Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Saxey, Lost in the Archives (2022)

E. Saxey, Lost in the Archives. Lethe Press, 2022. Pp. 220. ISBN 978-1-59021-723-8. $16.00.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

“Archives” is a surprisingly bendy term these days, currently popular as an academic theory of textual collection and collation that has staggeringly little to do with the reality of physical materials hosted in libraries, records offices, and various institutions. As an actual archivist who spends real time up to her elbows in odds and ends in various levels of process, it’s a topic I can get a bit cranky about. E. Saxey, author of Lost in the Archives, is a queer academic who clearly knows the feeling; their debut collection spans the past, present, and future, this plane and other planes, and gracefully and effortlessly bounces between soft romance, cynical academia, and both hope and pessimism for our cloudy future.

Consisting of sixteen short stories previously published between 2015 and 2020, Archives feels indelibly of the moment. There is a preoccupation with the slipperiness of identity and place that suffuses many of the stories. Characters are queer both in the sense of being nonheteronormative and in the sense of being defined by absence and uncertainty. Some stories end happily; others, not so happily. Indeed, the volume has a ‘Reading Guide’ prefacing the text that sorts the stories in various categories such as ‘Adventures with Animals’ and ‘Historical Oddities’; the reader can choose to read straight through (I did) or leisurely dip in according to mood.

The collection is solid throughout, but a handful of stories stick out as particular favorites. ‘A Day Without Sunshine’ opens the book and, in case you are wondering, is classified as ‘Near-Future Pessimism.’ Told in the first person and addressing a lover, the story is soft, intimate, and contains all the bleakness of failed relationships and abused technology. In the future, the wealthy can suspend themselves in time chemically, waking up when they have people to see or things to do (or vice versa) and otherwise frozen in time. To them, every day is sunshine, while the lower classes continue day to day whether it is sunny, rainy, or worse. As a metaphor, it works as easily for star-crossed love as it does for class tensions; it concludes bittersweetly.

‘Not Smart, Not Clever’ and ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’ are both categorized under ‘Unhelpful Universities.’ ‘Not Smart, Not Clever’ revolves around the usual sort of undergraduate gaggle of friends, including the obligatory odd one out who is only somewhat accepted into the group by virtue of dating one of its members. In revolving around two accounts of plagiarism, in different times and schools, the story flirts with a familiar sort of school narrative before taking a dark twist. ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’ likewise has an unabashedly dark turn after grasping at one of the thorns of the field: the uneasy line between making information accessible while preventing its misuse and abuse. This is a story that provides food for thought, particularly in our current cultural moment. Though fiction, it speaks to preoccupations and anxieties that archivists and librarians share, and in this case, to some of our worst fears come true.

Other stories take a much lighter touch. ‘Missing Episodes’ is classified under ‘Near-Future Pessimism,’ which is peculiar to me since I read it as among the most hopeful of the stories in the collection. It revolves around the now-adult child actor from a long-running science fiction tv series who is confronted with a surprising discovery during a convention weekend. This story feels like a convention story: the rusty connections between actors on the circuit, people nonchalantly in and out of one another’s rooms to sleep and to share media, the young fan disillusioned by the reality of actors who are themselves preoccupied with finding their next job. And yet. This is also a story about recognizing one’s own shortcomings, and then trying to make an effort to make up for them.

Finally, ‘Uranus’ is one of the several stories classified as ‘Historical Oddities.’ “Uranian” was a term used primarily for gay men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eventually being overtaken by first “invert” and later “homosexual.” The story begins with the news of Oscar Wilde’s arrest for sodomy, and the panic this engenders in the queer community of England. The unnamed narrator and his lover, Christopher, join others in an exodus to Paris for safety; he doesn’t love Chris, nor does he particularly lust for him, but he’s not quite brave enough to strike out on his own, either. He reads a book on astral travel and wishfully aims for the stars, or rather, for Mars (and there’s a lovely little homage to H.G. Wells here) and instead finds himself on some sort of plane that contemporary readers will recognize as the internet, and possibly more specifically, an open-world MMORPG. Both in tone and content, this story felt delightfully old-fashioned, coming to a stop just as our narrator, almost, perhaps, finds the new home he has always wanted.

Lost in the Archives will bear up for multiple rereadings, its entries speaking to a variety of moods. I came away eagerly awaiting for more from E. Saxey; I hope you do too.

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