“Death and the People,” the opening story in Amber Sparks’s new collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, ably sets the tone for the book that it follows. A group of bored mortals encounter Death and, en masse, set out for the afterlife. They spend their days there in a listless approximation of their terrestrial lives, occasionally frustrating the celestial agents around them; they watch as Earth proceeds through eons of change, struck by its relative emptiness, its majesty, its lush desolation.
Sparks’s work is irreverent yet carries with it an epic scope. And it doesn’t hurt that she knows how to get the reader’s attention — “Death and the People” becomes a sort of circuitous creation myth, albeit one where frustrated deities and video game consoles play a role.
In these stories, Amber Sparks hits the sweet spot between cosmic and irreverence, between comic and philosophical. The title story, in which a group of former trees laments their newfound humanity, elucidates a number of familiar bodies and states, yet makes them seem dynamic. It doesn’t hurt that Sparks uses the first person plural very effectively — rendering a sense of community that’s both all-encompassing and yet somehow alien.
When you think you have the book figured out — when you come to a work featuring an aging Paul Bunyan, say, which seems almost emblematic of a particular school of slipstream writing — you then proceed to “The Effect of All That Light Upon You,” with its (literally) visceral imagery. In it, bodies are reshaped, and minds are pushed towards an uncertain place between madness and transcendence. The counterfactual family history of “When The Weather Changes You” also impresses, as does the endlessly rewritten logic of “The Ghosts Eat More Air.”
The last word of this collection’s title gives a hint as to why it stands out among a number of its reality-bending compatriots. Sparks has intelligence aplenty on display, a talent for humor, and the ability to blend mythical resonances with contemporary anxieties. But her fiction is also rooted in the tactile and the physical, and it’s that quality that makes these works truly haunting.