Our Island of Epidemics
By Matthew Salesses
40 pp. PANK. Paper, $10.00
Our Island of Epidemics is a collection of short, interconnected fictions that offers readers the collective consciousness of an island people who suffer from short-term memory loss, unrequited love, obsession, upstoppably growing hearts (or farts), delirious joy, confused identities, ganglions, lost voices, fainting, creativity, laziness, hunger, dissociation, magic, unusual growth, illogic, overpoliteness, teeth falling out, etc.
Salesses’s skill in laying out these epidemics, these individual stories (or chapters), is that each seems new, richly imagined, and different from the other epidemics. This may be one of the most difficult tricks to pull off in a book organized around a series of epidemics that come in succession, one after another. To surprise readers, to reward their curiosity and defy their expectations, is the particular task a book like this faces, and Salesses makes it happen—confidently and with style.
Of particular distinction are the third and fourth stories, which may be the most-logically placed of them all. The third comes after the stories/epidemics of short-term memory loss and unrequited love, which are lush in detail and exposition, and even present a few key characters. But the third story, “Writing About Our Island of Epidemics,” does a lot of necessary work. Presented as a list, the story informs readers, very quickly, about the island’s history, its geography, its quirks, its people. Immediately following these bursts of information, the fourth story, “Our Island of Epidemics,” provides a rundown of many other past epidemics. Only four stories in, and readers know much about this place, this world, these characters. Even more interesting, an unsettling new development: one of them is immune to the epidemics:
“We took stock of him curiously—he was normal, so he was strange—and eventually he crawled up into the mountains where the wind could push you on your back. He missed the epidemic of hairy backs and the epidemic of trusting hearts and the epidemic of benign tumors and the epidemic of magic.
“And after a while we even almost forgot about him. Before someone wondered what his kids would be like, whether natural selection should make us anxious. Then one doubtless person said we would find his body in the river, sad and suicided, and we all thought, of course. That was the only way this could end.”
It is my recommendation that anyone who enjoys a novel-in-stories, a single-sitting read, and good old-fashioned magical realism—(Can it be a mistake that the first two epidemics seem so much the stuff of Garcia Marquez?)—should make it a point to read Our Island of Epidemics. Especially to find out if, in fact, sad suicide is the only possible ending for an outsider who does not suffer the sufferings of his fellow man.