“Soma” is ethnologically known as a ritual drink of impotence in Indo-Iranian culture, but its more popular reference may come from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, wherein it’s literally an opiate of the masses. Big shoes for Savannah Schroll Guz to fill here in her second collection of stories, American Soma, but she does her major influences, Huxley and George Orwell, proud. Which is why I don’t understand why American Soma is not huge, like in bookstores and on all major indie reading lists. It’s not that Guz’s stories are timely and foreboding, which of course they are, it’s that her writing is damn good.
Take the opening title story, which serves as the thematic anchor for the collection. We are told that, during a critical presidential election, deals were cut by the government with major pizza chains and coffee, soft drink, and beer suppliers to add a yellowish-looking, tasteless powder to their products, a product believed to enhance serotonin levels in the brain. Because a happy public doesn’t vote out the incumbent, right? What makes the story particularly compelling is the narrator’s seeming authority on the manner of production and the course of metabolism in the unwitting subject. And yet we don’t believe him or her entirely; when explaining how this information reached the narrator, he or she vaguely offers that “people who know things shouldn’t talk and often do.” Is the narrator complicit in this monstrous government cover-up and one of those who shouldn’t talk, or is the government cover-up merely an illusion, a byproduct of the narrator’s own instability? Guz creates an interesting premise that in believing no one, not the government, not even oneself, all things are possible.
Guz revisits the theme of societal vulnerability, particularly when it comes to our food and water supplies, throughout. In “Evolution,” a surge of prepubescent boys become hermaphrodites as the result of urban water-purification systems not filtering out estrogen from birth-control pills and hormone-replacement therapies, and in the “Fountain,” one of my favorite stories, toilet water in the bathroom of a hayseed bar turns out to be a kind of fountain of youth.
But pathology isn’t limited to government screw-ups. Guz also explores the cult of celebrity in “An August Night in Paris,” which imagines the last moments of Diana, Princess of Wales, and “Not Very Far from the a Tree,” a study of the rise and fall of Anna Nicole Smith (or someone very much like her). Although it is territory Guz explored in a previous collection, The Famous and The Anonymous, it’s a nice change of pace here. Famous or not, Guz’s characters are either sedated and unhappy or painfully aware they have been pushed into a corner like cats without claws. Although we are relieved we are not these characters, we realize we really have no solutions for them, and ultimately ourselves, which is the scariest realization of all.
Guz may be channeling the coming of the apocalypse in American Soma, but at least it doesn’t sound ugly. Her writing is layered; word choices are simultaneously clinical and appraising. Sentences like “I’ve sniffed the traces of hopelessness that leak like sewer gas through cracks in the parquet” and “The music made him dream, and inside his brain, the chemical radiations and the thermal burn expanded further and could well have lit the room were it dusk” and “a might in cracking open pearlescent lies to find the abrasive grains of fact that spurred them” are worth the purchase price alone. Woven with a sophisticated sense of narrative, a cross-stitch of satire, and pattern of societal indifference, American Soma smiles at you while reminding you that, yes, you’ve been warned.
Jen Michalski’s first collection of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, is available from So New Media (2007) and her second is forthcoming from Dzanc (2013). She is the editor of the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE (CityLit Press 2010) and the editor of the lit zine jmww. jenmichalski.com