Bizarre. Creepy. Horrific. Sarcastic. All these words can be used to describe Tell Me Pleasant Things About Immortality by Lindsay Wong, a collection of short stories that will likely strike every reader differently. To me, these stories came across as a blend between satire and horror. I’m still struggling to decide how I really felt about this collection because it wasn’t at all what I was expecting, almost none of these stories took place in a world I would recognize. However the characters we will all recognize, every despicable last one of them.
“Happy Birthday” tells the story of a rich and entitled family, paid to come together on the patriarch’s birthday; over dinner they end up witnessing his body taken over by a prostitute seeking vengeance for her murder. The titular story recounts the ongoing life of the oldest woman in the world, the only person to live after eating large amounts of the famous ‘death lily’ that has managed to grant her, and only her, eternal life. A reality show follows contestants who try, then die to match her luck, while this woman’s body slowly disintegrates, chunks falling off her as she hosts the tv show. In “Sinking Houses” a mail-order bride discovers herself in the middle of an apocalypse after she lands in Nebraska, houses falling into sinkholes while everything else around her spontaneously combusts. “Furniture” is one that’s less obviously horror, describing a family whose members slowly turn into furniture, each of them escaping the forced labour of their grandparents with the ability to shape shift within their furniture categories only ( i.e. couch to a loveseat to a fold-out). There are 13 stories in total, each terrifying in very different ways.
What ties this collection together are two things: the requirement of the reader to accept new realities, and a constant feeling of discomfort as you endure each new situation along with their doomed characters. Death comes often, and in painful ways. But once you settle into the understanding that life is expendable in this collection, you will appreciate the social critique that underpins each storyline. Characters can be divided into two categories; those who have money, and those who don’t. Money tends to draw the powerlines, even in the afterlife. It determines who survives, and how comfortably. A life doomed to servitude, or simply scraping by is depicted in a few different stories, the most striking being “Kind Face, Cruel Heart”. This story focuses on a fractured family of three; a mother, and her teenage daughter and son all enslaved and working underground to harvest invaluable mushrooms with magical properties. They eventually turn on one another, the living conditions so torturous that small favours curried from the guards are the only ray of hope they have to look forward to. There’s not much happiness found in this book, other than the cruel joy some get by treating others badly.
The question of wealth isn’t just a consideration for humans, even mystical creatures from generations long past seem focused on markers of status. “Sorry, Sister Eunice” follows a group of sorority sisters / nine-tail fox demons who all pity their unattractive sister Eunice, while they “…have luxurious manes, angular features, and golden-brown eyes. We look permanently photoshopped”(p. 229). Like vampires who have spent hundreds of years amassing wealth, these sister all drive luxury vehicles and wear the latest designer goods, judging those who don’t keep up appearances they way they do.
The writing is visceral and gory, holding nothing back but also quick to find a sharp edge of humour whenever possible. No matter how many generations they have lived, characters speak in present day slang that adds an easygoing tone to each story, regardless of the horrors they are witnessing or perpetrating. Appearances are everything in this book, and Wong’s writing spectacularly reflects this:
“…my harelip has always been fierce and unapologetic, my eyes like misshapen mouse turds. My long, uneven braids dangle like parasites; my mouth pinched like a rotted lotus flower.”-p.45 of Tell Me Pleasant Things About Immortality by Lindsay Wong, ARC edition
Although it might sound counterintuitive, if one can get over the despair and death, this collection could be fun if one doesn’t take it too seriously. It pushes one past their comfort zone, but time spent among the grotesque is never time wasted.