Kim Fu’s 21st-Century Bestiary
Jan 31 ● BY Kate Stallworth
Centaurs, ogres, dragons, and demons – whether you grew up with your nose buried in books of ancient folk tales or singing along to Disney soundtracks, chances are you’re well-acquainted with the monsters of old. If, however, like me, you feel you are lacking a familiarity with the modern mythos, look no further than Kim Fu’s short story collection, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century. With Lesser Known Monsters, Fu has delivered an anthology of timely, contemporary short fiction, wherein each story presents a tidy capsule of what it’s like to navigate and come of age in a world of chaos, distance, and uncertainty. Fu’s first novel, For Today I Am A Boy, which tenderly explores the journey of a transgender child of Chinese immigrants, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and her most recent novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for two awards in American and Canadian fiction. Her other published works include How Festive the Ambulance, a wide-ranging collection of sharp, vibrant poetry. Lesser Known Monsters is her short fiction debut and it promises to be another sensation.
In the reviews of her previous work, Kim Fu’s voice has been described as steady, clear, and rich. The condensed medium of short fiction only serves to highlight these strengths, sharpening her deft and vivid descriptions with even further precision. My favorite story might be the first one, Pre-Simulation Consultation XFOO7867, in which a representative from an immersive simulation company tries to explain to a customer why they cannot–due to regulation–use this technology to relive a cherished encounter with their deceased mother. The minimalist style, relating the entirety of the narrative as a chat-log, highlights the strange, intimate nature of the exchange, and the clinical, futuristic setting elevates central themes of grief and mortality. Another strong contender is #ClimbingNation, wherein a woman attends the funeral of an Instagram star, pretending to be an old college friend, and unwittingly uncovers shocking secrets about the nature of his accidental death. With this piece, Fu skillfully draws out the sinister undertones of social media voyeurism, tracing them to what feels like an inevitable conclusion. In Twenty Hours, a domestic, macabre slice of life, Fu opens with the riveting line: “After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs.” Fu’s most successful stories read like a well-composed photograph: One expert snapshot of a single experience, arranged at the perfect angle, with not a single detail out of place.
There is one story that couldn’t help but stand out to me in more ways than one; while Scissors is a fascinating exploration of queer sexuality, boundaries, and trust through the performance of kink, excellently composed and structured, it suffers from the rest of the collection sharing such a powerful thematic consistency. Scissors feels out of place among a host of other stories carrying threads of technology, mortality, wealth, class, and social connection. I was not surprised to later learn that it was first published in February 2021 as part of Kink, a literary anthology exploring love, desire, and BDSM; while it stands very well on its own, Scissors fits much better as part of a whole in an anthology like Kink than in Lesser Known Monsters. Still, I can’t fault Fu for including it in her first collection, as it is an excellently crafted piece of short fiction.
Toeing the line between surrealism and magical realism, Lesser Known Monsters paradoxically evokes a sense of connection with the modern world, in the capacity that Fu is able to grasp and convey such a broad, sweeping experience of present-day living. Our 21st century monsters are ones that we all know well, even if we haven’t been formally introduced until now. Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a book about the familiar and the new occupying the same space, as they often do when technology advances at the breakneck pace it has for the past twenty years. Throughout the collection, Fu probes readers with provoking questions: Are we responsible for the things we learn about strangers on the internet? How do we grapple with mortality in an age of relentless documentation, augmentation, and commodification? What forces connect us with others and the world around us, and what forces serve to isolate us instead? Rather than try to offer concrete answers, Fu paints us pictures of the monsters that loom in the distance of our 21st-century lives, at times both abstract and clear as day.