Mary South’s short story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten begins with the line, “The Keiths are Keiths because they are not particularly handsome, not particularly intelligent, not particularly kind” (3).
Sure, this sentence is referring to a literal warehouse full of clones destined to be picked apart for organ donation, but it also sets the tone for everyone’s attitude in this book. You Will Never Be Forgotten is filled to the brim with a cast of adrift characters who are all not quite enough. They’re struggling, they’re failing, some of them are grieving dead spouses or unable to meet the emotional needs of their partners and children. Mary South crafts characters exquisitely suspended in stasis, and—as she picks them apart—manages to simultaneously use them to explore how human feelings of inadequacy interact with technology.
South delicately traps all of her protagonists in various sets of paralyzing circumstances: something stops them all from growing. The grieving brain surgeon in “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” is reeling from her husband’s recent death but has to maintain a veneer of sanity to console her teen sons. In “The Age of Love” an attendant in a retirement home is incapable of emotionally supporting his girlfriend. “Camp Jabberwocky For Recovering Internet Trolls” delves into the lives of despondent, wayward adults who take camp counseling jobs to avoid the myriad problems they’re facing in real life. In “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” a woman who’s undergone a terrible sexual assault begins quietly, obsessively, stalking her rapist online. Mary South then carefully pushes these isolated, emotionally stunted protagonists to unravel: the teen sons act out, the retirement home attendant’s girlfriend becomes distant, the camp counselors lose one of their charges and must run around town looking for him.
South routinely integrates a technological outlet that brings forth the protagonist’s inability to communicate and engage. These don’t need to be incredibly high concept or futuristic: while her work is speculative, South is not necessarily trying to engage in high sci-fi. In “The Age of Love,” the retirement home attendant becomes obsessed with recording the geriatric phone sex that occurs at all hours in the home. As this obsession peaks, his girlfriend also starts listening in on the phone sex addicts and becomes enamoured with their odd soulfulness. The girlfriend realizes that the phone sex does something for her that the relationship can’t. When the protagonist realizes that he might lose her, he flounders:
I tried to kiss her with all the feeling she said she was missing. I wanted affection that felt true and unrehearsed, an urgent kind of love. “Whoa, slow down,” Jill said. “Can Mr. Rogers do this to you?” I asked, rubbing my erection against her thigh. “Nope,” she said. “He can’t.” She stood up from the couch. “I don’t want you when you’re desperate.” (39-40)
The phone sex ring highlights the protagonist’s inadequacies. Similarly, the woman in “You Will Never Be Forgotten” works as a human filter whose only job is to skim through traumatizing footage and deciding which images to delete: “The woman works at the world’s most popular search engine doing content moderation, in a room with no window or ventilation system, shoulder to shoulder with unfortunate souls.” The stream of terrible footage acts as a hum of background stress that underscores the woman’s failed attempts to recover from her trauma by obsessively scouring her rapist’s social media.
As mentioned, this command of technology hinges entirely on emotional stakes. The warehouse of clones, the bereaved parents who duplicate their dead daughter, the Trekkie-esque fans who obsessively trash their favorite actress on forums are all suffering. Rather than distracting the reader by showing off excessively technical sci fi writing, South zeroes in on how her characters are feeling. The lasting effect is something similar to the combined after effects of reading Miranda July while an episode of Black Mirror plays in the background.
Diana Valenzuela is an Oakland-born, New Orleans-based author. She cares about red eye shadow, Lifetime Original movies, and Britney Spears. Her work has appeared in The Millions and PULP Magazine.