THE SLOW ACTS | Sanaë Lemoine.
⇒Reading this story is like biting into a piece of gourmet candy: a dark chocolate shell, smooth caramel filling, and at the very center of this delicious confection, a live wasp.
This is a gorgeous short story, full of rich language and metaphor, laser-precise imagery and a potent blend of the real and fantastic that intensifies the characters’ humanity and the precariousness of their existence.
How to sum up this story? I think this paragraph should give you a sense of what’s in store for you:
In this town, when you lose a love, you lose a limb. Your liver explodes, your neck turns yellow, and you begin to disappear. But you stay, walking among the living. You join the troupe, and there are songs and rituals to cope. They are less agile than us humans, their hands are clumsy, and they have no texture.
This is a story in which the dead remain, drifting, weightless. It’s unclear how it feels to be dead, whether or not it’s painful, but I get the sense from the wraith-people in the story that death is largely a matter of numbness and ritual and waiting. Like a Beckett play but with less talking.
This piece reminds me of a few different stories, including the recent novel Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones. In Jones’s novel, a person’s life-energy is measured in colored crystals; in “The Slow Acts,” that life-energy is a relationship, a love. To lose one’s love, whoever s/he may be, is to lose one’s life. This is a story that works through literalization: emotional scars manifest themselves as mortal wounds (a sort of quasi-Bluebeard situation), but this happens in a way that is subtle, gradual. I suppose “gradual” is a good way of describing this piece. It is very slow-paced, at least in its early stages, meandering along through rich scenic and character descriptions. The narrative sort of thrives on this slowness; the slowness is the luxurious chocolate shell around the caramel-sticky wasp at the center of the story–the live wasp being nothing short of the Greatest Literary Theme of All: Death.
So this is a ghost story, but a magical-realist ghost story (along the lines of Morrison’s Beloved, I suppose–both portray a character haunted by a lost loved one, emotional scarring taking the shape of a specter). So the leisurely paced, matter-of-fact ghost story we’re talking about here is really about the psychology of loss (it’s a very psychological piece, however literal; what is a work of speculative fiction other than something otherworldly to help us interrogate our own world?). In a lot of ways, this story continues a long and venerable tradition of psychological ghost tales, but in other ways, this story is wildly unique.
A few words on the structure. The piece is divided into four sections, each approaching the issue of death and its psychology in a different way. One section deals with the discovery or realization of an impending loss. One section has to do with a more sudden manifestation of death. In the third section we see how different characters grapple with loss and the possibility of loss. The final section, the strongest of the four, is a sort of Dante-esque literalization of the Death Experience. I’m being vague about each section because I don’t want to spoil anything.
At first I wanted to describe elements of this story as ethereal, but ethereal is pretty much the antithesis of this reading experience. Most stories, ghost- and otherwise, tend to render the metaphysical (death, etc.) in very abstract or gossamer ways, but here, the author creates a town full of death in a way that is extremely sensory. The whole story feels like wind-parched driftwood, drained of life but richly textured. Death is something this story strives to touch rather than shrug off as an abstraction.
Who knows? Maybe the author intended everything in this piece to be read as a metaphor. If so, what a metaphor she’s created. Enjoy this piece and its rich language, but as I said, beware the surprise nestled at its center.