EARLY in the first story in Gabriela Lee’s “Instructions on How to Disappear: Stories” (Visprint Inc., Pasay City, 2016, 220 pages), a mysterious old woman offers the protagonist an assortment of items: “I can brew you a special tea that will make time stop, make it go forward and backwards. Or maybe an ointment to soothe a broken heart, hmm? Powder to make your mother stop asking you so many inappropriate questions. I can give you a jade charm for happiness, money, or intelligence. The one thing I cannot do is tell the future.”
What would you give for such a prize? What price would you pay? If you want to find out, check out “Bargains,” and then stay for the 10 other wonderful stories in “Instructions.” This may be Lee’s first book, but she has been writing excellent examples of speculative fiction for a while now—the pieces here were published in different outlets between 2005 and 2013—and the confident, sophisticated, chiseled stories in “Instructions” reflect this.
There are bargains to be struck in every one of the stories, both within the narrative as well as between Lee and the reader. Are you willing you turn yourself over to her? You should.
In a high-tech alternative reality where New Quezon City is a bright hub of everything, there is much more going in than is apparent behind the scenes in “Stations,” a whodunit with dystopian overtones. Sex and memory are the items of value in the intense “Tabula Rasa.” Who is that perfect girl looking back at you in “This Side of the Looking Glass?” An otherworldly culinary question lies at the heart of the romantic “Hunger.” If you’ve ever wondered if that DJ on the radio seems to be telepathic, you’ll be absorbed with horror at how bad it could get in “Honesty Hour.” Agents from A.G.I.M.A.T. search for an elusive artifact in “The Nameless Ones.” “August Moon” plays a ghostly guessing game beginning at a funeral. There is one last thing that needs to be done in the time after the war in “Eyes as Wide as the Sky.” “You wish that you could just disappear,” Lee writes in the titular tale, the best in the collection. Step by step, she shows you how in the most fragile way. “The sound of his name feels like a frozen blade sliding through your abdomen.”
Wait worth it
The wait for Lee’s debut collection has been well worth it. “Where else to hide a weapon but in plain sight,” one character asks. That’s a pretty accurate description of how Lee turns what start out as conventional stories into unexpected ones. The strange becomes gargoyles on her fictional cathedrals, like the manananggal making cameo—and much more—in the most ambitious stories in “Instructions.”
These stories are so good you wonder whether Lee did indeed purchase something from the purveyor of weird wonders in “Bargains.” Lee’s prose is thick and full, details just alighting from the text and smacking the reader across the face. She is equally as generous with description with the fantastical and the everyday elements. Her endings are really, really good, leaving you to wait for how she will choose to conclude this particular story before leaving you looking forward to the next one. Until you look up and realize you’ve already devoured all 11 of the stories in Gabriela Lee’s “Instructions on How to Disappear.” And then you start to read them again.