Imagined Lives of Others in ‘Likes’

In this week's newsletter, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s stories are prisms through which experiences are filtered and contradicted and interpreted by characters at quiet odds with one another.

son, father, bedtime story

Robert Coover’s short story “The Babysitter” is taught and anthologized so often that it is easy to forget it was groundbreaking when it was published, in 1969. It explores a household from the points of view of several characters. Things happen but also don’t happen in the story, the fragments lined up one after another with no version given more credence than the others. The titular babysitter’s presence serves as a catalyst, but for what chain of events? Among other things, a rape happens, or it doesn’t, or it is perpetrated by a different person with his or her own fantasies. What has occurred and what has been imagined are not clearly demarcated.

You can see the influence of “The Babysitter” on Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s short stories in Likes, our January California Book Club selection. Happenings are refracted through multiple points of view, the light bending, so that what we see and the way we interpret the happening change according to the character whose psyche we inhabit at that moment. Bynum’s “The Burglar” is the one that relies most strongly on Cooverian refractions. The story is told from the points of view of a Black television writer, a wife, and a burglar.

The show for which the husband writes pivots on a 1960s bad guy who has broken through a rift in the space-time continuum and is continuing his crime spree in the present. The network wants to change tacks by making the time traveler innocent. The character the husband must write is time traveler Emmett Byron Diggs, an innocent Black man unjustly incarcerated for rape. The husband riffles through possibilities to differentiate Emmett’s story from “all the other decent, long-suffering, wrongly accused black men who have shown up onscreen over the years.”

Meanwhile, there’s a slightly goofy burglar in the husband and wife’s backyard, scoping out their house for Apple gear. Then he’s upstairs, telling the wife that he’s part of the cleaning crew when she interrupts him. Before we can sit too long with the suspense of yes-that-happened-now-what, the burglar is again standing outside at the window, unsure of why he is there, before noticing that the back door has been left open for him. The burglar is the husband’s character, Emmett.

Bynum plays with the limits of our knowledge about others again in “Julia and Sunny,” which is told from the perspective of a couple whose friends from medical school are splitting up. They know an enormous amount about Julia and Sunny, from their early courtship to their divorce. Or more likely, given a quiet, deeply sad gesture that occurs at the end of the story, they imagine they’ve interpreted the other couple’s relationship history accurately, and this imagined story affects their own marriage. Or, perhaps, is their own marriage a lens through which they’ve interpreted their friends’?

Bynum’s collection concludes with the slow burn of “Bedtime Story,” which subtly plays with perspectives to consider the imagined as its own species of experience. A wife walks in on her husband telling their son a bedtime story from his rollerblading days before the son was born. At first, the wife believes the woman in her husband’s story might be her younger self. But, no, the husband is talking about Julia Roberts. Through this mix-up, we learn of the husband’s affair with another woman. The wife knows details—there is even a sex tape—but where gaps exist in the story, she’s filled them with her worries.

As in Coover’s “The Babysitter,” the points of view in Bynum’s stories shift without fanfare. The moments that didn’t happen, or that can’t quite be confirmed, gain as much intensity and momentum as what did, possibly even more. As a whole, the collection is concerned with an epistemology of the evanescent, the gathering of moments and perspectives and fantasies, a gathering of what the stories might be, what cannot be determined about what happened. Anxieties are bent through different lenses, sending shimmering fragments of color into the otherwise abiding darkness of all we don’t know about one another’s stories.•

Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the stories you found most interesting in Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.


girls on bridge, sunset
Martin Wimmer


Novelist Emily Holleman writes about legends, fairy tales, and a trio of female friends in Bynum’s novella “Many a Little Makes.” —Alta

sarah shun lien bynum
Dustin Snipes


In an essay on why she writes, Bynum explains that the act of rearranging clauses and matching words to her experience allows her to find out what she thinks. —Alta

likes, sarah shun lien bynum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin considers Bynum’s emphasis on subjectivity in Likes and the power of story to transform us. —Alta

mother and daughter hands


Critic Bethanne Patrick reflects on the first story in Bynum’s collection, “The Erlking,” and the traps it suggests that women face at different stages of life. —Alta

mouth to mouth, antoine wilson
Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster


The narrator of Antoine Wilson’s novel Mouth to Mouth runs into an old friend and listens to his story of saving a drowning man’s life and the moral quandaries raised as a result. —Alta

january book picks


January brings us 14 new books related to the West, including Burn Coast, Fiona and Jane, and How High We Go in the Dark. —Alta

departures illustration


Bay Area writer Yalitza Ferreras reflects on the gift of time spent focusing on creative chaos at artists’ residencies. Departures

r kikuo johnson, all i asking for is my body
R. Kikuo Johnson


In preparation for the publication of his graphic memoir, R. Kikuo Johnson revisits Milton Murayama’s classic All I Asking for Is My Body. —New York Times

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Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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