A Cabinet of Curiosities: The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks’ work in her collection, The Unfinished World, is an imaginative exploration of what-ifs. What if Lancelot was lost in a jungle? What if we could time travel, but we did more harm than good? What if a couple’s romance was linked in some way to a cabinet of curiosities? What if a builder of Leichenhausen, German waiting mortuaries, was trying in some way to bring back his dead wife? Sparks’ work brings together ideas of time travel and dreams with historical oddities: her stories look into the dinosaur “bone wars,” historical atrocities and collections of every kind. The Unfinished World is slightly unbalanced, but offers more than it leaves the reader desiring. What Sparks presents — especially in the first stories of the collection — is a flair for the shorter short story. Sparks understands timing, juxtaposition, and how to create original characters within the confines of a short work.

The Unfinished World excels when it’s about the people behind the scenes, the ones who keep things moving. The first story of the collection is one of these, and one of Sparks’ strongest. In “The Janitor in Space,” a janitor at the space station comes to terms with her criminal past.

The janitor knows that being good is not the same as being clean. She, for instance, is very clean, but she is not very good. She is still traveling on her way toward that. She told her pastor that she was coming up here to be closer to God, but really she just wanted to get away from Earth She was tired of waiting to be recognized, waiting for someone to hear her name and turn, eyes too big, full of questions and dangerous curiosity.

Sparks’ character, who “doesn’t know about metaphors,” is a blue-collar worker in an ethereal world, a shadow who doesn’t want to be seen by the astronauts she’s supporting. But it’s her incredible pain, which comes to light as she’s scrubbing the surfaces of the capsule, that makes “Janitor” such a compelling story. The janitor, as all of Sparks’ characters, “knows that even the smallest human vessel has boundless storage for sorrow.”

Sparks’ short works get to the heart of what motivates character; in “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” brother and sister taxidermists remake animals into death masks of their parents. “Clarence and Louise are trapping death in amber,” the author says. “They are learning how to make time stop.” “Lost Faces” is also a prime example of Sparks’ pithy observations of character. Tessa, Louise’s romantic rival, “is one of those people who substitute scarves for personality.” While Clarence and Louise’s opposite personalities mean they are suited to different aspects of the taxidermy business, it also means they grieve their parents’ death differently, trying with each animal they create beauty and preserve their bodies in beautiful repose. Sparks writes a different kind of seeker in “Lancelot in the Jungle,” but he is written with the same deep yearning that drives the taxidermist siblings. “There are only the seekers,” the author writes, “and the lost places they drive toward, always just out of reach.”

Sparks’ characters are often ironically close to the thing that hurts them most. In “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly,” a builder of waiting mortuaries obsesses over the beauty of the buildings, when it is his lost wife he mourns. His constant proximity to death only drives home the idea that “[N]o one really comes back from the dead. Even in [his] beautiful, carefully built Leichenhausen. Even when the sun pours from the Kingdom of Heaven through St. Michael’s stained glass robes and shines on the faces of the dead like rubies, like wine, like blood.” His wife is gone, and each beautiful new mortuary underscores his pain.

Another of the brilliant service worker stories is Sparks’ “The Men and Women Like Him,” which details the lives of the people who have to clean up history after the creation of time machines. Illegal time machines are created by would-be agents of time, and people go back to try to stop the big tragedies of history. Those workers who have to right the wrongs are subject to the daily influence of history’s worst events, over and over again. One of the workers “wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave, and sweep away the worst of it.” Yet every day they punch the clock, shake off the misery, and go on. Sparks’ ability to celebrate the blue-collar aspects of fantastic and futuristic worlds makes “The Men and Women Like Him” a little reminiscent of stories like Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” Sparks proves that often what is most compelling in fantasy situations is their normalcy; we can’t out-invent our baser desires, even in fiction.

“Ancient dreams cling like crumbs to the mouths of the sleepers,” Sparks writes in her final story, “The Sleepers.” Though a longer work — almost a novella, not quite a short story — the title story is Sparks’ only misstep. Too much happens in too short a space, or perhaps it is that the author never really finds a foothold because the story isn’t long enough. “The Unfinished World” doesn’t have the same pith as the rest of this strong collection. When Sparks works short, she works best. There are many remarkable stories in The Unfinished World, and Sparks’ career as a short story writer is guaranteed to continue, if this collection is any indication of her talent. The Unfinished World is uneven, yet a delight. It shows how often we obsess over the things we fear; it also makes us consider the people who make it possible for us to live our fabulous, fantastic lives.