When I first received Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, there was a strange gouge in it, an ovoid depression from the book’s front cover through the first twenty pages or so. While the cover material was somewhat frayed and discolored around it, the paper beneath was cleanly cut in a three-dimensional concave pattern, such that when you opened the book there was simply a smooth-bordered hole in the page, shrinking as you advanced through it.
It could have been that the book had been damaged by an acid from some stage of the manufacturing process, but by the time I received it I had already read ‘Bloom’. In light of it the gouge seemed, to my eye, less a destructive mistake than some quiet natural process, the art manifesting in the physical shape of its object. My copy arrived having already sprouted.
The sort of fiction that Janalyn Guo writes could be classed as contemporary magical realism, of the kind that is finding so much critical cachet in recent years through many prominent writers of short fiction (George Saunders, Samanta Schweblin, etc.) But more than most, Guo’s work eschews glad-handing metaphor, occupying instead a realm of lysergic, faintly gnostic mystery.
‘Bloom’ finds its narrator recalling a season spent apprenticing to her aunt in Fushun, China as a corrective to a year of crisis and bad luck. Her aunt is a holistic therapist specializing in gua sha cupping therapy, through which the magic of the story appears. If you’ve never undergone a cupping session, it involves cups (naturally) pressed to the skin to create a seal, and the suction is used to perform a kind of massage treatment. By the end of it, you look as though you’ve just emerged from a very intense wrestling match with an octopus.
The story as it unfolds is a gentle meditation not for the faint of heart. When the aunt performs her cupping massages on the men in the village, they receive the typical benefits of soft tissue massage, but their pores surreally stretch, and over time the distended openings play host to plant life, bushes and trees and mushrooms.
It is a trypophobic nightmare, to be sure. Though no one precisely suffers, the descriptions are vivid enough to be horrific to sensitive readers. I think Guo anticipates and uses this bodily revulsion; the change in the men is not simply supernatural.
The narrator observes the ways in which the men relate to her aunt – they desire her romantically, but there is something else unstated, beyond lust. The process the men undergo seems a kind of emotional sublimation – in the text they remain cranky and provincial in the way they speak, but through the cupping, as the narrator says, “they are softened.”
The body horror of the plant growth mirrors the coarseness of the men as presented – they are things we have to look past to see the subtle processes beneath them. The title is a homonym; there is the bloom of the fruiting bodies atop the bodies of the men and the bloom of solace and connection – implicit and repressed – that the cupping foments. And yet there is more to the mystery than that rhyming action.
The narrator’s aunt develops a relationship with one Walt Suo, an older man who has grown a “milky fur” of edible mushrooms – the narrator and her aunt harvest his back for dinner – and in the story’s climax, they accompany him to a wilderness reserve where he quietly and fully transforms. The narrator experiences a similar journey with one of her clients. She and her aunt, in private reminiscence, enact their own ritual that proves to be the most enigmatic and emotionally resonant element of the story.
I wish I could find more strange stories in this vein – Guo’s work most resembles, outwardly, the stories of Karen Russell, though she has her own preoccupations and her own deft maneuvers. I am intensely jealous of their grace.
Published in The Tusculum Review, 2016. Collected in Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, Subito Press 2018