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SUBURBAN GOTHIC

Tense, skillfully crafted, and illuminating tales of suburban desperation.

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A collection of short stories probes the anxieties of life in suburban America.

What makes the suburbs so unsettling? Perhaps it’s the expectation of tranquility and order that, once upset, highlights the troubles stirring beneath the surface. In one tale, a kite caught in a tree becomes a metaphor for a single mother’s mistaken attempt to move back to her hometown. In another story, a woman comes home to find a terrible, monstrous creature sitting in her driveway. She seeks help from two friends, a pair of twin sisters, but her visit to their house devolves into a literal nightmare. In a third, a protective mother puts her child in preschool after failing to find him an acceptable babysitter. But there’s something strange about the other kids there: Why do they just sit and stare like zombies? “Nina was outraged,” begins another tale, the ominously titled “Mullet.” “ ‘I toldher!’ she shouted, grabbing fistfuls of her hair, ‘I wanted a layered bob with bangs! And look, look, lookat this! What isthis!’ ” In these 15 stories, Chen reveals that distress and unease are never far from the minds of her characters, lurking behind white picket fences and insincere smiles. The tales are a mix of shorter pieces that tend toward the surreal and longer, more realistic narratives. Both are enjoyable but the latter more so, particularly “The Zhangs and the Zumans.” The story follows a married couple who return to the house where they used to live, which they now rent out. The house has changed, but what is really striking is that the neighbors—whose antics caused the couple to move in the first place—seem different as well. Here, the wife, Annie, views her former neighbor’s abode as though it were a haunted house: “Although she tried to stop herself, Annie began to fix her gaze upon the large house, as if a magnetic force gravitated forth from its many black windows, pulling her very eyeballs, it seemed, right out of their sockets and towards the walls of staring, glassy recesses.” The author’s prose is exact and taut, building a sense of unease in a way that is so subtle the audience will often fail to realize it until it finally breaks. Readers should look forward to more books from Chen in the future.

Tense, skillfully crafted, and illuminating tales of suburban desperation.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-62429-252-1

Page Count: 177

Publisher: OPUS

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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