Age of Blight
Kristine Ong Muslim
The Unnamed Press, 2016
My first exposure to Kristine Ong Muslim was her short story in Lauriat, a collection of fantasy stories by Filipino-Chinese authors. That led to my reviewing Grim Series, a collection of Muslim’s sharp, often gruesome, sometimes beautiful, poems. So when I was asked if I would review Age of Blight, a new short-story collection by Muslim, I readily agreed.
I read through it slowly. It’s dark, highlighting the monstrous things people can be and do. Nothing’s excessive or overstated, but some of the topics are pretty intensely awful, so it’s not very comfortable reading. After two of the earliest stories, “The Wire Mother” (an excoriation of the psychologist Harry Harlow, who deserves what Muslim gives him) and “The Ghost of Laika Encounters a Satellite” (about the dog sent into space by the Soviet Union), I wasn’t sure I could continue. But the storytelling is so compelling that I did, and I was glad of it.
Muslim is a master of the small, sometimes ironic, detail—“black-and-white drawings of rainbows,” for example, or, in the last story (“History of the World,” one of my favorites), this:
It is safe to call the man with the binoculars Justin, because that’s what the tiny embroidery on his windbreaker spells out.
“Dominic and Dominic,” a story in which a boy seeds his own replicant by burying his fingernails, has this description of the nail-clipping process:
He grasped the clipper’s tiny lever and brought the blade down expertly against his nail, the sharp click-clack of stainless steel striking keratin satisfying him.
This line from later in the story—when those fingernails have grown into hands, just protruding from the ground—gives you a feel for Muslim’s tone of controlled judgment, but also humor:
The finger … [was] pointing skyward with the surliness of a person whose belief system was based on self-importance.
I was very taken by these authorial pronouncements—they were like artisanal hand grenades:
I had the squelched look of defeat, the squelched look of an ancient creature that believed itself to be dangerous but had no faculties to behave as such.
Happy endings are just curses told evasively.
As if to bear out the latter statement, one of the happier stories in the collection, “The First Ocean” (in a postapocalyptic world, an elder tells youngsters about the sea they’ve never seen), revolves around a deception: “They had so much faith in me that I found it difficult to disappoint them. It was impossible not to lie.”
There’s even a pronouncement on the defining characteristic of life:
That’s the one true quality that defines life—the compulsion to draw something: an essence, a lesson, anything— from others.
I turned that one over in my mind and thought, yes. Yes, I can see it.
Go in forewarned: it’s a very dark collection. But if you like your chocolate unadulterated by sugar and milk—and if you sometimes have a craving for precision-crafted macabre tales, then you might try out Age of Blight.