Mary South’s debut story collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, presents a delightful opportunity to be as unsettled by your literary fiction as you are by your News Feed. The obsessions in these stories—loneliness, shame, the taboos surrounding the expression of desire and need—emerge as her characters often unsuccessfully attempt to tackle their grief, using technology to abate it in ways that are destined to spectacularly and tragically fail.
South’s prose is funny, propulsive, and completely original. For instance, in “To Save The Universe, We Must Also Save Ourselves,” a former actress in a sci-fi franchise is the subject of much vitriol online, to the point where gets cosmetic surgery, one of the many examples of how she fails to live up to the idealism of the character she once played on TV:
“When she’s spotted leaving a doctor’s office with an unrecognizable face—her lips puffy and ridiculous as a pool float, her forehead lifted a tad too far, like someone tried to stretch a queen-sized fitted sheet over a king-sized mattress…”
They save the collection from being trite, even as it tackles well-trodden subjects. For instance, South’s forays into Internet Culture: We’re constantly inundated by Op-Eds pontificating on the promises and perils of the Internet, debating whether it’s an engine that drives connection or increases isolation, as though these possibilities existed in a binary. In You Will Never Be Forgotten, however, the Internet is a more complicated agent, one whose possibilities South explores with humor, nuance, and depth.
Take, for example, “The Age of Love,” in which a group of nursing home employees covertly record the conversations between their elderly charges and the operators of a phone sex hotline. The nagging question of their conscience as they listen to the men indulging in their fantasies is sublimated—they don’t see these men as people, which is why the protagonist is blindsided when forced to reckon with their humanity.
In “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” three camp counselors drive around Martha’s Vineyard during the height of tourist season, looking for an absconded camper. The narrative dips in and out of their POVs, illuminating their personal struggles and what forces drove them to get involved with a camp for teenage cyber bullies. None of the counselors took jobs at Camp Jabberwocky for particularly compelling reasons, and all three are too enmeshed in their own thoughts, their own psychic efforts at self-justification, to really see the campers at all.
In “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy,” a woman reflects on her profession as a surgeon:
“It’s absurd that I apprenticed and studied for my entire youth to help others live longer so they can continue to melt the polar ice caps while enjoying party subs.”
There’s a self-deprecating fatalism that South’s characters share in common, though they often view their dire straits with humor, which veers these stories away from the maudlin tendencies to which they could’ve easily fallen prey.
In You Will Never Be Forgotten, South’s protagonists try time and again to abate their sense of isolation by seeking out increasingly invasive technological fixes, even though the isolation stems from forces completely beyond their control. Sound familiar?