The first hint of magic in Joseph Salvatore’s To Assume a Pleasing Shape comes in the first story, though you have to read it again after finishing the collection to recognize it. “Parts” is a whisp, a narrator recalling what his father used to tell him about how to live (light meals, some coffee, “then even later, if you want, a bit of alcohol, sure—some beer, some wine, what have you, something to help you relax”). As the tale twists, “Parts” becomes about how life is more than simply a matter of keeping up “spirit and spine,” how life is about living within the knowledge of our own end, and trying to love and share ourselves despite the casual doom of the day-to-day. “Parts” sets an interesting template for the book; in each of the eleven stories here, Salvatore offers narratives that read and feel ultimately twinned. These are fictions of diametricism.
Take “Reduction,” a seven-part story as expansive as “Parts” is brief, in which an academic with massive breasts considers breast reduction surgery and her lover works through his complicated feelings about this (he loves her large breasts but doesn’t want to be just one more guy who loves large breasts). Take “Unheimliche,” which begins “But it’s not exactly like that either—at least not entirely—not exactly like what you said I just said.” Take, later in the collection, the almost colossally sad “Late Thaw,” in which a relationship’s start and end swirl together through a grieving man’s thoughts. Along with this emphasis on threading binaries together, in most of the stories the reader must try to catch up with a narrative that began before we arrived, and the collection is magnetic and propulsive because of this.
Two attributes are crucial to know before sitting down with To Assume a Pleasing Shape. First, this book contains extremely long sentences. “Late Thaw,” for instance, has maybe ten sentences in its five pages, and no paragraph breaks. Fortunately, Salvatore’s technical wizardry serves the narratives he presents—when you arrive at the conclusion of “Unheimliche,” you realize the lengthy sentences enhance the feeling of homelessness and confusion the story attempts to articulate. The other attribute: these stories are almost entirely free of plotted drama—they swirl and seethe and wrap about themselves in the telling, offering their own strange logic. BOA Editions certainly couldn’t have called To Assume a Pleasing Shape a collection of spells—where would such a thing be shelved?—yet that, ultimately, is what the reader is offered in Joseph Salvatore’s debut.