Literary wanderings: Portrait of a novelist on the brink of stardom

(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

Lying on a footless sofa in a small student apartment, singing with the windows down in a cluttered 2000 Honda Accord, planning classes on a lazy afternoon with Pavement playing in the background — these are the dreamily quotidian settings of Anthony Veasna So’s essay “Baby Yeah.” 

Dedicated to his friend who passed away the previous year, the essay is one of the most poignant portraits of friendship that I have ever read. In processing the tragic death of his closest friend, So weaves together a mesmerizing story propelled by some alchemy of beautiful turns of phrase and simple, straightforward storytelling that makes his writing sing. 

The first time I read the piece, I was floored and instantly attracted by the core tenets of his style: casual, slightly offbeat, piercingly honest. The piece drove me down a rabbit hole, digging up other essays and stories he had published in years prior. This surely, I thought, is a new voice on the cusp of stardom — everybody else in the literary world seemed to be saying so as well. 

Then, only months after the publication of “Baby Yeah,” So was also gone. He passed away last December at the age of 28. His first collection of short stories, “Afterparties,” was posthumously published in August. I started reading it the same week. 

While I didn’t love every piece in the collection (as is the case with all short story collections), there were some that I had to read more than once. So was a bright star on the American literary horizon, illuminating the experience of growing up gay and Cambodian-American in Stockton and the Bay Area, the two primary settings in the collection. 

With each progressive story, So reveals another layer to the experience of growing up on a multitude of margins; some stories are clearly drawn from So’s personal experiences, while others introduce vibrant, carefully composed characters from a lifetime living in Central California. 

The first story of the collection, “The Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” which can also be read as a standalone piece in the New Yorker, is perhaps the best showcase of So’s delicate but sure hand. 

The story’s three central characters, a mother and her two daughters, run a 24-hour doughnut shop in a Stockton strip mall. Each of them is grappling with their own challenges and confusions: an estranged husband, a confounding class project, the mysterious man who comes in each night to buy an apple fritter he never eats. Through subtle shifts in perspective, So illuminates the interior world of each character as the events of the story unfold. 

With each successive night at the shop, three unique and deeply nuanced interior worlds are formed, building towards a crescendo on the final night — it is stunning work for a 30-page short story. It is a brief glimpse into So’s seemingly boundless abilities. 

While many of the stories that make up the collection were less impressive, the collection as a whole has the feeling of a sketchpad with So clearly experimenting, taking risks and seeing what works. The book is spilling with possible branches stretching to future novels, essays and stories. 

His was a literary career bursting with potential but cut startlingly short. Prior to his death, he had already secured a $300,000 two-book deal with Ecco, with a personal roadmap that stretched roughly five books into the future. So knew where he was headed; he was well on his way to becoming a prominent member of a new vanguard in American literature. 

A final collection of So’s essays and stories is set to be published in the near future, but that will likely be the last of his work available to readers. “Afterparties,” with its flashes of brilliance, will remain the portrait of a young novelist on the crest of it all. 

There is an intensely bittersweet aura surrounding the book’s publication and the devastating passing of its author, a somber sense of the fragility of everything perhaps best captured by the Vonnegut quote So had tattooed on his right arm: “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. He is looking forward to the additional reading time approaching in two weeks.

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