Under typical circumstances, it’s likely the literary community would be celebrating the release of Mary South’s first book, You Will Never Be Forgotten (240 pages; FSG Originals), a collection of ten dark and crystalline stories that announces the arrival of a distinct voice in contemporary fiction. But these are not normal circumstances, and it’s difficult for any author to garner attention right now, let alone one making their debut. Yet the mordant wit and biting irony in You Will Never Be Forgotten, and its complex understanding of reality’s often cruel reversals, resonates with launching the book when the world is ill-timed to receive it: that’s just life.
Take the titular story, for example—its title not meant as the usual term of endearment, but rather a message from the protagonist to her rapist, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who continues to blithely go about his days as though he’s committed no wrong. The main character knows this because she’s taken to stalking him, both online while at her day job censoring explicit content for “the world’s most popular search engine,” and in real life, where she shadows her rapist back to his Mission District apartment. No doubt this story paints a bleak portrait of the contemporary Bay Area and the tech culture that has seeped into nearly every facet of life here. It’s one of the most harrowing stories I’ve read in years, a searingly honest look at a woman disconnected by the crime committed against her as well as the vast-reaching technologies—search engines, online dating services, the endless litany of apps—supposedly meant to make our lives more convenient:
Who would she have become if she had never been raped? Before the rape, the woman studied art history. She liked Jenny Holzer and Yasumasa Morimura. She could spend hours in a room sketching or thinking only about herself. She cared about things like grades and jobs, about color theory and museums and steps walked in a day. But that version of her seems like a fraud.
Even in a story as bleak as this, South offers a sardonic humor that underscores the absurdity in the way we live, like a tech-minded newsletter that proclaims, “Let’s stop storing images on our cloud’s memory and start storing them in our biological memories. Until we lose our minds in old age, that is, but hopefully by then there will be a medical solution or an app that disrupts dementia”; or when the lead is accosted by a group of teenagers who pelt objects at her car and then observes, “Still, it’s nice to see kids bullying physically. She thought kids these days only bothered with cyber-bullying.”
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Perhaps the funniest piece in the collection, “The Age of Love,” highlights workplace chaos that erupts when employees at the North Shore Nursing Home discover a group of seniors in their care have been placing late night calls to phone-sex hotlines. The narrator has no way of predicting just how this rather tame scandal will ultimately end up rocking his personal life, but South has a great deal of fun devising the unpredictable exchanges between these aged men and the phone operators, the men more often than not just looking for a human connection to disrupt the loneliness and monotony of senior living: “You sound like my granddaughter. She just entered college to learn how to restore paintings or some malarkey” is what passes for dirty talk at North Shore.
The cleverly constructed “Frequently Asked Questions about Your Craniotomy” takes the form of a medical website FAQ that quickly becomes the only place for a brain surgeon at the end of her personal and professional rope to air her many grievances:
HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT NOT BEING A NEUROSURGEON?
It’s absurd that I apprenticed and studied for my entire youth to help others live longer so that they can continue to melt the polar ice caps while enjoying party subs.
The pervasive influence of web culture rears its head again in the darkly comic “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” which takes place at a reform camp for the scions of wealthy families who have run afoul of the law or school administrations due to bad behavior online. The story follows a mismatched trio of counselors as they search for a teen who has fled the premises, and, like much of South’s work, grapples with the distinct possibility that the Internet’s tendency toward cynicism and gallows humor may be “killing our empathy receptors” and that social media’s ability to connect every-one-of-us-at-all-times is paradoxically leading to a scarcity of genuine human connection. South’s characters still do want to connect, even amid the noise, and perhaps this is what makes the difference: why else would these counselors, each of them with a disposition ranging between jaded and nihilistic, pile into a car and drive all over Martha’s Vineyard in search of a missing kid named Rex when they’d rather be doing anything else? “As it turned out…we can love without believing in our capacity to love.”
The individuals in these stories read as fractured and flawed, whether it’s the toxic fanbase of the clear Star Trek analog Starship Uprising (“To Save the Universe, We Must Also Save Ourselves”), or the family who begins living out the cursed fate of the Japanese horror movie the husband is directing (“Not Setsuko”). They seem, like the book itself, of our moment. Maybe You Will Never Be Forgotten has arrived at the right time: with most Americans confined indoors and spending more and more hours in front of our screens, there is value in a story collection that makes us stop and question just what these screens have wrought in our lives.