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Review: 'Likes' By Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

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Mara Casey
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Likes is the latest short story collection by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, featuring nine stories.

In these, she imagines Black and brown characters who don’t easily fall into neat categories and defy an easy understanding from those around them. Some of these characters are young girls. 

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The first story, “The Erlking,” is told from the point of view of the Katie, the mother of a young girl, Ruthie. They are at a school festival with the expected expensive irresistible souvenir tchotchkes and overpriced refreshments. The festival grounds at the Waldorf school are picture perfect. Katie remarks on the careful attention paid to every elvish detail. She is made uneasy by the idea that she did not succeed in securing a place for her child at the school. She had made a “misjudgment” and “a possibly grave mistake.”

This sinking feeling confessed in the exposition early on the story colors what happens next. We learn of Ruthie’s special precociousness. However, her own school is in a “prefab trailer-type structure tucked behind the large parking lot of a Korean church.” The mother recounts other schools they’d been to, not one of them coming close to the appeal of Waldorf. The experience at the festival is clouded by these feelings of remorse.

Katie purchases a small giraffe toy, a small concession in that moment, for Ruthie. There will not be another purchase, no early birthday present that Ruthie angles for. Katie, however, wishes she could find a brown doll for her daughter — one that she can identify with, one that will look more like Ruthie than the wall of white dolls on display. Ruthie loses the giraffe, and she needs to go to the bathroom. What follows is the appearance of an elfking of sorts, a costumed man who follows Ruthie around the school grounds. Will he surprise her with a mystical magic trick? Katie believes she is holding her daughter’s hand as she looks for the brown doll. She believes she is. Her mind is telling her so — but not her body.

Much happens in these stories with the body. At first, characters deny what their bodies — their guts and limbs — are telling them to do and rely far too much on their minds — already riddled with so much else, so many distractions — social media and emails, DMs and cable TV shows.

The French writer Hélène Cixous, in her 1975 article “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which established her as one of the early thinkers of post-structural feminism, issues this central thesis: Women, she said, can either choose to stay trapped in their own bodies by a language that does not allow them to express themselves or they can use the body as a way to communicate.

In “The Burglar,” one character confronts a burglar — bodily. There is no time to think. She catches him in the act of stealing from her home. She grabs at the bag he is taking. When he makes a big show of saying he has a gun, she lunges at him all the more, her body reacting where her mind and emotions would have inspired fear or caution.

In the story “The Bears,” the protagonist has recently had a miscarriage and is staying at a rural residency. Her research project involves William James and his 1884 paper “What is an Emotion?” His theory was that “standard emotions such as sadness or rage or fear are not antecedent to the physiological responses we associate with them,” but rather the product of those corporal changes.

He said that when we meet a bear, we run and our body reacts. That reaction produces the emotion. The emotion does not produce the reaction. The body knows things the mind does not.

The protagonist takes long walks instead of working on her research. She is consumed by an unnamed emotion, distracted by the lacunae of her recent miscarriage, the disconnection from her boyfriend.

She happens upon a house she had seen many times, and it is as if her body pulls her in. She enters the space, admires a cat and even eats a piece of toast from the kitchen table.

When the protagonist confronts a kind of bear — a large man in a small robe running through the woods toward the house, she learns firsthand that William James was right. Her body reacts in a way that surprises in the story — and leads her to a kind of resolution.

In the title story, “Likes” a father tries to figure out his young daughter through her Instagram feed.

The story ends with a heart-stopping scene between father and daughter. He watches her through a window — a real window, not a phone screen. He is watching her dance. The author writes, “Somehow she had managed to convey through her body precisely what he’d been feeling…” When he mirrors her movements — with his own body — the emotion follows.

It’s not as zen as all that. And maybe the heart leads sometimes while you read these stories — so many of them about childhood and adolescence — that you will be cloaked in a kind of thunder blanket of wary psychic steeliness while you immerse yourself in what is so precisely evocative of a wistfulness of youth we so often perceive in hindsight as misspent and fleeting — almost like dreams we are trying to recall. A definite quality of this collection is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s ability to show us that even for adults, there remains yet more magic and mystery to discover.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.

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