We’re living through rough times. Pandemics, climate change, volcanic eruptions—each sweeping horror seems worse than the last. In Kim Fu’s new collection of stories, Lesser Known Monsters Of The 21st Century, the horrors are more intimate, smaller, and less global in scale. This is not a collection filled with fantastic beasts, although a sea monster does make an appearance, but instead illuminates the monstrous nature of humanity.
Fu is the author of two previous novels and a collection of poetry. This latest book contains twelve stories drawing on speculative and fantastical elements. In the last century, we would have labeled these stories as magical realism, but the twenty-first century has moved beyond the fabulism of the twentieth. The threats are less existential and more imminent. The dangers are less ethereal and more present. They are of our own making. Technology, rather than magic, catalyzes these changes. That is not to say there are not some traces of unexplained fantasy, such as a girl who sprouts wings from her ankles, but mostly, Fu’s monsters manifest from modernity.
Catastrophe looms on the horizon for all these characters, but the devastation remains personal. There is the bride who doesn’t want to marry her fiancé, the narrator who wants to speed through her life’s experiences, the woman who wants a conversation with a virtual recreation of her mother. This intimacy connects to us as readers at a time when the global tragedy has expanded the distance between our own connections. Like these characters, our crises occur individually. The characters are not saving the world, but trying to save themselves.
The conflict in most of these stories often plays out between just two people. The first story of the collection sets up this framework. “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” features the protagonist discussing with the operator what she wishes to experience in the meta universe. The operator resists the protagonist’s desires, citing regulations. The conflict resolves only between these two characters. It is contained, and in the end, the protagonist realizes it’s the first and last time she will encounter the operator. The connection they find is easily severed.
The success of Kim Fu’s stories is the element of the unexpected. There are surprises lurking in these narratives, whether it is a quick final plot twist or unexpected peculiarity. In “Time Cubes,” for instance, protagonist Alice sleeps with the creator of mysterious curiosity boxes. The man sells the boxes in the local mall. Each cube displays the passage of time as observed by an animal. A frog can be seen aging by twisting the box’s knob forward or de-aging by twisting the knob backward. After seducing him, Alice slips into a human shaped box in his apartment. She turns the knob. The story is filled with surprises, some are gruesome discoveries while others are the unexpected decisions Alice makes. Alongside these unpredictable choices, Fu is a master of imagery. As Alice explores the inventor’s apartment, she spots “tiny corpses, combined with the smell of sex clinging to Alice’s skin, made her gut flop inside her like a swallowed fish.” The descriptions provide unnerving illustrations.
The collection leans toward darker threads. “#CLIMBINGNATION” is set at the funeral of an avid rock climber and Instagram influencer. We’re taken here because the protagonist, April, wants to satisfy her own curiosity. She and the climber, Travis, both attended college together, but to suggest they had been friends would be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, April thrives on her thin link to a famous person. Ironically, in his death, she is closer to him than in real life, worming her way into the funeral meant for family and close friends. Only when his social media accounts go dark does she recognize her loss.
But April’s fascination with the funeral isn’t the only dark element of this story. Travis accumulated gold bars and stashed them in a remote cabin. He was preparing for the end of the world. The people closest to him realized, however, he made no provisions for them. They would never make it to the remote cabin, though the possibility of finding gold bars in the cabin leads them to wonder how to recover the money. Fu paints these people as the worst of humanity. Famous for nothing more than posting on Instagram, embracing derisive ideas, and then led by their greed. Even April, who serves as our entry into the scene, is contemptible for her dependence on her artificial link to Travis.
Although Fu seems more concerned with alienation stemming from individual relationships, there is criticism of conventional consumer capitalism. In “Twenty Hours,” a husband and wife invest in a human body printing machine, an extremely expensive device used to recreate a person if they die. Since the replication machine reproduces the body as it was at the time of death, including aging and long-term diseases, it is not an immortality machine. Rather, it serves the niche function of reviving a person from an unexpected death. The characters have bought one despite the expense, not because they are obscenely wealthy, but because they were “[l]ucky in our birthright privileges, in our inheritance, in our jobs, in the stock market, hoarding cash for reasons that stopped being clear long ago.” They have literally run out of things to spend their money on.
Contempt for consumerism and traditional expectations repeats through the collection. The stories are highly critical of convention. In “The Doll,” Fu criticizes suburban tract homes, saying they were “specifically for the dreamless, signifying nothing.” Or in standout “Bridezilla,” the bohemian friends of Leah and Arthur all want to eschew marriage but “ended up in monogamous, long-term, two-person partnerships.” The story centers on the relationship between Leah and Arthur, who become engaged and plan their wedding while a sea monster stalks the ocean. Neither seem exceptionally enthusiastic about the wedding. Fu finds gloominess even in this happy occasion. Leah buys a vintage dress, still musty smelling, and contemplating how the bride and groom died before she purchases it.
The characters in Fu’s collection are eccentric and unexpected in their choices, and many of their stories feature unforeseen endings that strike the right tone for the dark era we live in. Likewise, the worlds Fu has created for her characters portend the darker paths of our own future. In Lesser Known Monsters Of The 21st Century, Fu opens a window looking onto the sad possibilities of our own failures.
Tin House Books
Published on February 01, 2022
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.