Our Island of Epidemics

By Matthew Salesses

October 2010, Paperback
40 pages


Reviewed by Nick Kocz


Months ago, I came across one of Matthew Salesses’s Our Island of Epidemics shorts in Wigleaf and was immediately impressed by its inventive, quirky spirit. At the time I thought it was a one-off piece, but within a few weeks another short appeared in a different journal.  And then another.  To this reviewer, it seemed like we were settling into an epidemic of Our Island of Epidemics.  Online, the individual shorts still had that blissfully random feeling.  To add to their fun, many (though not all) hypertextually linked back to each other—you could start reading "The King of Unrequited Love" in Pindeldyboz and click a link that would connect you to, say, Necessary Fiction, where you could read two other Epidemics pieces, each of which might send you elsewhere. 

I gathered that Salesses was working toward some greater project with these pieces, but I was not quite prepared for the effect of seeing all thirteen original shorts collected together (along with a final story) in one chapbook.  Perhaps I was a poor reader when I originally encountered them, or perhaps the random sequence in which I had stumbled upon them led me to think of them as confections, but when read together in a single sitting as the chapbook now orders them, Salesses’s work takes on—dare I say?—gravitas.

The inhabitants of Salesses’s island succumb to random epidemics—hunger, memory loss, extra-sensitive hearing—that fade as each new epidemic infects the island.  "The epidemics were not exactly illnesses," Salesses writes.  Instead, quirky fates of the most beguiling sort befall on the island.  "The epidemics are relentless, one epidemic fading into another like seasons." 

Despite being born in the post-millennial digital age, these stories could easily have sprung from the oral tradition of ancient Greece.  One thinks of Odysseus stopping at strange islands on his voyage home from the Trojan War.  But instead of the many islands of Homer’s Odyssey, the action in Salesses’s chapbook is confined to one island.

The epidemics can be heartbreaking (viz. "The Epidemic of Unrequited Love" and "The Epidemic of Lost Children") or downright bizarre—during one, a character "carved a statue of her animal god… Later, during the epidemic of magic, the animal came alive.  It jumped around, destroying her apartment...  it was a squirrel-like god with a tiny tail that never stopped wagging… it screamed, ‘Justice, justice.’  And soon it began to hunt down people and stomp them to death."

Salesses’s fantastical bent is as strong as anything you’d find in ancient mythology.  Animal husbandry practices include the raising of dragonfruit, winged creatures that "spit fire from their flower-beaks and wagged their stems to propel themselves, dropping scales like tiny shooting stars." Though Salesses references ancient mythology and, at times, fairy tales, it is hard for this reviewer not to read into them a sly commentary on the notion of community and our contemporary situation: "Our island grew overcrowded. You can imagine the xenophobia that struck us always anew."

During the Epidemic of Hunger, no amount of food can satiate the islanders’ appetites.  They drain their bank accounts and borrow huge sums from foreign lenders, importing (among other things) "cod tongues and dookers," in a futile attempt to satisfy their cravings: "We gained weight, and cramped from overeating, and feared our organs would explode inside us.  We hobbled around our island, our bodies pumpkin carriages waiting for midnight."

The islanders recognize the absurdity of their plight.  They wallow helplessly, bouncing from one bizarre epidemic to the next, yet their shared condition brings them, if not solace, a sense of community.  The island itself is rumored to have been populated during an epidemic of "sexual cannibalism."  Eventually, as much as the islanders despise their torments, the epidemics become integral to their identity.  The epidemics are "addictive."  It’s like they’re on some crazy carnival ride, flitting through an endless stream of afflictions: "We were grateful for the epidemics. This was more about us than about the epidemics, but for a long time we thought it was out of our control. Our gratefulness, and everything else."

When one man turns out to be immune to the epidemics, the infected islanders view him with suspicion:

We feared what else he was immune to… We took stock of him curiously—he was normal, so he was strange.

"But I’m healthy," he kept saying, the bastard.

We ran him into the hills. He threatened immunity on us.

Think of the contemporary American 24-hour news cycle, clogged with "trending" stories of an absolutely trivial nature.  On Salesses’s island, instead of fretting over the latest Britney or Paris hijinks or the alarmingly frank text messages sent by NFL quarterbacks, the islanders are consumed by their own navel gazing.  Over-politeness.  Delirious joy.  Cultural elitism.  These and other silly epidemics dominate their attention.  They hold interventions, with varying degrees of success, and compulsively chronicle the epidemics, recording not only those they have experienced but, in true myth-making fashion, "the epidemics that were rumored to have happened before that."

Mythology is not a static art.  Homer’s audience would have heard endless variations of his tales told around camp fires and at communal bacchanals. Salesses’s final chapter begins with a riff on one of the most devastating consequences of European settlement in the Americas.  Normalcy, of a sort, is restored to the island, yet the islanders remain enthralled by the epidemics.  They continue to read and write about them, fascinated by this subject that they can’t quite flush out of their systems.  Luckily for us, Salesses can not quite flush this material out of his system either: he is reportedly preparing a hypertext edition— allowing readers more permutations of The Island of Epidemics.  Like the events within his chapbook, his "telling is relentless, too."