Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pampuro, Wish List and Other Stories (2022)

Amanda Pampuro, Wish List and Other Stories. Alien Buddha Press, 2022. Pp. 107. ISBN 979-8-78138-337-5. $10.44.

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

At least one lifetime ago, I took a graduate class covering rhetoric and technology. It was a great class with a great professor and classmates whose company I enjoyed. One evening we were discussing the ability of technology to track us, and I mentioned my frequent customer fob for the gas station I frequented. I hadn’t thought of it before, I said, but a so-inclined Speedway marketing manager would have been able to figure out an awful lot about me based on what I bought at each station I visited. About where I lived. About where I visited. How many kids I had and their approximate ages (because who in their right mind buys four slushies at one time?). What days I attended class. The approximate day the doctor told me to stop drinking slushies. A general idea of what kind of car I drove. It was a scary reminder of all the information I happily turned over just to earn a free slushie after every fifth purchase.

Amanda Pampuro’s excellent story “Wish List” runs with my off-putting realization and puts the entire purchase history of one person into the context of her life, letting a near-sentient algorithm observe her from the other side of the digital shopping cart. Because the story is told in the voice of an almost-Amazon (but definitely Amazon), we get to know everything the computer knows. The voice isn’t quite self-aware, so in effect becomes a clever twist on the unreliable narrator. We have realizations the computer doesn’t. The voice is unfeeling, but we aren’t, and though early on we know how this story ends, it’s nice to be a tourist along the journey.

We like to think we’re in charge of our decisions, but retailers have long-known consumers are an impulsive, suggestible lot. That’s why candy bars decorate the counters at gas stations and Planet Muscles runs television commercials during New Year Resolution season. Our buying habits aren’t secrets and we understand that at some level. But we don’t want to be reminded that our choices aren’t really our choices after all, and when we do exercise our free will, it tends to go poorly. Pampuro deftly plays on those fears and what we know, even if we don’t want to think about it.

“Wish List” is a little cold, with a distance between the speaker and its subject, especially given how intimately the computer knows our main character. Pampuro resists the urge to make the algorithm feel, however, which must have been tough to fight. Whatever wistfulness creeps into the voice is a result of lost data. The story is stronger for it.

The other two stories included in this slim book, “By the Light of the Moons” and “Flight of the Valkyries,” also have a distance to their narrative voices. After “Wish List,” these effects aren’t surprising, but on their own I would have wanted to feel more welcome in their worlds. They are fine stories that also unpack how we experience the world around us; although “Wish List” is clearly the star, you’ll read the whole book cover-to-cover and be better for it.

I still think about that class I took, at least a lifetime ago, and in the years since I sat at those desks I’ve continued to study and write about how we live with and within technology. The fact that I read a physical copy of Pampuro’s book probably says more than a little about how I’m dealing with the screens that surround us. What would the algorithm think? I know Spotify knows I shop at Kroger, and Google knows I thought about buying a version of the brass instrument I played in high school. I suppose when my ringtone suddenly changes to “Rhapsody for Euphonium” I’ll figure it’s time to log off for a while.

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