â€śDeath and the People,â€ť the opening story in Amber Sparksâ€™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.
Sparksâ€™s work is irreverent yet carries with it an epic scope. And it doesnâ€™t hurt that she knows how to get the readerâ€™s attention — â€śDeath and the Peopleâ€ť 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 doesnâ€™t hurt that Sparks uses the first person plural very effectively — rendering a sense of community thatâ€™s both all-encompassing and yet somehow alien.
When you think you have the book figured outÂ — 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 â€śThe Effect of All That Light Upon You,â€ť 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 â€śWhen The Weather Changes Youâ€ť also impresses, as does the endlessly rewritten logic of â€śThe Ghosts Eat More Air.â€ť
The last word of this collectionâ€™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 itâ€™s that quality that makes these works truly haunting.