Valleyesque is a collection of short stories centered on the idea of otherness, with a particular focus on the alienating and absurd experience of an immigrant. Flores’ stories range from humorous to disturbing, but even the least impressive ones gain clarity and bite after a second reading.
With a slanted look at gangsters, news blackouts, a baby made of earwax, grackle soup, a sassy angel, the revamped life of John F. Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey and much more, Valleyesque is both a treat and a challenge to a mind governed by logic.
It makes sense, then, that both magic realism and absurdism seize control of the world we enter, toppling reason and demanding an emotional reading of the puzzle within. Trying to crack the meaning of life, to stitch together the fragments of purpose, is a recurring theme. Through astonishing imagery, Flores exposes our fear that the absurdity of our existence will suddenly become apparent.
In Nocturne From a World Concave, F. Chopin remembers reading “that we live in a half-world and we are all half beings”. Tales of encounters with a feathered angel fail to impress the protagonist’s friends in Pheasants.
The dreamlike events captured on a mural in Zaputa Foots the Bill are perceived indifferently, since “nobody ever got it, and Salamanca never bothered explaining the story using words”. Similarly, in The Science Fair Protest, the protagonist wonders whose literary reality it is “that is leaking into our lives?”
The use of magic realism, which is a chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy, both reinforces the air of disinterest and explains Flores’ succinct writing style. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who condensed language by stripping away adjectives and descriptions in search of a forceful, blunt narrative that would render reality plainly.
The prose in Valleyesque takes on the same stark feel, presenting a dispassionate account of otherworldly events. Here, however, it’s used to turn the notion of reality on its head. The contrast between the two is quite exhilarating at times, particularly in Queso and The Oswald Variations, the stories that open and close the collection in drastically different tones.
Flores’ ability to manipulate emotion, to dissect and shelve feeling within each story, is also quite impressive. Beneath the glaze of alienation that binds the stories together is the isolation central to the narrative.
This otherness appears in the form of a different mother tongue, a splintered view of normality, a darker appearance, or the scarcity of talent. It spreads melancholy across the page, but also intersperses it with humor, causing a ripple effect. Most importantly, it feeds on untethered feelings.
There’s a sense of detachment between the characters and their surroundings, an alienation that keeps their engagement with life, and the logic that rules it, permanently fettered. Flores allows this indefinable quality to complement the eccentricity of his world, which in turn creates a self-sufficient ambiance.
A great example of this can be found in A Portrait of Simon Bolivar Buckner, in which Gabriel’s unshakable curiosity about the identity of the man whose portrait he’s holding keeps him from reacting to the bee stings disfiguring his face.
Overall, Valleyesque starts off strong and ends on an equally high note. As with all collections, not all stories possess the same momentum, but every single one begs to be recontextualized once finished. The itch to return and reread certain passages certainly speaks to its success.
Publication date: May 3, 2022 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)