sentence as that woman, especially if you’re going for the oddness factor.
“The Janitor in Space,” was just sparkling new for me. I would never think to put a janitor in space and since this is the opening story, it really set the tone for the rest of the story. While I didn’t think this story was particularly science fiction(y) or even fantastical, as Sparks parades through these genres in the collection, I realized that she was setting me up from the jump for this sort of mystical train of thought. It didn’t always work, but “The Janitor in Space,” definitely left me wanton.
“The Fever Librarian” is an obvious choice of story for any book nerd. The librarian that keeps all the “fevers” of the world at be, drenched in her own lust. It was exciting to watch her downfall or her upbringing, depending on the way you read the story. And “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly” and “The Process of Human Decay” both discuss what happens to people after death. I thought “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly” was a tad more interesting just because it was almost written as historical fiction.
It’s about the annals of the German mortuaries where Germans (half-believed) that people might wake up from death and kept them in this windowed enclosures so if they woke up they could get up and continue with life. I’m still honestly not sure it’s a part of history or if Amber Sparks just made it up for the fun of toying with her reader. To be completely honest, Google had nothing for me. However, this was more interesting because the narrator is the husband who started them and his wife wanted to fly, which consumed her, and ultimately caused her death.
My favorite story was “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” because it was about a brother and sister who create taxidermy art and live in a museum of their father’s strange creations and eccentricities. Although this story was definitely not the happiest story in the collection, there was something about the relationship that I really loved. It’s not often that writers get that brother-sister relationship right without it being trite, or too short to really grasp. (I’m hoping that Rachel and Lotto get to that place in Fates and Furies as I read it).
The best part of this story collection was just the invention. I felt like I was reading the book I wanted to write, but also that I was reading a book by someone with a brain that just thought much differently from my own. There were turns in the stories that I wasn’t expecting and the language was put together like a new math problem and not a memorized formula. I love it when writers use words in ways I’ve never seen them used and Amber Sparks did not upset.
While I think that the beginning stories are a lot stronger than the stories in the middle or towards the end, mostly because she asks too much from the reader for the suspension of belief. Some of the stories were too far for me to even telescope towards. I really wish that I could get there because I was so into Amber Sparks by the time that I got to those stories that I was a little more wounded when I didn’t like them. Man, sucks to have feelings sometimes.