Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides’s first short-fiction collection, reads like a career retrospective. Comprised of stories that ran in The New Yorker and elsewhere over the last 29 years (only two stories appear to have been written for the collection), the book showcases the obsessions and hallmarks that have come to define Eugenides as a writer. We follow odd-ducks, middle-aged failures, and bourgeois literary types as they trek off to India, quest for a sense of fulfillment, sacrifice their ambition, and generally struggle to be happy.
Ottessa Moshfegh lifts the rock of our inner lives to see what sort of critters writhe beneath in darkness. While she thoroughly explored the inner lives of troubled protagonists in her novels McGlue and Eileen, Moshfegh’s tight-yet-roomy plotting lends itself well to short fiction. Because of this, there is perhaps no better display of her unique talents than Homesick for Another World, which features new pieces alongside stories that previously appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. In each story, a cockeyed protagonist is confronted by exactly the kind of pain they need to grow. That may sound rote, but Moshfegh dazzles with her abilities to sidestep sentimentality in favor of plot development, to humanely portray the broken, and to slowly unfold a surprise. Continue reading
In two of her previous historical novels, Sabina Murray used the “I” point of view to examine different eras from a personal vantage, inhabiting a character to assess shifting political attitudes from up close. In Valiant Gentlemen, she drops the “I” in favor of three distinct perspectives: Irish patriot Roger Casement, his close friend Herbert Ward, and Ward’s wife, the heiress Sarita Sanford. Using these three lives, Murray examines the last burning years of the 1800s and how they influenced the First World War, painting a broad picture of gender and sexual politics at the turn of the last century, and leaving us to ponder how we got to now.
A difficult question rests at the heart of Loner, Teddy Wayne’s third novel: under what conditions does a sociopath’s true self emerge? Wayne’s sociopath character, Yale-bound David Federman, has a milquetoast background: middle class, lawyer parents, youngest of three children, low on the social totem pole in high school. But the reader reels in disgust as he begins stalking a fellow classmate. As David’s obsessive quest erupts into violence, more difficult questions arise.
Blindness is at the heart of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, a multi-voiced novel that deals with film, truth, and acceptance. The novel’s prose is compelling—Spiotta captures the laconic atmosphere and intense earnestness of her characters and the California they inhabit. Using film as both a framing device for the interior lives of characters and as a shorthand for the passage of time, Innocents and Others considers female friendship and artistic obsession from a distance.
The work follows the ups and downs of film directors Carrie Wexler and Meadow Mori, whose friendship serves as a bedrock during turbulent times in their personal lives and budding film careers. Beginning with a fantasy scenario involving Meadow leaving her happy, unassuming upper-class family to live out her teenage years with an aging Orson Welles, Spiotta draws strong distinctions between Meadow and Carrie’s artistic conceits. Meadow exudes a strong flair for showmanship, taking to documentary filmmaking and performance art while suffering through her high school experience. Everything about Meadow, from her pseudo-pretentious film interests to her penchant for androgyny, seems to belie her ambitions to make capital-A art. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carrie, with her populist sensibilities and interest in goofy comedies. While Spiotta doesn’t spend as much time developing or probing the obsessions that underpin Carrie’s approach to her craft, she filters Meadow’s rise and fall through Carrie’s lens. It’s a lens that overflows with humanity and a desire to understand, even when the threads of friendship fray.