Fourteen tales of people cut loose from their roots—voluntarily or not.
It’s characteristic of the restless Donoghue to follow up a terrifying contemporary thriller and international best-seller (Room, 2010, etc.) with a collection of historical fiction. Past and present have held equal sway over her imagination in previous work, and three story collections have showcased her abundant gifts as aptly as her seven novels. This book demonstrates once again that there’s little she can’t do well; indeed, the afterword is as moving as the stories. Donoghue offers her own biography—Irish-born, Cambridge-educated, longtime resident in Canada—to explain her fascination with other wanderers trying to invent new lives for themselves. She can empathize with a Victorian Londoner forced into prostitution (“Onward”) as well as with a buccaneering cheat who fraudulently obtains her husband’s fortune and skips out of 18th-century New York (“The Widow’s Cruse”). The gruff friendship-with-benefits of two gold prospectors in the Yukon (“Snowblind”) is portrayed as tenderly as the marriage of two refugees from the Irish potato famine, thwarted of their reunion in Canada (“Counting the Days”). The collection’s most wrenching tale, “The Gift,” achieves the remarkable feat of bringing alive both the agony of a woman driven by poverty to give up her baby and the quiet dignity of the girl’s adoptive father—in an exchange of letters, no less. Donoghue views her characters with determined generosity, even when their behavior is reprehensible: The first-person narratives of a vengeful Puritan settler in Cape Cod (“The Lost Seed”) and a thoughtless white girl on a Louisiana plantation (“Vanitas”) trace complicated motives and a desperation for love of which the protagonists may not even be aware. The short story can be a precious, self-enclosed form, but in Donoghue’s bold hands, it crosses continents and centuries to claim kinship with many kinds of people.
Another exciting change of pace from the protean Donoghue.
Beneath the surface placidity of Swiss life, undercurrents of spiritual turmoil and existential despair charge this powerful collection of provocative stories.
Renowned in European literary circles, Switzerland’s Stamm didn’t achieve his stateside critical breakthrough until his last novel (Seven Years, 2011, etc.). This story collection is even better, with pieces that read like the Zurich equivalent of Camus or Kafka, occasionally laced with a bit of Ibsen or Ingmar Bergman. Not a lot happens in these stories and what does mainly takes place internally, in the psyches of characters who don’t seem to have much control over their destinies or understanding of their motives and whose essential mysteries—to themselves and to the reader—could be described as the human condition. The American publication combines two separate story collections, the first published in 2008, the second in 2011, yet the stories themselves are timeless, like fables or parables, with the plainspoken translation reinforcing the stark, spare essence of the fiction. Some of these stories deal with the awkwardness of adolescence and sexual initiation, but the protagonists of many more are innocents as well. In “Children of God,” the longest story here, a minister navigates between sin and divinity as he falls in love with a young girl who insists that her pregnancy is an immaculate conception. In the process, he consults a doctor, one who was “not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God.” The following story, “Go Out into the Fields...,” concerns a landscape artist—identified in the second person as “you”—who learned to paint when “you learned to see,” who “kept painting dusks, as if you wanted to stop time, to escape the certainty of death,” and who approaches his work with “a passionate indifference.” Another protagonist, a young girl who lives “In the Forest,” survives through “alert indifference.” Such a perspective might be considered Zurich Zen, and Stamm is its master.
For those who have an affinity for metaphysical fiction written with a surgeon’s precision, this collection will spur readers to seek out everything else by its author.
Sterling collection of short stories by Alexie (Ten Little Indians, 2003, etc.), a master of the form.
