The back cover of Kuzhali Manickavel's short fiction collection Things We Found During the Autopsy offers a partial list of things you can find inside this book. They include a dragon, angels, Indian culture, one Christmas story for children, no Indian culture whatsoever, men, poor people, voluntarily homeless youths, women, drugs, sex, Indian dads in cold foreign countries, vomit, boys, girls' hostels, girls—and much more.
The list provides a glimpse into Manickavel's tumultuous and irreverent imagination. It also demonstrates, on a smaller scale, a key feature of the collection as a whole, and of weird fiction in general: it both stimulates and frustrates the desire to interpret.
"How should we conduct investigations?" asks China Miéville in his "Afterweird," the closing essay in the anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (ed. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, 2012). "We need access to the innards of whatever we would understand, but if we take a scalpel to their skins we change them, and the only thing we end up investigating then is something open and bleeding." The subject of Miéville's investigations is the weird as a genre; the difficulty he notes is one that weird fiction underscores, performs, and reproduces. How should we investigate the world around us, and ourselves? A scalpel is pretty useless, unless the subject of your inquiry is dead. Even then, as Manickavel's story "Six Things Found During the Autopsy" suggests, the scalpel might not be able to tell you what you need to know.
In the story, a group of unnamed girls performs an autopsy on one of their peers. The six things they find are Playboy Magazine, black ants, angels, St. Sebastian, typhoid, and Playgirl Magazine. Based on these objects, the investigators make bizarre and clumsy conjectures. "We could not find any incisions so we decided she must have rammed the Playboy into her ear and hoped for the best" (p. 170); "We thought she must have been a closeted Catholic" (p. 171); "We thought it must be neat to be a typhoid carrier" (p. 172). The collection of objects from the autopsy is something like the list on the back of the book: it both demands interpretation, and renders it impossible. The central impossibility of the story, reflected in this absence of meaningful connections, is the inability of the kids opening the body to connect with this girl when she was alive. They didn't really know her, and they didn't really care, and nothing you can do with a scalpel is going to fix that. Eventually, they'll abandon the body, like the black ants creeping away from it. "We thought this was heartbreaking but also the best option for everyone involved" (p. 171).
"Six Things We Found During the Autopsy" is surreal, funny, caustic, and sad, a blend that characterizes the whole collection. These are stories about the violent contradictions of transnational migration and extreme economic inequality. They are stories about snowmen and shapeshifters and dragons and a girl with hair growing between her breasts. They are stories about slum children and sex workers and revolutionaries. Stories about floods. Stories about rape.
In a series of five stories set in a place called The Tropicool Icy-Land Urban Indian Slum, Manickavel sketches scenes from the DayGlo nightmare of turbo-capitalism. Drunken whales with fluorescent shit share the streets with gangs of marauding penguins, and rapes are predicted as Icy-Land's inhabitants struggle to make ends meet selling cyber-sex and Minty-Fresh Export-Quality Aadi Velli Special Non-Cola Cola. Bristling with contradictions, the vision is by turns chilling and hilarious—sometimes both at once. A Spiritual Entity trapped inside a young girl in the slum, alarmed by the fact that so many of its fellows have died, says it wants to live in a whale instead, even a drunk one. "Or if you could just get us out of here, that would be great," the entity goes on, as the tone shifts, revealing barely controlled panic, or even despair. It's the closest any of these characters gets to saying they want to leave the slum. "That would really help us out a lot" (p. 112).
But the "you" being addressed here—whoever "you" are—can't get anyone out of a slum, any more than you can rescue the dying spirits inside a girl. There's a line of rage through these stories, the rage of a person of relative privilege who feels powerless to intervene in economic and gendered injustice in a meaningful way. Here, the pressure of the weird or surreal, its resistance to interpretation and closure, evokes the bewildering forces of structural violence. Caught up in these forces, yet protected from their worst effects, Manickavel's privileged characters are angry, frozen, wounded, and callous. In writing them, she shows a fierce honesty and expressive range (in contrast to her handling of poor characters, who are fairly one-note or silent). In the opening story, "The Whore Raft," the protagonist and her friend escape from a flood on a raft made of the living bodies of impoverished sex workers. This literalization of the relationship between rich and poor in environmental crisis strikes the reader more powerfully than it does the narrator: "The whores moved gently under me, their tired, chalky faces hanging quietly in the dark water. One of them let go. I watched her beat her arms against the water, then disappear into a pile of dirty clouds" (p. 5). In "Throwing Rocks at Dogs," the English-speaking protagonist throws a rock at a slum child who's sneaking into her garden, and knocks him unconscious. Her only concern is that people from the slum might attack her in revenge. She can't feel anything for the injured child, and she can't understand why people think she's rich when she feels poor, why vendors cheat her and civil servants ask for bribes. "I don't know what's wrong," she says. "Everything is so hard to do" (p. 178).
Everything is so hard to do. A girl is throwing up on a table; she's going to get alcohol poisoning and die. Your school friend has moved to America and never writes. You haul the body of a dead friend up from a well, but it turns out to be someone else. A white girl yells racist slurs at a child. A son yells racist slurs at his father. A dragon wails in the night, miserable in its cardboard box. Your harasser rubs against you on the bus again. A girl throws herself off a bridge. Everything is hard to do, but some things are harder than others.
The final story, "Anarch," is a standout in this strong collection. It concerns a young woman with the word Anarch tattooed on her wrist—the tattoo was supposed to read "Anarchy Angel," but the process was so painful she couldn't go through with it. "Every time someone asks you what Anarch means," writes Manickavel, "you tell them something different. Anarch is an Inuit word that means struggle within the heart. Anarch is Old Tamil—it means an absence or negation of everything. Anarch is Arabic—it is a term of endearment used among homosexual men" (p. 198). The truncated word floats free of meaning, and in the process it becomes open to multiple meanings—enough associations, perhaps, to express the young woman's complex history and loyalties. In "Anarch," resistance to interpretation becomes a kind of liberation.
That doesn't mean there's a happy ending. (That's true of almost all of these stories—an exception is the promised Christmas story for children, which I found the weakest in the collection.) But there is friendship, and there are other, briefer, more awkward forms of companionship. In the end, that's what these weird stories offer: a kind of companionship in this incomprehensible and terrifying world, and the possibility of finding hope and transformation exactly where meaning shatters. This isn't the careful, scientific work of the scalpel, but the explosive voice of "Anarch"'s protagonist, who turns a bawdy, racist ditty into a personal anthem: "And fuck knows for what" (p. 199).
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). Her poetry, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Clarkesworld Magazine, Weird Fiction Review, Stone Telling, and Goblin Fruit. She is the nonfiction and poetry editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. She blogs at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.