by Emily Mitchell
W.W. Norton, 2015
Viral, Mitchell’s first short story collection, builds on the successes of her 2007 debut novel, The Last Summer of the World: both books deploy sophisticated structural choices and – in two of the new stories – masterful mining of historic material. Yet in Viral we also see Mitchell turn her formidable insight and lyrical talents to speculative fiction set in a future that feels both near and probable and to the dislocations of an unspecified and yet recognizable present.
Many of these new stories excavate the methods people put in place to explain and moderate experience. In the collection’s speculative first story, “Smile Report,” a company installs a fictional and yet imminently imaginable Facial Expression Cognition Software designed to monitor how genuinely its employees smile. In “My Daughter and Her Spider” the narrator’s daughter is prescribed a Companion, a computerized spider meant to help her feel “calmer” in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce.
And in the collection’s title story, “Viral,” after teenagers all over the world light themselves on fire and jump to their deaths, their families gather for a conference where a series of experts attempt to explain the phenomenon. Yet the controlled environment of the “brightly lit, fabric-lined hotel ballroom” and the long series of expert explanations ultimately cannot contain the families’ raw emotional response to loss.
For as much as Mitchell is interested in the mechanisms people use to modulate experience, she is equally compelled by the way these methods fall apart. The daughter’s spider Companion malfunctions and webs her bedroom; the convention in “Viral” erupts in riots; the narrator of “Smile Report” experiences genuine empathy that defies the smooth metrics of proscribed smiles.
There is the sense often in Mitchell’s work that beyond the benign numbing of experts and self-improvement technologies, larger problems loom. The teenagers in “Viral” have died in a mass tragedy. The narrator of “Smile Report” “[finds] it difficult” to smile in the wake of news that entire towns are being swallowed by sand. And when the narrator of “If You Cannot Go to Sleep” fails to cure her insomnia through a litany of visualization exercises and herbal treatments, she lies awake and contemplates global warming.
Even in “Guided Meditation” the audiotape meditation leader strays from her smooth, soothing professional language, leading her student listeners through an increasingly hostile and dystopian visualization narrative.
But Mitchell’s stories – irreverent, witty, incisive – are never dystopian, never despondent. There is a playfulness to Mitchell’s writing in these twelve stories, which are funny and incisive and coupled with a capacious faculty for humanity and depth. The meditation leader brings her students to the dark “foreboding” of a basement elevator where a “weird, rumbling, ugly creature” lurks in the corner. “You could run away from him,” she says. Or, she advises her students, “try holding out your hand to him.” She goes on:
He might take it in his own hand, which turns out to be enormous, oddly shaped, maybe with the wrong number of fingers, but warm and dry and strangely comforting. Then, without letting go, try stepping forward, leading him gently out of that back corner of the elevator into the light and space…. Will he follow?
Even this dystopia becomes empathetic and generous.
The stories in Mitchell’s collection are rich with such moments of humanity. For as wry as Mitchell is about the dislocations caused by technologies as disparate as the telephone, Facial Expression Cognition Software, and Facebook, she also deploys technology movingly as a vehicle for human connection. A record player in “Lucille’s House” returns Louis Armstrong to his grieving widow; in “Three Marriages” an internet chat room brings Cynthia halfway across the world to a life and a marriage she had never imagined.
Human connection is one of the key preoccupations of the twelve stories in Viral, and Mitchell is remarkably attuned to the subtle imbalances and disruptions that demark and interrupt relationships. The characters in “On Friendship” chronical the ways friendship is lost and redeemed through ordinary calibrations: the tone of voice a friend uses in phone conversations, the circuitous re-tracings of a political disagreement, the rediscovered generosity of a handmade recipe book from an old friend. Mitchell is a keen observer of such permutations.
The stories in Viral hinge on subtle shifts, the accumulation of moments, habitual action interrupted, plots that bloom from half-scenes and then swell into the full emotional force of Mitchell’s apt and piercing lyricism. She maintains a slight distance in the perspective of these stories, even in those that are told by first person narrators. The narrators in Mitchell’s stories are more likely “after a while [to realize] that [they are] unhappy” than to immerse readers in unhappiness’s visceral sensory immediacy. And this distance is what allows space for the characters to puzzle through the shifting meanings of their experiences, and for Mitchell’s careful observations and wry humor.
The technique proves particularly well-suited to this collection of stories, where meaning can mutate and change into something else entirely. The sister in “A Boy My Sister Dated in High School” tries to find a framework to help her respond when her high school boyfriend hits her, and then years later finds herself re-casting the incident’s significance. In “On Friendship” we think we learn the moral of a story about a friendship that ends over political disagreement (“Now that some time has passed… those concerns, which seemed so urgent at the time, don’t seem that way to me anymore,” the narrator tells us.) only to find in the next paragraph an elegiac memory from early in the friendship. Only then do we discover that this story is actually about a far more human loss.
Perhaps the story to most strikingly re-define its meaning is “No-No,” set in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. For its first two thirds, the story is about a questionnaire that the internees have been asked to fill out attesting to their loyalty. Mitchell builds tension and suspense surrounding these forms, continually raising the stakes for her protagonist Karl until we understand that his answers will carry grave consequences for his family, his community, and his safety. It is not until the last third of the story that we discover that the story’s meaning has abruptly changed – for Karl and for us. It turns out to be a story about something else entirely. To the point that, many years later, in the story’s final paragraphs, a student interviewing Karl asks him about the questionnaire and he cannot, for a minute, remember it.
These leaps through time are one of the collection’s hallmarks, and one of the structural strategies that allows the stories’ meanings to shape-shift. And in Viral meaning is infinitely morphable, multiple, open to play and improvisation, structural leaps and narrative experimentation. The closing story in the collection, “Biographies,” is a prime example of this. In it, Mitchell presents five biographical sketches of a character named Emily Mitchell. The speculative sketches in this story, lush with detail and empathic connection, are an apt metaphor for Mitchell’s work in this varied, multifaceted, complex collection. Through it Mitchell makes herself multiple: equally deft and at home in a novel like Last Summer of the World and in these playful, human stories. Viral expands the scope and nature of Mitchell’s canon, readies us for a future body of work poised to be just as rich, and just as multidimensional.