The reader can take his or her pick of points where the blasphemy of Alexie’s title occurs in this multifaceted assemblage, for there are several solid candidates. One falls about two-thirds of the way in, when a hard-boiled newspaper editor chews out a young Indian writer who might be Alexie’s semblable. By that young man’s count, the editor had used the word “Jesus” thrice in 15 seconds: “I wasn’t a Christian and didn’t know much about the definition of blasphemy,” Alexie writes, “but it seemed like he’d committed some kind of sin.” In Alexie’s stories, someone is always committing some kind of sin, and often not particularly wittingly. One character, a bad drinker in need of help to bail out some prized pawned regalia, makes about as many errors as it’s possible to make while still remaining a fundamentally decent person; another laments that once you start looking at your loved one as though he or she is a criminal, then the love is out the door. “It’s logical,” notes Alexie, matter-of-factly. Most of Alexie’s characters in these stories—half selected and half new—are Indians, and then most of them Spokanes and other Indians of the Northwest; but within that broad categorization are endless variations and endless possibilities for misinterpretation, as when a Spokane encounters three mysterious Aleuts who sing him all the songs they’re allowed to: “All the others are just for our people,” which is to say, other Aleuts. Small wonder that when they vanish, no one knows where, why, or how. But ethnicity is not as central in some of Alexie’s stories as in others; in one of the most affecting, the misunderstandings and attendant tragedies occur between humans and donkeys. The darkness of that tale is profound, even if it allows Alexie the opportunity to bring in his beloved basketball. Longtime readers will find the collection full of familiar themes and characters, but the newer pieces are full of surprises.
Whether recent or from his earliest period, these pieces show Alexie at his best: as an interpreter and observer, always funny if sometimes angry, and someone, as a cop says of one of his characters, who doesn’t “fit the profile of the neighborhood.”
A debut collection of elegant and largely intertwined short stories about mothers and daughters.
The collection starts with Serber’s most startling piece, which inspired the title of the collection. Written in first-person, the story is a stream-of-consciousness dive into a mother’s terrifying worry for her teenage daughter, who is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder. She, who remains unnamed, is at the end of her rope, calling her husband as he prepares for a business trip. “Don’t care. Scream into the phone. Imagine your tinny, bitchy voice leaking around his ear while men holding lattes, women with Coach briefcases, students and grandmas try not to look at his worn face,” Serber writes. With the next story, the author launches a series of interconnected tales about a single mother and her daughter that very nearly make up a novel of their own. In the first, “Ruby Jewel,” we meet a college girl who has returned home to the Gulf Coast to visit her whiskey-soaked father and emotionally distant mother. In the next, “Alone as She Felt All Day,” Ruby finds that the delicious liaisons she’s been enjoying with a boy named Marco have left her pregnant. Marco leaves. The girl, named Nora, grows up and the conflicts between Nora and her mother ebb and flow like the tides, with Serber zeroing in on painful episodes along the way. There’s little sweetness to be had in Serber’s stories, laden with the sharpness of realism, but their emotional depths are memorable.
A terrific introduction to Serber’s gifts, and hopefully a preview of good things to come.
Twenty-five slices of the grotesque, the macabre and beyond from a gifted literary novelist with an eye for all things horrible.
Evenson’s latest (Immobility, 2012, etc.) is a great introduction to his unique mindset, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The title story is a good example, a short portrait of a boy who loves, above all things, his sister, who is, one day, inexplicably gone, unremembered by everyone except the boy. Other works seem to echo the anxiety of Edgar Allen Poe, as in the confessional “Angel of Death,” whose narrator confesses, “Questions have begun to plague me. About where I am, what I am doing here, where are we going. As I have not even the faintest most tentative of answers to them, I find I have no idea how to entertain them.” A pair of stories offer metaphysical takes on the physical presence of “The Absent Eye” and “The Other Ear.” There are a couple of great procedurals as well, “The Moldau Case” and “The Sladen Suit,” that lend a sense of humor to their ever-so-serious proceedings. And there is no funnier story here than “Bon Scott: The Choir Years,” in which an enterprising rock journalist discovers secret information outing the late lead singer of AC/DC as a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
A unique collection, proving that Evenson is as deft at moving between genres as a ghost passing through a wall.
Ten stories, carefully and lovingly constructed, about Western characters as prickly as barbed wire.
