Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep by Adam Soto; Astra House; 272 pages; $17
Adam Soto’s short story collection Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep gives the reader glimpses into strange worlds not far off from our own that explore the complexity of moving on at the end of things. Whether it’s the end of the world, relationships, or some form of an afterlife, Soto introduces characters in the midst of change and transition to focus on the brief denouements in life rather than the climaxes, which leaves the stories and their characters with a sense that there is always a new beginning.
The collection opens with three vignettes that illustrate the strange beginnings and endings of people within a crumbling world. The second story, “Lovely Roofs,” is a stand out. As the narrator watches the aftermath of some form of apocalypse, he refers to as the “Big One” from the window of a high-rise building. As things begin to settle, he notices the shift from violence to remembrance. “When people quit bashing each other’s heads in every second, they started going out and touring the ruins.” This collective nostalgia angers the narrator because “people like me had been remembering and missing things our whole lives. It’s what happens when you’re from someplace else when your life used to be better.” This neatly sets the tone for the collection as each story is, in part, remembrance or longing for the past as we meet characters on the cusp of their transition into something new. Yet the endings themselves are often mundane. Here, the end of the world, life, or relationships are almost footnotes. In some ways this feels anticlimactic as we push through narrative heavy stories, but this style choice feels intentional because Soto’s direct style of world building within these concise moments draws the reader's attention away from the external calamities and allows for more introspective focus on the deeper emotional implications of processing trauma and how we carry echoes of our past with us into each new beginning.
Although the collection is subtitled “Ghost Stories,” the ghosts are illusive, and mostly metaphorical. They are rarely at the forefront of the stories and make strange, brief appearances as Soto conjures these spirits in the form of artificial intelligence, echoes and whispers of the dead, or trauma and remembrance for the past. In “Sleepy Things,” the story focuses on a mother, Magdalena, who is struggling to navigate the new emotional distance between herself and her son as he becomes an adult with an unlikable live-in girlfriend. When his girlfriend falls into a coma, Magdalena thinks the relationship will come to a natural end, but her son drifts farther away as he spends all of his time at work or the hospital to provide for and care for his girlfriend. In his absence, Magdalena finds her dreams haunted by her son’s girlfriend and wonders if the girl might be “her imaginary friend, come to fill the void” her son left, or even her “spirit, a sort of pre-ghost.” Magdalena resented her for taking up all of her son’s attention, yet in her dreams she is able to speak her mind without walking the conversational tightrope with her son because she’s afraid of pushing him further away. While the concept of the ghost works well in this story as it captures the spirit’s personality and Magdalena’s subconscious fears and desires, the story feels a bit lacking in the sense that her son’s character feels flat and the reader has to interpret his intentions through Magdalena’s insecurities. But through the dreams, Soto creates a space of peace and reflection for Magdalena away from the waking world filled with violence, an encroaching forest fire, and change as she prepares for a time when her son no longer needs her, all of which illustrates the significance of a shift into an emotional journey parallel to but not overshadowed by the physical world.
As with each story, Soto captures the perspective of a diverse cast of characters, but “The Vegetable Church” brings together a cultural medley that gives the narrative an interesting dynamic as we are introduced to characters at the precipice of change into an unknown future. Yet consistent with the style of the collection, Soto masterfully uses this story to illustrate the quiet moments between trauma and recovery. Set in Frankfurt, Germany, we meet American veterans struggling to process their mental and physical trauma from the war in Afghanistan, while their French neighbors take in two Syrian refugee sisters. The older sister, Fatima, is at the heart of this story as she reflects on her future, her life in Syria, the death of her father, and the assault of her older sister. The intersection of culture and the variety of traumatic experiences makes this story stand out, and unlike other first-person narratives in this collection, Soto allows Fatima to portray her frustration with those around her in realistic ways as she navigates being a traumatized refugee teenager, and a polite guest in an unfamiliar country. As she interacts more with her host family’s friend, Meta, she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the ramblings of an outsider’s perspective on her situation. She says, “I was realizing that to a person like Meta, I was simply the victim she had nothing to do with but would be apologizing to for the rest of her life. Every attempt she made to bring us closer inside her world only left me feeling farther outside of it.” As with other stories in the collection, we never get the full scope of Fatima’s trauma and the experiences she had fleeing her country, or an overture suggesting a prosperous future. But regardless, this story effectively captures the brief transitional space at the crossroads of the character's life with a tone that lands as stoically realist as it illustrates how these moments and encounters can become formative stepping stones within a broader story and uncertain future.
At times the collection incorporates speculative fiction, giving the reader glimpses into lightly dystopian futures. We see this most notably in “Death on Mars,” as humans have not only colonized Mars, but have prolonged human life to essentially make death a choice. While Strom reflects on his life, grief over the death of his daughter, and his resolve to die, this story also captures the ways Soto maintains a sense of dark humor as he cuts through serious situations with a dry irony. After his father’s death back on earth, Strom discovers that his father “had been a prosaic BDSM novelist with a penchant for schmaltzy auto-erotic suicide endings.” Yet in his wake, his father’s AI bot took up the mantle to keep writing. As the narrative is broken up with Strom’s philosophizing on life, death, an afterlife, and sections of the bot’s latest book, we begin to see the ways in which afterlife becomes a subjective term:
Mars is the afterlife. In the nineteenth century, we gave ourselves over to fate; in the twentieth, the market; in the twenty-first, both abandoned us. We have to give ourselves back over to the Earth, like pagans. We were supposed to die there, to be buried in it.
For Strom and the other Martians, Mars is the afterlife. It’s life after Earth, and it’s where he’d hoped to find the synthetic echo of his daughter as he did with his father’s AI bot. But for those born on Mars, the presence of the bots illustrate how life goes on in unexpected ways. Although the story is often exposition heavy, the futuristic elements of this story draw the reader in as Soto does well to give a concise history and context to the colonization of Mars and maintains the collection’s tone that it is worthwhile to sit in the moments between nostalgia and the future because it allows us to reflect on the essence of our humanity from the past that shaped us and the future we desire.
The stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep are meant to sit with the reader and digest slowly. Throughout the collection Soto draws the reader into the often overlooked transitional spaces of a character’s life, and while each story is full and complete, the reader will be left hungry for more as Soto leaves his endings open to the possibility of an unending expansive future.