Go­ing with the flow

Orlando Sentinel - - THE ARTS - By Amy Gen­try Tribune News­pa­pers Amy Gen­try is a free­lancer.

“(T)o whom can some­one of good con­science give such an ob­ject as a key?” asks a char­ac­ter named Rowan half­way through He­len Oyeyemi’s story col­lec­tion, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.” “Al­ways up to some­thing, stitch­ing paths and gate­ways to­gether even as it sits quite still; its pow­ers of in­ter­fer­ence can only be guessed at.”

That’s in­ter­fer­ence, not in­fer­ence; the keys that ap­pear in ev­ery story never un­lock any­thing as sim­ple as mean­ing. In­stead, they open doors into stranger and stranger rooms, in­fin­itely ex­pand­ing each story’s world, dis­lodg­ing the pat­terns we are so quick to see and test­ing the ca­pa­cious­ness of our sense of who and what is worth at­tend­ing to.

Oyeyemi, who wrote her first book in high school and pub­lished it as an un­der­grad­u­ate at Cam­bridge, has writ­ten five in­ven­tive, un­set­tling nov­els and two plays. This is her first col­lec­tion of short fic­tion. Born in Nige­ria and raised in Lon­don — she now lives in Prague — Oyeyemi has of­ten drawn in­spi­ra­tion from fairy tales and folk­lore: “Boy, Snow, Bird” turned “Snow White” into a story of racial pass­ing. A writer’s writer, she spent all of one se­mes­ter in an M.F.A. pro­gram be­fore bolt­ing, per­haps wisely in­tu­it­ing that her writ­ing was bet­ter off with its weird­ness fully in­tact and fully hers.

Thank good­ness, be­cause the nine sto­ries in this col­lec­tion feel idio­syn­cratic in a way that is hard to imag­ine sur­viv­ing a work­shop set­ting. Ca­sual and ac­ces­si­ble at the sen­tence level, they are not so much ex­per­i­men­tal as deeply com­fort­able with the pre-nar­ra­tive and

proto-nar­ra­tive im­pulses at the heart of sto­ry­telling. Oyeyemi’s ten­dency to nest sto­ries to­gether, her will­ing­ness to let anec­dotes and di­gres­sions swell un­til they take over the story, hark back to older story struc­tures in which the hi­er­ar­chies of nar­ra­tive are less im­por­tant than their on­go­ing­ness — think “One Thou­sand and One Nights” or “The De­cameron.” The anatomy of a typ­i­cal Oyeyemi story is one of de­lib­er­ate im­bal­ance; she inevitably opens more paren­the­ses than she closes.

The story “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” opens with a di­rec­tive that’s al­ready at odds with it­self: “‘Be good to Boudicca and Boudicca will be good to you,’ Che­do­r­laomer said.” If the tough-guy chi­as­mus sounds like some­thing out of a gang­ster film, the names in­voked are those of a Celtic war­rior queen and an Old Tes­ta­ment king. In fact, Che­do­r­laomer turns out to be an in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous singer who bor­rows his melodies from “voices with­out form,” Boudicca is his fish, and they live in a spooky Suf­folk man­sion called the House of Locks, whose pe­cu­liar­i­ties would take too long to ex­plain. Ched is re­turn­ing to his home coun­try, which may or may not be Iran, to do two years of manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice, and he’s giv­ing the name­less male nar­ra­tor, who works at a weight-loss clinic where clients are put to sleep and starved for days at a time, in­struc­tions for feed­ing the fish. All this is a pre­lude to the real story, which is about the nar­ra­tor’s boyfriend’s daugh­ter’s fa­vorite pop star, Matyas Fust, be­ing outed by a pros­ti­tute as a vi­o­lent abuser in a vi­ral In­ter­net video. You see what I’m say­ing?

There’s noth­ing glib about all this quirk. At the heart of the story is the pop star’s pa­thet­i­cally in­ad­e­quate pub­lic apol­ogy to his vic­tim and the ef­fect on a sen­si­tive teenage girl who’s his big­gest fan, a story that feels ripped from the head­lines. The round­about in­tro­duc­tion and mag­i­cal so­lu­tion don’t triv­i­al­ize the sit­u­a­tion, how­ever, but rather trans­form it into archetype, mak­ing myth it­self feel more ur­gent.

Al­ways in flux in th­ese sto­ries are sex­u­al­ity and gen­der, race and na­tion. Char­ac­ters swap loves and points of view, and float in and out of each other’s sto­ries as if to em­pha­size that iden­tity is nar­ra­tive, and nar­ra­tive is con­tin­gent.

If not all the sto­ries are quite as suc­cess­ful, they are all in­ter­est­ing. Rarely is it such a plea­sure to read an au­thor so in­tent on pleas­ing only her­self. Oyeyemi writes as if lis­ten­ing to her own “voices with­out form,” dip­ping into an end­less well of ever-un­fold­ing sto­ries and only fin­ish­ing them when she feels like it, by an ac­ci­dent of her own at­ten­tion span. Happy ac­ci­dent.

‘What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours’ By He­len Oyeyemi, River­head, 327 pages, $27

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