Why You Should Read This: ‘Likes’

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s book of fairy tales is the California Book Club’s January selection.

likes, sarah shun lien bynum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is a contemporary fabulist, and her third book, Likes, is a collection of fairy tales. In several of the nine stories here, that intention is overt: “The Young Wife’s Tale,” for instance, in which a legendary king, long forgotten, returns to captivate the young wives of the world “in sketches and drafts, then in a book so long it required multiple volumes, followed by rock-and-roll albums and animated cartoons, underground fanzines and doctoral dissertations, and, finally, a film.” In others, such as “Bedtime Stories” or the magnificent “The Burglar,” the fantastic asserts itself more fluidly, operating just below the surface of the everyday. The latter story starts: “He watches the second car back out of the driveway and then he makes a slow lap around the block, careful not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk.” It’s the kind of scene, or moment, that could go anywhere. For Bynum, it offers entry to a narrative in which a television writer’s character comes to full, three-dimensional life and then burglarizes his creator’s home.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Bynum is offering a sensibility in which we can never be sure of anything. What’s remarkable is that this feels more mysterious than terrifying. Take “The Burglar” again, which cycles through three perspectives: the writer’s, his wife’s, and the thief’s. In that sense, the story functions as a kind of kaleidoscope in which reality itself becomes a matter of imagination or interpretation, depending on our point of view.

Bynum makes that explicit in the story’s final paragraph, which telegraphs into the future. “He has no way of knowing,” Bynum writes, referring to the burglar, “that a very good plastic surgeon will sew up her eyebrow with twenty-two stitches, or that her husband, despite his first show being canceled, will go on to write for a relatively popular supernatural police procedural…or that [their] daughter, having been told that her mother tripped at the gym and split her eyebrow open on a barbell, will grow nervous whenever the woman puts on exercise clothes.”

What Bynum is getting at—as she does throughout the collection—is the power of story not only to transform us but also to evoke and re-create the world. She is reminding us of the subjectivity that comes attached to even the most defined experiences: imagination or interpretation, take your pick. Who is to say that the world is not fantastic? Who can understand, with any objective authority, how reality works? With Likes, Bynum has created a literary wonder cabinet, full of the odd and the unlikely, which is, of course, the condition at the heart of all our lives. •

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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