Book Review: Collective Gravities by Chloe N. Clark

July 15, 2020

Aptly named, Chloe N. Clark’s Collective Gravities propels us into invented universes, uncanny in their likeness to our own, and sets them into orbit. Diving into this collection is like emptying a bag of marbles and watching them spin. Each feels suspended by its own gravitational pull. And while many occupy speculative spaces or the aftermaths of outer space voyages, I’m reluctant to pigeonhole them into the sci-fi genre (though they take plenty of cues from it). Just as many of these stories dwell in the less literal great beyond, letting down the barriers of our known world for the mystical to slip through—for the murky realms of ghosts and shadows to hover in our peripheries. Shying away from anything too technical or overly involved, a good world-building balance is struck, giving us just enough to live in the space without asking questions, or rather to keep us asking the right kind of questions.

In stories like “Balancing Beams,” “The Intimacy of Objects,” and “Between the Axis and the Stars,” space travel feels almost commonplace, a thing people do, yet it never feels ordinary, all of the wonder still intact. Like any good sci-fi page-turner, these stories are enhanced by the tangential experiences attached, the relationships left behind, the shared experiences in isolation, the losses over those who don’t come back. In the closing story, “Between the Axis and the Stars,” the wedge in the narrator’s relationship with her fiancé Peter deepens with every corn field they pass on the way to the memorial service of their mutual friend, Callum, killed on the space station during a mission the three of them shared. In the way many of Clark’s stories do, we follow a gradual unwinding into the past as the narrator probes these memories for the tools to face what’s to come. At first, this feels like love affair territory, the mutual affections between her and Callum surfacing in sweet, tender moments; it’s easy to assume Peter is simply caught in the crossfire, a lover scorned. But as the complexities between all three are unearthed, we see a much more nuanced grief in the separate traumas she and Peter each endured on the space station when Callum, unresponsive, was pulled in from a jump. The story hinges on what they can’t bring back with them from that moment on the space station, the point of no return.

Coming away from this volume, I feel almost duped into thinking that more stories occupied the literal cosmos than they did, but the gaze into the stars tends to transcend the actual voyage. Around every corner for each of these narrators is uncharted space, literal or emotional, lurking either just out of reach or hovering a little too close for comfort. Their interior spaces drip with longing for the night sky, or what’s beyond it. While the narrator of “Balancing Beams” laments, “I wished it could be possible that I’d never have lived amongst the stars,” Callie in “The Collective Gravity of Stars” can’t get close enough to the night sky in her dream to cure herself of the burden of the earth’s movements: “The stars got closer and closer to her. Their light made her skin glow. She woke before she reached the stars. She always woke before she reached them.” These characters embark on different kinds of mystical voyages, always in the grasp of something just beyond reach.

These supernatural forces really run the gamut: bizarre afflictions and diseases ranging from tendrils of darkness gripping the blood stream, a toxic algae plague, a lover turning into a chart, shadows and dark spots in the sky. There’s the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse in “They Are Coming For You, So You Better Run, You Better Run, So You Can Hide”—a murky area where after a cure has been discovered, friends contend with the zombie loved ones they killed that could have recovered, or the friend the narrator didn’t have the chance to save from the grips of a mental illness bleaker than zombies. Many characters are haunted by their own pasts, these ghosts manifesting in surreal ways, and others have abilities tied to grave side effects. None of the cures to these supernatural ailments come without repercussions, nor the moments of horror without tender underbellies. Emotional slights of hand bring us to different epiphanies, unexpected moments of catharsis. Not the only story to venture into horror territory, with moments of genuine creepiness, “Lover, I’ll Be Waiting” negotiates an abusive relationship against morose fairy tales, flipping the script on the monster narrative by infusing power and empathy into the vilified she-demon that lurks throughout the story.

A lot of these characters show a refreshing sense of self-awareness, or self-possession. They struggle with exterior forces, but not necessarily with who they are. With a setup reminiscent of a true crime exposé, the narrator in “See Sky Sea Sky” is far from helpless or naïve. Swaths of too-dark spots showing up in the night sky mark a series of mysterious crimes, and when it comes for her, she is ready and she knows what she wants.

Underneath the mystical, or through it, these works contend with real and often taboo sources of trauma. A thread of losing loved ones, of the feelings of guilt the survivors carry with them after, runs deep. Even as these narrators try to be blasé about the depths of their grief, the volume is filled with these moments of someone not coming home, of the worry creeping inside and settling there. We’re struck by gut-punching first paragraphs that bare it all, belligerently traipsing over any reverence for tragedy, most notably in “For You, I am Closer Than the Sky”: “Maria Devros lived in a city filled with the dead—graveyards as plentiful as bakeries—but none of them ever came back, until the day that her years-dead daughter, Teli, showed up on her doorstep holding a chocolate doughnut and a cat.”

I felt more entrenched in the longer-form stories that dwell in uncharted emotional (and often cosmic) territory and tease out their inhabitants’ uncomfortable realities. The stronger of the flash fiction pieces offer a breath between these heavier works, including some lightly magical ones strewn in toward the end. At times I found myself wanting a tighter, more selective volume, but also couldn’t help but love the thematic grab-bag quality of reaching in and pulling out a zombie story, a demon-like father, an astronaut boyfriend, a true crime.

Reminiscent of short fiction by Aubrey Hirsch, delving into sci-fi lite territory, or Aimee Bender, building magical landscapes around a singular, acute emotion, Collective Gravities feels both right at home in the fabulist genre yet not defined by it. I’m both entranced by the mechanics of these fictions and completely willing to suspend all disbelief and be along for the winding journeys.

Publication Date: July 7, 2020

Publisher: word west

Reviewed by Abbie Lahmers


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