Both characters are dealing with loss. Mira’s parents have recently died, and her longtime boyfriend has left her for another woman. The Captain is separating from his wife and worries that his own father might be dying. These newfound absences are echoed in the backdrop of Athens itself, suffering through economic losses and austerity measures. “I noticed all the boarded-up buildings,” Mira thinks, “the closed businesses.” The city, like the book’s protagonists, feels haunted.
In the apartment her parents left behind, Mira takes stock of their belongings. “Excavating these remnants of the past, I felt neither nostalgia nor a particular connection,” she says. “I felt newly empty.” The tone of the book, too, is emptied, the prose scraped clean of adornment. Mira in no way resembles the spiny, venomous scorpionfish of the title; her voice lies flat, as if attempting to avoid detection. Throughout the novel, secondary characters frequently leave Athens, so that all that remains are the lean voices of the two protagonists.
The twinned narration largely functions to further the book’s doubling theme: two characters with ties to two countries (both have spent significant time in America and Greece) on two balconies speaking two languages, living in a world cleaved into the real and the shadowy.
Walking around Athens, Mira notes that “light shimmered through the olive trees like an invitation to another world.” This simile becomes increasingly literal as the story progresses. The novel is thick with the memory of missing people, which creates a kind of ghost landscape alongside the physical terrain of the city. When Mira meets The Captain on the roof of their apartment building, she’s assailed with a scene from the past: “My mother is on that roof with us, in that yellow dress: drunk and singing.”
As Mira bends over to spit out toothpaste, she can “just about feel” her mother’s eyes on the back of her neck. When she returns to shore after a swim, a woman asks her whether there was another person out there with her. No, Mira had gone alone. Maybe the woman’s eyesight was hindered by distance. Or perhaps the ghost map and its physical counterpart had merged, very briefly.
Even as Mira stumbles around in a fugue of grief, seeing her mother where she can’t be, the novel still allows for close, quiet moments of happiness and human connection. In Athens, she revels in “that fervent, liberating joy I felt nowhere else in the world.” She spends her evenings talking to The Captain on their balconies, their stories—and lives—intertwining “like a double helix.” The book offers these two remedies as solutions against bereavement and loneliness: people and the city they make up.
Whereas Scorpionfish shows how grief threads itself through daily life, Victoria Chang’s Obit demonstrates how grief swallows everything—time and language, in particular.
The book is a collection of prose poems, modeled after narrow newspaper obituaries, though they also invoke the rectangular solidity of gravestones. Some chronicle the deaths of concepts, such as ambition and friendship, but most revolve around the death of Chang’s mother and the illness of her father, whose brain, due to dementia, “died before him.”