Spring Lit Roundup 2017
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh Publication Date: January 17, 2017 Publisher: Penguin Press
Homesick for Another World collects Ottessa Moshfegh’s short stories from the past five years, many of which were published with The Paris Review. The 2013 winner of that journal’s prestigious Plimpton Prize, her work appeared so frequently that I began to think of her as the Paris Review house writer, and her tales of misanthropic decadence and self-loathing shaped my impression of it as a bastion of casually brilliant writing, cynical and unfazed by all the grotesqueries of human existence. The Paris Review was La Dolce Vita of the literary world and Moshfegh was its Maddalena, a disenchanted socialite in dark sunglasses, hiding a black eye.
Moshfegh’s characters are all hiding black eyes: they all nurse psychic wounds that manifest in their attitudes and behaviors. “Bettering Myself,” the Plimpton Prize winner and the first story in this collection, features an SAT-prep teacher who sleeps in a cardboard box in her classroom. She refers to her students as “dummies” and fudges all of their test scores, drinks heavily, snorts coke, and nonchalantly harasses her ex-husband. She thinks about quitting her job, but tears up her letter of resignation. The story ends. All of Moshfegh’s stories unfold this way. Each sets the scene in intricate detail, introduces its characters, and follows them through their crudely bandaged-together lives. Major life events are more or less ignored, minor pleasures greeted with rapture, and impossible fantasies chased after with utmost sincerity. A teenager with a lazy eye moves out to Hollywood to become an actor. A graphic designer lives in a slum but owns a thousand-dollar coat, then trades it away for a ratty ottoman. For good measure, his apartment burns down. Not everyone will relate to these stories, but Moshfegh captures the broke, disillusioned, and dejected Millenial perspective better than anyone. When it takes all of your energy just to stay afloat, every bizarre hope, every momentary pleasure seems as valuable as anything else. If owning a house is an unrealistic dream, why not spend 1,000 dollars on a coat? As someone who bought three scarves last month but neglected to pay his student loans, I sympathize.
Moshfegh is sometimes compared to Flannery O’Connor, and she does offer a similar portrayal of idiosyncratic characters searching for meaning in an abject world. But Moshfegh isn’t looking for a savior, and she’s not concerned with the turpitude of our collective sins. Her characters do not strive for moral goodness. "I love my characters, but I don't like them," Moshfegh says. "I don't love them like family. I love them like spirits that haunt me. They're just there, and I have to accept them."
The reader may not. Many of the narrators are offensive—"No Place for Good People" offers a particularly egregious example—and taken back to back, the persistently bleak perspective can be trying (although there are ample doses of humor throughout, and some stories, like "The Weirdos," are very funny.) If we accept literature's role in fostering empathy for our fellow man, Moshfegh's stories, in their own strange way, succeed. Her characters are not bad people, but for reasons that we are only able to guess at, they are unable to function properly in society. Explanations are both obvious and unnecessary.
At her best, Moshfegh goes beyond the dull ache of apathetic disregard and, removing the sunglasses, reveals the dark wound at the heart of her characters' troubles. In "Mr. Wu," she powerfully captures the contradictions of a lonely man's desires and fears, pushing the reader through ever-deepening layers of unease. "Slumming," a 2016 O. Henry Prize winner, explores the heartache of small-town America's meth problem, juxtaposing the life of a self-destructive visitor with the misery of the town's permanent residents who are unable to escape the city's economic plight and the foreshortened horizons that come with it. "He always hid his shame and self-loathing under an expression of shame and self-loathing," Moshfegh writes of one of her characters. "Always acting, even then." At the nexus of the paradox lies Moshfegh's keen insight and clever wit, shining like a morbid smile under the weight of the world's misery.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Publication Date: February 14, 2017 Publisher: Random House
2017’s most anticipated novel unfolds over a single night in an expanse of graveyard, action rising half from the corporeal world and half from the spirit realm layered over it, as a cacophony of specters narrate the late President Lincoln’s tortured visit to his dead child’s body in its tomb. With Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders presents his first long-form novel, having perfected his singular form of genre-bending, surrealist hypnotic short fiction over the last decade and becoming a reticent literary celebrity with the Tenth of December collection. In his latest book, Saunders creates a boundless universe for his potent imagination to twist and flourish, as a veritable town of ghosts trapped in the overlaid bardo—a liminal, purgatorial state—gawk at what should be Lincoln’s most intimate moments of grief.
