by DW McKinney
You Might Forget The Sky Was Ever Blue by Michael Chin
Duck Lake Books, 2019
136 pages / Purchasing link
“The healing ain’t pretty, but I’ll be damned before I go to the grave with any kind of hurt left on me….Would you like to try yelling?”
Yes, I would. And I’m sure you do too. There’s a reason why rage rooms exist. But I’m not the one being asked this question, which appears in You Might Forget The Sky Was Ever Blue. Nevertheless, more of us should be yelling. And if you aren’t now, you will be by the book’s end.
Humanity’s fragility is on full display in Michael Chin’s debut short story collection. As people manage pain inflicted on them, they reflexively hurt others in the process. We follow various narrators as trauma manifests at parties, in schools, and in the bedroom. It even blossoms to the deafening soundtrack of fireworks. It can happen anytime and anywhere, a terrifying fact exemplified by the breadth of the storytelling.
Chin’s writing style allows him to stretch the longer stories such that the reader’s attention is pulled to the trembling end. Some scenes are written with more depth and rooted in stronger imagery than others, which suggests the author is drawing from a more familiar reference point. A writer’s everyday life serves as inspiration for their work and often this is a strength, but it shines through enough that, as a whole, the book can read a little uneven. Yet these scenes don’t do much to mitigate the disturbing, and perhaps triggering, themes that unfold throughout the book. But it’s Chin’s straightforward prose that propels the narratives, and this is how the stories draw their power.
“Prophecy” starts the collection as it follows the life of a teacher to depict, well, self-fulfilling prophecies. We see them in the teacher’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rebekah, and in his interactions with a student, as well as his new obsession with politics. Here, Chin weaves seemingly incompatible ideas together, demonstrating the almost orchestrated chaos that informs how we see the world.
“Practical Men” illustrates silence’s deadliness as a weapon and how we lie and hurt each other to maintain our own safety. “The End of the World” and “You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue,” appear near the middle and are arguably the book’s heart. While the other stories represent singular parts to the book’s overall body, these two are the body at its core. They tell a complete narrative, an entire world from beginning to end. The two encapsulate themes that are present in the other stories, but they also benefit from sharing a storyline. The fictional Shermantown, New York, also serves as a backdrop for multiple stories. The bleakness of the city in one story becomes an ominous cloud seeping into the others. “Tree Man,” a flash fiction piece, is a bright spot that provides a humorous reprieve from the emotional onslaught on the pages before it.
The clearest articulation of the entire book is revealed in “Prophecy” when Rebekah says,
“It’s what we fear. It’s what will happen. Kill or be killed…The monsters and the people fighting for survival are going to get harder to tell apart.”
There’s an undeniable truth to Rebekah’s assertion that is appropriate to our time. We see this often throughout the collection. Chin’s stories critically examine our modern society through a host of topics related to the current cultural zeitgeist, but they also have an underlying timeless relevancy. We read about gentrification and police shootings of unarmed Black men, school shooters, terrorism, and the refugee crisis; sexual assault and consent (“Otters”); and homophobia and media ethics. There is also the lingering threat of something elsebelow the surface of the narratives. It makes you tense up, hesitating to read the next line because you’re unsure if you’ll withstand whatever happens next. This isn’t unlike how I feel in my usual day-to-day, and if social media is to be believed, it isn’t uncommon for others to also sit pensively in expectation of news dictating another horror or life-altering disruption.
Chin wields his craft adeptly and his stories fall in line with his genre’s contemporaries. The collection cannot—and I argue, should not—be read in one sitting. Chin does a remarkable job of forcing us to address difficult subject matters head on. Thus, the collection is at times gut-wrenching and uncomfortable. It was most difficult for me when we stepped behind the male gaze to candid descriptions of young girls—but this is also the cusp of adolescence, a sore reality that we all endure. I wanted to escape this gaze, to brush away its invisible presence reaching out from the page; however, Chin twists our expectations of what should happen. We don’t get to step away, instead sticking with it to its uncomfortable conclusion.
Nothing is what it seems in this short story collection. We meet fragile characters, whose flaws and insecurities—the raw parts of themselves—are carried page-to-page. We are left holding our breath, waiting for the moment when someone comes along and presses a finger deep into the raw point, gouging out a wound—in the character and in ourselves. Sometimes that never happens, and we let out the breath we’ve been holding, but we are rarely left satisfied. In this collection, you truly forget the sky—what I imagine is our hope—was ever blue.
DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch Media, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary Journal, TAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.