Sarah Tolmie’s new collection, Sacraments for the Unfit, takes on isolation, alienation, and the problem of connection in a gorgeously contemporary take on the weird. The stories address the last several years directly, imagining reconfigurations of modern life alongside the fantastical and bizarre. They highlight new forms and relations of divinity, contemporary technological experiences, and the vagaries of academic life with deftly distant style and elegant estrangement.
Each story takes full advantage of its central speculative premise, imagining the world through the eyes of the impossible. In some pieces, like “Zoom,” this takes the form of a full embodiment of some sort of alien consciousness. “Zoom” is the most dramatic example of this sort of structure, the protagonist being an electrical/digital signal reflecting on its own existence and transmission. The story is rhythmic and propulsive, echoing the sending of electrical signals as it is punctuated by the recitation of Zoom’s destinations in expansions of the name at frequent intervals.
This repeated incantatory drive allows the story to really feel like an electrical signal, encouraging the reader to take on the questions it raises of continuity and the self. Upon hitting yet another travelogue through space, this time “ZoomRiodeJaneiroZoomSantosZoomLasToninas” (p. 22), the story is invigorated in precisely the same manner that the protagonist is experiencing. The protagonist picks up and propels the musings around it: Zoom is one of many identical Zooms, it thinks, and we are one of many humans, almost as identical. How are our commutes to and from work, our travels between bed, couch, and kitchen, fundamentally different from Zoom’s bursts around the world? Are they? The story asks us this question but does not answer it, instead heading further into metaphysics as it considers the status of the energy that propels the signal. What is the relation of Zoom to the Zap that powers it? What responsibilities does it have? And the story insists that, while it is easy enough to interrogate by analogy of our relations of survival, Zoom’s own specific case is taken seriously. The photon, the signal, is not a human and the feeling of the story keeps that in mind even as it opens allegory up to our world.
Other stories, such as “Apparatchik” and “The God That Got Away,” take similar advantage of this alienness to pursue their shared project of thinking through the modern world. In both of these stories, the subjects are divine and unsure what to do with modern life. “The God That Got Away” is particularly effective in this regard. Its first-person narration brings Tolmie’s missing god to life with indignation and immanence. The story opens defensively:
Deus absconditus, that’s what they said. It’s colossally unfair. I did not abscond. Moreover, with that verb there’s always a hint of impropriety. The chimney sweep absconded with the poker. The vicar absconded with the silver. What am I supposed to have absconded with? People’s belief? So I’m a belief thief now? I suppose so. If I’ve departed and they’re still believing. (p. 53)
Soon, though, the god begins to consider entanglement and the nature of divinity. This god is unsure of their place, theologically speaking, declaring that many of the qualities attributed to the divine are not theirs: they do not dispense law or provide grace; they do not judge or even (it seems) particularly create; but they do exist. They are everywhere and everything, immanent and inescapable. The god’s voice helps bring these abstract questions—what it means to be immanent, what role such a god might play in the day-to-day of human existence, what we and the universe owe to each other—to life.
In making the impersonal personal and the ineffable present, Tolmie uses the structures of weird fiction to bring the cosmic back down to Earth. In so doing, she connects the new alienations of contemporary life to the historical and philosophical big pictures while allowing for each to be addressed directly. My favorite story, “Honey Business,” takes on this bridge from the other side, focusing on the human experience of the ineffable and unknown. It is one of the longest stories in the collection and forms, consequently, a large part of the emotional core of the book. It focuses on Gloria, who works for a municipal art museum, working to keep it alive through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These everyday practicalities punctuate a slow transformation. Early in the story, we learn of her interest in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s From Honey to Ashes (1966) and its troubling of the boundary between culture and nature that he established in his previous work. Gloria, at the New Year, decides to follow through on this unease and incinerate honey in her kitchen, burning her hand in the process:
You can’t get from ashes to honey. Yes. Culture is indispensable. There it is. The physical properties of the universe had just told her something. The fuck. Why do animists know everything? They read the poetry of the world itself, the stuff scientists are just catching up on. Gloria sucked the exceedingly painful blister on her thumb that she’d just noticed. She could put honey on it later. (p. 31)
This kicks off a slow, honey-tinted transformation of Gloria’s world. The burn persists, soothed only by honey, as her isolation persists and she (and the story) head deeper into the liminality that the burning honey called forth.
As the story continues, the uncanny dimension builds. Impossible things begin to happen, like when the artificial hornets’ nest she puts up in her yard starts to glow, and the story captures this mounting strangeness:
She ordered another one and gave the original to her neighbor, saying that it might help him keep the hornets off, there was clearly a nest around. Mystified, he accepted it and hung it up in his yard. It didn’t glow. On her side of the fence, her jam jars continued to light up at night, as if filled with invisible fireflies. When her new artificial nest arrived, same brand as before, with no light-emitting features, it, too, glowed. Moreover, it did not even wait to get to the tamarack, but began emitting soft light in her hands as soon as she got outside into her yard. (p. 42)
Here, the uncanny is beginning to take over Gloria’s life, growing increasingly impossible as her artificial nest glows despite its non-luminous characteristics. The language of the story reinforces this with its combination of bluntness and fluidity. The additive rhythm of this section helps heighten the unreal feeling as the details pile up: this nest, like the one before, cannot glow. But it does. The short clauses combine with the long sentences to build Gloria’s shifting world and highlight the combination of stasis and transformation that drives the story and its reflection on early pandemic life. The story continues to build in this mode as Gloria and her environment are increasingly suffused with the concept of honey—visually, as things glow and change to yellow, but also emotionally, as she and the story become entwined with one another, imbricated in boundaries and the troubled centers of binary divisions of the world. The story lingers on liminality as it continues, ending in a powerful space of indeterminacy which it takes into the present. The style of “Honey Business” helps to create and explore that liminal experience, in just as instrumental a way as the voice of “The God That Got Away” or “Zoom.”
This focus on the liminal characterizes the book as a whole. Sacraments for the Unfit reveals the uncertainty and instability at the heart of our lives in this present. We, like Tolmie’s characters, are living through a period of change, or perhaps are now simply seeing the sort of change that has long been at the heart of human attempts to categorize, understand, and structure our worlds. We, again like Tolmie’s characters, must navigate the everyday with the tools we can construct ourselves. And these tools, the book reminds us, include those of thought. It is this philosophical perspective that both produces an awareness of the contradictions at the heart of contemporary life and begins to build a sense of how we might address them.
The collection’s individual stories are strong, making deft use of their style and voice to take on a wide range of topics and concerns in contemporary life. But it is the mind behind them, behind their style and voice, that holds the whole work together. Philosophical rigor of a distinctly weird-fiction bent is the defining characteristic of these stories. They all bridge the gap between the allegorical and the literal, using the philosophical investigation of the impossible—the transformations of “Honey Business,” Wittgenstein communicating from the grave, a horrific resurrection, and other subjects of the stories—to speak to our present by means of what is shared, not what these fantastical moments might stand in for. Sacraments for the Unfit asks us to think along with it, delivering on the promise of its second epigraph (from Wittgenstein): “A good and serious philosophical work could be written entirely of jokes.” Though the collection is not entirely of jokes, the humor and delight of the stories leavens and strengthens the rich philosophical perspective which begins to see a path to meaning through what it depicts as our consideration of, and connection to, the very things that seem to endanger sense—which give us, the unfit who do not deserve it, the grace to continue on.