8:03 p.m.

Matthew Baker’s Hybrid Creatures is a short story collection about connection, about the ways we do and do not communicate, about the usage and necessity for alternative expression.

I am currently listening to the sound Matthew Baker’s keys make as he types. Maybe he is writing a story, maybe he is emailing. I cannot be certain. Occasionally, we glance at each other. Our faces are distorted by the smudges in our respective lenses. He does not know I’m writing this.

I live with him. When we speak to one another, it is in a hybrid of languages we know to varying degrees—English, French, Spanish and Japanese—but right now we sit in silence. Tonight, we are sharing the same physical space but not speaking. We’re silent in the way one of the book’s narrators, a hacker, describes, when sitting in a café with someone he digitally follows: “For me, there [is] something very powerful about the experience. Some days this [is] my ‘reason for living.’ Just spending time together, quietly, in the same room. </html>”

8:14 p.m.:

In the collection’s first story, HTML serves as an intermediary for our culture’s passionate relationship with technology; in the second, mathematics demonstrates our universal desire to organize the incomprehensible; in the third, musical notation mimics the sonic experience of grief; in the fourth, propositional logic serves to make sense of failing mental capacity.

These four stories are consumed with loneliness, with a yearning for intimacy of different extents; not necessarily to be held, but to be seen. Often, it is that which we have the most difficulty articulating that we most badly want to convey. And often, we fail. We are human. Hybrid Creatures presents its readers with the opportunity to see the world with an additional dimension. This is the beauty of experimentation. It is not faultless, but here it opens up the possibility for emotional and intellectual deepening.

In our home, when Baker greets me, he says: Bonsoir, Mademoiselle. Sometimes he says this in the afternoon. Occasionally, it is followed up by an intended compliment, that is instead inverted. Rather than tell me I am beautiful, he says: Je suis le plus belle. To me, this will always mean more.

Sometimes we communicate without words. I’ve just placed a plate of pastries and a heaping dollop of whipped cream in front of him. I’ll let you know how he responds.

8:37 p.m.:

The recent success and fascination with Black Mirror, the British sci-fi series concerned with the possibilities and pitfalls of futuristic technology, speaks to our hunger for connectivity. While the supposition around modernity is seclusion, it is within the grandiosity of revolutionary conceits that our most basic human needs are revealed. Hybrid Creatures plays with similar chess pieces. Instead of imagined high-tech innovation, the collection works with what is already present.

In one of the collection’s most striking stories, “The Golden Mean,” mathematical equations are used to make sense of the protagonist’s existence in two separate families. The division is gut-wrenching. Divorce is commonplace, but it is rare that we see it rendered so poignantly, from the perspective of a child torn between not just single parents, but siblings, whole separate families; constructions of one’s own identity.

What is perhaps even more remarkable than Baker’s premises is the simplicity of each of his stories. Behind the elaborate setups, the fanciful hybrid languages, all four narratives are fairly traditional. That, in itself, requires a hybrid tongue: the ability to raise the linguistic nuance, while lowering the complexity of plot.

Baker is now licking whipped cream off a spoon. He found the pastries. He nods gently in my direction.

9:00 p.m.

In Jennifer Egan’s now infamous “PowerPoint passage” from A Visit from the Goon Squad, the atypical form allows the reader to access a child’s psyche. Alex McElroy’s recent chapbook Daddy Issues began with a flow chart. Beyond their novelty, these techniques work because of their ability to share something that would previously have been unshareable. They add beauty and dimensionality.

Hybrid Creatures takes it a step further. Baker infuses hybridity in every story, meticulously structuring each narrative accordingly. It is through HTML that his coding narrator comes to recognize the fact of his own body and the vulnerabilities of the bodies around him. In the collection’s final story, “Proof of the Century,” the aging protagonist is able to access aching memories of his wife embedded within propositional logic.

These are not gimmicks, they are, in all senses of the word, creatures. The atypical forms of the stories allow us to understand the characters and, in turn, ourselves, more deeply. In “Movements,” after two strangers share a moment of sustained, sudden intimacy, the narrator asks his companion whether she has told anyone else her story: “‘Basically anybody who will listen,’ Mel said {piano}.” This rupture, punctuated with musical notation, stings brilliantly, as it subverts the sentimentality of the connection, reminding us that it does not exist in singularity.

In the final story, this transcendence is felt when the aging protagonist recalls discovering philosophy: “[He] was struck by a flash of recognition. The realization that here was the language he had been trying and failing to communicate in all along. And that there were actually people who were fluent.”

That is what Hybrid Creatures does; it creates tiny openings in the hearts and minds of its characters and, subsequently, in its readers. Baker renders objects and memories with scrupulous accuracy. At times this led to my feeling the author’s precision hovering too strongly. But even in its precisely constructed, calculated form, Hybrid Creatures succeeds at bringing to life complex portraits of human beings that are far more than well-constructed ideas.

Of course, the book is filled with unanswered questions, loose ends, spindling passages of description that a dutiful reader might cling to, only to be left disappointed by the absence of reward or sense of resolve at the finish. But Hybrid Creatures isn’t interested in firm resolution. If anything, the stories, which are connected only by formal experimentation, pose their own inquiries. What ties them together? Do they exist in the same world? Why are they being presented here? I believe the answer is simple. These are narratives of longing, of people experiencing the world singularly and wishing to be joined with another. In a magnificent way, by pairing the stories in this book, Baker is uniting them.

9:17 p.m.

In the past, I’ve found that the habit of texting can cheapen language. Enter Baker, to disrupt this notion. Now that we are under the same ceiling, we use our disjointed, butchered concoctions of Japanese, French, Spanish, and English to get closer to the things we actually mean. But for a while, when we were long-distance, we used emoji and Apple’s Digital Touch feature to express our missing. A hand drawn lemon meant more to either of us than the words: I miss you. Lemons were present at the inception of our connection, they signify our learning to care for one another. I miss you is a bit like the story told in “Movements,” a story, the speaker reveals, that has been told countless times, to countless listeners. The phrase has lost some of its meaning. For us, lemons, another hybrid tongue, encompass more of our authentic feelings. The stories in Hybrid Creatures do the same.

Now Baker is standing in front of me. The plate of pastries is empty. He looks down at my laptop then looks back up at me. J’adore ton cerveux, he says, and I smile because he’s gotten the French right, but has no idea what I’ve been writing.

Jenessa Abrams

Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in fiction and literary translation. Her writing has been published in Tin House, BOMB Magazine, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. Recently, she earned a subsequent graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

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