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In spring of 2020, video conferencing apps came of age with COVID-19. One quirk of video calls that wasn’t immediately apparent was self view, which researchers have since identified as a leading cause of Zoom fatigue. [1] We tire when forced to watch ourselves for hours, and we end up asking the current speaker to repeat themselves because we were too busy checking our hair or crooked shirt collar. Sometimes we miss details entirely and message coworkers and classmates afterwards, not wanting to embarrass ourselves by admitting we weren’t paying attention.

Beyond self view on Zoom, what creates these small disconnects in communication, and what are we missing as a result? Kim Fu’s short story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century consists of twelve stories where the strange meets the mundane and examines these questions from multiple angles. (Fu has two previously published novels and one poetry collection, but this is her debut short story collection and her first foray into speculative fiction.)

Fu’s style is tight and visceral, and she brings to life haunting hypothetical possibilities and encounters with the strange with clean prose. Many of the stories in Lesser Known Monsters center on how we interact with technology both real and imagined. In “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” a grieving caller convinces a simulation phone operator to see her deceased mother one last time. In “#ClimbingNation,” one of the few stories without speculative elements, a woman visits a memorial for a YouTube-famous college acquaintance, convincing his sister and climbing friends that she was his friend instead of merely a fan. Several of these stories feature suburban children as narrators, such as “The Doll,” where a group of children stumble across a possibly haunted doll formerly owned by a girl who had passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Beyond the horror-tinged “The Doll,” the protagonists of “Liddy, First to Fly” are a group of four girls, one of whom, Liddy, starts growing feathers on her lower legs that resemble “a downy, slimy, just-birthed animal, newly ejected from its mother” (p. 18). The other girls initially assume the wound on her leg is ringworm until they see the feathers. They help Liddy practice jumping in secret from their mothers, because they know adults either won’t see the feathers or will convince themselves the feathers aren’t there.

One adult could have seen what we saw and carried it quietly within her forever. But not four. Four adults have to agree on what happened, agree on the rules. Four adults can talk to each other until reality straightens, until doubt is crushed, until their memories unstitch and reform. (p. 31)

The near-magical ability of adults to rationalize away the strange is a skill the girls, who are only starting to hit their growth spurts, haven’t gained yet. Like the adults in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s childhood classic The Little Prince, to be an adult in Fu’s story is to be closed to possibilities and to not understand the logic of the children’s world. In the children’s minds, the chasm between childhood and adulthood is wide enough that not even the wings would be enough to open the adults’ eyes, an idea that comes back in both “The Doll” and “Do You Remember Candy.”

The adults in Fu’s worlds struggle with technology disrupting both relationships and smaller-scale interpersonal interactions. In “Twenty Hours,” which begins with the compelling opening line of “After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs,” a husband and wife own a printer capable of reprinting new bodies after sudden, accidental deaths (p. 83). Instead of using it as intended (that is, saving it for a disaster or accident), they repeatedly murder each other because they can do so with no consequences except a twenty-hour wait time for a new body. The motif of missed connections returns as the husband reflects on killing his wife, which would sound absurd to his less-fortunate neighbors unable to afford the printer. He ponders where his wife goes in the twenty-hour gap between her death and return and wonders what his wife does alone in between his own deaths. The printer has isolated them from their peers and each other, not unlike how cell phones have led to couples texting other people during dates instead of paying attention to each other.

Through the printer, Fu posits that new technologies both isolate and connect us, and in a similar vein, the previously mentioned “#ClimbingNation” examines parasocial relationships. The term “parasocial interaction” was created in 1956 by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, psychologists interested in the relationship between TV presenters and their audiences, but the internet has allowed parasocial interactions to proliferate and has generated renewed academic interest. [2] In “#ClimbingNation,” the recently deceased YouTube rock climbing star Travis “had a way of addressing a room full of people and making it feel like he was only talking to you” (p. 56). The narrator April tears up at the memorial as she lies about how she and Travis were college friends, but she soon discovers that he was secretive and kept large parts of himself out of the public eye and even from his friends and family. Travis’s sister Miki mentions two teenage girls who never knew him in person and concludes, “At first, I was going to ask them to leave, but then I thought, who was I to say they didn’t know him just as well as any of us?” (pp. 59-60)

Fu validates the idea that a viewer knows the public figure in a small way, even if it is only the most polished and publicly presentable version of the public figure. April experiences real grief at Travis’s death, enough to make her seek out his memorial for answers about his passing. As social media has become an ever-present force, parasocial relationships have become a fact of modern life, and “#ClimbingNation” presents one possibility of what these relationships will look like as influencers and internet personalities age.

The final story in this collection, “Do You Remember Candy,” is eerily reminiscent of the current coronavirus pandemic and ties together the recurring ideas in this collection nicely. Told in third person from the point of view of a freelance web designer named Allie and her twelve-year-old daughter Jay, “Do You Remember Candy” begins with a day where everyone loses their sense of taste and all food suddenly tastes repulsive for everyone worldwide. In Allie’s world, “the stock markets crash, multibillion-dollar industries collapse, but so much doesn’t change. […] Allie isn’t released from her obligations. […] Clients still expect their designs on time” (p. 199). Both the loss of taste and Allie’s work routine echo the experiences of anyone who has lived through the past two years.

Jay, Allie’s preteen daughter, doesn’t understand why her mother and her friends are so caught up with remembering what food tasted like, leading Allie to conclude that her generation is the last one to understand food.

And Allie realizes Jay will never understand. The people demanding Allie’s services will be gone in a generation. […] The sensuous, life-affirming pleasure upon which whole cultures were built, which caused empires to rise and fall, will die with Allie and her peers. (p. 214)

Similarly, the children of today will never have known a world without video conferencing apps and COVID-19, as the virus is predicted to become endemic. Like the girls in “Liddy, First to Fly” who assume a collective group of adults will refuse to see Liddy’s wings, Jay doesn’t believe her mother was ever capable of feeling the same way as she is, again bringing back the idea of how two people will never fully comprehend each other’s perspectives no matter how close they are and despite technological or magical intervention. Even though the sudden loss of taste was a worldwide event everyone experienced, it makes the disconnect between Allie and her daughter worse and widens the already existing generation gap. Allie will never understand how Jay and her friends don’t miss candy and char siu bao, and Jay will never understand what her mother and her friends miss about food.

Jay dances as it snows outside in the final scene of the story, and she is “the picture of joy” (p. 214). Despite losing the ability to taste food, for Allie at least one of life’s greatest pleasures, the ending is a hopeful one as Jay and Allie adapt and carve out their own niches. Perhaps Fu is remarking that little moments of happiness are possible even when everything has changed for the worse, an optimistic end to this story and this short story collection.

From the surreal masses of june bugs coating an apartment to a runaway bride running towards a sea monster, the mix of technology and fabulism in Fu’s worlds is a fun house mirror or a Zoom self view window onto our world. The stories force us to examine who the real lesser known monsters of the 21st century are. Are the monsters the technologies, winged humans, and haunted dolls? Or are we, the people who live and adapt to the strange, the real monsters? This collection is ideal for reflecting upon the past two pandemic years and for the Internet Age as a whole.

Endnotes:

[1] Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior2(1). DOI: 10.1037/tmb0000030 [return]

[2] Ballantine, P. W., & Martin, B. A. S. (2005). Forming parasocial relationships in online communities. ACR North American Advances, 32. [return]



Tina S. Zhu is a Chinese American writer who lives in California. When she’s not writing prose, she sometimes also writes code. Find her on Twitter @tinaszhu.
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