Short stories can probably be considered the most underappreciated form of fiction writing these days, particularly those that belong in the genre of speculative fiction. Not a lot of people are aware of this, but said genre actually thrives in the fringes of Filipino literature and most are written in the English language. Writers like Dean Francis Alfar and Eliza Victoria have had small mainstream successes with their respective works, but other writers for the genre only have their works usually published as part of a varied anthology.
In fact, I never would have discovered author Gabriela Lee myself if I wasn't dutifully checking the Filipino Literature section of my local bookstore near my place of work. I'm glad I did one day because I would have missed out in buying my copy of her freshman debut Instructions on How to Disappear whose cover illustration as well as the rest of its visual presentation was enticing enough to pick up and browse through. I was furthermore encouraged to read it because Dean Francis Alfar himself wrote the Introduction who promised the readers a truly remarkable experience in the hands of Gabriela Lee herself. With my expectations in check, I proceeded to partake. Composed of no more than eleven short stories, this collection had made it rather easy enough to make a fair assessment of Ms. Lee's caliber and style.
I would consider that seven of these tales are the ones I considered the most poetic and painfully unforgettable; all of which were intricately woven as they combine both searing, introspective narrative and hard-hitting symbolism. At times I would even feel as if Ms. Lee was carving the words not just in my skin but also in my bones. Her expertise in literary language is unapologetic and unique. She was not only effective in exploring characters with nuance in which their personal journeys through the abyss would resonate almost powerfully in readers, but she was also adept in crafting plots that expose not only the mythical in her more urban fantasy stories, but also the maddeningly sublime and hurtful in her futuristic dystopias. By reading Ms. Lee's collection and embracing its magic, I realized that a short story is only as good as its overreaching message of either hope or despair.
Instructions opens with Bargains whose atmosphere and situation resemble the very premise for CLAMP's manga xxxHOLIC, but with a more horrific twist of its own. An aspiring writer whose ambition outweighs her talent meets up with an enigmatic Chinese shopkeeper. This elderly woman provided her with the means to become successful in her literary field--but for a very steep price. Next we have the charming The Side of the Looking Class which is quite young-adult-esque with its heroine outcast and her weight problems. The wish fulfillment element of this odd story is what gave its sequence of events a guilty pleasure appeal.
Tabula Rasa was the most haunting piece in the anthology overall; a dark yet romantic tale of how love literally consumes its host. Much of its narrative was driven with metaphorical representation which can be borderline absurd. After all, how else would you interpret events concerning a woman who can absorb all of her boyfriend's memories every time they engage in sexual congress and, in turn, she was also able to abolish his very identity and essence until he was reduced into nothingness? There was something almost suspenseful about this story as it reaches an ill-fated climax. On the flip side, we have Capture which chronicled a college boy's photography project with his model who seemed to slowly become less tangible than the photos in which she was depicted in. These two stories are the most ambiguous as Honesty Hour, meanwhile, is the most straightforward yet also the least interesting story of the collection.
One of my top favorites is Hunger. In this story, Ms. Lee was able to examine her own mythos concerning the lore of the manananggal. Written in the second-person, Hunger follows the intimate details of succumbing to a cursed state and how often liberating it is to accept your transformation as the kind of creature anchored by nightmares and bloodlust. That being said, it was also a bittersweet account about unrequited love.
Most of this anthology's stories deals with the devastation of a lost love such as the titular Instructions on How to Disappear and August Moon. On the other hand, not all of Ms. Lee's stories captivated me. One of them is Stations which revealed a dystopic landscape that feels a little fragmented story-wise, redeemed only by the bouts of lyricism in the prose; whereas the more urban fantasy story mixed with mythology entitled The Nameless Ones succeeded in delivering a fast-paced thriller which warrants a second chapter because it left me looking forward to a multi-chaptered series of its plot. I would definitely read a second part.
The other science fiction dystopia tale is Eyes As Wide as the Sky whose opening paragraph already illustrates just how breathtaking Ms. Lee can write and sustain that same enchantment of prose all throughout the way said story flowed. Its subtle horror and piercing poignancy were both unexpected, and left me with a sensation of loss myself once I have reached its tragic conclusion that left more questions unanswered.
"We did a good thing when we raised ourselves up from the rubble of the last war. Amid the carnage and destruction, we built the single thing that can truly stand the test of time: the Last City, a shimmering dome that surrounded our fluted structures of glass and metal, rings upon rings of protection that we erected against he elements, against time, against all that wishes to destroy the final creation of mankind."
In a nutshell, Instructions on How to Disappear is a purchase you will not regret!