Saunders’s necropolis hums with a wry, playful quality, as the cadre of spirts in his bardo take on mutated forms of suffering, seemingly written like they were a collaboration between Virgil and Larry David. A greedy hunter is doomed to hold and soothe a mixed, heaping pile “as tall as a chapel spire” of all the animals he killed. A rich, miserly real estate mogul is doomed to float horizontal, like a compass, perpetually spinning to point toward the property he’s most worried about. Saunders, a Syracuse professor known for his devotion to compassion and radical gentleness, has built his literary reputation on humor and an uncanny ability to reveal humanity in the most base, unrelatable characters, so much so that The New Yorker sent him on Trump’s campaign trail in 2016 in an attempt to forge understanding in their readership. With signature tact, Saunders humanizes the regal, distant historical figure of Lincoln, deliberately slowing his speedy short-form pacing to accommodate the deep weight of losing a child to illness, “to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way.”
In an unexpected take on the novel, whole chapters are composed of snippets of appropriated portions from many different historical texts, which Saunders uses to both root the historical narrative in fact and underscore the mutability of certain facts over time. The night Lincoln’s son dies, he writes from the assembled texts, “the full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.” Yet, in another, “There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.” According to the texts, Lincoln’s eyes were either gray-brown, dark grey, bluish-brown, blue, or the “saddest eyes of any human being I’d ever seen,” and Lincoln himself both handsome and ugly, a fool and a philosopher king. The heavy subject matter is mitigated by Saunders’s humor and penchant for replacing colloquial terms with cute ones of his own—a coffin is a “sick-box,” a body is a “sick-form.” For its thoughtful pacing, the story warps and accelerates like a rocket leaving the atmosphere, and can be consumed in a day, with the same frantic energy that earned Saunders his zealous readership in Escape from Spiderhead. This is a novel for the reader who loves Saunders, who has not yet read him, or anyone fascinated by the subtle percussive energy of cemeteries, a compounded psychic symbol of loss and time.
—Sarah Jane Quillin
Ill Will by Dan Chaon Publication Date: March 7, 2017 Publisher: Ballantine
Dan Chaon’s Ill Willtakes the reader down a long descent into darkness. It begins with a bang, slows to the meandering moments of daily life post-tragedy, and finally rushes up to crash in an unexpectedly treacherous wave.
When Dustin Tillman was 8, his parents adopted Rusty Bickers, a 14-year-old orphan whose family died in a house fire. Overly imaginative and particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, Dustin falls under Rusty’s spell. Rusty offhandedly mentions that they should murder Dustin’s parents and take off to become musicians. He kills baby rabbits, blasts Black Sabbath, and frightens Dustin with stories of Satanic rituals, which were considered a real source of danger in 1983. This sets the stage for what’s to come.
At 13-years-old, Dustin and his cousins Kate and Wave, both 17, are set to embark on a family trip to Yellowstone National Park with their parents. Rusty, who recently graduated from high school, is going, too. The night before leaving, however, both Dustin’s and his cousins’ parents are brutally murdered. The case becomes famous: a snapshot of the three children exiting the murder scene in various stages of shock floods newspapers. Rusty, curiously, wasn’t present for the photo. Soon Kate and Dustin begin to remember things about the night before the murders, and it isn’t long before their combined testimonies put Rusty behind bars.
In 2012, Dustin is a successful psychologist. He has two sons, Aaron and Dennis, and a wife, Jill, whom he loves dearly. They live quietly in Ohio, far from Dustin’s home state of Nebraska, where tragedy had struck him once before. Jill falls ill and declines to tell their teenage sons when they learn she has terminal cancer, fighting the disease all the way to hospice while Dustin falters in disbelief. At the same time, his cousin Kate calls to tell him that Rusty has been released; the Innocence Project has exonerated him—there was no DNA to pin him to the crime. It’s been 30 years. Dustin doesn’t tell his family—his children don’t even know about their grandparents’ murder. Meanwhile, his eldest son Dennis is off at college in Ithaca, disconnected, and Aaron, supposedly starting college nearby, has become a heroin addict. He never makes it to a single class. Dustin doesn’t notice until much later.
