Monday, August 2, 2021

AFTERPARTIES, stories collected just in time, too late, and from a source gone too soon


AFTERPARTIES: Stories
ANTHONY VEASNA SO

Ecco Books
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans. As the children of refugees carve out radical new paths for themselves in California, they shoulder the inherited weight of the Khmer Rouge genocide and grapple with the complexities of race, sexuality, friendship, and family.

A high school badminton coach and failing grocery store owner tries to relive his glory days by beating a rising star teenage player. Two drunken brothers attend a wedding afterparty and hatch a plan to expose their shady uncle’s snubbing of the bride and groom. A queer love affair sparks between an older tech entrepreneur trying to launch a “safe space” app and a disillusioned young teacher obsessed with Moby-Dick. And in the sweeping final story, a nine-year-old child learns that his mother survived a racist school shooter.

With nuanced emotional precision, gritty humor, and compassionate insight into the intimacy of queer and immigrant communities, the stories in Afterparties deliver an explosive introduction to the work of Anthony Veasna So.

READ THIS VULTURE PROFILE — AND THIS NEW YORKER PROFILE — AND THIS LIT HUB PROFILE

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: The death by accidental overdose, at age 28, of Author Anthony Veasna So means this collection will have to serve us for a long time. The loss, I know you're unsurprised to hear me say, is going to alter our national literary conversation. Author So wrote these stories, and a handful of essays in prestigious venues like n+1 Magazine, all seemingly intent on exploring something I think he was beautifully placed...first-generation American, talented beyond the ordinary, and further outsidered by his queerness...and perfectly suited by temperament to render his own: Dreaming your way into a world too brutal to survive. These stories are satisfying in many ways, and not least among them is the author's simple, direct, conversational style. Try this: read any first paragraph out loud. Don't act, speak; they are all beautifully built for the rhythms of twenty-first century American speech. And that is why I will mourn Author So's early exit. I think we would've found many corners to turn and potholes to fill if he still walked among us. That makes me feel sad.

As is reasonable and customary at this blog, the Bryce Method of short, separate impressions and distinct individual ratings for the stories will organize my thoughts and feelings while hopefully allowing you to reach your own conclusions. But I'll be amazed and disappointed if you don't laugh out loud a lot.

Three Women of Chuck's Donuts offers a moment of solidarity and true family in a subtly splintering trio of Khmer immigrant women's lives. An unknown man comes into Sothy's donut shop every few nights, buys then ignores an apple fritter, and sits silently at a window table and stares into the unlit night. Why? Her daughters, a child and a teen, spin many ideas around him, his silence, his unknown purpose in frequenting their mother's 24-hour business.
"...{Her father} said marriage is like the show Survivor, where you make alliances in order to live longer. He thought Survivor was actually the most Khmer thing possible, and he would definitely win it, because the genocide was the best training he could've got."

Yet, in the end, Sothy's husband was faithless, feckless, and useless...her world contracted to a business she only owns because he was a liar, her American-born daughters already on their way out its doors to lives she surrendered her own to make possible. And still there is a man making it harder for her to grab the fruits of her labor...this unknown man's violence, not against our Chuck's Donuts ladies, still demands violence and risks everything all three women have for, well, what? Justice? 4 stars because it hands us no answers

Superking Son Scores Again chronicles the descent, the falling away, of the original Cambodian-American kids, the children of the immigrants, as age and boredom and American life sap hteir desire to be their parents' dreams but leaves them without any of their own. Why bother dreaming when you're always working? Even half-ass coaching the nephew-generation kids in your one passion, badminton, doesn't make a dream...and men without dreams drift into worse and worse places, just like Superking Son inevitably does. Told in the Community Voice, that evocative first person plural which rams home the role of reputation and opinion in the "Cambo yellow-brown" community. This delighted me because it's usually the elders, the survivors of Khmer Rouge, the emigrants who're thought of as having the pan-Asian stereotype of a Community Voice...excellent that, in his usual irreverent way, Author So makes the screwed-up youth the possessors of their own, uniquely American, Groupthink. The change from this being the way the Mas and the Mings are presented...*chef's kiss* 4.5 stars

Maly, Maly, Maly invites us to consider a truly alien take on a birthday. Narcissistic wild-child Maly's dead-a-decade mother has, according to the Buddhist monks who minister to this community's spirits, been reincarnated in Maly's newborn third cousin. The great-aunt who has raised Maly is having her niece's birthday party.

