By Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Common advice for short-story writers is to stick to a single character, a single perspective on a single source of conflict. Happily, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum flouts this convention in several of the stories in her new collection, “Likes,” notably “The Burglar,” which starts as a three-part harmony between husband, wife and a burglar breaking into their house.
The characters toss narrative balls to one another and neatly catch them: The burglar, seduced by nice cars and a tidy front yard, hesitates when he sees the shabby back. The wife later mentions the backyard is a future project, now that the family is financially stable. But that stability is in peril as the husband, the only Black man in the writers’ room of a TV crime series, struggles to prevent his big break from devolving into a bloody “racial melodrama.”
Already there are more people and more interwoven events than many story writers would attempt, but Bynum makes room for a fourth voice: the protagonist of the TV drama who somehow slips out of his own narrative and into the world where the husband and wife’s home is being burglarized.
This blurring of the real and unreal, of fictional dreams and waking life, is a feature of other stories in “Likes,” such as “The Erlking” or “The Young Wife’s Tale.” It is also the central hinge in Bynum’s debut novel, “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. Her novel-in-stories, “Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” roots itself in the everyday world of a young teacher’s seventh-grade classroom, but makes the place shimmer with possibility. All three books share Bynum’s impressive control of language and a capacious sense of how much a story can do and contain.
A few of the tales in “Likes” cover long stretches of time, with narrators who are retrospective but not nostalgic: Childhood and adolescence, or the early days of a relationship, are rendered with all the shades of light and shadow that Bynum brings to later adulthood.
In the title story, a father pores over his daughter’s Instagram posts for clues to an inner life that she only rarely shares, but that we understand to be every bit as complex as his own. In “Many a Little Makes,” an argument between middle-school girls about cake batter turns into an eerie and intimate physical conflict. Later, the protagonist smells the baking cake: “She found something spreading underneath the sweetness, a smell similar to that of butter and eggs and vanilla and flour but not quite the real thing, a smell that was artificial but also intoxicating and somehow more intoxicating for being fake. She didn’t have to taste it to know ahead of time how much she was going to like this cake.” Bynum is finely attuned to both sensory and emotional detail, especially in those moments when characters’ observations and feelings are more conflicted than they or the reader initially assumes — as well as moments, hours or years later, when those characters re-examine what they thought they understood about themselves.
The adjectives that readers often attach to Bynum’s work — “enchanting,” “charming,” “precise” — are accurate, but can give the impression that she specializes in dollhouse miniatures, masterfully crafted but bloodless. Her skills and her sensibility are deeper and darker than that. The sentences are indeed meticulous, but never for their own sake; they bring to life characters who possess rich inner lives even when navigating moments that feel dreamily sinister or otherworldly. To borrow Marianne Moore’s description of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” Bynum offers her reader inventively landscaped, beautifully manicured gardens teeming with rewardingly warty toads.