Ian Mond Reviews Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, Kim Fu (Tin House Books 978-1-95114-299-5, $16.95, 220pp, tp) February 2022.

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, with its colourful mosaic cover, is the debut collection from Kim Fu, the author of two novels and a book of poetry. The 12 short stories that make up the collection showcase various influences, including science-fiction, magical realism, and horror. As someone encountering Fu’s work for the first time, what struck me about her fiction wasn’t so much the range – though I am drawn to authors who are willing to switch genre lanes – but the physical and tactile quality of her prose, the way her stories engage all the senses.

This physicality is particularly evident in pieces like ‘‘Scissors’’ and ‘‘Do You Remember Candy’’. ‘‘Scissors’’, one of the few reprints in the book, centres around a sex show performed by a couple – Dee and El. While Dee sits submissively, bound to a plain wooden chair, her girlfriend slowly, deliberately, snips away her clothes with the titular object. Later on, a blindfold is wrapped around Dee’s eyes and the audience is asked to participate – although Dee continues to believe it’s El who is touching her and not the fumbling hands of strangers. ‘‘Scissors’’ explores notions of trust and consent, but it’s the sensuality of the prose, of the scissors sliding over Dee’s body, the unsettling experience of strange hands groping flesh, that makes this such a stunning bit of writing. In ‘‘Do You Remember Candy’’, an unexplained phenomenon makes food taste rancid. ‘‘The cheese tastes like putty, flour paste. The bread is dry as cotton batting… The deli meat as plainly inedible as slivers of rubber.’’ Responding to this calamity, the story’s protagonist offers a service – a form of artistic therapy – that allows her clients to remember the experience of savouring their favourite meals; however in doing so she grows increasingly disconnected from her daughter, who no longer remembers or cares what food once tasted like. While the story’s conceit acts as a neat metaphor for the widening gap between the generations, it’s Fu’s redolent description of the textures and aroma of food, of ‘‘tearing into’’ a steamed char siu bao ‘‘releasing a whisper of steam,’’ that makes this such a memorable and hunger-inducing, story.

It’s not all about sex and food, though; Fu also makes tangible the abstract, such as time and sleep. In the broken-down future of ‘‘Time Cubes’’, our protagonist, Alice, becomes obsessed with a hawker who sells cubes that appear to speed up time – forward and back – for the objects inside them. When Alice spends a night with the trader, she discovers a larger version of the cube built for a person. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the final passage of the story is a remarkably arresting description of the wounds inflicted by time’s passage. ‘‘Sandman’’ tells the tale of Kelly, a long-time insomnia sufferer, who starts receiving visits from the eponymous Sandman. The story switches nimbly between Kelly’s real-world struggle with insomnia and her image-laden encounters with the mythical creature, where sleep is lyrically depicted as being swallowed up by a desert, comforted by the ‘‘crushing pressure of the sand.’’

As much as I delighted in Fu’s prose, it would all be a little hollow if the ideas that underpin her fiction were banal or well-worn. Thankfully, that’s not the case. The collection’s opening piece, ‘‘Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867’’, is this Socratic dialogue between a customer and the operator of a VR-simulator over whether the customer should have the right to spend time with his dead mother, despite it being against the company’s policy. While there’s a satirical edge to the story, one that points to the contradictions embedded in the rules that Big-Tech applies to its users, I didn’t expect the piece to be so tender and human. In contrast, the brilliant and razor-sharp ‘‘Twenty Hours’’ is mostly bereft of compassion. A married couple randomly kill each other, knowing that their dead partner will be 3-D printed a new body, complete with memories, in the room downstairs within twenty hours. This is as cynical and bitter as Fu gets, a story of love gone sick, propped up by a perverse technology.

But where are the monsters (lesser known, or otherwise) I hear you ask? For the most part, they are symbolic rather than literal: the question of consent in ‘‘Scissors’’, the dystopian future of ‘‘Time Cubes’’, the rotten marriage depicted in ‘‘Twenty Hours’’. The real thing does exist, though. Take ‘‘The Doll’’, a creepy horror story about a family who dies in horrible circumstances in a peaceful suburb and the neighbouring children who snatch a doll from the vacant house, one that may be cursed. Or the psychologically and physically abusive boyfriend in ‘‘June Bugs’’ who forces his once girlfriend, Martha, to leave the city, relocating to a house infested with beetles. Martha’s experience at the hands of her boyfriend, alongside descriptions of her house writhing with insects, makes ‘‘June Bugs’’ the most disturbing piece in the collection. And finally, there’s ‘‘Bridezilla’’, which features an actual sea monster – well ‘‘an amalgamation of brainless multicellular organisms – chemically linked, lurching as one’’ – in a piece about a woman who, having agreed to get married, grows increasingly troubled by her decision.

Monsters, figurative or real aside, Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a terrific collection of speculative fiction, with evocative, textured prose that left a lasting impression on this reader.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.

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