An artist’s sketch of a woman narrates the first line of the title story in Kissed By, Alexandra Chasin’s collection of experimental short fiction. “I began as we all do,” she says, “by wanting something, but I hardly knew what.” It’s an apt setup that serves both to describe the predicament of most of Chasin’s characters, who are driven by inchoate longing, and to introduce her talent for animating the inanimate and unusual.
Throughout, Kissed By playfully uses incomplete sentences, disparate winking personas, and repetition to show the guts of conversation in a way that more traditional fiction often doesn’t. Games lurk within games and mix with wordplay; one sentence is a long list of bits of paper: “ruled, unruled, marbled, fancily embedded with dried flowers. . . .” Nearly all 18 stories—set in Paris, New York, Morocco, and elsewhere—present irresistible thought experiments and puzzles. One piece, “ELENA=AGAIN,” is a cryptogram that must be solved to be read. Another requires sussing out the sanity of an expat whose thoughts are continually hijacked by “Composer,” his high-flown alter ego, who can’t resist “twiddling a cliché” or referencing Greek Muses. Is the op-ed writer in “Please Compose Your Photographs More Carefully”—who complains that a newspaper’s photo cropping is tantamount to amputation—an exercise in creating a crackpot character, or a joke on the reader, who can never know any story fully? Some stories seem a little too stream-of-consciousness to fathom, but most follow their own wonderful loopy logic.
Alongside Chasin’s goofing are quieter tales of leave-takings that often blend language poetry with narrative. In the concise heartbreaker “all kinds of people on the Q train,” the line “some like it nap some like it nod” sets up the hypnotic rhythm of the train as a child sits next to her passed-out, junked-up mother and “draws an O in the greasy condensation of her breath” on the window, as the “beautiful raggedy-ass subway cars” rattle toward Brooklyn.
Chasin’s collection may only appeal to the seasoned lit-ster ready to rise to her endearing and sometimes obscure challenges. But her knack for obliquely nailing everyday absurdities will satisfy an avant-garde-fiction need that most people didn’t realize they had.