The epistolary story, “The Last Thing We Need,” chronicles the letters of Thomas Grey to one Duane Moser after the correspondent finds a lost stash of prescriptions, a collection of letters and an abandoned ’66 Chevelle out in the desert. “Rondine Al Nido” uncovers a young woman’s secret shame. If there’s an anomaly in the collection, it’s “The Diggings,” a story about the Gold Rush of 1849 and the madness of greed. It’s a fine story but feels out of place among those that surround it. There are two here that are flat-out outstanding. “The Archivist” is a spare, unflinching story about the desolation of loss. “There was no salve for the space he left,” is an amazing opening line for this heartbreaker about a woman building a shrine to the flimflam man she loved and lost. Watkins builds a fully formed world in “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” in which a beautiful young Italian boy wreaks emotional havoc on the workers of the brothel he stumbles into by accident.
Another gallery of grotesquerie from the staggeringly prolific Oates.
This latest collection of Oates’ previously published short stories (the sheer range of venues, from Playboy to Ellery Queen, The New Yorker to video game-inspired e-fiction is an indication of her vast reach) showcases her talent for imbuing mundane events with menace and the kind of irony that springs from narrow brushes with disaster. Thus, in the title story, the depraved serial killer of a Hollywood pinup model known as Black Dahlia could, but for circumstance, just as easily have targeted the starlet who would become Marilyn Monroe. Protagonists are drawn, with equal authority, from the underclass and the self-satisfied professional class. In “I.D.,” a pre-adolescent whose single mother has left her alone for days desperately clings to normalcy even as she’s being called out of class, possibly to identify her mother’s body. In two stories, “Roma!” and “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance,” middle-aged women married to prominent, uncommunicative men act out in diverse ways, from a frightening foray down Rome’s back alleys to a walk on the wild side as a were-hyena. (“A Brutal Murder in a Public Place” is a more contrived attempt at human/animal identification.) Narrators can be so subtly unreliable as to force readers to question their own perceptions. In “Deceit,” a mother summoned to discuss her child’s possible abuse may be the perpetrator—her memory has been ravaged by anti-anxiety meds. The divorced father in “Run Kiss Daddy,” attempting to start again with a new family in a favorite vacation spot, uncovers evidence of a long-ago crime that could be his own. A young woman who finds a wallet on a train injects herself capriciously and dangerously into a family of strangers. The linked stories “San Quentin” and “Anniversary” cover the excruciating discomfort—and unmistakable voyeurism—of well-meaning individuals teaching in maximum security prisons.
Although her material can be macabre, mawkish and deeply unsettling, Oates' hypnotic prose ensures that readers will be unable to look away.
Bizarre stories, some bordering on the absurd and others going over the border.
Fancher’s best story is “The Climacteric of Zackary Ray,” a tale of an over-the-hill movie actor who had once reveled in playing evil characters with a dash of humanity. Ray glories in the reflections of one reviewer who claimed his performances exhibited “the gears of corruption lubricated with honey,” but such praise is unrecoverable because it is so far in Ray’s past. In the present, he’s deep in gin and self-pity. Another story involving a failed actor—this one far more surreal than “Zackary Ray”—is called “Cargot.” The “hero” (though the boldness of the word is misplaced) reclaims a new identity but shuns a first name, choosing instead the initial “S” (yes, it’s French). Ultimately, he undertakes a long journey up the body of the wife of a hated producer, getting a kind of revenge of intimacy. The most involved story is “The Black Weasel,” which Fancher presents in two parts, separated by four other stories. Here, Spencer Hooler returns to his home in Townsville, Miss., from New York (where he works at a nightclub called “The Torture Chamber,” which he redundantly informs us is a “specialty club”) immediately after his mother’s death, accompanied by a black man known as Mot who barks rather than speaks. In a twist on Huck Finn, Spencer tries to turn Mot into a circus wild man. Along the way we meet a cast of eccentrics that include Spencer’s almost constantly drunk sister (called Sister). We also hear of Spencer’s dead father, who taught a cat to walk backwards. (Spencer’s sure of this because his mother showed him a black-and-white picture of it.)
Fancher’s writing is long on whimsy but short on humor.
From the author of Drown (1996), more tales of Dominican life in the cold, unwelcoming United States.
