The afterparty is a queer kind of thing. It’s not the party, but it’s also not not the party. It’s pretty clear when it begins, not at all clear when it ends. It’s a time of extremes: People get sloppier; arguments get louder; drama gets more dramatic. As Anthony Veasna So writes in his story “We Would’ve Been Princes!,” at the afterparty people “liberate themselves from their duties.” Liberation can lead to exultation; it also can lead to despair. “So let the real drinking commence!”
“We Would’ve Been Princes!” is one of nine excellent stories in So’s appropriately named debut collection, “Afterparties.” Like the other stories, “We Would’ve Been Princes!” centers on youngish Cambodian Americans living in or near the Central Valley — “a dusty California free of ambition or beaches.” (So, who passed away in December at the age of 28, grew up in Stockton before attending Stanford and Syracuse.) Like the other stories, it trades in dark humor. The two main characters are named Marlon and Bond: “the logic’s so Cambodian it hurts: name your kids after the first movies you saw after immigrating, and bam! … American Dream achieved!” But this comedy is cut with even darker despair: drug addiction; trauma-induced insomnia; yearnings that struggle to be named and can’t be satisfied.
Marlon and Bond aren’t quite sure how they’ve ended up here: here meaning at the afterparty, playing beer pong and causing trouble, but also meaning at this point in their lives, with Marlon trying to resist pills and drink, Bond working as a paralegal but imagining himself as a “struggling painter … the word struggling feeling more redundant with every passing year.” Finally, for these children of refugees, here means in America, attending a traditional Cambodian wedding and then drunkenly dancing to American pop music. (“Can you really be a drunk Cambo without blasting Mariah Carey,” a character shouts before playing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in July.) This is America as afterparty: messy, exhilarating, sad.
So’s stories work in concert. Queer hookups, class division, and diasporic experience; Cambodian-owned groceries, Cambodian-managed auto shops, Cambodian-run video stores: all combine and recombine across the collection, which is not so much a novel-in-stories as a world-in-stories. In “We Would’ve Been Princes!,” the narrator describes a Cambodian community that is so tight it can be suffocating: the bride “pos[es] with her parents, then with her siblings, then with her half siblings, then with her cousins, second cousins, third cousins twice removed, then with the in-laws, then with the family that owns Chuck’s Donuts and the other family that owns Angkor Pharmacy.” The family that owns Chuck’s Donuts, referred to in passing here, has a starring role in the first and strongest story in the collection, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts”; Angkor Pharmacy has a cameo in “The Shop,” a story about a gay college graduate working at his father’s car repair shop. (“That was what Cambo men did. They fixed cars, sold donuts, or got on welfare.”) In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” the eponymous character attends community college, smokes pot, and hooks up with her boyfriend, Rithy. In “The Monks,” we fast forward: Rithy and Maly are still together (kind of), with Rithy about to enlist in the army. In “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” there’s an even bigger temporal jump: Maly is now past her 30s, divorced and remarried with two kids.
“Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” shows philosophical ambition and stylistic grace. Throughout the story, people look at reflections of themselves and others, in windows and in mirrors. At first, this seems an amateurish way to force character description. (Countless debut novels feature a character clumsily looking at herself in the mirror within the first few pages.) As the story unfolds, though, we realize that this mirroring is intentional. So is interested in reflection: how we often come to see ourselves by seeing other people; how, just as often, we look at others in an attempt to look away from ourselves. All of this is rooted in sentences that are observant and alive. We see a character’s “wiry mustache [that] seems misplaced, from a different decade”; we find ourselves “overdosing on the smell of yeast and burning air from the ovens” in a donut shop.
So’s stories express a fundamental ambivalence. His characters hate the California they grew up in yet remain fiercely loyal to it; they are rooted in family and history yet feel adrift in a world not their own; they desire intimacy yet sabotage it with great willingness; their bodies bear “the aftermath of war, genocide, [and] colonialism” but remain defiantly alive. “Funny, I’ve lived here, in this city, my entire life, but I wouldn’t really call it my home,” Rithy says in “The Monks.” There’s a sadness to this collection, even at its funniest.
It’s impossible to read “Afterparties” without thinking of So’s early, tragic death. But, as his collection shows, trauma is not the end of the story — not for his characters nor for Cambodian Americans. Here are the final words in So’s first and final collection: “What is nuance in the face of all that we’ve experienced? But for me, your mother, just remember that, for better or worse, we can be described as survivors. Okay? Know that we’ve always kept on living. What else could we have done?”
By Anthony Veasna So
Ecco, 272 pp., $27.99
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’'