Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten
You Will Never Be Forgotten
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
Mary South's debut is a widely disparate collection of realist and speculative fiction whose connective tissue is as simple and complex as the alienation of modern life. These 10 stories focus on a variety of unrelated characters grappling with loss, violence, sexual jealousy, and the terrible ways technology can be wielded in a data dependent world.
The opening story "Keith Prime" is as much a tale of a woman's inability to cope with loss as it is a meditation on the much-explored question of the morality of cloning. "Keiths" are part of a larger group of cultivated human clones raised to adulthood to be harvested for their body parts. The narrator tells us that she has become attached to a Keith; her attachment leads to an unplanned awakening. In her philosophizing, the narrator asks "If, by chance, a Keith did dream, would he have anything to dream about..." and one can't help but recall Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. But unlike Dick's androids (later rewritten into the hyper-intelligent Nexus characters central to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner) the Keiths are unintelligent and infantile. The narrator brings her Keith home and he spends hours watching "true crime documentaries, makeup tutorials, and footage of animals stalking and devouring each other." When it becomes apparent that Keith will never adapt to waking life, the narrator takes action of her own that is less about caring for the living-only-to-be-harvested clones and more about easing her own grief.
In "The Age of Love," a thoroughly unlikeable night nurse at an elder care facility becomes part of a group who record phone sex calls made by the residents. A graphically sexual and oddly perverse pastime turns into a challenge to the night nurse's relationship with his flight attendant girlfriend Jill—who begins to have extended, sexually-tinged phone conversations with one of the residents. Ultimately, Jill's night nurse boyfriend lets insecurity and jealousy destroy his own happiness.
South shifts into experimental territory in "Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy." Written as a FAQ in second-person addressed to patients, the responses to basic questions become revelations of a talented brain surgeon's slippage into one of life's many disasters. But despite the building despair written into each of her answers, she ends on the affirmative, "Read these answers once again, but very slowly. Recite to yourself, 'I am alive.'"
The lengthier "Architecture for Monsters" and "The Promised Hostel" both focus on privileged characters who are very difficult to like. In "Architecture for Monsters" we meet the famous architect Helen Dannenforth who creates massive modernist towers—some seemingly in tribute to her disfigured daughter Lily's craniofacial microsomia. The story is presented as the draft of an article ostensibly written for a magazine but soon becomes an essay on the nature of maternal love, delving into the writer's loss of her own mother to a violent death, the accusation by Helen's sister Hannah that Lily is not her child, and Hannah's abduction of Lily. The narrator learns that the truth about Lily is, of course, much more complicated. Toward the end of the story, the narrator describes a dream of a woman who turns into a building, "an excruciating metamorphosis...a monstrous architecture, an architecture for monsters," as the woman forces herself to accommodate "tenants who would never believe she had done enough." It is, of course, a metaphorical contemplation of the physical and emotional strain of motherhood, a motherhood desired by both Helen and Hannah; a motherhood denied to the narrator's own murdered mother.
In "The Promised Hostel," by far the weakest piece in the collection, a group of tourists live a life of lazy decadence in a Turkish hostel. The narrator is, he tells us, in love with Maddy—the only woman in the hostel and his stepsister. But she won't share her body with him, instead perversely suckling a group of grown misfits at her breasts. Eventually we learn that Maddy's baby has died, that the narrator is her ex-lover following a lifelong obsession that has destroyed his marriage, and that none of the men in the hostel can give Maddy what she needs. The high point in the story comes when Kubra, a woman who works in a nearby cafe, comforts Maddy, giving the narrator a rare moment of insight, "How Maddy must have waited for such a simple gesture, and what it required was for her to encounter another woman."
In the equal parts horrifying and depressing title story, "You Will Never Be Forgotten," a young woman begins to stalk her rapist. She works at "the world's most popular search engine" doing "content moderation." This involves screening (or "screaming" as she calls it) content deemed too violent—a job that she states will soon cease to exist once the algorithm becomes "sophisticated enough to supervise on its own the worst that humanity has to offer." Working long hours in a windowless room with other content "Ninjas" reviewing ultra-violence, she spends her spare time stalking her rapist in real life, berating herself for not reporting the rape—her life spiraling out of control until finally she is left with the conclusion, "No one will save her. Nothing is going to magically make it better. The woman has to figure out her life."
The vaguely funny and clearly cynical "Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls" and "To Save the Universe, We Must Also Save Ourselves" both focus on segments of society that developed with the rise of internet chatrooms, message boards, and fan forums. The camp is populated by (primarily) young men who have been referred to a sort of rehab that is supposed to cure them of their antisocial online behavior. While there are entertaining scenes of young campers wreaking havoc and a degree of introspection about the alienation of modern life and the desperate need of so many to belong, much of the plot is lost in an abundance of similar characters and attempts to be madcap. The third-person piece "To Save the Universe, We Must Also Save Ourselves" reads like a snide critique of Sci-Fi TV show fandom, cosplay, and an exposé of the rampant misogyny of fan forums.
The final two stories in the collection are an odd little meditation on ghosts, Florida, and grief entitled "Realtor to the Damned," and a deeply disturbing tale of obsession and motherhood, "Not Setsuko." We know from the outset that all is not right, "Unlike most mothers, I gave birth to my daughter twice." A woman whose daughter has died makes every effort to recreate her lost child's entire life through a younger child, including murdering the family cat to mimic the loss of an earlier pet. The girl's father is a film director and casts his young daughter as a vengeful child spirit in his latest horror film. As she delivers one of her lines, "I will kill you both," it's hard not to blame her if she ends up murdering her parents in real life.