Brian Leung, World Famous Love Acts, Sarabande Books, 2004

[Review Guidelines]

Brian Leung's recent book of short stories, World Famous Love Acts, is a deft and crafted first collection. Though it initially comes across as overly Straightforward Narrative (several reviews, including one in the Indiana Review and a snarky one on Amazon, have criticized the heavy-handedness of his story endings, suggesting that they wrap up too neatly, that they become too baldly thematic), we found much to like herein.
     There's a moment in "Drawings by Andrew Warhol," the penultimate story in the book, which turns out to be the most important story if not the best story in the book, where the running head flicks from "Andrew" to "Andy" (on page 169, a recto page, if you're counting). This is almost definitely an accident—one typographical error in an otherwise clean book—but there is a chance that it's not. Reason being that the heart of the story—the detail revealed on that very same page—is the difference between Andrews and Andys, which is the difference between the background and the foreground, between the flatlands and the elevation, what's dull and what's important. The story features a character who is quite probably a serial killer, and that moment in the story—this close-up with/of death—activates the narrator's life.
     Again, it's hard to believe that this is intentional: this is a book that otherwise honors the rules of the book as a container for text. Nowhere else does the content (the stories) interact with the form (the layout and typography): this is a conservative book design (and one might take issue with the font selection and leading—the text block looks a bit too double-spaced workshop prose). Too, these are mostly conservative stories (as Chris Offutt notes in his Foreword/blurb: "[Leung] gains trust the old-fashioned way—through confidence, craftsmanship, and compassion").
     Yet the attentive reader is confronted with the possibly radical fact of it, a glitch that happens at exactly the right time in the story and in the book. It's a fitting violation: a poke in the fictional bubble, an interchange between form and content, an acknowledgment that the book's form has meaning and potential to work with (or against) the text.
     This particular moment in this particular story (probably the most consciously exciting of the bunch: it's got sharks and guns, where elsewhere we see eggs, gardens, and archaeology—though, to be fair, the second story, "Executing Dexter," is fairly high-profile too) pushes the thing from Good Book into Something Special.
     These stories are Good Stories, as Offutt reminds us. We see a range of characters and situations, an excellent array of conflict and narrative. The strength of the collection only begins to reveal itself as we read further, as some of the stories begin to connect (the lost daughter in an earlier story is the gone-LA porn star in a later story; several characters are from a presumably fictive small town in Washington state), and this structural flourish, this convergence (reminiscent of Leung's flair for story endings), this recognition of underlying order has a pleasing effect. It suggests that maybe there is a genius to the thing working beneath our radar, and gives us a reason to believe that the typo, the glitch, isn't simply that, that it might be an element of craft. And that's a pretty neat bit of magic.