Record collecting turns dangerous in a smart, time-bending tale about cultural appropriation.
Seth, who narrates most of Kunzru’s fifth novel (Gods Without Men, 2012, etc.), is obsessed with sound, making field recordings of his travels around Manhattan. Carter, his old college buddy and scion of a wealthy family, is similarly obsessed with old blues 78s. Together, they’re an up-and-coming production team that works with white rappers and rock bands looking to make their music sound antique and “authentic.” They’re so good at it that, as a prank, they take Seth’s recording of a Washington Square denizen singing a mordant blues song, use modern tools to faux age it, attribute it to the made-up name Charlie Shaw, and upload it, whereupon online vintage-blues fans go bonkers. Kunzru signals early on that Seth and Carter are playing with fire, from Seth’s hubristic suggestion that his blues knowledge is a passkey to blackness to Carter’s exclusionary and officious family, which made its fortune in private prisons. But Kunzru attacks the racism the two represent indirectly and with some interesting rhetorical twists. Carter is mysteriously beaten into a coma in the Bronx, and once Seth begins an investigation with another collector and Carter’s sister, the narrative begins to deliberately decouple from logic—suggesting, for instance, that a real Charlie Shaw recorded the fake song Seth and Carter created. This weirdness reads subtly at first—a record skipping a groove, a playback glitch—but in time commands the narrative, allowing Kunzru to set the deadly mistreatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South against the hipster presumptions of whites now. Kunzru has done his homework on racial history and white privilege, but the novel is also lifted on his sharp descriptions of music, which he makes so concrete and delectable you understand why his misguided, ill-fated heroes fall so hard for it.
A well-turned and innovative tale that cannily connects old-time blues and modern-day minstrelsy.
Nigeria serves as a prism refracting the myriad experiences of both former and current inhabitants.
In two different stories in Arimah’s debut collection, characters have the supernatural ability to drain emotions from other people, for good or for ill. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” a Nigerian woman participates in a tradition of making children out of inanimate materials and having them blessed by older women in hopes that they will become real. But these blessings come at a price—in her case, "Mama" blesses the child in exchange for the protagonist's own joy, “siphoned a bit, just a dab…a little bit of her life for her child’s life.” In the title story, figures known as Mathematicians are able to use precise algorithms and equations to relieve negative emotions from customers who can afford it. This power over feelings is as good a metaphor as any for storytelling. And Arimah has skill in abundance: the stories here are solid and impeccably crafted and strike at the heart of the most complicated of human relationships. Against a backdrop of grief for dead parents or angst over a lover, Arimah uses Nigeria as her muse. The characters exist in relation to a Nigeria of the past—the ghost of the Nigerian civil war, especially, looms over many of the stories—as well as present-day Nigeria, either as citizens or expats. Arimah even imagines a future Nigeria in which it has become the “Biafra-Britannia Alliance” in a massive geopolitical shift resulting from devastating climate change. This speculative turn joins everything from fabulism to folk tale as Arimah confidently tests out all the tools in her kit while also managing to create a wholly cohesive and original collection.
Hamid (Discontent and Its Civilizations, 2014, etc.) crafts a richly imaginative tale of love and loss in the ashes of civil war.
The country—well, it doesn’t much matter, one of any number that are riven by sectarian violence, by militias and fundamentalists and repressive government troops. It’s a place where a ponytailed spice merchant might vanish only to be found headless, decapitated “nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” Against this background, Nadia and Saeed don’t stand much of a chance; she wears a burka but only “so men don’t fuck with me,” but otherwise the two young lovers don’t do a lot to try to blend in, spending their days ingesting “shrooms” and smoking a little ganga to get away from the explosions and screams, listening to records that the militants have forbidden, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible, Saeed crouching in terror at the “flying robots high above in the darkening sky.” Fortunately, there’s a way out: some portal, both literal and fantastic, that the militants haven’t yet discovered and that, for a price, leads outside the embattled city to the West. “When we migrate,” writes Hamid, “we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” True, and Saeed and Nadia murder a bit of themselves in fleeing, too, making new homes in London and then San Francisco while shed of their old, innocent selves and now locked in descending unhappiness, sharing a bed without touching, just two among countless nameless and faceless refugees in an uncaring new world. Saeed and Nadia understand what would happen if millions of people suddenly turned up in their country, fleeing a war far away. That doesn’t really make things better, though. Unable to protect each other, fearful but resolute, their lives turn in unexpected ways in this new world.
One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.
Machado’s debut collection brings together eight stories that showcase her fluency in the bizarre, magical, and sharply frightening depths of the imagination.
Each of the stories in this collection has, at its center, a strange and surprising idea that communicates, in a shockingly visceral way, the experience of living inside a woman's body. In “The Husband Stitch,” Machado turns the well-known horror story about a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck inside out, transforming the worn childhood nightmare into a blistering exploration of female desire and the insidious entitlement that society claims over the female body. “Especially Heinous” turns 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit into a disorienting, lonely, and oddly hopeful crime procedural crammed with ghosts and doppelgängers. “Difficult at Parties” depicts a woman trying to recover from a sexual assault. She watches porn in the hope that it will help her reconnect with her boyfriend and discovers that she can somehow hear the thoughts of the actors on the screen. Women fade out of their physical bodies and get incorporated into prom dresses. They get gastric bypass surgery, suffer epidemics, have children, go to artist residencies. They have a lot of sex. The fierceness and abundance of sex and desire in these stories, the way emotion is inextricably connected with the concerns of the body, makes even the most outlandish imaginings strangely familiar. Machado writes with furious grace. She plays with form and expectation in ways that are both funny and elegant but never obscure. “If you are reading this story out loud,” one story suggests, “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb.” With Machado’s skill, this feels not like a quirk or a flourish but like a perfectly appropriate direction.
