Sunsphere, by Andrew Farkas. Buffalo, New York: BlazeVOX Books, March 2019. 232 pages. $18.00, paper.
Sunsphere, Andrew Farkas’ second collection of experimental short stories (after his brilliant, and brilliantly named, Self-Titled Debut) is set in, around, and underneath Knoxville, TN. But not the Knoxville that exists in the collective hunch we recognize as reality. Instead, this is a surrealist rendering of the city—the Knoxville of our dreams and nightmares and waking hallucinations. It’s a place where the pits are bottomless and home to corpses and entire societies; a place where the narrators are sometimes sweaty, disembodied, or outright imagined; a place of arsonists and stygian heat and a hellscape where air conditioning isn’t universal (despite, as one narrator is frequently reminded, being in the south). But above all, this imagined Knoxville, somehow like the real Knoxville, is also the site of the Sunsphere, a monument built for the 1982 World’s Fair (held, of course, in Knoxville—the Paris of the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area). The (real) Sunsphere looks like a giant, gold disco ball mounted on a hexagonal tower rimmed with scaffolding. It is a strange creation, and it looms, to one degree or another, over Sunsphere as an object of inexplicable menace, inspiring animus and awe and bizarre cults that seek to worship and destroy it.
The stories of Sunsphere all exist in a kind of shared universe—bound not by character or plot, but by voice and ambition (and of course, the Sunsphere itself). The language across the collection is erudite and funny, and almost supernatural in its precision, tackling vast paradoxes and mind-contorting concepts with tactility and grace. There are extended rifs on physics and astronomy—from entropy and enthalpy, to star systems and comets—and strangely poignant observations about humanity, particularly our innate need to find, or fabricate, order and meaning from the surrounding chaos.
“Zeno’s Shotgun Paradox” addresses the impossibility of place—how referents have no real meaning in an infinite, expanding universe, so “Everywhere is nowhere. Every place is no place”—and the Herculean endeavor any action becomes (for instance, aiming and firing a shotgun) when all objects and locations are illusory. While “The City of the Sunsphere” imagines a futuristic Knoxville where a radically transformed Sunsphere is cosmically synced to the Crab Pulsar, creating a world where death and aging are purely optional (and banned). In “Everything Under the Sunsphere” a lost, heat-ridden narrator searches for relief amid the overwhelming heat, and structure in a Knoxville of ruin and maddening disorder.
Another standout, “White Dwarf Blues”—a self-proclaimed “drug noir story”—pushes the collection’s experimental impulses even further, deep into the realms metafiction, parody, and homage. It uses Requiem for a Dream (Hubert Selby Jr.’s famously feel-good novel, which is in no way traumatic to read or even think about) as a jumping-off point for an absurd, and darkly funny, story of a grease-addicted protagonist on a self-destructive journey. The protagonist, whose drug of choice is fast-food seafood from Captain D’s (which somehow seems like the most dangerous drug of all), is fully aware of his status as the narrator of a drug-noir story, and all the plot devices that await (road trips, an equally doomed buddy, a misplaced yearning for some unattainable abstraction, the “inevitable downer ending” etc.). Here, Farkas offers a fun, but incisive deconstruction of story tropes—not just in the drug-noir, but really all stories—commenting on the role of tropes, their seductive appeal (to the writer as well as the reader), and how mass-produced deep-fried fish is kind of gross.
But the showstopper is “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit.” Like a Barthelme story, the dreamlike premise is no mere metaphor, but something that exists literally in the narrative. Farkas breaks the story into disparate sections, each exploring how different sets of characters grapple and cope with the absurd existence of such an impossible object. We see the deadpan conversations of the humorously underwhelmed, scientists who doubt the pit’s bottomless-ness, political opportunists, conspiracy theorists who view it as one of many bottomless pits, and religious leaders who use it both to stoke fear and as proof of the mercy of divine beings.
Yet the story’s tour de force is the vantage point of “the Fallers,” those who, through accident or intention, find themselves trapped in the pit’s infinity. Some are drawn to the pit as a form of suicide, others seek adventure or transcendence. But everyone falls, forever (for “movement in the abyss is compulsory”). For new Fallers, Farkas describes the sensation as “a constant fluctuation of feelings, ranging from deep depression (‘I am at my Maximum potential’) to high-flying giddiness (‘My speed will forever increase from here’),” with an ever-present “state of vertigo where, although you are already falling, you forever believe that you are about to fall again.” The genius of the story, though, lies both in the exactitude of the details, some ghastly (like corpses falling at the same rate as the living), some delightfully charming (it turns out that hats are very difficult to wear), and in how veteran Fallers begin to recreate the worlds they left behind—with entire societies forming as they build makeshift houses, schools, and businesses from the surrounding debris—as they remake the abyss into not only what they know, but what they ultimately come to miss.
Sunsphere is formally innovative and endlessly inventive. It offers wit and experimentation, and dazzles with its language and perspectives. The characters live inside worlds collapsing upon themselves, struggling to adapt to a labyrinth set of ever-changing rules, created seemingly at random. But somehow an irrational hope permeates the collection—the hope that the ruin can be undone, that the system can be defeated, that the very narratives they inhabit, pre-ordained as they are, can still be altered.
Paul Albano is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His work can be found in cream city review, Entropy Magazine, and The Collagist. He teaches English at the University of Alabama.