The Unfinished World is Amber Sparks’s second collection of stories, out now from Liveright. It follows her debut May We Shed These Human Bodies, which was released by Curbside Splendor in 2012. This latest collection establishes Sparks as a master wordsmith, a crafter of small literary wonders. The original blurb for the book on amazon leads with a comparison of Sparks’s work to that of Kelly Link and Karen Russell. However, while the strength of Link’s and Russell’s stories comes from the development of wonderfully strange and intricate worlds over many pages—the power in Sparks’s prose is derived from its density. Sparks’s stories are (mostly) very short. Even the novella the collection is titled after is structured in a series of small fragments that could each stand alone.
In these stories, a woman sends a former lover a music box with a ballerina inside that she has carefully sculpted to bear her own face. A boy’s older brother keeps a “Cabinet of Curiosities” as long as the wall of one room that contains hundreds of objects—from “paintings by Manet” and “stringless lutes” to “pouches full of old faerie dust” and “a jar full of trolls’ feet.” Orphans incorporate the features of their dead parents in taxidermy and clay figures: preserved cats with their father’s nose and mother’s posture, gargoyles with their father’s smile. Sparks’s stories are like these uncanny objects contained within them: the impossible looking out through the eyes of the ordinary.
Sparks makes great use of her words, producing full, elaborate worlds in the span of a few pages. Many of Sparks’s sentences could function by themselves as stunning little works of microfiction:
“She felt small and bright and diamond-hard, a little star in the firmament.”
“Who can say why the loaded heart defies all logic, like an unfinished word problem, like a riddle written in the human dust of a crowded barroom?”
“He mourns alone in the breakfast room, slicing hard-boiled eggs and sprinkling them with pepper, watches dots darken the white like locusts over clouds.”
“I’m a good listener and I remember most things people say; I tuck them away in the drawers in my head and label them careful so later I can go back and pull out the things I need to know.”
What Sparks does have in common with Russell and Link is that her tales take advantage of fiction’s ability to surprise us—they stretch the boundaries of our imaginations. In the first story, a janitor cleans floating debris—flakes of dead skin, liquid salt—from a space station while she thinks about her troubled past on earth. Another story takes the form of a series of SAT-style logic questions that also convey the events of a man’s life. In a story very loosely based on the form of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a woman goes back in time—on thirteen occasions—to try to stop a famous painting from being created. The wisely named “Birds with Teeth” depicts a bitter rivalry between two paleontologists in the 1880s and is told in a series of short clips, in a mix of first person and third. In “Take Your Daughter to the Slaughter,” the daughters of a town are trained by their fathers to hunt the werewolves who overcrowd their forests.
The strength of Sparks’s prose is not derived from the plot (her fictions vary from traditionally plotted to virtually plotless)—but from her ideas and the dense and wonderful prose that conveys them. One of the best stories is a sci-fi piece—set in a future in which time machines have been invented, but are highly regulated. It is the protagonist and his colleagues’ job to make sure that no one messes with the past and changes the course of history. But policing the citizens who try to stop the Black Plague or assassinate Hitler is not without its psychological ramifications. “Sometimes he wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave and sweep away the worst of it. Sure, the paradoxes would destroy us, but so what?” “He wishes he could push his whole body into the wall, through the wall, to somewhere outside history entirely.” In “The Fever Librarian,” the world has been emptied of all that does not have a rational root. It is the librarian’s job to organize and sort these fevers—kept in cabinets in cold, quiet, rooms—so they cannot escape. The fevers she catalogues range from “Dr. Spock” to “Scarlet Fever” to “toga parties” to “heatstroke” to “sexual fever” to “Love.”
The Unfinished World, the novella that comes near the end of the collection, is set in the beginning of the 1900s. It is structured in a series of small fragments that alternate between the lives of two people who are destined to fall in love years later: Set, a sweet, otherworldly boy growing up on Long Island, and Inge, a fiery, resilient girl growing up on her family’s declining estate in Ireland. The novella takes full advantage of its historical context. While it covers somber events like World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, it also revels in the new inventions of the twentieth century. It is great fun to discover the moving picture along with young Set, who waits for all of the “people and dragons” from the film to come out and take their bow, not realizing it is merely a projection. (Later in life, Set goes on to write and illustrate captions for the silent movies.) Or, the moment when Set sees a Picasso for the first time: “It gave him a muddled feeling to look at it, like looking at time coming and going.”
While the ideas behind Sparks’s stories are often complex and her prose packs a heavy punch, this is not to say her work is any less immediately enjoyable. I happily devoured The Unfinished World on the bus, in my favorite chair, between daily tasks—and each time I picked it up I was amazed by how seamlessly Sparks led me into her curious creations. It is true that I scrambled to read The Unfinished World because it was initially billed as being similar to the work of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, but what is most remarkable about Sparks’s prose are the ways in which it is truly unique. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors used to say that stories are the last great handmade thing, and if this is true then Sparks proves herself a master craftswoman. While the bizarre objects in her stories may (for the most part) not exist in this world, Sparks offers us, with her latest collection, her own trove of carefully wrought wonders.