If you only hear about Christopher Kang’s Green Mountains Review Prize-winning book, without seeing it or holding it, then everything about it would seem to cry, “tome.” The title is a whopping 22 words, a complete sentence stuffed with clauses: When He Sprang from His Bed, Staggered Backward, and Fell Dead, We Clung Together with Faint Hearts, and Mutely Questioned Each Other. Then, there is the allusion in the title itself, as noted on the copyright page, “The title of this book is the antepenultimate sentence of Elizabeth Stoddard’s 19th Century novel, The Morgesons.” A little research reveals The Morgesons to be an oft-neglected bildungsroman, the genre which chronicles a protagonist’s development from youth to maturity—a long book, needless to say. Finally, Kang’s subtitle, 880 Stories, further contributes to the overall impression of length, intellectual heft, and layers of literary references. But this isn’t the whole picture. The book’s initial impression of mass is at once contrasted not only by its slim physicality (only 140 pages), but more pointedly by the compact form Kang chooses for his stories: some might label it flash fiction, or micro-fiction, or, as writer Lauren Groff says in her blurb, “Robert Walserian feuilletons.” Right away, then, the elusory When He Sprang from His Bed… reveals its central themes of contradiction and paradox: a book performs its weight and seriousness, but is filled with extremely small stories; a contemporary collection experiments aesthetically, yet hearkens back to the staid past and a traditional form. Even the cover design hints at the paradox, play, melancholy and mystery at the heart of this collection: amidst the soft pinks and whites set against a glowing blue, one cannot overlook the human skull lurking beneath the text.
II. An “Unfeasible” Form
Christopher Kang establishes his place within a particular literary tradition of experimental writers while at the same time carving out his own path. His inventiveness within the short form earns him comparisons to Franz Kafka, Robert Walser, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Lydia Davis, among others. In an interview with Sarah Manguso (who selected Kang’s book as the winner of the GMR Fiction prize), master of short form Lydia Davis says on genre classification, “I think people may still be expecting a kind of miniature short story when they begin reading a piece of flash fiction, rather than the less usual offering that it might be—meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe—for which there is no good general name.” These latter definitions more closely describe Kang’s stories. At times absurd, humorous, meditative and lyrical, the pieces in this collection “offer us the opportunity to live many lives without all [the] interstitial fascia,” as poet Dean Young says in his blurb. An esteemed poet writing in praise of a book of fiction underscores the formal and generic flexibility of Kang’s writing. Young also remarks that “these tiny novels or are they prose poems or pieces of a particle theory never let their genre indeterminacy cause blurring.” One might more succinctly “locate” a Christopher Kang story as Italo Calvino describes his own work: “something between parables and prose poems.”
It might seem odd to dwell so long on the subject of form, but its distinctiveness in this regard is one of the most striking features the book offers. (Among all my cryptic notes for this review, the scribbled phrase I keep returning to is, “Cinematic, fabular, form is everything, is the delight.”) Kang’s collection asks, “What is a story, really?” He could have called his work any number of things, but to claim “stories” signifies a particular aesthetic and cultural positioning, even if this position seems like a partial reaction against the typical short story found in a typical collection on the shelf of your local Barnes & Noble. In the same interview with Manguso, Lydia Davis says, “It’s a hard thing to define, but to be simple about it, I would say a story has to have a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader.” Kang manipulates this basic formula over and over again, not only transporting his readers, but elevating mood and movement as the elemental underpinnings of storytelling. His pieces dwell in mythic space, removed from overtly contemporary time, and it is this working in conjunction with the condensed action, still leaving room for surprise, that pushes Kang’s work into the realm of fable.
It would be too easy to read these stories as fragments, when they seek to be complete unto themselves, discrete units, the way cells make up a body. This sense of corporeal intactness makes the book wonderful to experience, if a little difficult to talk about. Whereas some of Kang’s stories serve as connective tissue, offering up moments of respiration for the reader with their brevity and levity (some read as aphorisms, some as punchlines), others demand to be appreciated closely, as one would study a slide under a microscope.
III. “But An Instance of Expansion”
The allusive title of Christopher Kang’s collection provides a sense of the book’s place in the literary tradition while it prepares us for a reading shaped by compressed and accumulating references. We see this happening right away with the first story of the collection. Not only does the story introduce some of the book’s broader themes of violence, absurdity, and isolation through the lens of art production and consumption, it also illustrates how a number of the subsequent stories work in terms of narrative movement:
It’s interesting to focus on the made-up book, Understanding Anger, because it points to some of the existential concerns permeating the collection while it generates another, albeit fictitious, literary allusion. In this sense, Kang follows in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories, Calvino writes, “double or multiply their own space through other books (whether classical, scholarly, or merely invented),” which is how Borges “opens his windows onto the infinite without the slightest busyness.” Kang opens the same windows, here, and elsewhere in his collection, through his steady stream of allusions both real and fictitious (he even refers obliquely in a later story to Borges’s “On Exactitude In Science” with his inclusion of “a map as large as the country it represents”)
When discussing the collection’s many references, it becomes undeniable that this is a book obsessed with books: the term “book” appears in some form or another over 90 times throughout the 140 pages (“book,” “notebook,” “novel”). This preoccupation with books isn’t adulatory or merely self-reflexive, but rather suspicious, particularly as regards large books. Many of Kang’s stories refer to “enormous” books, their size equated with inflated self-importance. For example, story #6:
The obvious class commentary here hinges on the book as status symbol, as fetish object, which Kang humorously emphasizes through anadiplosis (Greek: “a doubling, folding up”). Kang further deploys books as totems of the kind of academic and/or artistic endeavoring that all-too-often over-aestheticizes violence:
He is critical of the numbing project that intellectual activity can become—those who would praise the “texture” of language rather than comment on the violent event it describes.
