Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
Published Apr 14 2023
Kim Fu’s collection of short stories, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, has been on my TBR list for months. During a recent trip to Portland, I made a difficult but fortuitous decision to bring a copy home with me from Powell’s Books. I usually read on my phone because it’s so easy and convenient, but after having Fu’s book in my hand, I can’t imagine experiencing the breadth of character, story, and experience in any other way. The physical version forced me to slow down and spend more time with each section. I almost used an entire brand-new stack of sticky notes to capture all my thoughts. Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century offers subtle, smart, and overall fantastic criticism and commentary on the way of life in the 21st Century.
It took me a few stories before I realized that each story speaks to the shape “monsters” have manifested or could manifest in the 21st Century. With a mix of fantasy and science fiction all grounded in the humble lives of everyday people and everyday struggles, Lesser Known Monsters tackles themes about what it means to be alive in the modern world; asks questions about what “real” means in a world with virtual reality; what connection means when we have so much access to someone’s life in curated bits through social media; whether we’re losing or have already lost the magic in our world not because magic never existed in the first place but our objective, factually obsessed world has diminished the magic that surrounds us. Intermixed within these larger themes is the tension between nostalgia, the reluctance to live in the present, and the unpredictable, inevitable future.
One of my favorite parts of Lesser Known Monsters is the way larger societal reflections are weaved so gracefully into the individual, everyday turmoil of each character. In the story “Sandman,” the main character Kelly can’t sleep. The story follows Kelly as she combats her insomnia and loneliness, while also having these sensual dream interactions with the Sandman himself that allows Kelly to find luxurious bouts of rest. In a single short story, Kelly contemplates her lack of partner options:
“Gillian’s question troubled her. The best of the men you know. Like Kelly should put all the single men she knew into bracketed tiers until only one remained, worthy of her love. More distressing was the thought that Thibault might actually be the best of them. He meant well, he took care of himself, he had that accent.”
Then, on the following page, Kelly forgets all about her lack of male choices during her encounter with the Sandman:
“She felt him in the room with her…She parted her lips and exhaled a purposeful stream…It was the only way she could think to ask for what she wanted. This time, he lowered his face onto hers, the hood coming down around her ears and the top of her head, enclosing her…A kiss, at first not unlike any other good kiss. Then she opened, as she had the night before, widening inside her through, her chest, her gut, her pelvis. That sensation of being enormous and hollow on the inside, as though she contained acres of open field under a prairie sky, as though she contained a cenote that descended to the center of the earth…Deep in their kiss, the sand flowed from his throat and down hers…”
Fu seamlessly pairs the normal, the mundane, with the fantastical. Kelly goes from worrying about the few partner options available to her to this incredibly rich scene where the Sandman is sensually filling her body with all the sand she’s missed out on because of her insomnia. This is the mark of successful fiction: The reader is effortlessly pulled into and along with the story. The progression is so smooth that the reader willingly follows the storyline no matter how bizarre or unreal the story becomes. Fu makes each unique world come to life. Here, we feel Kelly’s worry about not finding a partner and we also feel all the pleasure she’s experiencing as the Sandman satisfies her with sleep. And, we don’t blink an eye. We, in fact, want to read more.
In “Liddy, First to Fly,” Liddy is a pre-teen who begins to sprout wings on her ankles. The reader follows as Liddy first discovers her wings as small cysts on her ankles to the moment they sprout and she tries to learn to fly. After Liddy continually fails to take flight, Liddy and her friends decide to jump off the nearby cliffs where surely the threat of danger will force Liddy’s wings to life. When Liddy jumps off the cliff, there is some hope that the urgency and danger will spurn her instincts into action and shoot her into the sky. To the fear of her friends and family, Liddy drops into the ocean below. The girls’ mothers, including Liddy’s, reach the cliffs right on time to witness the jump. In the end, Liddy’s mom meets her as she pulls herself from the water:
“Liddy was on her hands and knees, her head hanging down, her sopping-wet hair draped over her face. Her mother stood before her, fuming and raving, her scrubs soaked to the skin. She didn’t seem to notice what I, and my mother, and Chloe’s mother, were all staring at: the drenched, salt-ruined mass of feathers clinging to both of Liddy’s legs.”
The burden of having wings that won’t save someone if they fall provides so much rich commentary on the 21stCentury. The governments and people of first world countries have so many resources, knowledge, and skills that could carry us toward a better world, but we can’t get these elements to function in just the right way to save us from falling. When we jump, our wings can’t carry our weight, so we fall because we don’t yet understand how to use them.
Throughout Lesser Known Monsters, Fu does an incredible job pulling and enticing the reader through each story. Each story is as interesting as the last and provides insightful commentary and interesting conflict about contemporary 21st Century topics. Many of the stories abruptly end—perhaps metacommentary that emphasizes the voyeuristic nature of storytelling itself that draws on the voyeuristic pleasure of peering into the worlds of others that social media so successfully exploits, another type of 21st Century “monster.” Each story’s distinct refusal of denouement makes the reader sit with yearning like bringing someone right to the brink of climax and walking off. The pleasure of each story instead found in the easy, surprising, smart, and rich journey as each character learns how to live with the new types of monsters spawned by the modern world.