“Boats are lost at sea. Drowning is different. Water fills the lungs making life at first difficult, then impossible, to sustain.”
Robert Lopez has charmingly stirred readers with his previous two books, 2007’s Part of the World and 2009’s Kamby Bolongo Mean River. Both received various raving accolades and garnered an audience for Lopez’s beautifully thin but aggressive language.
Lopez is a sentence crafter, belligerently curt but marvelously poetic, a writer who uses nicely balanced repetition with a unique and refined minimalism. His debut short story collection, Asunder, does nothing but solidify these characteristics, firmly establishing Lopez as a contemporary writer to look up to.
She can’t believe he doesn’t want to celebrate her birthday.
Closer to home, I’ve been bleeding.
Every time I brush my teeth or shave it’s a bloodbath.
She and he are they to me. Them. A man and a woman walked into a bar. Hopeless.
If I were a hemophiliac I’d either be dead or God knows what is the bottom line. By that same logic I’ve often said if I were an Eskimo I’d kill myself, so where that leaves you I don’t know. Although I’m not sure if that is in fact the same logic.
She has black hair and a gold wristwatch. He is wearing red suspenders. Near as I can tell neither of them is bleeding. (From “Bleeders”)
Asunder collects a wealth of mostly flash-sized stories, nearly all of which swirl around people who are confused, or missing, or confused about having gone missing. People with missing parts, or lost relationships with other missing people, or lost relationships with the parts of them that have left. Aptly titled, Asunder is about being torn away, being stripped from our feet and floated into a sky where description is mesmerizingly concrete, but where we are no longer sure of the difference between our wife and the “despicables,” between surviving and being sucked under.
People can either be rescued or recovered. Survivors or victims. However, there are victims who are never recovered, their bodies. These are the people lost at sea. There are songs written about them. Boats are lost at sea, too. They are mentioned in the same songs. Drowning is different. Drowning is for people who can’t swim or who can no longer swim due to injury or exhaustion, or people who choose not to swim. Something happens, then they take on water, then they drown. They sink right to the bottom. The water can be deep or shallow, rough or calm. There is little difference. Water fills the lungs making life at first difficult, then impossible, to sustain. (From “In the Boat About to Drown”)
And while these flash pieces are overwhelmingly smart and slick and delightful to read, there is another bonus to Asunder: the inclusion of Lopez’s novella-in-shorts, The Trees Underground, which collects and throughlines the stories of Lopez’s characters Blind Betty and Pity Jimmy, whom discerning readers have met in a number of literary journals over the years. Pity Jimmy is the sad frontman for the story, taking care of Blind Betty, whom he simultaneously desires, envies, and pities. This long piece is perhaps the best of Lopez that there is to be had—readers get the quick pace of his flash fists with the arc of a longer narrative, expertly delivered, plus the chance to see Lopez work in the third-person point of view after beautifully crushing the first-person in many of the earlier stories.
In cafeteria when Blind Betty says the trees underground are outside blooming all over. Blind Betty is blind so you don’t know if you should believe her sometimes. Thing about Blind Betty is she’s fingered all the Braille books on flowers and nature so she knows about these things she says. To regular people the trees underground are dandelions but to Blind Betty they’re trees. Blind Betty says when she was a kid she had a baby brother who was a retard and she’d tell him that dandelions were the trees underground. Blind Betty says this is the kind of thing you tell retards but she doesn’t say why. She’d tell him there was a world underground the opposite of the aboveground world. So if you were blind aboveground you were deaf in the underground world and if you were a retard in one you’d be a genius in the other. It don’t make no sense to me that if you’re aboveground you’d be deaf in the underground but I like it when Blind Betty tells us stories about her retard brother so I don’t say nothing. (From “The Trees Underground”)
If Lopez’s earlier books didn’t prove to readers that he is a word-storm, a force of literary nature come unhinged, blowing shutters against readers’ houses, then Asunder surely will. This is a collection as proof, a collection as loveliness, a collection as rippage, and we are lucky to get it into our waiting hands, its words into our heads.