Eight of the collection’s nine stories center on Yunior, who shares some of his creator’s back story. Brought from the Dominican Republic as a kid by his father, he grows up uneasily in New Jersey, escaping the neighborhood career options of manual labor and drug dealing to become an academic and fiction writer. What Yunior can’t escape is what his mother and various girlfriends see as the Dominican man’s insatiable need to cheat. The narrative moves backward and forward in time, resisting the temptation to turn interconnected tales into a novel by default, but it has a depressingly unified theme: Over and over, a fiery woman walks when she learns Yunior can’t be true, and he pines fruitlessly over his loss. He’s got a lot of other baggage to deal with as well: His older brother Rafa dies of cancer; a flashback to the family’s arrival in the U.S. shows his father—who later runs off with another woman—to be a rigid, controlling, frequently brutal disciplinarian; and Yunior graduates from youthful drug use to severe health issues. These grim particulars are leavened by Díaz’s magnificent prose, an exuberant rendering of the driving rhythms and juicy Spanglish vocabulary of immigrant speech. Still, all that penitent machismo gets irksome, perhaps for the author as well, since the collection’s most moving story leaves Yunior behind for a female narrator. Yasmin works in the laundry of St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick; her married lover has left his wife behind in Santo Domingo and plans to buy a house for him and Yasmin. Told in quiet, weary prose, “Otravida, Otra Vez” offers a counterpoint to Yunior’s turbulent wanderings with its gentle portrait of a woman quietly enduring as best she can.
Not as ambitious as Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), but sharply observed and morally challenging.
A well-turned set of stories defined by emotional and physical separation, particularly in the Indian-American diaspora.
James’ fine debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns (2009), was a continent-hopping tale that tracked the divergent lives of two Indian sisters with wit and a lightly comic touch. Her debut story collection displays a similar approach, and she enthusiastically tests how her style can function in a variety of settings. The two most inventive stories study human emotions in nonhuman contexts. “What to Do With Henry” follows a chimpanzee’s travels from Sierra Leone to the United States, where he builds an uncanny bond with a woman and her adopted daughter; as the chimp struggles for his place in a zoo’s pecking order, James crafts a clear (but unforced) allegory of our own human strivings. Likewise, the closing “Girl Marries Ghost” imagines a society where people who are desperate for companionship can marry ghosts, who are eager to spend a little time back in the real world; James’ portrait of one such marriage is a seriocomic exposé of our craving for order set against our inability to let go of our messy pasts. The other stories deal in culture clashes, mostly featuring Indian Americans, but for James ethnicity isn’t the sole source of conflict. The Indian dance teacher in “Light & Luminous,” for instance, is defined as much by her sense of personal pride as her growing feeling that her art is out of step with the times. In the title story, the protagonist (who has the evocative last name of Panicker) is deciding whether his fellow nursing home residents are more embracing than his family.
At every turn, James’ prose is crisp, observant and carefully controlled; unlike the narrator of “Escape Key,” who grows increasingly aware of his fiction’s shortcomings, James projects a deep emotional intelligence.
Connection and enlightenment are sought and occasionally experienced in a first collection from Canadian poet and Giller Prize–winning novelist Skibsrud (The Sentimentalists, 2011).
Relationships remain unexpressed or rest in not-quite-connected small family knots in Skibsrud’s dreamy yet searching fictions—e.g., “The Limit,” in which an absent father reaches out to his stranger-daughter. Reminiscence features often, as in "Clarence," recounting a newspaper photographer’s use of a childhood episode to revive his subject, the oldest man in the county. The stories offer glimpses of France, Canada and the Midwest, yet the landscapes seem desolate and are often visited by death, like the suicide of a son in “French Lessons” or the casually mentioned murder in “Signac’s Boats.” These two stories are also connected via the character of Martha, an American in Paris who falls in love there, but even on this subject Skibsrud’s approach is cerebral, almost abstract. "Cleats," another story in the Martha/Paris sequence, is more concrete, tracing the feelings behind an abandoned marriage, although it too is driven by the ineffable. And the closing tale, “Fat Man and Little Boy,” is one of several striving to capture a flash of understanding for which words seem scarcely adequate.
