Review: ‘Gods of Want,’ by K-Ming Chang

GODS OF WANT: Stories, by K-Ming Chang

Where novels are often described as ambitious, and omnivorous, short stories are rarely presumed to have appetites — to run rampant through the reader’s mind, ravenous, devouring, feral. The most common metaphors that try to sum up the particular work a short story can do are postcards and photo albums, icebergs and carefully etched cameos: still, patient objects putting themselves on calm display. Perhaps that’s why the fierce little machines found in the Taiwanese American writer K-Ming Chang’s first collection, “Gods of Want” — the successor to her gutsy debut novel, “Bestiary” — feel so unexpected: Each one is possessed of a powerful hunger, a drive to metabolize the recognizable features of a familiar world and transform them into something wilder, and achingly alive.

Within these stories, obsessed with the vagaries of emigration and adolescence and populated by ghosts and spirits, the stiff, regimented structures of life in America dissolve into a slipstream of folkloric myth. In “Nüwa,” two sisters think the freight train that passes through their village each night is bleeding, until they realize the blood is that of local girls who’ve been swallowed up by the train, cocooned inside scaly carapaces. In “Dykes,” which follows two Chinese girls working at a strip-mall sushi restaurant in drought-stricken Las Vegas, the streets flood and the neighborhood raccoons evolve into agile, otter-like creatures that swim the Strip in schools. Elsewhere, an aunt who accidentally killed a young girl during her mandatory military training negotiates a debt that must be paid with life; the women from Virginia Slims magazine ads come to life. Severed braids of hair morph again and again into snakes and spines, transfiguration around a shared, preserved form. Girls kiss girls, taste one another’s faces and blood, lapping one another up with an eerie eroticism that is tinged by childhood intimacy, but also decidedly queer.

But these plots are not so much the focal point of Chang’s stories as the frame within which she rewrites the world as a place of radical transformation, resisting the rigidities of both realism and cultural assimilation. Her characters — mostly members of the East Asian diaspora — and the objects that surround them work their way through a cascade of literal and figurative changes. One watches a train’s “eeled body follow the tracks like a finger tracing a scar”; another, looking at a Virginia Slims ad, “could smell the pleats of salt between the woman’s legs, the waves unfurling like tongues behind her, waiting to lick her onto her back.” Chang pushes language into strange, roiling reversals, eroding its given meanings: A character named Ail (her dead mother spelled Ali wrong on her birth certificate) “rewired words” and tongues a strawberry all over before eating it, an act calls she “sabering” ,” rather than “savoring,” adding layers of meaning through creative misreading.

At times, the rhythmic, idiosyncratic nature of these transformations can feel somewhat repetitive, but the insistent quality of Chang’s aesthetic is a powerful gesture in and of itself: If dominant culture draws its power in part from continual repetition and reassertion, the fluid logic of These stories require the same unielding presence. Emigration is a form of transformation, changing a person in ways both chosen and forced, and Chang channels the churn, the precarity, the ambient disquiet and threat of disappearance that are part of the émigré experience into sinewy text that mirrors this deep fungibility. It’s a voracious, probing collection, proof of how exhilarating the short story can be in the hands of a writer who, as one of her narrators puts it, “somehow … made every word sound like want.”

Alexandra Kleeman is the author, most recently, of “Something New Under the Sun.”

GODS OF WANT: Stories, by K-Ming Chang | 206 pp. | One World | $27

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