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REVIEW: Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke


Title: Let’s Play White
Author: Chesya Burke
Pub Date: April 26, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An quiet, emotional ride.

Meeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general ambiance all have an impact. The honest truth of the matter is that if I – a middle-class white guy in my late twenties – had not had the pleasure of meeting Chesya Burke at Readercon this past year, I probably would have skipped over her collection Let’s Play White. I would have judged it solely on the title, and Jordan Casteel’s excellent cover, as being intended for a different audience. And if I had skipped it, I would have missed a quiet collection of emotionally powerful short stories that remind me of Shirley Jackson at her best.

It’s tough to try and identify a common theme across the eleven stories in this collection. Yes, they all deal with race, class, and gender to some extent. But the stories avoid both strident polemics and simplistic allegory. Instead, Burke focuses on the more emotionally intense inner experiences of her characters, thus going beyond the superficial trappings of race, gender, or class. It’s tough to bring the totality of a character – incorporating both their personality and societal context – to life in a work of short fiction. There just isn’t that much room to build that reader/character relationship. But in each of the book’s stories, Burke pulls it off by giving us vibrant, powerful, and vivid characters that we can follow and feel for. Which is why the horror of their experiences is so powerful.

The stories in this collection are tough to classify. They skirt the liminal edge between horror, dark urban fantasy, noir, and straightforward mainstream literary fiction. Stories like “Walter and the Three-Legged King” or “He Who Takes the Pain Away” have a magical realist flavor to them, but the magic does not produce horror in the reader. Instead, the choices the characters make, and the consequences of those choices evoke that sense of horror.

Several of the stories stand out as being particularly effective. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is an excellent noir story set in early 1930’s Harlem. Anyone familiar with the history of post-Prohibition gangs in New York will enjoy Burke’s spin. Most of the stories and movies (like The Cotton Club) I’ve come across that focus on that time period tend to zoom in on the larger-than-life personalities of Bumpy Johnson, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano. But “I Make People Do Bad Things” instead focuses on Madame St. Clair, who was the Dutchman’s primary competition in the Harlem numbers racket. Burke opens up an interesting (fictional) window into her life and times, and in particular into a relationship she develops with a young girl with mysterious powers. The story pulls no punches, and portrays the kind of hard-as-nails toughness that is particular to all great noir stories. Yet at the same time, Burke manages to make St. Clair a more human character than most noir heroes, with fully realized flaws, regrets, and acceptance of choices made.

Both “Purse” and “What She Saw When They Flew Away” are quiet, heartfelt stories of loss that have few – if any – fantastical elements to them. The former evokes horror both on an emotional and visual level, while the latter is difficult to even call horror, unless that is the horror of deep sorrow. Were it not for the powerful visuals in “Purse” I suspect both stories would fit well within mainstream literary magazines, opening a window into the sad reality of women coming to terms with the loss of daughters and sisters. In many respects, I thought that they blended the quiet humanity of Shirley Jackson’s best work with Richard Matheson’s tactical use of violence.

Of the stories in this collection, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” brought Shirley Jackson most to mind. In particular, it reminded me of my favorite Jackson short story (“Flower Garden”, which I’ve written about before). From a plotting and a stylistic standpoint, the two stories are very different. For one, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” is more insistent. For another, it is much more direct than the Jackson story and represents bigotry head-on in its action. Yet despite this directness, it evokes similar sensations of horror and judgment, while retaining a quiet depth that will stay with me for quite some time.

Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me. In particular, I found the plot of “Walter and the Three-Legged King” unsatisfying at its conclusion. Much as I love ambiguous endings left open to interpretation, I felt that this story’s ending was too rushed, missing out on a symmetry to balance its excellent beginning and middle. Similarly, “CUE: Change” stood out as being a touch more simplistic than most of the other stories in the collection. In and of itself, it was not a bad story: the narrator’s voice was excellent (arguably one of the best executed voices in the collection) but I found that the story’s resolution lacked the subtlety and quiet resonance of its neighbors. Of the eleven stories in the collection, only three didn’t really work for me.

If you’re looking for a gore-spattered mess of horror, then Let’s Play White is probably not the book for you. Sure, Burke has scenes of visceral blood and guts, but they are rare in these stories, and then only used to evoke horror tangentially. Like Jackson, Burke taps into that eternal font of the most horrific aspects of humanity: our twisted desires, reasoning, and emotions. She shows what happens when we are pushed too far, but she does it with a deft hand and subtlety that is refreshing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future!

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