Skibsrud’s economical, poetically aware stories reveal a writer comfortable with the form, and one who requires her readers to think.
The book opens with "The Infamous Bengal Ming," narrated by a tiger who expresses affection for his keeper in the only language available to him, a fatal combination of mauling and love-biting; he then escapes the zoo to commit other acts of mayhem, under which lies a misunderstood tenderness. This tour de force sets the tone and the stage for these dark, rollickingly imaginative stories in which the powers of love and savagery are loosed upon each other again and again. In the title story, a semiliterate (and also fancily semi-literary) hangman tries to seduce his new wife despite her disgust at discovering the way he makes his living. Meanwhile, he tries to negotiate between the equal and opposite forces of compassion and brutishness. In "The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan," a fired computer salesman, an Indian-born American who believes deeply—too deeply—in the immigrant dream of self-reinvention, checks out anatomy texts from the public library and sets up shop in an exurban strip mall, claiming to be a doctor. Other stories feature a panopticonic security state in which everyone seems to be a government agent spying on everyone else; an elephant composing a memoir (in "Englaphant, that strange tongue native to all places of elephant-human contact," we're told); an Indian woman soldiering on with Thanksgiving plans despite the fact that her husband lies dead on the floor. The stories—some published in journals like McSweeney's, Granta and Zoetrope—can sometimes be arch and tricksome, and they're not for everyone. But Parameswaran is a dazzlingly versatile stylist and the conceits and voices here are varied and evocative.
A prize-winning poet (and MacArthur Fellow grant recipient) extends her literary mastery with a debut story collection.
While these stories reflect the poet’s plainspoken virtuosity and elliptical compression, they are very much rooted in her experience in the Pacific Northwest. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant, 2009, etc.) majored in wildlife management and worked summers at Mount Rainier National Park. Not that she idealizes or sentimentalizes the natural world, but it puts her very human characters in perspective: “There was beauty…and also decay, and the years were just a factory for changing one into the other.” The opening and closing stories (“Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” “Late in the Realm”), as well as one in the middle (“Saint Jude in Persia”), have the same first-person narrator, a young (initially), spirited woman whose love life is undermined by her limited possibilities, as she deals with a sister with Down syndrome and a mother embittered by the husband who deserted them. Funny and sad in equal measure, the stories find the narrator admitting, “I haven’t always proved to be the shrewdest judge of human nature. My romances have left me with a recurring dream in which I’m slashing tires and the tires’ blood is spilling out.” Throughout the fiction, blood ties are tenuous, commitment is provisional, and fate is arbitrary: “She packed her things and headed west, and when she hit the ocean and could go no further she tossed a coin and made a right-hand turn.” Thus do so many of the characters in these stories find themselves in the area around the Puget Sound, which more often seems a last ditch than a last chance. These are characters with grit and survival instincts, but ones who ask, “What was sadness, after all, but the fibrous stuff out of which a life was woven? And what was happiness but a chemical in the brain?”
Emotionally unflinching stories of considerable power, wonder and humor.
“Mischief” is indeed the operative term here, for Stern’s characters are subtle, slyly humorous and at times poignant.
Stern’s geographical range is impressive, with most of the stories unfolding in The Pinch, the Jewish section in—of all incongruous places—Memphis, Tenn. In "The Tale of a Kite," the opening story, Rabbi Shmelke is alleged to be able to fly. While this fascinates the narrator’s son Ziggy, the narrator himself is less naïve and more skeptical, especially since the rabbi has a reputation for being on the "lunatic fringe" of Judaism. In "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven," the narrator’s father-in-law untowardly refuses to die and thus causes untold embarrassment to his family. In fact, even when an angel appears to take him up to paradise, Malkin refuses to believe that the angel is real and snorts that "there ain’t no such place." The angel becomes understandably offended but counters: "We’re even. In paradise they’ll never believe you’re for real." "Zelik Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams" features the title character who, testing his mother’s lack of attention, announces that he robbed a bank and killed a teller. " 'Just so you’re careful,' " she distractedly replies. After the first eight stories, Stern moves us out of Memphis and transports us to the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. There, prophet Elijah the Tishbite finds that after millennia of commuting between heaven and earth, and after being "translated to Paradise in a chariot of flame while yet alive," he’s become a voyeur. After Manhattan, Stern shifts his narratives to Europe before returning to America for the final story, set in the Catskills.
