May We Shed These Human Bodies

By Amber Sparks

Curbside Splendor
October 2012

Reviewed by Peter Tieryas Liu


"Better even than the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's. The old people pick bits of children from between their remaining teeth and smile big, camera-ready smiles. They are as full and friendly as babies." This isn't just a horror story, but a parable for the devouring nature of age and the ruinous march of time we hopelessly resist.

Death plays guardian for humanity in the story "Death and the People"; a city comes to life and wants to travel in "The City Outside of Itself"; and a baby is born among ghosts in "The Ghosts Eat More Air," eventually wanting to evict the haunting horde. The trio – Death, a living City, and phantoms – are connected by their frailties and desires, their quaint dispositions and their plaintive sense of longing. Sparks assembles details, hoarding them into little chronicled silos that help us empathize with Death, pity a huge City for being stuck, and be both irritated and sympathetic towards legions of ghosts. In the case of the latter, they know:

With adults, it is different. The ghosts know how much they can do, and they keep their distance until the children are no longer children. Then they begin to enter, to play, to unburden themselves of their soft, faded stories, grown strange and scallop-edged like someone has taken pinking shears to them... They look for a temporary home, for a memory drought, for an empty shell to feel whole in for a little while.

That empty shell is emblematic of what each of the unlikely protagonists seek. Even the most surreal characters are tied down by their basic emotions, and the ghosts, Death, and a City ruminate with a keen sense of humanity, however strange and unexpected.

Sparks explores this humanism in a different skew with her realistic tales. A contemporized Kitty Genovese story, "When Other People's Lives Fall Into Your Lap," is possibly the most disturbing story in the collection, even though there are no beasts (apart from the human kind) involved. That's because a woman in the laundry room next to the characters is screaming as she is bludgeoned to death and all the main characters can do is listen. There is no adage to create a perfect circle in the end. Instead, the protagonist "starts to cry. How will we live like people now, she says. How will we. It's not a question, even though it sounds like one." That ambivalence pervades the collection and lends each story its uniquely haunting tone, questions that aren't questions, but still make one question human nature. As the "Poet in Convalescence" muses, this is: "A map to mark the spaces you've inhabited. A map you make yourself, quadrant by quadrant, inch by inch, until the landscape of your life looks like a vast and unexplored terrain. Here there be monsters, it will say." Map-making is an apt analogy for the collection, as wandering and searching is a theme in most of the stories. There are plenty of monsters to bar the way as in "Cocoon," where the elders morph into cannibals and "Ghosts Eat More Air," with its possessive ghosts. As we navigate the issues of identity, the horrors of the external world are either forcibly internalized or rejected by Sparks's protagonists as in the ghosts who remain, or more symbolically, the children who get eaten. Their compass guides them into darker territory, but  there's a sense of levity in the terrible, which explains why the stories are so likable.

The fuel driving many of the characters is desire. "The Woman Across the Water Wore the Shape of Love," is about a man who falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a phantom, an illusory longing that never reaches culmination and is all the more poignant because of that fact. Likewise, many of the characters in the collection are left unfulfilled, as with Ruby in "All the Imaginary People Are Better at Life," who "can't stop driving, because if she stops she'll be somewhere. If she's somewhere, she'll be real." While in a dialogue with her imaginary friend, Caleb, she struggles in her relationship with Randy who "eats her privacy like most people eat popcorn." The ending is bittersweet and finds Ruby right where the story started— in her car, driving.

Fables aren't just morality tales dressed in narratives about the fantastic. They are reflections of the society they are trying to edify. In the titular story,  trees shed their bark to become humans, only to be filled with regret, wishing they could regain their tree-hood. Likewise many of the stories within the collection are about humans who want to discard parts of themselves in order to discover their own humanity. Amber Sparks, the fairy godmother of rebirth, has a wicked genius about her that transmogrifies the ordinary and makes us long to befriend the unusual gamut of quirky fiends that occupy her pages, even if it means losing a little skin in the process.