Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s mastery of the short story form is on immediate display in her new collection, “Likes.” In these largely privileged settings, the stories expand beyond the archetypal, focusing on people who are often present but overlooked. In “The Erlking,” at a Waldorf school event with her daughter, Kate searches among the expensive wooden toys: “a brown mermaid would be nice for once,” she thinks. “Please let there be some brown dolls!”
A mermaid appears again in “The Young Wife’s Tale,” which vacillates between a fairy-tale setting and urban present day; much of the story is cluttered by Eva’s dreams of a storied king, perhaps because she describes her reality in terms of ambition, doubt and strain. Eva and her husband “were traveling the distance, in very small, sometimes imperceptible increments, between where they found themselves now and where they desired one to day to be. Soon. It wasn’t happening quickly enough.”
Mobility is a major concern in these stories, as is the act of crossing boundaries, entering territory reserved for another group, or race, or class, whether explicitly or by tacit tradition.
In “The Bears,” a first-person riff on the story of Goldilocks, the narrator is a “brown-skinned” scholar recovering from a miscarriage. She observes a series of “NO TRESPASSING” signs on a country road; then, when she begins to menstruate, she enters the unlocked home of a stranger, where “chairs … are gathered in expectation around the table, as charming and different as children.”
It is a cruel simile for a woman who has suffered her recent loss, and yet it seems to legitimize her presence when she decides to sit. It is the writer’s task to grasp, and to employ, the nuances of language, but Bynum is exceptionally skilled at subtle shifts and seemingly casual details.
With these details, Bynum can wring suspense from the slightest interactions. In “Many a Little Makes,” there is a mesmerizing and nauseating scene in which two friends try to make a third, Mari, taste cake batter. In “The Burglar,” a burglar’s assumptions about race and property ownership create an intricate knot of misunderstandings.
In “Likes,” a parent tries to get to know his daughter through the public face of her Instagram, saddened by her urge for any scale of fame. Several of these stories quietly acknowledge celebrities — they are seen in passing at a school event (“The Erlking”), or they are featured in an anecdote (“Bedtime Story”) — but they serve only to illuminate how deeply engrossing the lives of Bynum’s ordinary, nonfamous characters are.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pages, $26.