That is unquestionably an invitation I have never received. And Maly's family are understandably quite excited about the event. Well, perhaps her gay cousin Ves a little less so...he's her counterpart outsider, not just American but also not a lover of tradition or follower of the Polite Path of Do Not Rock the Boat:
Honestly, if I think about it too hard, I get really mad. I know it's terrible to ask, but why did Maly's mom even have a kid? And why does only she get to tap out of living? Well, joke's on her, I guess, because now she has to deal with yet another life, and in G block, too.

Ves thinks of Maly as she lives many lives, facilitated by some really good weed that Maly's boyfriend shares. He takes her image with him as he, cinéaste gay teen headed to The Big City for the emigrant generation's validating dream of college, views her future like scenes from David Cronenberg's weird 1983 horroresque film Videodrome. And in that violent, unreal, overwrought imagery, he realizes he is alone. And wakes up to pack for his solo voyage into the future. Given the author's own departure so soon after this was written, it feels...eerie. 3.5 stars

The Shop sounds so familiar: Boy goes off to college to Make Something Of Himself and the family he's left behind pays for it; he gets the all-meaningful Degree; comes home and...stays. While Dad, a truly crap businessman but a truly good soul, keeps the men of his Cambodian-American community afloat with do-nothing jobs. What's the difference if his son is another snout at his trough?
Then {I pulled} into the lot of Angkor Pharmacy. I parked, and as Doctor Heng's wife was leaping out of my car and charging into the building, I considered her plan for my life. The whole premise was hilarious to me. It transformed my future into a slapstick comedy, similar to The Wedding Banquet, but this time starring off-brand Asians with dark skin.

Hilarious! But...why not? Make An Arrangement with your future partner, take the family's money, have the anchor babies that family needs and the grands your own family craves...hell, Melania Trump did it. And I'm as certain as certain gets that Barron was made via IVF...but no, there's Truth and Honesty and crud like that sludging up the boy's brain plus the hookups with his high-school crush Paul (who not only forgets to bring lube to their trysts, but even drops the w-bomb on him at 39%!) are kinda sorta permaybehaps turning into something more (refer back to The Wedding Banquet, pls) then there's Dad's business failing because of that whole customer's-truck-got-stolen thing...well, yes, he has a lot to think about. But in the end (!), the family will make it, you can feel sure. These folks survived genocide. A bad patch in business won't sink them. This is the most bitterly caustically impatient, lovingly kindly delighted by life piece, and I want someone to film it NOW. 5 stars, the best piece in the collection

The Monks finishes our time with Maly's boyfriend, the one who we met a couple stories ago for like two sentences...his dad died, the uncle who raised him because his mom died and his dad couldn't is all over his head-space while he's doing his ritual week of service to the monks to help the non-parent's spirit get off the damn wheel...he's going into the US Army, a great place for slightly dim, healthy, muscular guys to make some useful impact on this life. It's no surprise to me that this guy counts, it's a great anxiety soother and he's the most unmoored individual imaginable. By the end of the story, he's made a mess of Monk D's dharma...but you know what, this is someone you and I see every single day and maybe cast an eye over at most. Interesting, if only mildly, to see what Author So thinks goes on inside his head. 3.5 stars

We Would've Been Princes! brings us right into the wedding afterparty of two more lost souls. No, not the BRIDE and GROOM. Marlon and his beautiful college-degreed artist little brother, Bond. They're the ones having a serious drunken debauch. They never for a second lose contact with each other...the FAMOUS SINGER who entertained at the wedding, their parents, Monica the mean-girl bridesmaid...they float around. They help make plans to punish a greedy uncle. They aren't important, though, the brothers are the center of a world that doesn't open up for anyone else. And you know what? Codependent drug addict Marlon will find a way to fuck that bond (love that name-choice) to the wall, too, because he is that solipsistic. Is this a self-portrait? It's too sharp not to be. So so so sad. Also funny as hell. 4 stars

