[Tin House; 2024]

In Lena Valencia’s debut story collection, Mystery Lights, women and girls find themselves in one kind of American desert or another. Young and old, mothers and daughters, they travel between the real and the otherworldly. Some characters live in the deserts of the southwest while others are just passing through. Though the dominant landscape is the desert’s empty stretches of rocks and roads, the stories that fill these spaces are Mystery Lights’s other concern: pop culture myths, ghost tales, and lore that require a religious-type faith which transforms belief into truth.

Valencia’s writing is at her best when she parodies faith in popular culture. In “Reclamation,” Pat, a middle-aged woman, receives the gift of a one-week “Glow Time Retreat” from her husband. Pat and nineteen other women are bused into the Mojave to take part in Brooke Soleil’s “entrepreneurial wellness and self-actualization boot camp.” Brooke is known for her “Stop & Glow” podcast and says things like “We’ll emerge actualized, like the phoenix from flames.” She makes her devotees lay belly-down in the dirt without moving for ninety minutes in an exercise she dubs “the Quieting.” Pat came to the retreat doubtful that the cost would be worth it but after only a few days has transformed into a “Brookie.” During an exercise named “Reclamation,” Pat confronts her childhood guilt for nearly killing another young girl and regains a sense of power over the changes in her life, namely the loss of her vintage clothing business.

Despite the story’s playfulness, “Reclamation” entertains some serious questions about whether one’s experience can be real and meaningful if the person at its center is fake. This question begets another question: what is real and fake in our culture anyway? When a doubtful Glow Time participant, Celeste, absconds into the desert, Brooke sends Pat to find her. Celeste is seated in the desert and reveals that Brooke is just another capitalist in a mansion and not a minimalist guru living out of her van. But Pat cannot give up her belief in Brooke Soleil. In a moment of heatstroke-induced hallucination Pat bashes in Celeste’s skull with a rock and retains her new “untouchable, all-powerful” self. Unlike the childhood near-murder incident, Pat does not feel guilt. She strides out to meet a police officer, who does not notice the blood Pat believes is on her hands. Pat’s belief is so strong that it clouds our original perception of her—despite the hallucinations, maybe she actually did commit murder. Truth becomes subjective: what does it mean to believe? In a society where women’s truth is often relegated to questioning, Pat’s full acceptance of herself is liberating, if also horrifying. 

This question of what our devotion to our fictions affords us is asked again and again, in several stories, through lore and the supernatural. There are mudmen, ghosts, and a college-campus haunt called the Trapper. The strongest of the lore stories is “The White Place,” which explores the entanglement of an aging painter, her lover Mike, and his other young lover Sandra. Both the painter and Sandra visit Plaza Blanca at night at separate times to admire an orb “aglow with its pale, pulsating radiance.” Each woman attributes its origin to something different inside themselves: for the painter it is emblematic of the desert with its “timeless, indiffere[nce]” and a good subject for a new painting. For Sandra, the orb is obviously a UFO that can help her escape her dreadful situation with Mike, who has gotten her pregnant. Sandra’s faith in UFOs is stronger than her belief in the painter’s solution, the boarding school in the Northeast that the painter attended long ago. The major difference between the two solutions is, of course, that Sandra’s belief is her own. One night she walks into the orb.

Mystery Lights also engages with more mundane acts of faith. In “Bright Lights, Big Deal,” the second-person narrator Julia follows her friends to New York City after graduating from college. In one of two stories that take place in the northeast, “Bright Lights, Big Deal” inquires the universal dazzle and romance of moving to the city in your early twenties. Julia lives with roommates in a vermin-infested apartment and watches with jealousy as her best friend lands a more socially illustrious job at a literary agency. When Julia finally gets an interview, her potential boss flirts with her and she runs away in tears. In contrast to the romantic ideal, the city is not hospitable nor an easy place to be a young adult, more Midnight Cowboy than Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Yet Julia remains there and, like Pat in “Reclamation,” becomes self-actualized through the possibility that “you can be anyone.” But unlike Pat, Julia must first discard her idealism along with her past friendships in order to make space for her new self.

Mystery Lights, as a story collection, is the perfect vehicle for investigating the limits and horizons of faith in our fictions. The stories build resonances between each other that could not be possible on their own. Like Kathleen Alcott’s recent story collection Emergency, they collectively explore the range of vulnerabilities and strengths of being a woman today. And in doing so, the stories meticulously take apart the myths that limit these characters’ understanding of who they can be. Through the process of stripping away parts of the self, Pat, Julia, Sandra, and the other women come face-to-face with their own uncanny reality, however ugly. Ghosts do not give up easily. In Lena Valencia’s ten short stories, women learn how to turn specters into possibilities for the future.

Amber Ruth Paulen is a writer and educator living in rural Michigan. She earned her MFA in fiction at Columbia University and is currently writing a multi-generational novel set on a dairy farm. www.amberpaulen.com.

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