by Peter Tieryas Liu
Fiction: Short stories
Signal 8 Press, October 2012
Paperback, 204 pages
Source: Provided by the author for review
Watering Heaven is Peter Tieryas Liu’s debut short story collection, and it is a beautiful anthology of stories about human loneliness, vulnerability, love, loss, and the crushing weight of the American dream.
All of the stories have some connection to Asia (most of them take place in L.A. or Beijing) and the combined Asian/American perspectives were really interesting to read.
This collection contains both realistic stories and surreal pieces that meander into magical realism; there’s a man who reconnects with his old crush only to find that she is no longer desirable, a man who forsakes his dreams for a fat paycheck, and a man who is obsessed with listening into other people’s phone calls, but there’s also a girl without a reflection, a man who can die and then come back to life, and a monk who uses acupuncture needles to fly around a decaying amusement park. These stories are about alienation, emotional baggage, and unrequited love, but they’re also about joyful nights partying on the Great Wall, getting to know fascinating new people, and discovering new truths about the world.
“I had the usual crew at hand, took over ten thousand photos, and knew I was going to discard 9900 of them. As I clicked away, I wondered, if a person could discard 99% of their life and experience only the best 1%, would they think life a grand and beautiful thing?”
It took me a few stories to really get into this collection, but when I did get into it I became really absorbed. Although I usually like to dip in and out of short story collections, reading one or two stories at a time and then doing something else, Watering Heaven was really easy for me to sit down and read for an extended period of time. The writing is gorgeous and the stories flow really well together, weaving a beautiful tapestry of insecurity, heartbreak, and self-discovery.
The characters in these stories are stunted in different ways. In “Unreflected,” a former chef loses his sense of taste and smell, and a girl loses her reflection. The woman in “The Buddha of Many Parts” can only fall in love with pieces of people, not their whole beings. Characters in multiple stories are stunted by their belief in the American dream, by putting their dreams and childhood desires on hold to pursue prominence and high salaries.
“I spent nights worrying about my position and gathered with co-workers to bitch about our jobs. Aggravated by wives who wanted E!-televised homes, we hid our apprehensions, worshipped table etiquette, and masqueraded as Michelin food snobs, the big annual salary with a bonus of keeping us more effectively leashed than the chained mace of an Inquisitor’s religious wrath.”
As with any short story collection, there were many stories that shined brightly and that I really connected with and a few that I didn’t quite love. Among my favorites were the stories that incorporated Asian folklore and mythology, such as “The Wolf’s Choice” and “The Buddha of Many Parts,” a story about being inspired by perfection/imperfection and the jealous human drive to destroy the perfection we can’t attain. Another favorite was “Cold Fusion,” a story American excess and egotism, but also about a man’s inability to tell his lover how he feels and ask her not to leave.
“He remembered that on their eighteenth date together, he explained how superstrings were reverberations in other dimensions that caused the physical manifestations in our universe. Marriage gurus said it was reverberations in our desires that caused attraction. Amanda had a confused look. Why was it so hard for him to simply say I love you?”
Watering Heaven is a beautiful short story collection filled with imperfect, sympathetic characters, haunting situations, and eloquent yet understated writing.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review.