The Unfinished World, Amber Sparks's sophomore short story collection, promises a lot just with its name. It invites exploration, suggesting coyly that there's something beyond the edge of what is known—perhaps even among the stars, as depicted by its dreamy watercolor cover art.
Happily, Sparks delivers on the promise, whisking us from spaceship to mausoleum to the 1910s. Or perhaps not so happily, as there seems to be a kernel of loneliness in each of her stories. Her writing is often beautiful, which makes the loneliness that much sharper.
"Lancelot in the Lost Places of the World," for instance, though whimsical in its premise, echoes with a sense of displacement and loss. Roused from some mythical sleep, warriors ask Lancelot to help them on their quest for a hidden kingdom. They believe him to be a hero who can guide them, but, in this story, Lancelot isn't really a hero at all. He's scared, confused, as out of his element as he is out of his time.
Ultimately, he realizes the futility of the search: "He suddenly understands that there is no kingdom. There are only the seekers and the lost places they drive toward, always just out of reach. And with that, he breathes a last breath of stone and copper, of green and damp, of soil and skin. Then he tumbles to bones and is still, sleeping once more, and now the men must find their own way home" (p. 57).
Everyone in Sparks's stories seems to be searching for something, though they seldom find it. Instead, they more often than not become entombed in their own obsessions, such as in "The Cemetery for Lost Faces." After the death of their parents, Louise and Clarence inherit a penchant for taxidermy and sculpture and become recluses in a house full of relics. They create a living mausoleum for themselves: "They preserve a world long gone in these long rooms, crowded now with dead objects and memories, long devoid of the softening gaze of cheerful people and their love for one another" (p. 36).
More literally, "To These Humans Who Cannot Fly" is about a man who builds Leichenhausen, houses where people can keep their dead. The Leichenhausen are a desperate alternative to burying the dead, a waiting room in which they may return to life. The narrator enumerates the factual needs of a death house. They should be built of the "finest materials" and by the "most skilled workmen." Corpses are to be laid in a "Temporary Resting Container" and an "alert, healthy, strong, incurious" watchman should guard the house (pp. 75-79). There should be a first aid kit to help the corpse when it wakes up.
He is frank about these details, even as he is unable to face the painful reality of his wife's deterioration and eventual death. He visits her once at the mental hospital, and again only after she has flung herself from a window, thinking she could fly. He explains why he devotes himself to the Leichenhausen after her death:
I began to build the death houses. The name is misleading, since these houses hold not only death but futures, possibilities, hopes that the end isn't the end. These are perhaps tall tales, but they stack up better than dead bodies and they burn longer than kindling. (p 73)
Loss is ritualized by these stories, shrouded in esoteric rules and trapped in obsessive repetition. In "Thirteen Ways to Destroy a Painting," an artist's muse tries over and over again to prevent tragedy by traveling back in time and attempting to destroy a painting:
Seven: The time traveler sets fire to the unfinished painting. The painting is still there.
Eight: The time traveler pours acid on the unfinished painting. The painting is still there. (p. 49)
The time traveler finally succeeds—but only by destroying herself.
Not all stories have sad endings in The Unfinished World. Some people do manage to find each other, though not without heartache. In the titular story, two lost souls meet in sunny Hollywood while searching for themselves: Set, a man who died when he was a boy and came back to life by some unknown means, and Inge, a woman who escaped a loveless home to travel the world. It's left ambiguous as to whether or not Set really is a dead man, but that ambiguity seems to be common in Sparks's writing. Her prose is light on its feet and quick with a metaphor, deftly weaving the supernatural with the mundane in an impressionistic way. It hints at some inner reality, and you sometimes get the feeling that you're only getting one particular perspective on one particular world of many. Sparks has a talent for making each story feel extremely self-contained in that way. In order to draw a map of The Unfinished World, you'd need to connect the lines between people, their lovers, their friends, and themselves. If each story were a country, these personal connections would be the borders and shores of each.
Some stories are not as enjoyable as others; their landscapes have been allowed to become overgrown. One of Sparks's greatest strengths is her lush imagery and imaginative descriptions, but that strength is double-edged in "The Fires of Western Heaven" and "The Sleepers." These are stories less rooted in character, which perhaps lets the descriptions gambol a little too wildly.
"The Fires of Western Heaven," for instance, strives to give a sweeping view of wartime and its casualties. Lacking a firm point of view, though, it feels more like a litany of details, alternating between lists of victims and descriptions of hellish battlefield trenches. "The Sleepers," meanwhile, is about long-dead heroes who are, in place of death, sleeping and dreaming in collective memory: "Their deaths could not be borne and so would never be; instead they folded themselves into a sleep as long and deep as legend. They became legend, their names dust in the mouths of their enemies. They became hope splashed across the stricken brows of their people, drunk greedily when all other waters had dried up" (p. 223). While written beautifully, "The Sleepers" feels overwrought, telling us with flowery language instead of showing us with something more concrete. It's a rumination more than a story. "They linger in tragic, hopeful limbo and smell of ancient halls, of savage times and violent spirits, brought down by time and by the telling of their tales," we're told, but it's hard to feel a huge connection when the largest presence in the story is a strident "they" (p. 223).
"The Sleepers" is also the last story of the anthology, which felt somewhat disappointing. However, ultimately it makes sense as a bookend, tying in thematically with the rest of the stories. The Unfinished World is in large part about the sense we try to make of the world through other people as we cope with loss, love, and loneliness. It's also about stories and the power of myth—not that the world needs these stories, but because we do. A conversation between Clarence and Louise in "The Cemetery for Lost Faces" sums it up neatly:
I'm saying the world doesn't need our stories. The world is doing just fine without a plot.
Then why bother making all these stories? Louise asks. Why make art at all?
Clarence shrugs, scratches at a mosquito bite on his shoulder. Because what else are we going to do? (p. 40)
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