Theodore Wheeler’s debut collection of fiction Bad Faith is a lesson in perfidy, deception, and duplicity—a contemplative exploration of the vagaries of the double-minded human heart. There are eight stories in the collection. Or are there fifteen? Alternating with eight fuller, more traditionally rendered stories are seven vignettes, whose narrative purpose becomes clear in the final, culminating story, “Bad Faith.”
In Bad Faith, Wheeler gives us drifters, truckers, handymen, squatters, runaways, and farmers. They are from Lincoln or Omaha, the big cities in Nebraska, or they live in the shadows of those looming cities. They don’t work the jobs they say they do; they don’t come from where they say they do. They are not entirely sure who they are. They hop freight trains; they drift; they join the army; they murder; they kill. Presenting themselves as better people than they really are, they also end up deceiving themselves into believing their own hype. No one is as simple as they seem and everyone wants more than they can have.
Sooner or later, you’ll have to say something about Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. This debut collection of linked stories from an English writer who lives in Ireland may be slim, but it’s packed with vivid imagery of a quiet life, and deep reflections from an unquiet mind. It’s excellent, it’s ravishing, it’ll win a ton of awards, it’ll show up on everyone’s Best of 2016 lists. So before everyone starts asking you about Pond, here are some handy talking points.
Pond is like a really intense diary with all the specific names and locations and backstory omitted. One of the best stories (“The Big Day”) takes place entirely within the narrator’s head while she sits alone, waiting for a party to start. It’s all about her inner thoughts.
Yes, but the book moves in both inward and outward directions. It can be incredibly claustrophobic—focused on one person’s whims and daily minutiae—and incredibly expansive—suggesting worlds of detail, meaning, and personality—at the same time.
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“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible,” says Henry Forge, one of the three principal characters of C.E. Morgan’s second novel, The Sport of Kings. Whether or not evolution is indeed “a ladder,” his selective views on the subject of natural selection form the crux of Morgan’s ambitious new book, a dynastic saga on horse-breeding and the conservative beliefs it can breed. It depicts father-daughter team Henry and Henrietta Forge as they strive to raise the perfect racehorse, employing the recently paroled Allmon Shaughnessy as a groom on their Kentucky farm. The trio’s travails are a microcosm of a changing America, of an America that’s becoming increasingly intermixed but is still suffering the ugly fallout from decades of prejudice and subjugation. Below the surface, it’s also an allegory for two competing visions of evolution itself, and of how society should develop into the future.
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.
No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.
These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned….
And so begins Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens. Lore is a single thirtysomething who shows up at the hospital alone to give birth. She is assigned a nurse, Franckline, who has just entered her second trimester, but is not showing—and hasn’t told her husband yet. Eleven Hours is the story of Lore’s labor and delivery, but her story is also Franckline’s. The two women seem very different, but they have more in common than they will ever (or could ever) know.
“You could say they invented me.”
What is refreshing about literary memoirs like Peter Selgin’s is how they transform the reader through writing and self-invention. In The Inventors, Selgin charts his path from age thirteen to fifty-seven, focusing on the influence of two significant role models: his father and an unnamed teacher. These men are complex, rich, mysterious, and flawed. Selgin’s stories are personal and gut-wrenchingly honest, foregrounding memory, language, and creativity. “Can words ever do the past justice? But words are about all I have, words and this odd device known as memory, that thinks it remembers the past, when really it’s inventing it.”