Likes by Sarah shun-lien bynum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2020)
Reviewed by Lisa Slage-Robinson
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is all grown up. In what may seem like a departure from her trademark whimsy, Likes, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction, is a collection of nine stories, mostly grounded in reality, that dwell in the concerns of mid-career professionals, their affairs, infertility and child-rearing. The O’Henry Award winning story, “Julia and Sunny,” for example, laments the disintegrating marriage of a perfect couple.
Likes stands in stark contrast to Bynum’s earlier books–the fabulously strange and bawdy dreamscape that is Madeleine is Sleeping, and the linked stories of a young private school English teacher in Ms. Hempel Chronicles. While her main protagonists may have aged in Likes, Bynum still employs the use of the fantastic, sometimes with a shout, sometimes with a whisper as she rewrites the tales we tell ourselves, the myths of childhood, epic friendships, perfect couplings and idyllic parenthood.
Bynum writes in liminal spaces, in the unnerving waiting room of the in between. In Likes, as in her other work, she deftly leads us to the psychological monster waiting for us on the other side of the door, the end of the hallway, or the bottom of the golden escalator. With a sleight of hand, she simultaneously reveals the past, present, and future using threads of stories we’ve heard before: fairy tales, fables and myths, or memories we can’t quite conjure. It is the place where whimsy and nostalgia blur into existential dread.
In the title story “Likes,” it’s Nutcracker season. A father struggles to connect with his pre-adolescent daughter in their mostly silent car rides as he shuttles her to and from physical therapy and ballet classes. Like an anthropologist, he tries to divine meaning from her social media posts that are both innocently childish and luridly provocative. Her emotional ups and downs, confuse and distress him.
In the background is an upcoming presidential election. There is no mention of the year or the candidates. The family makes a night of watching the debate. On the sofa, they gather with their drinks and spicy ramen, their napkins and their chopsticks. His daughter seems to be fully engaged when she suddenly leaps off the sofa and runs upstairs, declaring that the scene unfolding on the television screen is making her feel uncomfortable.
“He could picture her standing there, one foot raised, ready to flee. ‘Tell me when this part is over, okay?’”
This is where the reader provides the details of the scary movie, the missing image of a tall and hulking candidate pacing pack and forth, lurking over the shoulder of his female opponent. An ephemeral and mythic moment, solely within the individual reader’s psyche. If you watched the 2016 debate in real time, Clinton in her suffragette white suit, Trump in his businessman blue, if you’re woman or you’re in or adjacent to a marginalized group, the threat, the power of intimidation was palpable. How long will the true import last? Years from now, will a reader recognize the moment, the foreshadowing of the turbulent years ahead, a presidency and nation off the rails. Will it resonate at all? It’s the possibility of collective amnesia that makes this moment even more frightening.
From the uncertainty of the daughter’s physical health, her casting in the Nutcracker, and her social emotional well-being at the cusp of adolescence, paired with the looming election results, the level of anxiety in this story takes on a life of its own.
The lush pastoral prose in “The Bears,” leans closer to Bynum’s fairy tale beginnings, summoning the Victorian era and Goldilocks as a woman convalesces in the country. While recovering from a miscarriage, the narrator attends a writing retreat. Finding that she can’t concentrate on her project, she spends her days walking the highways and the country roads. She ponders her future and the sadness of her friend, the once father of her unborn child. On her rambles, she falls in love with a remote white house and romanticizes the owner and the life he has created.
I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that my heart beat the way it did. For having walked by his house so many times, and gleaned with such pleasure all the small and large details of the world he made, I admired him. I would have liked him for a friend. Even more, I would have like him to gather me into his family, a family I imagined as manifesting the same humor and whimsy and discernment that was evident everywhere in his house and on his land. For I knew there must be a family moving through the clean rooms of the house, laughing and groaning, just beyond the reach of what I could see.
One day, after starting her period miles into what had become a run, she knocks on the door of the white house. Finding no one home, she enters, eats bits of toast leftover from breakfast and reads the newspaper. She is startled when she spies the owner from the kitchen window, clamoring up the back yard, returning from a morning swim. He’s old and grotesque and large like a bear. She’s dismayed. Just like her own life, he is not what she had envisioned.
“The Young Wife’s Tale,” the story most overtly like the fantastical Sarah Shun-lien Bynum that I have come to love, recounts the legend of an exiled king, who upon his return from the wars, enchanted all the young wives in the land. The enchantment prompts strange behaviors like sleep-walking through their days, standing naked outside in the cold winter sun, or disappearing into the forest, hoping to faint just as the King was riding by so he could scoop them up into his arms. Over time, the legend fades but it is resurrected by a scholar and soon it seeps into the collective consciousness through multi-volume books, rock-and-roll albums and animated cartoons. With a movie, an actor becomes the embodiment, the visual reminder of the sad and beautiful king. “In this latest incarnation, the king [begins] to disturb the young wives of the world.” Once again, he provokes their “peculiar hunger” and permeates their dreams.
The tale starts with a wide angle lens and then focuses in on Eva who loves her husband so much, but over time the comfortable familiarity of the relationship and everyday niceties blind her to her own husband’s beauty. After a nighttime visitation with the king, she begins to see the possibilities of everyman on the street, the bus driver, the man in the elevator, the one with a small limp she saw crossing the street. After a lyrical exploration of the tug and pull of needs and wants and attractions in long-term relationships—after Eva discovers she could have fallen in love with anyone–she resolves that her husband is her own true love, only to find that he is already gone.
I like Likes. I like wandering in Bynum’s worlds, the fusion of real and mythic, dream states and awakenings, enchantments and disenchantments. As with any good fairy tale, these stories help me confront my fears as I pause at threshold, waiting to cross over into what’s next.