#30Authors - Lauren Acampora on Viral by Emily Mitchell
In 2007, I fell hard for Emily Mitchell's elegant and authoritative debut novel, The Last Summer of the World, about the WWI-era photographer Edward Steichen. I've impatiently awaited her next book, and this summer it finally arrived in the form of Viral, a collection of rampantly imaginative short fiction that I snapped up and devoured immediately.
Some of the twelve fictional pieces are conventional stories; others anything but. One after another they tangle with the ways we try to navigate a disorienting and alienating modern culture: whether by quashing, or expressing, our common longing for connection. In the opening piece, "Smile Report," we're plunged into a near-futuristic workplace where shrill positivism is carried to a disquieting extreme. This piece, reminiscent of George Saunders, gives a first look at Mitchell's talent for the psychological deep-dive. Like Saunders, she excels in rooting out the internal monologues that loop in our brains as we go about our daily lives—and can be slyly, dryly funny.
Some of the stories dip into the fantastical, like "My Daughter and Her Spider," about a girl who adopts a robotic spider as a companion, and "Viral," which imagines a coordinated attempt by teenagers worldwide to simultaneously ignite and launch themselves as human fireworks. In "Guided Meditation," the voice on a relaxation recording turns snippy and judgmental: "Feel your tension ebb away. Feel it draining down... If you don't feel the tension draining out of you, you really need to try a bit harder to relax."
Among my favorites in the volume is "If You Cannot Go to Sleep," a deceptively quiet piece concerning a woman who, in her post-divorce life, becomes nearly paralyzed with loneliness and self-recrimination, to the point that she cannot decide whether to lock her bedroom door, or to pick up the phone when it rings. Few writers can infuse a story like this with such poignant beauty, and elevate it to a level that feels universal. And yet, in this enchantingly original collection, Mitchell achieves that feat again and again: slicing through the anxieties and pressures of everyday life and carving out space for compassion, authenticity, and real human contact.
Lauren Acampora's debut collection of linked stories, The Wonder Garden, was published in May 2015 by Grove Atlantic, and has been named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writersselection, an Amazon Debut Spotlight of the Month, and an Indie Next selection. Her short fiction has also appeared in publications such as the Paris Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, Antioch Review, and Day One. For more information, visit www.laurenacampora.com.