George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, reads like confetti, like fireworks, like a snowstorm. This novel, like an image made of pixels, is a collage of intricate individual parts that, taken together, create the dazzling swirl and pulse of tenuous coherence.
Allow me to literalize: it is a story told in snatches by dozens of different narrators, most of whom are dead and dwelling in the “bardo” (a Buddhist term for the transitional state between life and death) of a crypt in Georgetown. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the novel’s clearest intertext, souls are punished according to their sins—one sexually frustrated man sports a massively engorged member because he was never able to consummate his marriage. Death, heaven, and intermediate states have long been a fascination for Saunders, explored in stories like “Escape From Spiderhead,” “Sea Oak,” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders looses his ghosts on the graveyard to shuffle through their danse macabre. Continue reading
The plot of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell is easy to summarize. A woman learns that her only brother has committed suicide, so she returns home to figure out, detective-like, why he did it.
But that summary doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the trippy, engrossing sensation of reading this book. Cottrell’s narrator, Helen Moran, is one of the most paradoxical and unforgettable creations in recent literature—a clever observer of people who mangles every social interaction, a rigid follower of rules who casually gives drugs to children, an exuberantly verbal thinker who rarely speaks. Her uniquely warped point of view is the second mystery that this hilarious and devastating novel invites readers to unravel. Continue reading
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.
Rebecca Kauffman’s debut novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, begins with a short prologue, a story unrelated to the main cast of characters. In this haunting tale shared among the Ojibwa tribe of North Dakota, two brothers go for a swim in a murky pond. The younger boy is bitten by poisonous water moccasin snakes and later dies. In tribal lore, he becomes a spirit with transformative and healing powers; this story is repeated from neighbor to neighbor, from parent to child.
Then the children will retell the story to one another. They feel something different in each retelling. They are learning that sometimes it takes a thousand voices to tell one story.
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.