In the short window of Jill’s diagnosis and sudden death, Dustin takes on a new patient named Aqil Ozorowski. A former policeman on leave, Aqil declines to describe anything about his past. He’s interested in investigating a string of murders that he believes to be connected, and he thinks his new psychologist is just the person to help him. The murders all center on young, white college males that turn up dead in rivers after bouts of drinking. Who killed them? Darwin, many joke, or binge drinking. But Aqil sees a pattern, and he thinks a cult may be committing them, maybe sacrificing them like Satanic cults did decades ago. He’s convinced. Bereft and untethered, Dustin follows him, interviewing those close to the murders, though he never fully buys in to his new acquaintance’s theories.
Grief and paranoia send Dustin further from reality. He doesn’t see it when Aaron’s addiction intensifies, and he can’t know when Rusty strikes up a phone relationship with his youngest son, spinning his own version of the murders Dustin never told his son about. Stories about Dustin, the man who put Rusty in jail for decades. Aqil’s investigation suddenly hits closer to home and, piece by piece, things begin to fall apart.
Chaon winds a dark mystery that so realistically chronicles the tide of grief and the tricks the past can play on us that it’s shocking when everything comes to a head—for a while, everything is ominously quiet, and the sinister machinations beneath the surface grow almost imperceptibly as life in the face of mourning muddles on. His writing is often experimental; Dustin rarely finishes a thought. Instead, his sentences trail off, sometimes not allowing a chapter any closure, mimicking his mindset. As Aaron descends into a heroin den, other narratives align and Chaon illustrates mirrored journeys through three columns of text. When the characters are in a haze, the reader is right there in the thick of it with them.
Ill Will harbors a dark presence following each of the characters, whose perspectives alternate across decades. One wonders, “What if we were not, actually, the curators of our own lives?” Another explicitly states, “You can feel across your back, across your face: There is a presence that doesn’t like you.” This force causes a cataclysm in the end that you can’t guess is coming, but you really should be able to. The characters have all felt it the entire way, this dark wave coming, and the reader is left in an eerie stillness after it crashes, newly haunted.
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan Publication Date: March 14, 2017 Publisher: Restless
When we're first taught symbolism, typically as uninterested tweens, it seems almost unfair to be expected to discern a second meaning from a piece of writing. But as we grow as readers, the idea of one thing representing another begins to enchant us, revealing hidden truths and deeper levels of meaning. Symbolism, for the mature reader of fiction, not only enhances the meaning of a given text but is often necessary in order to fully appreciate it.
Deepak Unnikrishnan's collection of connected short stories, Temporary People, piles so much symbolism on top of symbolism that I temporarily reverted to a pre-teen state of readership, railing against whatever imaginary figures were forcing me to try to decipher umpteen levels of nonsense in any given story to attempt to reveal something, anything, of significance.
Unnikrishnan's stories often dive so deeply into the fantastical elements of magical realism that they become fables. There's nothing wrong with this choice in and of itself, but as a reader, trying to translate 28 densely allegorical tales into something meaningful quickly becomes a chore. Yet the stories don't fare better when they make their points more bluntly; in these cases, the reader is bashed over the head with the author's intentions. There is rarely a happy medium. The book simply isn't a pleasurable read.
The promotional material surrounding Temporary People pushes comparisons to Salman Rushdie and George Saunders. Both references are fair, but deeply unflattering to Unnikrishnan. Rushdie's works dive deeply into fantastical elements and are densely packed with allusions, but unlike Unnikrishnan's stories, Rushdie's works carve out nuanced characters and are driven by overarching themes with deep impacts. This may largely be due to format choices; it's difficult to build as much in a short story as in, for example, the nearly 650-page Midnight's Children. But Unnikrishnan's work still suffers for the comparison. Judging Temporary People against the measuring stick of George Saunders doesn't do Unnikrishnan any favors, either. Like Saunders, Unnikrishnan favors both absurd details and unique, often stilted dialogue. In Unnikrishnan's case, the latter choice makes sense; his characters are frequently attempting to communicate in a language they wouldn't choose. But the author's insistence on representing this clipped dialect throughout makes for an unpleasant read. Ultimately, one's taste for this book probably depends on how pleasurable one finds the author's prose. I get the sense that he finds it quite pleasurable. I did not.
