(Above is a tiny clip of the art that accompanies this piece, which can be found in full at the link below.)
If you’re looking for a story that will engage with you on open ground, that you can (no dirty words!) understand and interpolate, Vajra Chandrasekera’s “On Being Undone by a Light Breeze” will richly disappoint you. “On Being Undone by a Light Breeze” unfolds itself, both on the page in its sections and in its presentation of its content. Its elements don’t build so much as lap up against each other, and their untidy cohesion forms what we must clumsily call the story’s narrative. “On Being Undone” is communicative in that it speaks to you, yet it’s difficult to grasp and locate. You can’t call it back to have your say–you never get its number.
People tend to forget that the amalgamation of ambiguity, terseness and writerly reticence (a legacy of modernism that is too readily credited, unexamined, with craftsmanship and depth) is only one ‘good’ stylistic mode among many. Stephen Wright incisively cataloged the mode’s unpleasant origins and connotations in his essay “Don’t Kill Your Darlings.” Much of the time, I worry that the Emperor is naked. That short, stripped-down, ambiguous stories are not mysterious brooding tortured souls (which, in and of themselves, I question the need for) but Jordan Catalanos, silent because they haven’t anything to say.
“On Being Undone” should rub me wrong, because oh look, a studied and artful disorienting, out-of-sequence existential unraveling, how fresh. But it’s obvious that, rather than being vague because it’s trying to disguise a lacunae where its heart should be, the story is ambiguous because it has far, far too much to tell you. Perhaps more than words can say. This is true of both the story’s palpable post-colonial and feminist threads, and of its SFFnal possibilities. People in this world can remove their public faces, literally. The world is probably ending (again). Our narrator exists in a state of quantum fluctuation.
Perhaps the narrator’s instability, and that of their life, is, in part, a reflection of their mental state:
“Outside your house, you forget to cohere. Every time you leave your house, you begin to scatter in the wind. Even a light breeze is dangerous when it’s tugging away at you, smearing you into the world. When you pull yourself together you’re not sure how much of yourself you’ve lost.”
But then hard questions (does or doesn’t the narrator have babies?) and the story’s SFFnal context challenge that ‘unreliable female Gothic narrator’ template, familiar from The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting, et al. Does or doesn’t the narrator slip between universes, inhabiting various lives? Is the sun indeed exploding? Is the singularity that explosion might create, will create, has created, influencing the narrator, perhaps causing the ‘shifts’?
I keep wanting to call the narrator a woman. The story is in second person, and the narrator’s gender is never specified. Yet the absent mother, who the narrator evaluates theirself against, and the way whether or not the narrator has children is raised as a key aspect of the narrator’s identity and lifestyle, are of course both traditional markers of feminine identity as it is coded in narrative. A friend, however, pointed out that a Hindu funeral pyre the story speaks of is traditionally (though there are exceptions) lit by men.
It’s worth pointing out that while the story reads as explicitly engaging with discourses on postcolonial subjectivity to me, that may be a facet of my own subject position as a white woman for whom these questions are outside my ‘normal’ personal relationship to literature and the world. For others, what I see as foreground may simply be background. I might, in my evaluation of the narrator’s mental state, be giving undue attention to conditions that are, for the narrator, unremarkable. For me, however, the story’s post-colonial discourse is mingled with questions of class, and comes in strongly in the discussion of the narrator’s removable face.
“Your unfair face makes you uncomfortable. When you come home you take off your face and put it on a shelf with your wallet and your keys. You like to relax with no face” …“your mother wanted you to be as fair as possible. Fairness is the virtue you are charged to cultivate because you were born with a peasant face and unfair disposition. You were born to the purity of manure and oiled engines but you could never stand that shit.”
The narrator’s subjectivity is rent not just by your garden-variety Prufrockosity, and not quite just by the possibility of a more particular mental unease, but by the tensions of inhabiting a shifting, disempowered ethnic and class position under regimes of racial and class stratification. Chandrasekera’s removable faces are kith and kin to Fair and Lovely cream. The narrator’s attempt to hold theirself together in the space of the world, to present theirself well and be Appropriate, is always already undercut by their “unfair face”.
The story’s details are crisp without trying too hard–the substance of ‘detail’, not the brand names:
“Inside your house you can cry and have babies and dinners with the food laid out in so many dishes, in a bubble of clean oxygen where the entropy of the world does not penetrate. The beans are an electric, radioactive green. The rice is white, because white is the colour of wealth.”
If the story risks becoming over-pretty, it seems to sense the danger. Quirky, quotidian turns of phrase like “ you are afraid only because you have things you don’t want to lose, like babies and stuff” pick up the dropped stitch and balance the story out.
It’s difficult to conclude a discussion of a story that resists such resolutions, resists an arc full-stop. “On Being Undone” leaves me restless. Sections like this:
“If you could, you would leave the house with no face. You would take more risks with no face. You would face the sun with no face. You would lose face with grace, with no face.
But when you leave the house, you always check the shelf for your wallet and your keys and your face, and you take them up and put them in their place.”
and the apocalyptic release of the ending needle at your complacency, provoking a desire to live better, live differently. But if anything, this is anti-heroic fantasy: a story about how difficult the mere act of holding yourself together is, and, short of apocalypse, how difficult it can be to imagine anything beyond getting home, where there are “cool regular tiles and you can lie down on them, press your face to them,” and coping.