Darkness is a place of dreaming. Darkness is a place of desire. Darkness is a place of sinister intention. Nowhere, perhaps, are these threads more tightly crocheted together than in the fairy tales on which some of us were reared. The Brothers Grimm were masters of binding brutal, violent darkness with the frothy delights and fantasies of youth. They never intended their fairy tales to be read by children, although children, as innocents, figure strongly in them. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s 2020 short story collection, Likes, our California Book Club selection for January, summons the Grimms’ old, potent entanglements of dark and light, giving new homes to timeless human urges.
Bynum’s title story, for instance, is about a father unsure of how to connect with his 11-year-old daughter. She is a mystery to him. Here’s the opening sentence: “The dad scrolled through his daughter’s Instagram account, looking for clues.” The feed doesn’t quite provide the answers he seeks; he puzzles over inviting and disturbingly suggestive images: a mound of ice cream, a neon sign that says “Warm,” her earlobe.
The daughter is curating herself, commodifying herself, as many of us do, for the purpose of acquiring affirmations. And on the other side of that desire to be liked, which streams through the girls and women in the collection, is sometimes a stranger or, in the case of this story, friends who are not, in fact, friendly. For underneath the surface of these stories run subterranean longings that are missed by intimates, who are nevertheless painfully aware they are missing something.
In “Likes,” the father tries to make conversation with his daughter about her therapist: “But his daughter, good for her, was not thinking about him or his feelings. She stared at the elevator doors. ‘You’re making me feel like I talk too much!’ she whispered furiously, deep in her own embarrassment.” We are familiar with this awkward father, in whose point of view we uncomfortably sit, but we also know the gendered loneliness of a girl who whispers and whose loneliness and anger are directed inward, masked by the platitudes she must feed herself to survive school.
The daughter doesn’t want her father to call attention to her feelings, at one moment “excruciatingly full, like an inflamed internal organ about to burst” and the next “blank.” The story, running over with her outsize yearning to perform in a way that will produce the desired likes, and with her father’s uncertainty about how to address this dark, self-defeating, diffuse desire, feels like a key to the collection as a whole, even though it is the collection’s penultimate story.
Indeed, in many of Bynum’s stories, there is a menacing atmosphere, the anxiety of an innocent surveilled, her performance perpetually scrutinized, if not on social media then by something for which there are no words. The collection’s opening story, “The Erlking,” is haunted, or so it seems, by the titular erlking; in European folklore, the erlking is a sinister elf who follows children through the woods and preys upon them. The daughter in the story spots him, but the mother is caught up in her own dreams for her daughter, dreams simultaneously recognizable, fraught, and superficial, dreams of performing motherhood.
The mother’s obliviousness to the potential danger to which we’re made privy lends the story its psychological suspensefulness. Similarly, our fear is stoked in “The Bears”—yes, those bears—when a woman recovering from a miscarriage sits in someone else’s house without his permission, imagining for him a life he does not have. In both cases, the danger may not be what it appears.
The fairy-tale architecture of Bynum’s stories is everywhere darkened by nightmares of performance. Are frightening things truly happening in them, or are these events at least partly imagined, even though they feel real? There is a moment, however fleeting, before we wake up, or a moment before we fall asleep, when our eyes are still shut, when we are not entirely certain of where we are. It is this fugue state between wakefulness and sleep, streaked with both enchantment and anxiety, that the stories in Likes evoke.
Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Meanwhile, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.
SPARKING A SHORT STORY
BLACK QUEER ART
The former assistant editor of the California Book Club, Rasheeda Saka, reviews artist Troy Montes-Michie’s Rock of Eye. She calls it a “stunning and ambitious assemblage of repurposed and revised images, among them reproductions of ephemera and historical artifacts.” —Alta
LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD
A West Coast powerhouse of literary criticism, the Los Angeles Review of Books turned 10 this year. —Los Angeles Times
SERVING THE WRITING ITSELF
Bay Area novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras explores the metaphors she and fiction writers such as R.O. Kwon, Alexandra Kleeman, and Naima Coster use when talking about working on their novels. —Catapult
JOURNEY TO AN UNDERWORLD
Sony bought Texas novelist Gabino Iglesias’s forthcoming The Devil Takes You Home. Cuban filmmaker Alejandro Brugués will adapt and direct the film. —Deadline
Pathbreaking feminist theorist bell hooks, an alum of Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz and a former professor at USC, passed away at age 69. —New York Times
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.