A surface description doesn’t really do justice to the quality of the works contained in “Things to Make and Break,” May-Lan Tan’s debut collection of short stories.
First published in the United Kingdom in 2014 and finally seeing a welcome release on this side of the Atlantic, Tan’s stories explore familiar themes — the pains of self-discovery, the complex connections of family, the contrast between inner lives and external presentations — but unfold along unconventional lines. The result is an emotionally resonant, thoroughly unpredictable array of fiction, and a powerful demarcation of Tan’s skills as a storyteller.
In these stories, Tan makes deft use of parallels and doubles. “DD-MM-YY” is centered around a pair of brothers: two of three triplets, the third of whom was stillborn. (“In biology class I learned that we probably killed him,” writes the story’s narrator. “I believe it.”)
That blurring of identity is a motif that Tan returns to frequently. “Laurens” follows the lives of two children named Lauren — one male, one female — whose vacations overlap, and whose lives are haunted by traumas similar and yet wildly divergent. And in the stunning “Candy Glass,” an actress working on “the cinematic equivalent of two-in-one shampoo and conditioner: half romcom, half action thriller” embarks on a relationship with her stunt double.
That sense of overlapping and blurred identities is one of the ways in which “Things to Make and Break” stands out. There’s also a deeply physical, tactile element to many of these stories: The focus on stunts in “Candy Glass” is one example, as is the narrator’s penchant for karate in “Legendary.” Tan frequently grapples with big ideas, structural experimentation and high concepts, but she also grounds them in her characters’ bodies, their own awareness of them and how they are perceived by others.
Tan also has tremendous empathy for her characters, whether they’re two teenagers pondering heavy metal shows and their own connection in “New Jersey,” a woman observing the fraught relationship of a couple with a secret in “Would Like to Meet” or the troubled sibling relationship in “101.” Whether she’s writing about familiar and quotidian lives or the more nominally glamorous life of an acclaimed actress, Tan roots her stories in familiar sensations and emotions, then pushes them to uncomfortable, often revelatory places. The result is one of the most disarming works of fiction you’re likely to encounter anytime soon.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
Things to Make and Break
By: May-Lan Tan.
Publisher: Coffee House Press/Emily Books, 204 pages, $16.95.