Something that never ceases to surprise people is my apathy towards the works of Neil Gaiman. “Why Chris,” they say, eyes wide and mouths (if plural) agape, “I thought you would love his strange and otherworldly tales!” I would think so, too, but it turns out I do not. Every time I finish a Neil Gaiman novel, I say “Huh,” put it down, and forget all about it. There is a certain something missing from both Gaiman’s form and content; his style is too modern, too neat, too sharp and polished for the tangled wilds of Faerie he either visits or invokes in his work, and his depictions of the supernatural or transcendent are too thin and shadowy. Gaiman is a child of Western disenchantment. He writes of the fay things others have seen and heard and written in the old tales, and he derives his ideas from them, but he has neither seen nor heard from the other world himself. There is just something missing that is found in the works of someone like George MacDonald or G.K. Chesterton, men who knew well the laws of Faerie, if only because they had been there themselves.
This all is not to say Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection of weird tales is bereft of magic. Magic (or something like it) is always there at the edges, shimmering like mirages on the horizon. However, even in the memorable stories (and there are a couple true gems), each time I turned the page with a longing for a little something more—a feeling I would not have with, say, Jorge Luis Borges.
The good: the two opening stories, one about an albino girl abandoned by her husband midwinter who stumbles across a network of caves beneath her land and the other about a man whose lungs turn to glass after a freak industrial accident, are utterly brilliant. They are wide-ranging in ideas, sharply written with tight prose like needlework, beautifully written, and enchanting. I would recommend reading the book for those two alone. The final two stories don’t quite reach those same heights, but are worthy (and discomfiting) reads of their own.
The not-so-good. The middle handful of stories are harder to recommend. The third story of the collection was such a jarring drop in quality from the first two it could have been written by another person entirely. Its characters were bland, even cliched, and its concluding mystical gestures were less numinous and more…perfunctory, I guess. The stories struggle to recover from there.
Sachdeva’s interests and knowledge are certainly eclectic and make for a great deal of promise, and she demonstrates phenomenal ability in her first two stories, but that unfortunately doesn’t really translate into sharply written stories throughout the rest of the book. I blinked several times when I noticed characters who “gulped their beers” in two consecutive but otherwise disconnected entries. The plurality of “baggies of marijuana” made me do the same. One story that serves as an alternative retelling of the genesis of Milton’s Paradise Lost largely just felt like some grad student’s weird Philip Pullman-inspired fan fiction. The blue collar characters are what you get when you wring out a towel of John Mellencamp’s sweat.
The eponymous story, about a pair girls who survive kidnapping and rape by Boko Haram fighters and escape by learning mind control, was my greatest disappointment. Hearing about this story was what encouraged me to snag the book from the library, and after the first two excellent entries in the collection I was rather looking forward to it. Unfortunately, other than its Ripped From the Headlines conceit and The Very Important Things it talks about, it suffers from the rough characterizations of the other middle stories and a vague sense the ending could have used another pass. Final ambiguity is certainly the name of the game here, and that’s certainly in vogue—but when every story ends in deferred judgment, you begin to wonder if the author really had anything to say in the first place. For good or for ill, those who walked the ways of Faerie were certain of their lessons.
I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an inevitable feature of our modernist disenchanted culture that our storytellers can do little more than wave in the direction of mystery anymore, and I shouldn’t let myself feel let down by authors who signal portentously but fail to quite capture the supernatural our literary forerunners expressed so naturally. And some of these stories are really quite good and merit reading and commendation. While I am honestly baffled by reviews (such as that at NYT) that claim every story in All the Names They Used for God is a winner, there are true gems here, and for them alone I can recommend it.
(An aside: I have got to quit reading book reviews. I’m beginning to believe either publications are reading different versions of the same books, or our understandings of reality are simply not mutually intelligible.)