Kang mocks most of all the self-serious book reviewers and art critics (“I cannot see you but I can see your simper”). He lampoons their vacuous jargon and tendency toward hyperbole:
The joke works not only because it seems true, but also because Kang isn’t 100% letting himself off the hook. His own complicity in the absurdity is all too apparent, as his narrators comfortably lapse into critic-speak—to parody is always on some level to reify.
The obsession continues. Books are seen as suffocating (#131: “The book is crushing him…”), life-draining (#253: “The book steals something from his life…”), totems of death (#711: “His books are burying him”). But they are also fragile, illusory sites where the lyric pierces you:
Kang refers once more to Understanding Anger in a later story (#765, page 124), further expanding the narrative space of the collection. This isn’t quite the same activity as world-building, because rather than answering questions regarding the universe these stories and their narrators inhabit, Kang’s technique depends on sustaining an aura of mystery and happenstance. In other words, we aren’t meant to believe the two stories (#1 and #765) that refer to Understanding Anger are linked in any meaningful way beyond this surface similarity—which is itself meaningful, particularly as one reads more closely into the collection’s existential themes.
IV. “Neither Immense Nor Infinitesimal”
Christopher Kang’s stories concern themselves with the chance encounters and ephemerality that punctuate a life, at times dwelling in the ensuing loneliness and apparent meaninglessness. It isn’t a world these stories share, but a worldview, and one that can turn quite dark: “anger” appears around 15 times, “kill” 17 times—roughly the same number of times as “hope,” but many of those include “hopeless”— “death” appears 17 times, and “dead” appears 19 times in the collection. The book asks not just what it is to exist in a violent and seemingly random universe, but how to process this experience through the making and consuming of art. In addition to books, these stories directly engage with the fine arts, as seen with the repeated deployment of painterly terms (“landscape” appears 19 times in the collection while versions of “paint” appears over 50 times). For example, story #696:
This particular story is like a poetic rendering of a bad Tinder date. Nobody wants to be the “faint figure” in somebody else’s crowded landscape, but the truth is, this is exactly what most of us are to everybody else in the world—it’s part of the human condition. Story #696 models how the collection uses art as a prism into understanding loneliness. The loneliness turns into alienation as the metaphor turns inward: to be a faint figure in one’s own crowded landscape seems even worse than romantic or interpersonal isolation.
With the book’s focus on art there also emerges anxiety over authenticity: the collection is peppered with “counterfeits” and “forgeries.” For example:
This story highlights the absurdity of monetized art market, which can also be extended to the literary publishing world, and it goes even further by calling into question the motives of all value-judgments, excepting those fueled by intuition. Contradiction again rears its head: how exactly does one “unknowingly possess” a forgery, yet know this fact in order to speak it? In this way, the story points to the limits of knowledge, of human understanding, in a way that is less immediately painful than the failed personal connection illustrated in #696, but remains quite troubling nonetheless. This trouble, existential despair, epistemological quandary, whatever you want to call it, is spoken, interrogated, enacted or ignored by countless narrators throughout the collection.
If the collection’s handling of art and literary critics exposes an underlying mistrust of experience, and a deep cynicism with the institutions that shape it, then its depiction of artists and writers offers greatest moments of angst and insight. By the book’s end, we have become witnesses to a kind of transcript of the artist’s struggles, frustrations, despairs and triumphs. In this way the collection does feel linked to the genre its title alludes to, the bildungsroman. When He Sprang From His Bed… might be considered an experimental Künstlerroman—a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity.
There is preoccupation with the specter of failure. In its abstract form, the artist finds failure easier to accept, à la Samuel Beckett’s “fail better” shtick:
But we can understand negative criticism as a species of failure the artist fears much more acutely as it would erase his personhood, ultimately driving him towards oblivion. Fear of failure, then, really translates to a fear of death for the artist, which culminates in an obsession with legacy-crafting. For example, story #490 (while it continues the expansion of narrative space through literary reference) offers a dismal portrait of the artist’s inevitable fading to irrelevance.
A man writes his autobiography and immediately ages. Time passes as fast as the narration leaps from, “He is still young. Now he is old.” Worse than aging, however, is the identity crisis introduced by the photograph. Not only is this man old, he is unknown, even to himself.
Story #515 offers a counterpoint:
Who are we to the world outside? What should we allow that world to make of us, even to ourselves? It is entirely plausible to ask these questions safely from the numbing distance of cloistered art-making. The question reveals the problem of viewing the world as a mere aesthetic object, or worse, a personal, idiosyncratic bubble. It is too easy to forget the violence that oftentimes spurs once-reviled, now-lauded artists to create. It is too easy to get wrapped up in one’s own legacy, in the myth-making, the image-building, the networking, the rat race. At times Kang’s attitude appears bitingly critical, if not outright cynical. But he offers up some solace, in that all of the artist’s intrinsic worth does not always have to be so attached to the “value” ascribed to his art. Art can be made for the self, no one else, and this does not have to constitute a failure. And what if that art is bad? Kang helps us see the worth in individual striving:
It seems insanely obvious that it is possible, nay, highly likely, for a person to be a bad artist but a good man, yet there is something refreshing in Kang’s delivery. It’s almost like he is comforting himself, and we are somehow overhearing it, and it’s somehow not saccharine. It’s just a true, good thing.
The final story ends the collection in a scene where the creative impulse honors personal attachment over legacy, and gratitude over fear—mortality be damned:
Many happy returns.
Liz Meley recently graduated from UC Irvine’s Programs in Writing with an MFA in poetry. She lives in Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter: @lizmeley.