Reviews

A Bleak, Humorous Look Into Futurity

A review of Mary South's new collection of stories, You Will Never Be Forgotten.

We have been living in the future for a while now: drones deliver packages, watches track vital signs, meat substitutes grow in labs. No matter the modern problem, there’s an app for that. Even the self-driving car seems a plausible possibility. Despite these innovations, none of us seem happier for it. Political polarization, melancholy, depression, and existential dread are hallmarks of our time.

In her debut story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten, Mary South skillfully crafts narratives of emotional isolation. Both ominously bleak and shrewdly humorous, South constructs near-future worlds filled with sad and lonely characters. The ten stories in the collection wade ankle deep into science fiction. They introduce us to worlds of a near future close enough to our present that we can easily see ourselves reflected in them. There are dead-child resurrections and Ishiguro-like organ farms. But throughout the collection, technological elements remain less of a threatening force and more of a vehicle for the exploration of human solitude.

The collection opens with “Keith Prime,” which follows the narrative of a woman working in a human organ farm. The organs are grown inside Keiths: men kept sedated and drugged and otherwise unconscious. They aren’t meant to dream or wake up or have humanity, although South is less concerned with the moral question of raising host bodies for organ transplant than understanding the humanity of the people responsible for growing them. We aren’t meant to sympathize with the Keiths—they generally are “not particularly handsome, not particularly intelligent, not particularly kind,”  and when one of them, Keith with a mole, does wake up, he’s mostly interested in watching television for “kissing and murder.” As a mirror image of humanity, South presents us with a damning critique. 

Instead, South wants us to focus on the loneliness of the narrator’s isolated existence. She fosters the Keith with a mole after he wakes up unexpectedly at the factory. She is sad and alone since her husband died. She adopts Keith with a mole and cares for him, attempting to find a connection with this near human. It’s clear he’s not a substantial substitute. Throughout the collection, South presents scenarios where characters face substitutes for things they want and are ultimately disappointed. Keith with a mole cannot love the narrator back. Ultimately, her attempt at bonding with him will be punished.

South combines beautifully composed metaphors with wry wit. For instance, in “Keith Prime,” the narrator observes: “he’s a violin that has sat unplayed for decades and he is also constipated.” Delivered with a deadpan cadence, the sentence demonstrates how South manipulates the reader with a dry, observational humor. The duality epitomizes her collection; throughout the stories, single sentences often hold two functions.

The stories in the collection present an overwhelming melancholy. For the narrator of “Keith Prime,” death is one solution. When one of her coworkers has a Keith selected for organ harvesting, the woman experiences relief, rather than remorse. Maintaining Keiths is a burden: “you remember the tasks you no longer have to do for him, the catheter that can go unchanged.” Death is also the narrator’s plan. She reveals a personal reserve of morphine she has collected for her own eventual demise. Compassion triumphs when she turns the morphine on Keith with a mole rather than returning him to the factory. Death, in this instance, provides a final act of charitable humanity. In effect, her punishment for helping the Keith with a mole is to delay her own escape.

Death is also at the heart of the final story in the collection, “Not Setsuko.” The story follows a mother’s attempt to resurrect her dead daughter. The original Setsuko was kidnapped on her ninth birthday and murdered. Setsuko’s mother, Karen, gives birth to a new Setsuko, a copy of her previous daughter. Karen spends the next decade attempting to replicate the same memories of the first iteration of Setsuko; she believes that by recreating those memories, she will restore her lost daughter. She even goes as far as recreating traumas—the death of the family house cat. It’s an impossible goal.

Even though the new Setsuko is a copy, cracks begin to form. Mistakes are made. Karen’s efforts prove futile. The copy of Setsuko will only ever be just that. South smartly sets the story against the backdrop of Hollywood, a place where dreams are made to look real but never are. Their lives are like movie sets, superficial imitations of the truth. Looking behind the facade will always reveal the true nature of the thing as false.

Karen’s desperation to recreate her dead daughter also alienates her husband. Wyatt leaves Karen for another woman, and instead of restoring her family, they are torn apart. This inability for people to connect is a recurring theme in South’s collection in that the inertia of every story seems to move them further away from each other.

Technology meant to better connect us often has the opposite effect. In “The Age of Love,” employees of a senior care facility secretly record the phone calls of their residents. The elderly in their care are calling phone sex hotlines. There is something jarring reading about the sexual desires of the elderly and South yields this to great effect. Its darkly humorous, particularly when its revealed the sex ring leader is Mr. Rogers. Sharing a name with a beloved children’s show host is not lost on South or the characters. Despite the discomfort around geriatric sex lives, Mr. Rogers and his friends simply want to make connections with other people.

The recordings are shared to the cloud, and from there the narrator shares them with his girlfriend, Jill. Like in the other stories in the collection, the characters are lonely and isolated from each other—even when sharing their lives. Though Jill and the narrator live together, they are often physically apart. She works as an airline flight attendant where her job keeps her physically distant, but there is emotional distance between them too. After hearing the recordings, Jill starts having phone conversations with Mr. Rogers as she seeks the missing emotional component of her relationship. However, as is often the case in South’s stories, the characters end up punished just as they find a solution to their loneliness. When the narrator discovers Jill’s ongoing conversations with Mr. Rogers, they argue. She breaks up with him. Unsatisfied, the narrator has Mr. Rogers transferred to an unpleasant facility. South seems to be telling us loneliness is the natural state of the human condition, personal connections are something we have to fight to achieve, and we are often punished for having them.

“You Will Never Be Forgotten,” the title story, again pushes humanity up against technology. In this story, South’s protagonist is a content moderator for an internet services company. She’s required to view content and confirm or deny whether or not the content violates some terms of use. However, she’s also a rape survivor who follows her rapists’ online activity. Even in this dark scenario, South expertly navigates us toward wry humor: “The rapist is such an inspiration that he started a newsletter to share his story,” the narrative begins. We can be horrified by this rapist, but also amused that like so many people today, the rapist has a newsletter. South’s strength is in placing these two dissonant ideas side by side.

“You Will Never Be Forgotten” is perhaps the most sincere of all the stories. South writes traumatic details while providing poignant, pragmatic ramifications for the survivor’s experience. On the night of the rape, the protagonist “was wearing a vintage calfskin leather skirt and a silk peasant top printed with flowers. It is the most expensive outfit she owns and she can no longer put it on.” The rape infects every aspect of this woman’s life. South’s success comes from carefully binding sarcasm and humor to the dark trauma of rape in a way that feels sincere.

South has written a dark collection by exploiting sarcasm, irony, and humor to confront the alienation and loneliness brought about by modernity. You Will Never Be Forgotten is a collection of stories reflecting the zeitgeist: melancholy dread in conflict with modernity. Her narrative voice is sharp, witty, and efficient.

FICTION/SHORT STORY
You Will Never Be Forgotten

By Mary South
Published March 10, 2020
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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