REVIEW: “The Astrologer on the Fifth Floor” by Karl Dandenell

Review of Karl Dandenell, “The Astrologer on the Fifth Floor”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 101-116 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I remember reading a few months ago a review of an Asian #ownvoices novel where the reviewer complained that when the MC looked in the mirror, the words they used to describe themself didn’t include any of the typical cue words that white people use to describe Asians, and the bafflement that arose from other people at this curious criticism.

As a white woman myself, I’m not in the best place to raise the following reversal of this criticism, but since it was one of the things that impressed upon me the most at the beginning of the story, I think it’s worth mentioning. Dandenell’s MC, Harrison Leong, is “an Asian businessman” — a fair enough description from an omniscient narrator, though I did find it a bit odd to include the description since the surname should’ve been enough of a cue — and he is up on the fifth floor to meet Mr. Norbu, the titular astrologer. It is this sentence that struck me as strange:

Leong saw a short, middle-aged Asian man with a neat beard and sparkling eyes (p. 102)

I can’t help but think, is that really what Leong saw? Or did Leong see someone like himself, see simply “a short, middle-aged man with a neat beard and sparkling eyes”? Would he have seen Mr. Norbu as Asian, or would that have been the working default, just as my own mental narration never tells me when I’m seeing another white person, it only tells me when I’m seeing something that is not my default, not the norm within the cultural context that I live in.

I otherwise enjoyed the story, which flitted from POV to POV in a way that seemed seamless rather than disjointed. I’m not sure how the story fits the theme of “abandoned places”, but I decided not to let slavish adherence to a topic destroy my pleasure in a good tale.