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Review of Jen Julian’s Earthly Delights: and other Apocalypses

The past few days I’ve had the pleasure of reading the short story collection Earthly Delights: and other Apocalypses, by author Jen Julian. (aside: she also drew this whimsical portrayal of the world’s coolest insect, the praying mantis). Earthly Delights won the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.

What I love about literary magazines, is the cauldron of creativity that is produced by combining many different voices, vibes, and thoughts. Every human brain is so unique (for better or worse), and when they are combined together it can often lead to material that is better than the sum of its parts.

What I find fascinating about short story collections, conversely, is the deep-dive into another’s headspace. Some collections feature beautiful words and images, but have a monotony to their subject matter, style, or craft (sometimes all of the above). While such works can be lovely, (even transcendent), I personally appreciate work that has a myriad of tones. Earthly Delights, is such a book. Although there is a cohesiveness that runs through the work, and many consistent themes, each story is a portal, an entrée into a new and fascinating world.

Julian’s collection starts with the gothic “Bone Men,” a mysterious rumination on life, aging, death, and loyalty.

But at the same time, she consented it was possible that her father was getting older, and that all men were like this when they got older. The battlefields on which they had skirmished became irrelevant.”

Jen Julian’s protagonist “Kansas,” in the opening story, “Bone Men.”

The protagonist in “Bone Men,” is adrift; she seems to sleepwalk through the story from one male “authority” figure to the next. First her father, and then as he ages (and more–I won’t spoil the ending), her husband. The story seems to suggest that time will render us all impotent and forgotten, but at least men have the ability to pursue what they desire in life without so many burdens. As her future husband says to her, “Women are immortal through their children. Men are immortal through their legacy.” Later the protagonist, “…could feel her own [triumphs] dwindling.”

The story is set in the past but echoes into the future. It perhaps suggests that so long as people (and particularly women) must make a binary choice between family and career, we will never have the type of free will we deserve on a planet that likely has no second chances. I feel slightly at a loss to further describe this story, and I am interested in what others think, but the above is my subjective opinion (for what it’s worth).

Throughout the work one of the themes appears to be aging; the feeling of life, technology, even our own minds passing us by. In “Keepers,” a biological sister and an adopted sister must clean out their deceased hoarder father’s home. One sister believes that the house is shrinking, and the other that it is growing. References are made to Through the Looking Glass/the world of Lewis Carroll. There is an understated absurdity that these sisters, (both diminished or marginalized by their father and brother), are left to clean up this mess in the first place.

…don’t you kids fool yourselves into thinking it’s dull people that make dull places and not the other way around.”

Protagonist in “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy.”

In One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, there is reference to myth and Julian “spins” a “nest” of words into the thick fabric of a modern fairytale. Reference is made to “changelings,” and the mundane nature of the protagonist and the town/apartment setting is a rich juxtaposition to the unique and fantastical nature of the other elements contained in the story.

In “Stereograms,” a grieving wife attempts to rebuild her life in the harsh soil of a psychiatric hospital that may be haunted. Themes of obsession play out in a unique and unexpected way, painting a character that cannot move forward. By being tethered to the past (in a different way than the father in “Bone Men,”) Gail becomes increasingly erratic to those desiring to live in the present, or who look to the future. It’s an exciting, beautifully written modern ghost tale that I will have to revisit come Halloween. It also takes a potentially clichéd setting (a psychiatric/behavioral health hospital), and spins it in a refreshing and sensitive manner.

Different kinds of ghosts haunt the adolescents in “Castle Links Creek,” a nostalgic story about loyalty and boredom in a small town that reminded me a bit too much of my own restless youthful summers. “We are Meant for Greater Things,” addresses themes of regret and the inevitability of life’s challenges. Aren’t we all blowing dandelion seeds of hope into an abyss?

“Attachment, or an Anglerfish Romance,” also addresses themes of loss, death, and detachment (or in this case, attachment)? It’s a short, effective, and surreal tale with more than enough weirdness to even satisfy my personal tastes. The comical and surreal “Earthly Delights,” puts a modern spin on the Stepford Wives.

“I’m Here, I’m Listening” utilizes an interesting and modern format to tell the longest story in the collection: a tale of two women finding themselves and each other in a near-future that winks at the type of material one might find in the earlier, better seasons of Black Mirror.

The middle and end of “I’m Here,” completely surprised me, and demonstrated that even in a world of technological advancements, the need for true human interaction is important; necessary even. (something to think about in our current world reality of “shelter in place.) “I’m Here,” simultaneously combines a pithy sense of humor with the types of fears I used to experience when hiking and backpacking alone. It’s a really funny story that contains the absurdist elements I personally seek in literature.

The concluding story, “Little Ones Weary,” describes the melancholic journey of a child realizing that adults do not have the answers, and of adults spinning their wheels against a harsh landscape. (this also feels familiar to our current world.) It’s a contemplative, restive piece that provides a proper send-off to this worthy collection.

“This girl, she’s one of those people you hear about nowadays, living her life for the second time around.”

From “We are Meant for Greater Things.”

It was hard for me to put this book down, and the best compliment I can pay any book is it cost me a lot of sleep. I recommend it if you enjoy strong writing, unique worlds, and modern short stories with fresh opinions.

You can purchase Julian’s collection at this link.

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