Stern weaves an intricate and clever web of stories steeped in both sacred and mundane Jewish culture.
A dozen strange and original stories inject the magical, sinister and downright peculiar into the everyday.
Talking magpies, husband-stealing mermaids, women who turn periodically to stone: English writer Wood’s debut collection is full of mysteries and inexplicable occurrences in domestic lives. The application of eye cream in “Of Mothers and Little People” reveals to a daughter a wholly different reason for her mother’s behavior. “Notes from the House Spirits” gives voice to the inanimate and brings a strange perspective to human habitation. In “Lights in Other People’s Houses,” a ghostly shipwrecker arrives during a drought, filling an apartment with sand, pebbles and creeping damp. The sea is never far away in these narratives, sometimes as landscape—there’s a Cornish flavor to the book—at others central to events, as in the title story, which takes an abandoned wife down deep to the ocean floor. Wood’s tales often feature single females—unmarried women, deserted wives, perhaps the most memorable being Mrs. Tivoli in “Blue Moon,” who changes into a hare. Weaker stories are desultory or a bit obvious, and there’s an overreliance on vague endings, but at her strongest, Wood captures something fresh, fantastical and eloquent.
Occasionally just fey, elsewhere convincingly unworldly, these stories express a distinctive voice and a gently beguiling imagination.
For fans of man’s best friend, a collection of insightful, moving and often unforgiving stories about dogs, cats and their people.
There are lots of good books about animals, usually written for children, and a rash of bad books about dogs in particular, written to wring out the widest possible audience. But it’s unusual to unearth a collection of great stories about dogs written for adults. Former journalist and mystery novelist Katz (Lenore Finds a Friend, 2012, etc.) settled comfortably into a gold mine of a niche with his 2002 memoir A Dog Year. With this book, the author brings together 16 stories about pets and people and how they keep each other company. The opener, “Gracie’s Last Walk,” carries on the theme of Katz’ book Going Home (2011), about dealing with the loss of a pet. Another heart-rending story, “The Surrender Bay,” chronicles the day-to-day courage of Emma, a part-time employee of a local animal shelter. One of the best, “Lucky’s Day,” deals virtually not at all with people, but follows the daily schedule of a small brown mutt who is unusually self-aware about The Deal: “It was a trade-off, Lucky cautioned. You got food and shelter and attention, but you gave up much of your natural life as a dog. Most of the time, it was a good deal.” The collection runs the gamut, from a sappy story about a young girl on a mission to connect with a stray, to a gravely elegant piece about a barn cat.
The fourth collection of stories from Ford includes examples of fantasy, science fiction, neo-steampunk, noir and a few genre-busting curiosities.
The longest piece in the book, “The Wish Head,” is a haunted police procedural set in upstate New York in the mid-20th century. “The Double of My Double Is Not My Double” doubles down on the rich history of the doppelganger; it is funny, morbid and very clever. “Every Richie There Is” is a dry-eyed look at our inevitably mixed feelings about our neighbors. “Glass Eels” smarts like a sliver of glass under a fingernail. To all but one story, Ford adds a note. These notes pay homage to generous editors, describe flashes of inspiration, explain references and enlighten the ignorant. One note contains a bonus track, an additional story.
Ford finds his way into scenarios infernal, haunted or merely strange, and keeps his wits about him on the journey.
First-time author Aronson calls on her experience as a professor of medicine for this collection of short stories, which take place in and around a San Francisco hospital. But the stories are less concerned with medical details than with the inner lives of the characters and the psychological toll that health issues take on caregivers, patients and their families.
