For a while now I’ve been trying to put my finger on the pulse of what makes Shruti Swamy’s A House Is A Body one of the most deeply felt books I’ve read in years. Published by Algonquin Books in August 2020, and recently named a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, this is the work I’ve returned to the most during the last six months of the pandemic; these are the stories I’ve gone to bed thinking about and the endings I’ve re-read on Saturday mornings—mesmerized by the turns they take and that intangible something that keeps me asking simply and not without envy: How does she do it?
In these twelve stories, Swamy has mastered what I’m calling the art of aliveness. As a writer, she captures the feeling of being alive so brilliantly through her language and the devotion to that which creates a feeling of lived-ness—I’m thinking about color, weather, taste, sound, smell, texture, memory, thought, dreams. Swamy’s sentences bend and turn and dip; there’s a swimming quality to them that mimics strokes on the page in a way that feels wholly enveloping.
Additionally, Swamy’s disinterest in staying inside a narrative’s traditional shape feels radical and is something I hope to see more writers give themselves permission to play with in terms of structure (I’m thinking of Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, who experiments with this too in her debut, Sleepovers). Without a rigid agenda, Swamy’s stories leave room for flexibility, and best of all, wonder. Instead of guiding us toward a neat conclusion, the prose gives us the sense that the writer is thrillingly discovering what the story wants to say too, right alongside us. In this way, rather than observing from shore, as a reader I feel as if I’ve been invited directly, warmly into the water to experience the words myself.
Once inside the stories like this, I found myself mesmerized by the depth of Swamy’s curiosity and the questions she brings to the surface. The best way I’ve come to sum up the collection’s tender beauty is this: each story contains an understated moment—a surprise that stills the reader into thinking about a feeling one maybe has never articulated before or given much attention to. And yet the feeling is not unknowable; we have felt it before in memory, or in the body, or in our encounters with others and the world itself. This strange and exhilarating blend of newness and nostalgia in Swamy’s prose sneaks up on you in her sentences—there’s a quietness to her approach I admire, an incredible restraint in her writing that allows such moments to feel revelatory without the glitz. Once I became attuned to this cadence between discovery and revealing some buried and tender thought, I became as entranced by Swamy as you are at a packed show in your early twenties, hearing your favorite band sing that one song you thought they’d never play live. Behold: that distilled rareness. That absorbing feeling in your chest when you feel they’re singing just for you.
For instance, in the story “Didi,” a father recalls an old wrestling match from his high school days, specifically the face of his opponent, after walking in the middle of the night to pick up his young daughter from her first sleepover—she’s afraid her mother is going to give away her bed and wants to come home. As far as the surface of the plot goes, there isn’t anything here overtly dramatic or tense—and yet there is such tension going on underneath, bubbling within the interiority of the father as he recalls that opponent’s face—how it looked no different than his own, or how his son’s face would have looked had he not died before he was born. The story travels along in spurts and jumps, creating a sort of collage that arrives at this fuller picture: the grief of not getting to see his two children standing together on the sidewalk side by side. In the story’s final paragraph, the father remembers “the terrific anger and love” with which his opponent wrestled him, and in the scene we feel this specific emotion take shape in the present—what a terrific anger and love the father possesses for the picture in his head he’ll never hold—before sleep takes over and the story closes gently, the father giving in to it.
Other moments of embodied living throughout the collection shine in a similar fashion in the way Swamy’s characters hold conflict within themselves. The disconnect between motherhood and personhood within the mother character of the title story becomes the essential fulcrum on which the tension of the narrative teeters; the gut-punch moment the narrator, Anuradha, in “A Simple Composition” realizes she hasn’t given consent in an encounter with her sitar teacher whom she has a crush on, manifests toward a delayed tenderness in her marriage later in life; and the edge between making art and hurting oneself to do it is centered within the unnamed narrator who suffers from alcoholism in (my favorite story in the collection)“Earthly Pleasures.” The juxtapositions of emotion within these characters’ interiorities are so rich here, and yet that doesn’t prevent Swamy from experimenting further outward with another kind of contrast in the stories’ murky rendering between reality and the surreal. Rather than define these things—what the characters are precisely feeling, what world exactly is the story existing within—Swamy lets the reader meander and explore the dreaminess on her own. There is great freedom in this as a reader, which reiterates all the more how much patience and restraint Swamy exhibits in her writing.
The more I read, the more I began to ultimately question what it means to make a good story. How we define it in our teaching, how we name it. What it looks like, and moreover: how it makes us feel while reading. For me, it’s in the freeness of Swamy’s stories that I find such pleasure. The places she allows them to go, the unexpected emotions she unearths, the structures she collapses, and the choices she makes that all overlap to create a consistent, gripping unpredictability. Shruti Swamy is a writer who is redefining for me that a good story takes its time, lets itself wander into the curious parts of life we often forget, the parts we say we’re too busy to remember as we rush forward to the next big thing. It’s this idea I’d like to share with my students: that looseness in a story doesn’t mean it’s sloppy, but rather that it’s lending itself to a little slice of magic only fiction can conjure—and it’s our job to listen to it when the story asks us to.
Sometime late last fall, during my second read of this collection, I happened to also begin Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which only heightened this noticing of the world Swamy creates. Odell’s broad philosophy—the necessary zeroing in on the small, natural awes that surround us daily—feels present in A House Is A Body in the care that is given to time, how the lens narrows on a feeling you understood once but somehow misplaced. It’s in the moment you remember this lost impression that makes Swamy a singular joy to read, and her collection one I will continue to revisit again and again—like an old song that stays.