There’s something about dire times that causes book reviewers to label every book timely, prescient. Parul Sehgal discusses it here in her excellent review of Raven Leilani’s debut, Luster, referring to the concept as publishing’s version of the hemline index. Mary South’s debut collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, was always going to face this sort of review—it is timely and prescient. It certainly couldn’t have predicted the pandemic it was born into nor the alt-right coup attempt this past week, but it definitely wasn’t surprised by it.
The collection examines the cyclical relationship of technology and dehumanization—technology alienates people; alienated people seek the refuge of technology. It can destroy our relationships while building other communities. These communities, so insular and vulnerable, often dissolve quickly into a toxic breeding ground for the damaged, guilty, depressed, shameful and/or repressed. The collection strikes me as a strange yet incredible mix of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior and George Saunders’ Tenth of December—not to be reductive, it’s very much its own.
The title story, which appeared in The New Yorker, is the heart of the collection. In it, a woman who works at “the world’s most popular search engine” removing obscene and traumatic content from the internet stalks her rapist. She stalks his social media, obsessively reads his newsletter—”Today, I learned the statistic that more people have died this year from taking selfies than from shark attacks…If you’re fixated on monitoring your heart rate, you forget to listen to the beating of your heart,” is one of the great moments South skewers one of her characters—creates a new dating profile to match with him on the dating app where they first met. Eventually, she stalks him IRL. She follows him while he walks his dog, stalks him in the grocery store and gathers the same ingredients to share a dinner with him while actually in the isolation of her apartment: “That evening, she has horrible diarrhea, for which she blames the rapist.” This is where the brilliance of the story lies. The woman can’t erase the rapist from her life; she can’t erase her trauma in the same way she erases content from the internet every day at work. The woman’s trauma is compounded by the fact that the rapist is allowed to carry on a perfectly normal and mundane life: “The woman is annoyed that a rapist can be the owner of such a sweet dog. Shouldn’t the dog of a rapist always be marking its territory on said rapist’s bed or something?” The woman truly unravels once she finds out the rapist has a girlfriend, a woman also in tech who has come up with a vapid app, Tender Buttons, designed to enable random encounters between people using GPS, encounters like, “Attempt handstands with Nancy in Golden Gate Park.” Not only does the rapist have a girlfriend, but they seem happy. At least that’s what social media would have everyone believe.
Another story, “The Age of Love,” also examines the way technology can be used to connect us only to alienate us later. In it, a group of elderly men at the North Shore Nursing Home begin calling a sex hotline. The narrator and his friend Walter, two nurses at the nursing home, begin listening to and recording the calls. The telephone provides these elderly men with a way to connect to people after having been essentially abandoned to the nursing home, while the recording equipment leads to their ridicule and shame. The telephone gives them community and intimacy where the recording equipment further alienates them. It wouldn’t be a Mary South story if it didn’t have a hilarious yet heartbreaking twist: one of the members of the “phone sex clique,” Mr. Rogers, begins an over-the-phone relationship with the narrator’s girlfriend. The story also has one of the funniest lines I’ve ever read in fiction: “Mr. Klein—you know, the bowlegged guy with the colostomy bag? He’s wicked into food…A few days ago, he told a woman he wanted to eat an open-faced turkey sandwich from her open-faced butt crack.” South’s greatest achievement in this collection is her ability to not cheapen the stories with a quick punchline. Each joke fits because so many of these stories are written about the internet in the language of the internet.
All of these stories contain people who’ve lost something or had something taken from them: the men who have been abandoned by their families in “The Age of Love,” the woman who was raped in “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” the internet trolls hoping to heal in “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” the widow looking to replace her husband with a humanoid created for organ harvesting in “Keiths,” the parents hoping to replace their dead child in “Not Sesuko.” All of these people are grieving and hoping to heal their grief with the help of technology; instead, they are faced with the choice of abandoning technology and remaining human or continuing on their path of dehumanization. The ending of the title story is especially fitting: “It’s a sign. No one will save her. Nothing is going to magically make it better. The woman has to figure out her life.”