An exceptional and pungently inventive first book.
In Brooklyn in the early 20th century, The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor are intimately involved in the lives of their community.
When a depressed young man with a pregnant wife turns on the gas in his apartment and takes his own life, among the first to arrive on the scene is an elderly nun. “It was Sister St. Savior’s vocation to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers—to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands.” By the time the fatherless baby is born, St. Savior will have been so instrumental in the fate of the young widow that the baby will be her namesake, called Sally for short. Sally will be largely raised in the convent, where her mother has been given a job helping out with laundry. The nuns also find a friend for the new mother—a neighbor with a houseful of babies—then they finagle a baby carriage, and “the two young mothers negotiated the crowded streets like impatient empresses.” This desperately needed and highly successful friendship is just the beginning of the benign interference of the Sisters in the private lives and fates of their civilian neighbors. Partly told by a voice from the future who drops tantalizing hints about what’s to come—for example, a marriage between the occupants of the baby carriages—this novel reveals its ideas about love and morality through the history of three generations, finding them in their kitchens, sickbeds, train compartments, love nests, and basement laundry rooms.
Everything that her readers, the National Book Award committee, and the Pulitzer Prize judges love about McDermott’s (Someone, 2013, etc.) stories of Irish-Catholic American life is back in her eighth novel.
The terrible beauty of life along the nation’s lower margins is summoned in this bold, bright, and sharp-eyed road novel.
In present-day Mississippi, citizens of all colors struggle much as their ancestors did against the persistence of poverty, the wages of sin, and the legacy of violence. Thirteen-year-old Jojo is a sensitive African-American boy living with his grandparents and his toddler sister, Kayla, somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Their mother, Leonie, is addicted to drugs and haunted by visions of her late brother, Given, a local football hero shot to death years before by a white youth offended at being bested in some supposedly friendly competition. Somehow, Leonie ends up marrying Michael, the shooter's cousin, who worked as a welder on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The novel’s main story involves a road trip northward to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where Michael’s about to be released from prison. Leonie, very much a hot mess, insists on taking both children along to pick up their father even though it’s clear from the start that Jojo—who's more nurturing to his sister than their mother is—in no way wants to make the journey, especially with his grandmother dying from cancer. Along the way, Jojo finds he’s the only one who sees and speaks to another spirit: Richie, an ill-fated friend of his grandfather’s who decades before was imprisoned at a brutal work camp when he was slightly younger than Jojo. Ward, a National Book Award winner for Salvage the Bones, (2011), has intimate knowledge of the Gulf Coast and its cultural complexities and recounts this jolting odyssey through the first-person voices of Jojo, Leonie, and occasionally Richie. They each evoke the swampy contours of the scenery but also the sweat, stickiness, and battered nerves that go along with a road trip. It’s a risky conceit, and Ward has to work to avoid making her narrators sound too much like poets. But any qualms are overpowered by the book’s intensely evocative imagery, musical rhetoric, and bountiful sympathy toward even the most exasperating of its characters. Remorse stalks the grown-ups like a search party, but grace in whatever form seems ready to salve their wounds, even the ones that don’t easily show.
As with the best and most meaningful American fiction these days, old truths are recast here in new realities rife with both peril and promise.
After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways (including a short story written in Tweets), Pulitzer Prize winner Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010, etc.) does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel.
It shouldn’t really be surprising, since even Egan’s most experimental work has been rich in characters and firmly grounded in sharp observation of the society around them. Here, she brings those qualities to a portrait of New York City during the Depression and World War II. We meet 12-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanying her adored father, Eddie, to the Manhattan Beach home of suave mobster Dexter Styles. Just scraping by “in the dregs of 1934,” Eddie is lobbying Styles for a job; he’s sick of acting as bagman for a crooked union official, and he badly needs money to buy a wheelchair for his severely disabled younger daughter, Lydia. Having rapidly set up these situations fraught with conflict, Egan flashes forward several years: Anna is 19 and working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the sole support of Lydia and their mother since Eddie disappeared five years earlier. Adult Anna is feisty enough to elbow her way into a job as the yard’s first female diver and reckless enough, after she runs into him at one of his nightclubs, to fall into a one-night stand with Dexter, who initially doesn’t realize whose daughter she is. Disastrous consequences ensue for them both but only after Egan has expertly intertwined three narratives to show us what happened to Eddie while drawing us into Anna’s and Dexter’s complicated longings and aspirations. The Atlantic and Indian oceans play significant roles in a novel saturated by the sense of water as a vehicle of destiny and a symbol of continuity (epigraph by Melville, naturally). A fatal outcome for one appealing protagonist is balanced by Shakespearean reconciliation and renewal for others in a tender, haunting conclusion.