The Fabulous Dead, by Andriana Minou. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, March 2020. 130 pages. $14.99, paper.
The iconic and celebrated historical composers, astronauts, actresses, philosophers, and authors among a host of others are brought back to life within Andriana Minou’s short story collection, The Fabulous Dead. Their lives are deconstructed in an often humorous manner that forces us to consider the possibilities that history might not have gotten it exactly right. Minou gets into the heads of a variety of The Fabulous Dead and creates a narrative that questions and plays “what if” with the dead. She places the narrator on the page, interacting with these fabulous historical players in interesting ways. In this collection of twenty-five short stories, Minou opens up questions of identity and the self, the human condition, and deconstructs history and historical figures as we previously understood them. Minou plays with art, musical composition, and literature in wonderfully contemporary postmodern fashion, mixing absurdity with fragmentation, history with fiction, and blurring the lines of reality. The inclusion of the author’s own works of art add to the postmodern aesthetic, providing a glimpse of what the author envisioned with select works within the collection.
It is through her composition and arrangement of the short stories that Minou keeps us hooked. A trained musician, Minou creates each short story to work as a smaller musical composition in a larger concert of the short story collection. Each is a separate story from the other, but they all have the goal of bringing those that are considered the fabulous dead back into the narrative and give them a new purpose, that of interacting with the narrator and deconstructing what we know about them and even ourselves in the process. She goes from the lighthearted and absurd afternoon garden party with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Sarah Kane who are gossiping, drinking Bloody Marys, and discussing the evils of breathing in “Three Breaths” to a dark examination of the human capacity for blindness in “Impromptu with Statue” in which Minou examines Adolf Hitler. She brings in figures who challenged the status quo such as Galileo and a Bavarian Princess who believed she had a glass piano in her stomach.
The Fabulous Dead begins, “It is such a relief, not being obliged to live your own life, simply letting yourself rely on someone else’s choices” because living is “no laughing matter … inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and the responsibility keeps growing, the responsibility to find how you want to live, to urgently become who you have to be in order to live. Perhaps, to become yet another fabulous dead.” With this utterance, Andriana Minou provides a look into what it is like to step into the minds of those history and society considers to be the Fabulous Dead in an attempt to find our own identity and self or discard it entirely. The possibilities are endless and it is through interacting with the dead that the living can attempt to find meaning in a world that consistently provides pressure on people to find out who they are meant to be. In playing make-believe and imagining that you are someone else, even just for a moment, Minou shows that we can be everything and nothing at the same time. We are, in fact, just as extraordinary as the Fabulous Dead that she chooses to highlight in her stories.
Minou fragments time and space within several of the stories to explore the human condition and individual desire over the good of the whole. “The Theory of Beatrice Portinari on the Other Side” is one such story and features a famous astronaut from the 1960s who falls in love with an unnamed redheaded woman. She visits him on the moon where he lives his afterlife. Gus Grissom states “I don’t give a shit about the Almighty. I want you to move here so we can live together like a normal couple, me, you, the dog, our house, our lemon-tree …” This need to connect, to have a normal life and live like a normal couple is complicated by Minou when the redheaded woman states her sole purpose is to inspire desire and because without desire she will “quit existing. And everything else around us will cease to exist. Because as long as they’re in love with me, as long as I inspire desire, the sun and all the other stars will keep moving.” What is existence without being wanted? Not only that, but what is existence without the desire to obtain something or someone? These are questions that Minou posits to us to examine and ponder on further.
Each work has hidden subtext and clues that shed light on the Fabulous Dead being showcased. But that is also a challenge because without prior knowledge of the deceased, we have to research in order to gain a better understanding of the figures being referenced. Those fabulous dead such as T.W. Adorno, Marlene Dietrich, and Jean-Baptiste Lully may require us to look for more background information in order to grasp the subtle nuances that Minou weaves within the tale. It is not only the figures themselves, but also the artwork that the author references, especially for “Escaping Titan.” If we have never seen the painting “Venus with an Organist and Cupid,” then the story will make little sense. The sheer amount of the stories, twenty-five in all, take up remarkably little space on the page, wishing that we could spend more time with the characters and the stories that are unfolding. The author does provide footnotes for some of the stories, but those footnotes can also be a detriment due to their very nature of having to provide explanation and connotation.
Rather than focus on the living, Minou instead focuses on those historical figures that still have things left to say to the living. For readers who enjoy books such as Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders who also focuses on what the deceased can teach the living, fragmentation of time, and an examination into the human condition, The Fabulous Dead would be a fun and challenging read. Through her narrator’s interaction with these historical figures who have impacted history in both great and horrible ways, Minou shows that even The Fabulous Dead are perhaps not quite as fabulous as history has made them out to be. Everyone can find themselves through the characters on the page: the painter, the writer, the selfish, the muse, the heretic, the philosophizer, and a host of others as long as we step foot in her Rumours Motel and allow ourselves to believe.
Christina Ghent lives and writes in South Carolina where her family has settled down after having lived all over the world. She has received her MA from Winthrop University and continues to hone her craft.