“The most detailed way to describe something is in terms of everything that it’s not.”
We learn right away that Joan knows how to shrink the universe. She explains to us, “The definition of the universe is bigger when there are more nonexistent objects by which we can, through an inverse procedure, describe it.” So she goes about her careful, universe-compacting work: typing and retyping entire novels with one word variances, playing subtly different versions of the same song for inhuman amounts of time until her fingers are bloody and her breath is gone and the universe is smaller.
Joan isn’t real, though. Not in this world, anyway. She is one of the many fictional characters waiting to whisk you down the rabbit hole into a parallel realm of imagination. It’s a place where universes can be shrunk, children can walk on walls, and women’s pupils may expand to swallow you whole, dissolving you entirely. It is the world described—or perhaps, experienced—in Gravity Changes, the debut short fiction collection by Zach Powers, winner of the 2016 BOA Short Fiction Prize.
Powers, a Savannah-native now residing in Fairfax, hasn’t always spent his time and energy creating these surreal, dreamy literature-scapes. As a kid, he would visit a good sci-fi novel from time to time, Ender’s Game being a notable favorite, but he didn’t see himself as the one to put the ink to paper. Not until much later—after college, reading Murakami, and a few early attempts at some fiction writing—did something begin to shift.
“I had a Jazz Studies degree, so I was as good as unemployable,” he said matter-of-factly with half a smirk, swallowing black coffee. We sat in a corner at De Clieu Coffee on Fairfax’s Main Street, amid the clinking of ceramic and the rhythmic buzz of a dozen conversations, with a crisp new copy of Gravity Changes on the table, the gloss of the cover reflecting the yellow lights overhead. He looked back a decade to remember how it started. “Luckily, I did end up finding a job working at a local TV station in Savannah. It was part time and I worked the later shift, so after the evening news, I had a three-hour break until I had to be back at 11 PM. I would go and sit at a coffee shop called Gallery Espresso downtown.” For nine years, before migrating north, he worked as a writer for the television station, sneaking in personal sessions on his breaks. “I didn’t have a plan, I just figured I’d write some stuff and see what I could do.” A few ideas turned into a few stories, and a few stories turned into published work, and eventually an MFA. Writing became the true mode of expression for Powers, allowing him to exploit his creativity in a way he hadn’t quite tapped through music.
While wholly bizarre and unpredictable, the stories in Gravity Changes are actually not completely unlike the reality we are used to. Rarely are things ever neatly contained or fully understood. Written with refreshingly clean, straightforward prose, the strange and extraordinary seem to simply show up alongside the mundane as if they belong there, blurring the lines between them. There’s an unsettling kind of déjà vu about these stories, that familiar sense of both confusion and intrigue that lingers after having an odd conversation with a stranger. Afterward, life goes on and you never encounter said stranger again, but they also never become any less real. So, too, in Powers’s literary world does that same eerie duality of absurd and banal exist, where children dive through portals at the bottoms of swimming pools, then calmly return to the normalcy of school supply shopping and sandwiches on paper plates.
There is something in human nature that looks for meaning in everything, so don’t be surprised when you find yourself searching, trying to pull that thread beneath the text, attempting to unravel whatever it is that these stories are really about. When that happens, be prepared to assign some of that meaning on your own. “Usually, short stories are partly a thought experiment for me,” Powers explained. ”I don’t overanalyze it—or analyze it much at all.” His goal of writing is not so much about conveying specific themes. Rather, he explores the mysteries of his own curiosity, then allows any newfound insights to emerge as they may. “I don’t believe too much in inherent meaning in the work itself, but rather I see meaning as something that inhabits the space between the creation and the reader. Each story means something slightly different for each person.”
Recalling our protagonist Joan, we find a subtle meta story at play. By creating endless variances of things already in existence, she decreases the number of things that don’t exist, thereby shrinking the universe (as measured by the number of things that it isn’t). In a similar manner, Gravity Changes also creates endless variations of itself when contemplated by its readers. The meaning each mind assigns to these stories creates a new, marginally different creation in the world. Whether Powers is actually shrinking our universe or not, he is certainly showing us a different one in this masterful collection.
From the turn of the first page, there is a shift—an exquisite moment of crossing over—into a place where time and space are unrecognizable, but, for better or worse, the human condition remains. Aptly named, Gravity Changes is a stunning, whimsical collection of words that will haunt you in the best way. These stories burrow themselves into your subconscious and force you to question your own reality. After all, who’s to say that walking on the ground is any more normal than walking on walls, anyway?
Gravity Changes will be released on Tuesday, May 16 by publisher BOA Editions. To pre-order, visit zachpowers.com.
Photography by Kaylah Rodriguez