As the coronavirus wreaks havoc across the globe, millions of people have been confined to their homes, reliant on videochats and news alerts to stay connected with friends and family and the happenings of the world outside. Well before the crisis, of course, many of us ordered groceries online, courted partners via apps, and spent hours creating web profiles—all ways of trying to bring order to aspects of modern existence. What those of us in quarantine are now experiencing is qualitatively different: The digital sphere has become a primary source of intimacy even as the cadences of the offline world—grief, sacrifice, ineptitude—make us feel ever more helpless.
I thought about this duality in considering a collection of stories I first picked up before the pandemic. The tales now carry an eerie resonance. In You Will Never Be Forgotten, Mary South imagines a near future in which the human pursuit of control through technology greatly intensifies. Written with dark humor and a striking lack of sentimentality, these stories are vehicles for characters who each use tech to try to retrieve that which is irrevocably lost: the freedom of the pre-violated body, the child taken from the world prematurely, the normalcy that vanishes after the death of a loved one. Like episodes of Black Mirror, in which futuristic devices propel psychological unraveling, South’s stories explore tragedy as it flits uncomfortably between the digital and physical worlds. And at a time when the hunger for in-person connection is enormous, they also double as aching reminders of forms of human coping that aren’t currently possible.
In the title story, an unnamed woman who works at “the world’s most popular search engine” stalks the man who raped her—a man she met on a dating app. The narrative is anchored in the omnipresence of the internet, but what happens offline is South’s true focus. After following the rapist on social media and obsessively reading his newsletter, the woman trails him as he walks his dog. His dog is sweet, and like a good citizen, the man cleans up after it. Witnessing no overt malice in the rapist’s life—his monstrosity hidden in plain sight—the woman is unable to make sense of the violence done to her body.
At work, the woman is tasked with removing obscene content from the web, forcing her to continually encounter graphic media—and reminders of her rape. In some ways, her actions prevent others from experiencing trauma, but South suggests that sense of protection is false: The removal of the content doesn’t erase the reality of mass shootings, hate speech, sexual violence, or child pornography. This interplay between what can and cannot be controlled comes to a head when the rapist gets a girlfriend and the woman feels compelled to warn her: “How she wishes there were a ‘view source’ option for human beings; buried between brackets she could locate the phrase ‘This is a rapist’ and thus duly inform the rapist’s girlfriend.” When presented with the information, the girlfriend dismisses it.
What transpires after this confrontation is what makes You Will Never Be Forgotten so compelling. The woman breaks into the man’s apartment—the very apartment where she was raped. Her strange and surprising action in that space can be read as a reclamation of power, at least temporarily. The story ends with a revelation: “Nothing is going to magically make it better. The woman has to figure out her life.” In a culture consumed with the corrective possibilities of technology, this realization is profound. Trauma cannot be deleted; the past cannot be undone.
South’s other stories meditate on similar attempts to use technology as a coping mechanism for emotional pain. In “Not Setsuko,” a bereaved mother, unwilling to acknowledge the death of her daughter, births a replica via C-section—exactly 10 years after Setsuko was born. The mother forces her new daughter to recount Setsuko’s memories as if they were her own—in the hopes of returning the spirit of the dead daughter into the body of the living one. Only when the replicant reaches the age when her predecessor died is she freed from reliving that life. Wisely, South tells the story from the mother’s perspective, making readers complicit in the violence the mother inflicts, while offering intimate insight into the rawness of her grief.
In “Not Setsuko” and throughout the collection, South humanizes the compulsive behaviors associated with loss, eloquently rendering the experience of bereavement. “Keith Prime” is set in a medical facility in which humans—called “Keiths”—are manufactured for organ harvesting. The story follows a widowed employee who was unable to afford a Keith to save her dying husband. After his death, the woman, still in mourning, becomes attached to a Keith who unexpectedly discovers consciousness. When the facility decides that keeping Keith is unethical, the woman becomes his guardian, only to helplessly witness his growing depression—a state he was never designed to reach. South’s precise, morally unburdened prose allows ample room for an exploration of the limitations of caregiving and the oft-futile human desire to rescue others.
It seems no coincidence that South’s characters reach catharsis or healing during moments in which technology is absent: once the artificial barriers have come down, once the script has run out. These stories suggest that efforts to control tragedy are futile, and that true connection is possible only after giving in to life’s unpredictability. You Will Never Be Forgotten is a haunting reminder that grief, whether as a part of our current, sobering reality or as a constant condition of humanity, will thwart our attempts to control it.