Human Development brings us in medias res to Anthony's twentysomething confusion about his life, his place in the world, and Life as we live it in twenty-first century America. Set in post-Stanford San Francisco, it's Ben's dream to have a younger Cambo boyfriend who will bottom for him, listen to his dream of safe-spacing fellow Cambos, and give him a last precious gulp of connection and attention.
Where he got so much energy—in bed, in work, in life—remained a mystery to me. Could I actually be the thing exciting him, I thought, skeptical and semirepulsed, even as a war buzz settled in my chest. I inched even closer to him, and his arms tightened around me to the point of impracticality. I wanted his hot breath all over my entire body.

Anthony doesn't care about much except his regular hook-up with Ben getting him off...and as intimacy impinges on his ability to cum, he hooks up with someone else to get the job done. He's a typical man, sex is really his first priority...young enough for that still to matter more than the stuff he's not really ready to think about. The guy's obsessed with teaching rich white kids Moby-Dick as a means of grasping their social responsibilities. Please tell me how much more clearly Author Anthony could make Story Anthony's sexual obsessiveness evident? Author Anthony, by making this story about a sexual compulsive and an eager virgin or -adjacent mistaking their needs for the others' offerings, reveals the huge loss that his accidental overdose at twenty-eight represents. These are the youthful work of a man whose writing was accomplished, assured, and developing into something we haven't seen before: a gay writer, honest about sex and sexuality without prurience, on a trajectory to rival Mailer or Updike. The number of ghettos Author So would've laid waste to...a fucking tragedy. 5 stars

Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly brings back Maly! I can't quite believe she's here. AND the baby who got her dead mother's soul, all grown up and a nurse, no less.
Maly, the newborn in my nightmares. Maly, who has resented me since I was a kid, into and past her thirties. She has never understood that I have no desire to embody her mother's legacy, that I'd do anything to stop draming as Somaly.

The eternal and endless burden of Family, of the past as they remember it and as you inherit it, burdens Serey more than it would a typical twenty-first century American. There is a literalness, a corporeality, to her inheritance of the past that simply doesn't exist in the culture she inhabits as a nursing-home attendant. But her family's culture entraps her spiritually and psychically, though she finds a means to escape her dementia-addled old twic-great aunt's foisting of her dead niece's actual spirit onto her unable to resist infant self:
The last thing I want is to feel the frustration, the frivolous torment, of being around a person who can't see past her own suffering.

The means Serey, who was also always Somaly, chooses to pass her burden on is both genius-level spiritual battle tactics and the cruelest, most insensitive...strike that, she's sensitive to it...most selfish thing I've read. And good for Serey. Maly's never grown up and clearly sees no harm in causing harm wherever she can. I wonder...was Rithy the first husband after all? 4.5 stars

Generational Differences tells an awful, factual story of Author So's own mother's life, the horror of a school shooting perpetrated by a vile scumbag racist whose Murruhkuh shouldn't be overrun with all these brown strangers. She was a teacher at Cleveland Ezlementary School. She was teaching English as a Second Language on 17 January 1989, same as every day, and tragedy struck. What must she have thought, felt, wondered Author So...her son. She who had fled a genocide in her homeland, whose entire course of life was altered by bullets that failed to find her in Cambodia. And he set out to write this, the last story of the collection, as a memoir from his mother to him.
So I read to you as much as I could, packed your room with dictionaries and encyclopedias, played movies in English constantly in the background, and spoke Khmer only in whispers, behind closed doors. No wonder mere words affected you so much. Even now, you still think language is the key to everything. And that's my fault—I thought the same thing.

And Author So, faithful to his mother's teachings, wrote out the history of his Cambodian-American people, his American childhood and its pains and its alienation. And it was proof positive that, in fact, language is the key to everything.

Know that we've always kept on living. What else could we have done?

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