Reviewed by By Craig Hayes
The Hubris Of An Empty Hand
by Mahyar A. Amouzegar
University of New Orleans Press
November 2021, 280 pages, Paperback, ISBN: 9781608012213
The Hubris Of An Empty Hand is a group of stories each holding a quiet, thrashing fury. The limit of humanity clashes with the pride and otherworldly ability of the gods, displaying a crawling tumble into the edges of sanity and enlightenment. It’s messy, destructive, beautiful, and heart-wrenching. Mahyar A. Amouzegar, the author of A Dark Sunny Afternoon, Pisgah Road and Dinner at 10:32, has constructed a soul-felt, collisional set of events depicting humans in all their fragile glory.
The gods, most of which remain unnamed but are assumed to be the embodiment of abstract traits of existence, “decided that human beings deserved more…” and “made a pact to share a morsel of their power with human beings…” The two that acted on it, Empathy and k’Nowledge (pronounced ‘knowledge’) gave humanity pieces of themselves, “kernels of empathy and knowledge” (pg. 188). However, these kernels over time were corrupted and began corrupting humanity, leading to the intersecting paths of the cast of human characters with the gods.
The story of gods bestowing powers and extraordinary gifts is a plot we know well enough to recite. Let’s be honest, we can pretty much guess the basic progression of the storyline, and we usually read these stories for specific elements. Maybe the author is a consistent writer, so we read out of loyalty. Maybe it is for romance or action, or because an alluring summary was presented compelling us to read more. Entire mythologies are dedicated to this premise of humanity receiving god-given gifts, powers, or lineage. It is this exact expectation that is surprisingly subverted and wiped clean from The Hubris of an Empty Hand. Do not expect anything akin to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, Brandon
Sanderson’s Oathbringer, or Keiron Gillan’s The Wicked + The Divine. However, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman or American Gods may be a closer comparison.
Amouzegar gives his characters ordinary lives with passions, lovers, loss, and dinner dates, but rather than flight, abnormal strength, immortality, or summoning fire and lightning, he gives them clarity. They cannot heal mortal wounds, but they can sense a passerby’s pain, and ease their mourning with just a touch. They cannot lift objects with their minds, but they are given access to every question and mystery. But there is only so much mere humans can handle, and this inherent limitation is illuminated as the gods seek to remedy their mistake.
The strongest element of this collection that urged me to read more is the curiosity that bubbled up and expanded with each page. (I’m sure the experience will be the same for every reader). Amouzegar has this fantastic manner of urging his reader to put their “ear to the wall.” He constantly lures you in, requesting that you listen closely, that you read carefully, and that you ask questions. His gift of narration is dangerously cunning as well. Between and within his stories, he experiments with points of view, using narrative gymnastics to capture the most alluring perspective. Amouzegar holds the secrets close to the chest, withholding them until three chapters later, and or even indefinitely.
They are secrets that hang around and simmer between the stories, peeking out from beneath the sentences. You do not find all the answers to looming questions. Every unanswered question leaves so much to question, but there is a beauty in it and a fascination to pick the author’s brain. This is an entirely character-driven group of short stories with an unforgettable cast, each distinct but inextricably tied to one another. During an email conversation, Amouzegar said, “I generally spend about a year living with the characters before they even get real faces or bodies…as they develop, they gain more of an identity and physicality. And that’s when the fun begins…” He spoke with a fervor for his characters that is undeniable in the script. There is a genuine intimacy the author holds with each member of his work. It pulses from the pages in fantastic fashion. Amouzegar weaves each character’s story in and out so masterfully that each is its own story within another. This reminded me of the Lego video games where you press Triangle or X and transfer to a new character with a different playstyle, in a new area, a different experience. Every move adjusted the progress of all characters, even if the players were separated, it all led to a final destination only accessible by the actions of the players. Amouzegar writing mimics the flow of how we experience our own lives singularly, yet our paths intertwine and affect the people our lives have touched. Such is the level of interrelated independence each story achieves.
Amouzegar challenged himself to have a “finished product where each chapter could be read independently, but if they are read together, it imagined a different arc.” The fluidity he accomplishes is praiseworthy, brandishing his skill over the ‘periphery’ of his stories. He leverages events in other stories, both past and future, organizing a network of arrows pointing to what you know will or has occurred. This curation of chronology deepens the pockets of dread and excitement found through the collection.
My favorite character is the one that simultaneously does the most and the least throughout The Hubris Of An Empty Hand: Death. All the gods, if they can be called that, are so interesting and wildly human (or rather, it is one of the best depictions of “gods” that I have read recently… and if humans are to take after “gods” then it makes sense that they act the way they do. So, technically, the humans are very god-like). Empathy, Misery, and k’Nowledge each have aspirations that grow over time. They wish to be whole, to heal, to fall in love, to drink a fresh cup of coffee (oh, how they love
their coffee), and even to abandon godhood for a normal life. Death is very quirky, compassionate, commanding, but also funny and sort of a jokester. On multiple occasions, he will steal a giggle or smirk from you. He is competent, understanding, and a gentleman. He is an older brother figure who is quick to listen, slow to anger/bicker. He loves efficiency and apologizes for his sudden, dramatic entrances that startle those around him (which are amazing, might I add, every single time). He laughs
in the worst moments, for instance your unfortunate death (see the last story), and teases you about it in the afterlife as you share a drink with him. He tells you nothing but the truth, but also listens to your questions and your stories. He has a ton of funny moments, moments that make you go “Wow!”, others that cause you to empathize and become sad. As the story progresses, he quickly becomes this very deep, fleshed-out character playing the role of overseer/guide like Charon from Greek mythology.
The Hubris Of An Empty Hand is about the telling of stories and who they belong to, as much as it follows the frailty of humans and gods alike. Amouzegar is one of a kind, layering multiple elements and experiences into a cohesive collection. It’s been a while since I’ve been genuinely excited about a book. Not that there haven’t been any good books, but it can be rare finding a book that gets you antsy after spending too much time away. Reading The Hubris Of An Empty Hand is like coming home from the library with a stack of books you know you can’t read all at once but you try anyway out of a curiosity to know all that they hold. Even better, like entering your favorite store. You want to experience everything it contains including the secret finds only the lucky discover. Amouzegar has amassed a treasure cove spilling over with valuables for every reader. No matter your genre preference, I urge you to grab this book as soon as you can. It’s just that good.
About the reviewer: Craig Hayes II is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, having majored in English Writing with a minor in Secondary Education. Hailing from Houston, Texas, Craig is a poet, musician, and a lover of all forms of art and expression. He has an MFA from NYU.