The best story here, “Becoming a Doctor,” is about an internship; its brief episodes give glimpses of the life-changing experiences a young doctor might encounter, from impulsive love affairs to the first sighting of medical horrors. Call it a less cute, more truthful version of Grey’s Anatomy. In “Giving Good Death,” a doctor serves prison time for malpractice, and Aronson focuses on his failed connection with the psychiatrist handling his case. “Vital Signs Stable” concerns a 98-year-old patient who does not die during the story; but the effect of her illness on her family makes the story haunting. At times, Aronson tweaks the narrative format to make a point: In “Blurred Boundary Disorder,” the footnotes overwhelm the main text, illustrating the condition of the title. Some of these stories are stronger than others, and a few could use a more compelling plot: In “Heart Failure,” a workaholic doctor fails to respond to her neglected daughter’s increasingly urgent outbursts, but the final outcome feels anticlimactic.
It’s the tense atmospheres that Aronson creates, and her empathy for her characters, that make this a promising debut.
Stories about storytelling from a young Israeli author.
With stories this short (many are a paragraph or two or a page or two, making the 22 pages of the penultimate “Surprise Party” feel like an epic), every word counts, so it’s quite possible that something has been lost in the translation (with no slight intended to the three translators credited, including noted author Nathan Englander). However these stories might read differently in Hebrew, and signify something different within a different cultural context, they function like fables and parables, fairy tales and jokes, with goldfish that grant wishes, parallel universes, an insurance agent who suffers (and then prospers) from his own lack of insurance, a woman who mourns her miscarriage with a creative-writing course (with her husband becoming jealous of the instructor and responding by writing his own revelatory stories). Bookending the collection are two stories featuring a writer as protagonist, a first-person narrator that the reader is invited to identify as the author, who is being forced to perform the act of writing for the benefit of others. The first, the title story, finds him coerced to create at gunpoint, conjuring a plot that proceeds to transpire within the story as he takes some pleasure from “creating something out of something.” The final story, “What Animal Are You?,” shows the self-conscious writer being filmed for a TV feature as he’s in the process of writing (or at least simulating it), wondering whether a hooker might seem more natural on camera as his wife than his wife does. His pieces elicit comparison to sources as diverse as Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen. He also recalls Lydia Davis in his compression and Donald Barthelme in his whimsy. Yet the stories are hit-and-miss, some of them slight or obvious, though the suggestion that “in the end, everyone gets the Hell or the Heaven he deserves” might be a fantasy that readers will wish were true.
More like bits and sketches than stories, from a writer who is often very funny and inventive, and occasionally profound.
This slim collection of early, experimental stories represents a footnote on the career of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, who died in 2010.
Originally published as a collection in 1978, these stories reflect the social conscience and penchant for elaborate allegory that would flourish in his celebrated novels, such as Blindness(1998). In the introduction, translator Giovanni Pontiero (who died in 1996) explains that half of the stories “might be described as political allegories evoking the horror and repression which paralysed Portugal under the harsh regime of Salazar.” Since most American readers aren’t all that familiar with Portugal’s political situation of the 1960s, the opening “The Chair” might be particularly impenetrable without the brief context provided by the introduction, which alludes to “the dictator’s dramatic departure from the political scene on 6 September 1968, when the deckchair in which he was sitting collapsed and the shock precipitated a brain haemorrhage.” The story itself is oblique and matter of fact, minutely detailed, largely devoid of passion, punctuated by the exhortation, “Fall, old man, fall. See how your feet are higher than your head.” In the other stories as well, characters are unnamed, mainly described by their social positions, as the late author spins parables about an oil embargo that leaves a man all but imprisoned in his car (“Embargo”), a society in which things stop working (doors, watches, buildings, entire streets) and even disappear (“Things”) and the establishment of a cemetery that becomes “a city of the dead surrounded by four cities of living human beings” (“Reflux”). “The Centaur” reads most like a fable, yet it is also the most compelling story here, as the author shows the protagonist’s divided nature, referring to the mythical creature as both horse and man, who “had learned how to curb the animal’s impatience, sometimes opposing him with an upsurge of violence which clouded his thoughts or perhaps affected that part of his body where the orders coming from his brain clashed with the dark instincts nourished between his flanks.
Though some of the stories work well on their own, the collection will mainly interest those already very familiar with the author and his novels.