COUNTERFACTUAL LOVE STORIES & OTHER EXPERIMENTS, a collection by Jackson Bliss, reviewed by Titus Chalk

In Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments, Jackson Bliss sets out to stun. Each of the 13 stories in this collection (and the interstitial texts between them) is a reimagining of what a story might be, a subversion of form, a feat of linguistic pyrotechnics, that often portrays mixed-race identity or attempts to establish a sort of mixed-race aesthetic. Many will certainly have different feelings on the extent to which Bliss succeeds, based no doubt on whether they, like Bliss, have a seemingly infinite appetite for the postmodern.

Sometimes, these stylings are deployed to convincing effect. Perhaps the collection’s strongest story is “Blue Is the Loneliest Number” which appears in its center, a sort of fulcrum between some spottier stories and more sustained efforts. Here, Jackson charts the onset of blindness in a part-Czech, part-Japanese woman, Yumi, and its effect on her relationship, especially her sexual relationship, with her Italian (or part-Italian, or Italian-speaking) partner Renaldi. Bliss boldly imagines Yumi reveling in her new sightlessness during sex, which becomes a realm of infinite sensual possibility for her: “Yumi is sleeping with ten different men every month even though it’s always the same lover, even though it’s always Renaldi, and this detail has made her blithe and kinky under the sheets. Each session of love is novel, refreshingly strange, and disobedient to memory.”

This is one of Bliss’ less ornate passages. And “Blue Is the Loneliest Number” is the start of a run of stories with less laden diction, that invites us into the fictive dream, rather than bludgeoning us with redundancy. This leaves some breathing room in the story for the other devices Bliss deploys: 16 sub-sections, each with its own title; ten lists; two different narrative tenses; and a casual tossing-in of several languages. On top of that, Bliss tells the story in reverse chronological order. Only the tense change feels truly superfluous here; the fragmentation and enumeration of the segments is enough to guide us through time and space. This is an impressive feat.

Indeed, after establishing that Yumi uses lists as a strategy to cope with her failing sight, Bliss delivers a jolt when Yumi runs through one titled “Things I Need to See One Last Time Before the World Goes Dark”: The first half-a-dozen items are struck through. The others, after a page turn, remain incomplete. This is form very much in the service of the story, packing an emotional punch that justifies the typographic excursion. There is also something about blindness—a state most of us won’t know—that makes it a potentially justified area for experimentation. Yumi, when fully blind, constitutes the world around her in imagined color, “emanating from her solar plexus that bleeds into her bedroom in a supermarket of blue…” Bliss searches for language to adequately render this point of view. Only he will know, though, whether this is based on testimony from the blind or a license he has allowed himself.

Elsewhere, it is unclear to what extent the density of Bliss’ ideas helps or hinders his storytelling, or at least, our ability to stick with him. Unfortunately, I found this a major issue in the collection’s opening story, “Conspiracy of Lemons.” I suspect it will function as a litmus test for most of us. Like it, and you will no doubt love the rest. Stumble, and you may struggle to clear the hurdles Bliss erects for the following 180 pages. Ostensibly, “Conspiracy of Lemons” recounts an uprising of young people in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At each crime scene, they leave a cryptic note. The story’s payoff involves the town’s Asian-American sheriff, Minh, cracking the notes’ code. It is the story’s cast of characters, though, that feel like the ciphers here, each of them ascribing the town’s youth revolt to a different political cause. I have no doubt Bliss does this knowingly, but it leaves the story lacking grounding and feeling like an afterthought to the code-cracking gimmick. While Bliss’ busy surface seems to invite us to scorn all ideologies equally, it lacks any deeper alternative and only endorses the status quo. The overuse of simile in the story (I counted 14 in 17 pages) seems to ram home this postmodern nihilism (or perhaps glee), positioning disparate objects and ideas next to each other with the simplest of figures of speech. Indeed, Bliss has a habit of allowing his similes to run away with themselves. In “Fourteen Sons for the Steering Wheel,” the narrator thinks, “Today is perfect. I wish this moment was eternal. I wish it could live inside of me forever, immutable and crippling like a birth defect” [Italics Bliss’]. Come to this book with a high tolerance for such excess.

Bliss is at his best in some of the calmer moments of the book’s second half. Another stand-out story is “Sola’s Asterisk,” which elegantly explores a number of parallel possibilities in a mercifully quiet life. Indeed, Bliss (at least from my perspective as a man) writes his women narrators well throughout this collection. He writes sex well, too. Exercises in voice, like “Entrance Exam to my Heart,” are diverting. The part-Japanese Bliss also writes an impressive array of similar narrators; a kabuki-loving Indian; a “Blasian” big brother dispensing advice to his sibling; a wrongfully arrested Peruvian-Japanese woman, railing against injustice from her cell; an undocumented Mexican woman. In fact, several explicitly different racial identities will be mixed up within his nearly always fragmented, often multi-perspective, stories.

This is Bliss’ predominant form, the sliced-and-diced story-shaped stack of vignettes, and seems to be driven by his take on these identities as infinitely variable, smaller-and-smaller shards of glass like those his magical glass-blowing character Kothar might conjure. But this conception of humanity (and his narrators’ rebukes to “scorched-earth Bernie bros” or union members, who “…[speak] conspiracy theory fluently”) starts to look a lot like market logic, one of splintered individuals, for whom there are only individual solutions. Bliss’ determination to set his characters apart, ironically condemns them to the same fate under capitalism.

This is not to say Bliss’ attempts to write from this position are not admirable, nor that articulating what it means to be mixed-race is easy. Only that his end result—ludic, kaleidoscopic, shimmering but superficial—does more to hone his book for a neo-liberal audience than it does to advance justice for his characters. Of course, you might take the advice of Bliss’ hypertextual interstices and choose your own adventure through Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments in a reading very different to mine. Only beware: each of these pages bears an option that, appropriately, leads nowhere.

Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments, by Jackson Bliss. Blacksburg, Virginia: Noemi Press, October 2021. 200 pages. $18.00, paper.

Titus Chalk is a British writer based in the US. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod and the Peauxdunque Review. He is also the author of Generation Decks (Solaris, 2017), a history of the fantasy game Magic: The Gathering. He has an MFA from the University of Kentucky and can be found on Twitter at: @tituschalk.

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