The stories that were ultimately the most enjoyable for this reader were the ones that hewed closest to reality. Pieces like "Kloon" and "Moonseepalty" present fully developed characters, settings, and relationships, making their ultimate sourness pack far more of a punch. It's in these stories that the uneasy state of being among different groups of foreign nationals working in the United Arab Emirates becomes much more clearly understood. In these stories, Unnikrishnan proves he's capable of exploring all the nuanced relationships between the book's titular People. Hopefully his next work will spend more time doing so.
Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth Publication Date: March 21, 2017 Publisher: Graywolf
Deb Olin Unferth’s stories are a delight, but your impression may differ, because it is impossible for me to read her stories without imagining Unferth reading them, and she is maybe the best reader I've ever seen. The cadence of her voice fits so perfectly with her stories, which are replete with questions to the reader, parentheticals and asides. It is really like she is writing directly to you, and it is a real pleasure. I normally dislike that kind of thing—overly present narrators inserting themselves into the story, reminding the reader that they’re there, distracting you—but with her stories, somehow, it works.
I have been fortunate to catch Unferth read from her latest collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, on a few different occasions, and the context behind her stories endears me to them more. To hear Unferth talk about these stories as if they’re just things that were presented to her, or happened to her, that she just relayed them onto the paper, is a humble gesture that belies the hard work and talent that her writing clearly demonstrates. It is not easy to write stories that are so easily readable, yet are so strangely curious, so deliciously original.
Take a story like “Pet.” It is ostensibly a story about a woman who “rescues” a pair of turtles from her sister’s basement. Or so the narrator says. Do we trust the narrator? She is clearly having a nervous breakdown. The turtles and all the work that they require are driving her insane, and her teenage son constantly berates her for her efforts. Why, she wonders, did she even take the turtles? This may seem like an odd but plausible story—what mother hasn’t dealt with a surly child, or had to take care of pets that have outstayed their welcome? But it slowly morphs into something even stranger. By the end of the story, the mother is sitting in her bathroom, covered in turtle shit, talking to a man from AA that has asked her out on a date, and she really likes this man, would love to go on a date with him, but she’s covered in turtle shit, and her son is screaming at her to hang up the phone, because even though he acts like he hates her, he can’t stand the thought that she might abandon him for some stranger from AA. Anyway, she tells the man, she can’t go on the date because of the turtle shit. He says he’s going to come over. “We’ll drive them to the turtle pond,” he tells her.
What turtle pond? she says. WHAT TURTLE POND? her son says. There’s a turtle pond, hundreds of turtles. They line up on the logs like dots. Turtles that used to have owners like you. Owners who visit each spring, they bring binoculars. They ride out on the pond in canoes.
Unferth’s stories develop in this way: innocuously, a little strange, perhaps, but nothing too out there, until you realize you are in some sort of parallel dimension where everything is funnier and more charming than this one, and not always because of something cute like a turtle pond. Even a story like “Voltaire Night”—which is about a group of bad writers sharing the worst things that ever happened to them—manages to be horrifying and funny and strange and endearing all at once.
The stories in this collection alternate between short story length (sections 1 and 3) and flash fiction (sections 2 and 4). Although Unferth expressed some concern about packaging both types of stories into one book, it works very well, mostly because all of the stories are so well-written. The longer stories are weirder and give the characters more room to unravel, while the flash fiction pieces present such concise and accurate snapshots of human behavior that they feel just as deep (perhaps more so). Stories like “The Vice President of Pretzels,” “Defects,” and “The Walk” capture the nuanced affection of long-married couples in hilarious vignettes. On the other hand, some stories are not about people at all. “The Last Composer,” for instance, is about how many times Unferth can include the phrase “the composers” in one piece. “I don’t think we were expecting quite so many composers to turn up,” she writes. “We made fun of them when they were out of the room.” She could have stopped there, but she goes on for two more pages. It just gets funnier as it progresses.
In her mastery of the short-short, Unferth stands with Lydia Davis, though her work is much less dry and cerebral—more approachable. She is such a strong writer that she can play with narrative and form in creative ways and still succeed, such as with the pieces “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” “An Opera Season,” and “37 Seconds.” “An Opera Season” is so funny that I could read it all day, and because it is only three pages, that would be a lot of reads.
I’ve somehow expended nearly 1,000 words extolling the virtues of this book. Whoever said pictures are worth 1,000 words clearly hasn't tried to write a review of Deb Olin Unferth's work. Of course, she would have wrapped this up in 20 and it'd still be better than what I put here. Nevermind. Go buy this book.