I Am Me is an experimental collection of short stories: note an “experimental collection of…” not a “collection of experimental…”. That is not to say that some of the stories aren’t experimental; it’s just that the format of the collection is the most unusual thing about it. The front and back covers are identical, with the back cover printed upside-down to make the two indistinguishable. The effect is spoiled slightly by the presence of a barcode and publisher’s logo. This is a minor quibble, but I can’t help feeling it is symptomatic of a project that doesn’t quite come off.
If the reader hasn’t quite grasped what to do with the layout, there is a handy “Author’s Note”: “I Am Me is a two-way book: it begins from either end and meets in the middle“. In fact there are notes at either end, each slightly different; both presenting more-or-less the same information. Each half of the collection contains ten stories (plus pro- and epilogues) with the same titles: “one half” we are told, “represents reality, while the other draws from fantasy.” Both versions of the note also tell us that the reason for this is to “challenge the segregation of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’“. This all seems naïve and a little heavy-handed. That “fact” and “fiction” are overlapping categories is hardly news, and separating them into different sections of the book would hardly challenge any segregation.
The most affecting story is the (factual) “Fifty Cents” in which a simple-minded narrator takes his brother’s suggestion that “friendship had a price” too literally. The narrative isn’t really “factual”–it is difficult to see such an innocent character surviving alone for as long as the story suggests–but this doesn’t matter, because we understand it is fiction. The alternative “Fifty Cents” describes two friends Kishan and Shreya exploring “the price of friendship” over several different lifetimes. This is a more intriguing proposition, but proves to be emotionally unengaging.
Overall the factual half of the book isn’t convincing enough to be taken as anything other than fiction. Generally this wouldn’t be a problem, but it does seem to undermine the premise of the collection. The fictional stories, meanwhile, generally present dreamlike worlds, where nothing really makes sense. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but it is a difficult trick to pull off well. Much of what is considered classic fantasy actually operates in sharply-defined worlds: the alternative is an incoherent mush. These stories don’t fall into that trap, but some stray too close.
Ultimately, it is difficult to escape the impression that the presentation of this book is little more than a gimmick. There are many binaries present throughout: fact and fiction; life and death, real love and false love. These are well-worn territories and presenting the book in two halves doesn’t add to our understanding of them. It is, however, better to be too adventurous than too safe and for that reason the collection is to be applauded.
Having spent most of his twenties trying to be a musician Jason Jawando was finally forced to give up and get a proper job. He began writing fiction and poetry in his early thirties and has been published in a number of print and online publications.