Liu’s short stories are so good, so short that I can’t shake the feeling that he is simply giving away ideas. Each is an untold epic in its own right, waiting to be written from the sheer power of its concept. One is a novel I would love to write, another Iain Banks would have knocked the shit out of, and another that Murakami should feel shame at not having stretched his long surreally tendrilled pen into already. Maybe that’s what makes a good short story, maybe it’s the ones that leave your mind constructing extensions complete with orange cones and warning signs that make them so delectable. Cotton candy concentrated to liquid and then into opoidal hormone.
Liu is an inventor. His process beautiful, chaotically and, at times, randomly so. The collection as a whole displays his creative obsessions with an open-hearted sincerity. Each carefully entwined with his love of tale, parable, and human absurdity.
The novellas solve the sense of ‘brushing the surface’ of his ideas (they in fact may be simply longer short stories which I suppose would make them slightly less short stories, but then I’ve never been great with the nomenclature). And while Liu uses this to construct the work and build characters and ideas in a beautiful way he never quite manages to coalesce the burgeoning literary event into a satisfying ending (a large exception is made for the titular story in this collection is it is several different kinds of perfect and is bordering on beyond criticism). That is not to say that they simply end it just seems like he had had his fill of that particular thought and though the world may scream for a novel-like tying of strings, he chooses small simple moments to abandon his narrative and that leaves a little too much still lingering in the rife realm of aftermath to be entirely satisfying. It is not bad, one just cannot shake the feeling that something more could have been done.
Should of, could of, would of.
The collection is not perfect, but it is close enough that I’m calling it anyway. It is written with an emotional, intellectual, and cultural awareness that is so powerful that even when certain ideas fall flat the style and pleasure of his language will keep you reading and smiling until the final page is turned.
Ken Liu is a voice that I’m certain we are just seeing the beginning of. Another ten years he will be sitting firmly in the space between Ursula Le Guin and a more literary competent Philip K. Dick. Liu is a man of a thousand ideas, and each one cuts like a blade hewn by a modern journeyman making his final steps towards master.
“Judging is the luxury of those who don’t fight to survive.” – Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories