THE NINE STORIES in Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection All the Names They Used for God aren’t your typical narratives. Each one provides a haiku-esque glimpse into the infinite mind of an individual while revealing how the seeming trivialities of life can reverberate with meaning. Throughout, characters grapple with predetermination as they experience the brutal clash between expectation and reality.
The opener, “The World by Night,” tells Sadie’s story: her husband has gone looking for work outside of town, and during his absence she finds a cave she cannot help but explore. She becomes lost, and though she eventually finds an exit days later, she is drawn to the cave again and again. Sadie wants to discover the underground world that hides all the possibilities her life above ground does not offer. Following faint sounds that she imagines as laughter or brief snippets of conversation, she retreats into the darkness, where reality’s features are no longer discernible.
Reality as imagined by the unseeing eye will remind readers of Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, in which men are chained in the darkness unaware of a world outside their immediate surroundings. In Sadie’s case, she chooses to avoid the harsh blows of reality by coveting a darkness that cannot be understood and whose source can never be explained. The mysterious darkness in this story establishes the tone for the rest of the collection by immediately throwing readers into the pitch black. Only once readers’ eyes have adjusted does Sachdeva provide a glimmer of light:
She is back in the cave, at the edge of that dark chasm where she saw the blue lights dance, and she holds in her hand a rope that is wondrously long and light. […] The deeper she goes, the lighter it becomes, but the light is strange. It is bright white but it does not hurt her eyes, and in fact she can see better than before.
In “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid,” a fisherman encounters a mermaid during a fishing trip. Completely enamored of her singularity, he signs up for as many fishing trips as possible and risks hypothermia every night to go into the water and be close to her (this relationship will remind some of Guillermo del Toro’s recent Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water). Though she comes to see Robert every night, the mermaid is in love with a different creature. She takes great pleasure in feeding a shark every day and travels around with him for security. Again, Sachdeva mixes the mesmerizing with the petrifyingly dangerous, and the sweet spot nestled at this intersection encapsulates the world in which her characters function. Even the description of the shark mixes beauty and horror, effectively staging the scene of a thriller without ever stepping foot in the genre:
The shark was a solid whip of muscle, carelessly lethal, and his presence transformed the drab queen of the northern sea into a place she longed for even though she could not properly recall it.
In “Logging Lake,” a new couple goes out hiking and only one of the lovers returns. At one point, the man, Robert, looks out at the landscape. “He couldn’t deny it was magnificent, but there was something unnerving about it, too, the weight of all that silence.” All the characters carry that weight, as if their literary environment were their responsibility and they must be held accountable for what occurs within it. In “Anything You Might Want,” Gina, the daughter of a rich Montana entrepreneur, and Michael, a miner-gambler who owes money to him, run away together. But Michael has other plans and abandons Gina in the middle of nowhere with the empty promise of return. It would make sense for readers to expect that Gina would be devastated that this man left her. But she isn’t. This is her fate, and she knows it can’t be otherwise. The story in which her character was born had already determined that she would be left to her own devices, but it also, in the end, will deliver the chance for sweet revenge.
Revenge is a popular item on Sachdeva’s menu. In one of the most gripping stories, “All the Names for God,” two kidnapped victims of Boko Haram, Abike and Promise, grapple with both the horrors they endured as detainees and a new ability to hypnotize men. This skill gets them a free hotel room, money, and obedience from their husbands. At the beginning of the story, Abike tries to check into a hotel without a reservation by saying it’s under the name Okonkwo. This name is no accident. Taken from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is the tragic hero who dies as a consequence of the intervention of individuals from outside his reality: missionaries and colonizers. More importantly, Okonkwo is the ultimate symbol of literary fate. His character and the motives behind all of his actions were predetermined before the pen hit the page, and, as a result, he is unable to adapt to the changing literary environment he is fated to inhabit. In Sachdeva’s story, Promise, the narrator, refuses to engage in the plot as it unravels:
“After a while, you put your effort into learning not to see them while you looked right at them, into singing songs in your head so you didn’t hear them scream.”
In “Manus,” revenge is a dish best served extraterrestrial. The Black Mirror–esque episode posits a world that has been invaded by aliens, though not in a hostile takeover. Called Masters, the aliens require that every human go through a procedure that replaces their hands with metal forks. When humans fight back, the Masters, whose bodies are extremely poisonous, kill them by coming in close proximity to their skin. The narrator’s girlfriend, Yvette, refuses to go through the procedure and becomes a revolutionary hero. By choosing not to adapt to her environment she becomes the only character in the book able to rewrite her fate. As a result, the Yvette that the narrator knows disappears:
If I turned back to that stage, if her rebellion ignited a mutiny that saved us all and her face covered every billboard on the planet, still, I would never really see her again. No one would, not even the hosts who carried her defiance in a moving mosaic, who pumped the blood through her body and shared the sparks in her nerves.
Adaptability, or the impossibility of it, is dramatized most clearly in “Pleiades,” the closing story. Del, the protagonist, is one in a set of septuplets that were genetically modified into existence. They are an anomaly, an impossible result of science pushed too far. Consequently, Del watches each of her siblings die from debilitating illness. As the only survivor, she carries with her not only that monumental loss, but also their souls, thoughts, feelings, and sights. She is the container in which the other six survive death.
On her way from New York to California, Del picks up a hitchhiker, Troy, with whom she engages in a strange and affectionate relationship. He watches as Del’s body slowly dissolves and makes it a point to accompany her on her final journey: to get to the beach, lie in the sand, and bathe in the ocean. The inevitability comforts her:
This is where things crumble irrevocably, where there is nowhere left to go. We’ll become salt. We’ll become storm clouds on the water. And then emptiness, one to seven to one to zero in the space of twenty-three years. Science will have nothing to do with us anymore, nor we with it. We will be just a void in the cosmos, a dark place in the sky where there was once starlight.
Sachdeva’s stories are as delicate as Del’s crumbling body, but they somehow tackle the reader with their totality. Her literary world is magnetic. The author has created perfect, complete micro-universes that lure the reader in to the dark depths of literature like siren song. And yet All the Names They Used for God shines in a way that leads characters and readers alike back out of the caves and frozen waters and into the warm, mysterious light.
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.