Self-Portrait with Ghost: Short Stories by Meng Jin

Sly and surreal Self-Portrait with Ghost makes for a playfully weird and refreshingly inventive collection of short stories. Like most collections, not all of its stories are created equal, as there are a couple, especially the shorter ones last, that are rather forgettable.

The most effective stories were the ones that, although characterized by a whimsical & off-beat tone, contained surprising moments of introspection and incisiveness. The surreal elements within these narratives are rendered all the more peculiar by Meng Jin’s deadpan delivery. In ‘Philip Is Dead’, our narrator recollects her relationship with Philip, a solipsistic artist who would routinely use her for his art or during his creative process. Convinced of his brilliance, he consistently failed to see the narrator’s own potential and talent. In ‘Suffering’ Ling, a single mother begins an online exchange with Mr. Fu, an older man. As soon as the two attempts to meet IRL, someone begins poisoning Ling’s favorite cream. In ‘Self-Portrait with Ghost’ our narrator, a writer, finds herself ‘haunted’ by a childhood friend, who challenges her understanding of real and unreal. In ‘First Love’ a woman, employed by her friend to look after her child, falls for X. The two knew each other growing up and have once again found one another so their rekindling is bittersweet. While most of the previous stories are set in China, ‘Selena and Ruthie’ transports us to America where we follow Selena, a Chinese American girl with a promising voice. She becomes fast friends with Ruthie, who also sings in the chorus. Ruthie and her ‘cool’ mother offer an escape for Selena, who lives with her widowed father. As Selena becomes more engrossed in Ruthie, she begins to draw away from her only friend, Helen. This short story was one of my favorites, as it presents us with a compelling coming-of-age exploring sexuality, identity, and unrequited love. Many of these stories feature characters who are attempting to gain self-knowledge as they navigate their regrets, jealousies, and desires. Past mistakes and disappointments encroach on their present-day lives, sometimes in the guise of actual ghosts. Otherness, whether stemming from one’s queerness and/or one’s cultural background, is also a motif in this collection, as time and again we follow characters who are lonely & disconnected. Death, beauty, and creativity are other recurring themes, and Jin explores these with ingenuity.

Meng Jin plays around with perspective and narrative modes but her language always retains a wry tone, which often enhances a story’s absurd elements and moments. I can definitely see this collection appealing to fans of authors like Kevin Wilson, Helen Oyeyemi, and Hiromi Kawakami.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

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