Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is a visionary of the unfamiliar—or more accurately, of the way the unfamiliar can assert itself at the most familiar times. The stories in her third book, Likes, unfold in recognizable homes and communities; they involve women and men, parents and children, as all of them do the dance of domesticity. At the same time, Bynum understands that domesticity, or family, represents its own sort of weirdness, in which adults and children, spouses and neighbors, talk to (or around) one another, across a chasm of insurmountable divides.
“His daughter wasn’t entirely silent in the car,” Bynum writes in the collection’s title story. “She sang along to songs on the radio, songs patchy with blanked-out words that she made a point of mouthing but didn’t say aloud. A billboard might prompt her to ask a question like Why is she drinking out of a paper bag? Sometimes, gazing at her phone, she would let out a low, triumphant hiss. Yesssss! She’d got every answer right on the Kylie Jenner quiz.” Anyone who has driven with an 11-year-old knows exactly what she means.
I don’t mean to suggest that Bynum is a naturalist; her imagination is too capacious to be bound by such a term. Rather, she finds the mystery in minor moments, in the ineluctability of the everyday. Take “The Erlking,” the collection’s opening story: A mother takes her daughter Ondine, who goes by Ruthie, to a carnival. But even though they are together, they remain essentially alone. Bynum highlights this by shifting back and forth between their points of view, giving the story a sneaky sort of depth. For the mother, the event is a reminder of her failure. “[L]ook at what Ruthie is missing,” she laments. “Magic. Nature. Flower wreaths, floating playsilks, an unpolluted, media-free experience of the world.” Ruthie, meanwhile, has become obsessed with a mysterious stranger at the edge of the crowd, a man with long nails and a body made of straw, wearing a cape the color of night.
In Bynum’s work, it’s not magical realism that’s the driver; we are never sure whether the man exists. Instead, she means to dip into the fairy tale, an aesthetic that infuses several stories in the book. In “The Young Wife’s Tale,” Eva dreams of a mythic king, to the detriment of her married life. Bynum evokes the character’s estrangement with edgy precision. “He too possessed his own share of beauty,” Eva thinks as her spouse sleeps, “or so she had thought in the beginning, and so she was repeatedly still told.” The line leaves no doubt about her feelings, even if she can’t quite articulate them. How could she when the emotional center of the narrative takes place for her—for both of them—in dreams? “The Burglar,” meanwhile, edges into fantasy in a different way; the story involves a TV writer whose character comes to life and wanders the streets of contemporary Los Angeles, eventually walking in on a burglary involving his creator’s wife.
Bynum is saying that the world is full of possibility, even (or especially) when that least appears to be the case. Her characters are conflicted, yearning; they worry about love or money but don’t want that to be how they’re defined. “Automatically, she does the math,” she writes in “The Burglar.” “When she got that ticket at the intersection, for instance—an outrageous amount, a stomach-twisting sum—she had paid it off by the time she reached home. By adding together the early-bird discount on Violet’s school uniforms and the first-three-months-free promotion on their cable package and the unblemished hundred-dollar bill that her great-aunt still sends her every year on her birthday, she’d made the ticket disappear.” What Bynum is describing, of course, is another form of magic, another kind of spell.
Nowhere is this more expertly evoked than in “Bedtime Story,” which closes the collection—another portrait of a marriage gone awry. As in “The Erlking,” Bynum plays here with perspective; as in “The Young Wife’s Tale,” she builds her saga of dissatisfaction slowly, balancing the existential and the mundane. A man recalls to his son an incident his wife cannot remember; has she forgotten it, or did it happen when he was with someone else? As the angle shifts from him to her, we begin to realize there are other memories that this couple may not share.
The man has had a fling, with someone named Meg Sand. Rather than offering answers, that’s just the source of more uncertainty. His wife, Bynum informs us, “cannot remember, for example, Meg Sand’s last name. Sand is just something she’s made up as a placeholder.” The admission cracks the story, and the collection, wide open. Bynum, after all, here positions the wife as storyteller, effectively erasing the line between author and character. She highlights the conditionality of the narrative, the idea that every story is a construction of a kind.
That, as it turns out, may be the ultimate magic trick in this book of fractured fairy tales. Bynum’s characters remain adrift in a world they never made and can’t control, where things appear to happen for no reason, and reconciliation comes when it is least expected and disappears as fast. At the same time, this is hardly cause for mourning, since such moments, when they arrive, are real. “Knowing that,” Bynum writes, “it seems to me, is enough. And not just enough, but plenty.”
David L. Ulin is Alta’s books editor.
- By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $26