People do so much suffering and dying in A Pornography of Grief that endurance starts seeming indecent. There are two broken necks before Page 30, abundant bodily violations thereafter, and always a weary daze of bereavement. The bleak, nervy beauty of Philip Huang's debut story collection, then, is that it could not possibly feel more alive.
He specializes in a sort of anticatharsis that, in his best stories, builds to and subverts the more traditional catharsis to which fiction often aspires. Take "House Party," in which tipsy neighbors needing to pee intrude repeatedly on a movie about the Holocaust; or "Pasadena," in which suburban bourgie domesticity intrudes on basement electroshock S&M domination. In "The Chair," with a heavy pang of irony, Huang records "the gods' reminder, according to local legends, that sensuality belonged to youth, to those still close to the act of creation."
The book's title seems apt, at once a caveat and a come-on. Huang, the batty queer performance artist, Home Theater Festival founder, and wry sender-up of pious "It Gets Better" videos ("It Gets Worse" is his), knows enough not to trust morbid narcissism or queeny survivor guilt, but wants to indulge those poses too. These impulses might seem contradictory, but in his work they reveal a rare, restless understanding.
In fragmentary stories marked by a blunt lyricism, Huang demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the fragility of human connection. The prose gallops down the page, sometimes startling even itself. "For months," he writes in "The Widow Season," "though Elizabeth and I fed him in rounds, we watched Paul's ribs and spine surface from his body like the first spires of a lost city rising from the sea." Then, an urgent single-line paragraph: "Must I be so florid?" Then, another: "I insisted on eating his come."
Obviously this won't be to all tastes. Huang's accelerated, abbreviated manner is almost ruthlessly contemporary (albeit with the occasional fancifully pervy historical digression), and his is a voice of such vitality that it threatens to overwhelm any other voices his imagination records. Which is to say that some ostensibly female protagonists still read as gay men. Here and there the stories tend to overheat, but Huang has containment strategies — defense mechanisms and offense mechanisms. Pithy pungency seems like his default. A few of the pieces seem schematic or skitlike, written as if only to be performed. Still, Huang writes marvelously and fearlessly on behalf of those who've been deprived of any future. Doing so, he ensures his own.