Publisher: Henry Holt. March 31, 2016.
Genre: Literary Fiction
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What if your perfect hermaphrodite match existed on another planet? What if you could suddenly see through everybody's skin to their organs? What if you knew the exact date of your death? What if your city was filled with doppelgangers of you?
Forced to navigate these bizarre scenarios, the characters search for solutions to the problem of how to survive in an irrational, infinitely strange world. In dystopias that are exaggerated versions of the world in which we live, these characters strive for intimacy and struggle to resolve their fraught relationships with each other, with themselves, and with their place in the natural world. We meet a wealthy woman who purchases a high-tech sex toy in the shape of a man, a rowdy, moody crew of college students who resolve the energy crisis, and orphaned twin sisters who work as futuristic strippers--and we see that no one is quite who they appear. -Goodreads
I'm a huge Helen Phillips fan. I'm still obsessed with her debut novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat and constantly find myself recommending it. So you can imagine how excited I was to hear that she had a new collection of short stories coming out. You can count on Phillips for at least a little bit of weirdness in each story she tells, often veering into science fiction territory, and she didn't disappoint in that respect.
Almost all of the stories are sort of dystopian. Characters live in worlds that are slightly different from ours, but worlds that are still believable. Still startling close. Characters yearn for how things used to be and struggle against their new realities. They're mournful and strange, but small bright spots of hope slip in through the cracks of these stories. Almost all of them are heavily relationship or childrearing focused. This isn't really a problem, but I'm both coldhearted and picky. So after a while, the stories started to blend together a little bit and felt borderline one note.
Some Possible Solutions holds some very powerful, strange stories that are going to stay with me forever. "The Knowers" is the first story and possibly my favorite: people can opt to learn the exact date of their death. We see how that affects a relationship and it's incredible. The writing is tight and gripping, and the ending moved me to tears. "Life Care Center" is autobiographical and heartbreaking. "The Joined" is a fantastic alien tale of finding a planet where each of us Earthlings have a perfect match, and we learn what joining with that match means. "Children" is another great alien story of sorts, where a parent doesn't quite understand her twin children. One of the child-themed stories I actually really liked. And, the powerful final "Contamination Generation" about a man's attempt to make his daughter's life magical in a grim near-future.
He knows better than anyone how they are always talking to each other in a language we don't understand, always putting jam on their hot dogs. They've never belonged to us, not even for a second. - Children
At the same time, there are a lot of stories that I straight up did not understand. And I'm kind of used to not understanding a number of contemporary short stories in a collection. This just got kind of frustrating because I'd read three stories in a row and at the end of each think "Well, there goes another one -- right over my head." Specifically, some that left me confused: "Game", "The Worst", "How I Began to Bleed Again After Six Alarming Months Without." There are definitely more, but I'm giving myself some credit in that I "sort of" got them and was just mildly confused at the end.
Ok, I just went and counted the stories and I wasn't confident about understanding quite literally half of them. I hope for a better ratio when reading, and I don't know if it's the stories or if it's me. A lot of them were missing that dark cleverness that I really appreciated in The Beautiful Bureaucrat and perhaps unfairly expected to find in this collection. Overall it was a fascinating read -- being in Phillips' head always is -- but it did not completely live up to my expectations.
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