Posts Tagged ‘short stories’
Novels, literary journals, translations, paperback originals, and reprints. Here’s what new for June.
Taipei by Tao Lin
From one of this generation’s most talked about and enigmatic writers comes a deeply personal, powerful, and moving novel about family, relationships, accelerating drug use, and the lingering possibility of death.
Taipei by Tao Lin is an ode–or lament–to the way we live now. Following Paul from New York, where he comically navigates Manhattan’s art and literary scenes, to Taipei, Taiwan, where he confronts his family’s roots, we see one relationship fail, while another is born on the internet and blooms into an unexpected wedding in Las Vegas. Along the way—whether on all night drives up the East Coast, shoplifting excursions in the South, book readings on the West Coast, or ill advised grocery runs in Ohio—movies are made with laptop cameras, massive amounts of drugs are ingested, and two young lovers come to learn what it means to share themselves completely. The result is a suspenseful meditation on memory, love, and what it means to be alive, young, and on the fringe in America, or anywhere else for that matter.
Tin House: Summer Reading
The best writers not only create worlds beyond our imagination but also lead us into places we’d never dare venture alone. Over their long careers, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have continually surprised us with their dark worlds. In his new short story “Afterlife,” King transports us into the mind of a man at the white-light moment of his death. And Atwood, master of speculative fiction and a fervent conservationist, talks about dystopian societies and vanishing species with Tin House editor-at-large Elissa Schappell. Critic Parul Sehgal explores issues of race, class, and gender politics, as well as the significance of African and African American women’s hair, in her interview with Orange Prize–winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
Forty or so years in the future. The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are the posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the North Rises, and the eerie bogs of the Big Nothin’ that the city really lives. For years it has all been under the control of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air. They say Hartnett’s old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchmen are getting ambitious; and his missus wants him to give it all up and go straight. Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane combines Celtic myth and a Caribbean beat, fado and film, graphic-novel cool and all the ripe inheritance of Irish literature to create something hilarious, beautiful, and startlingly new.
Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
Mark Renton’s life seems to be on track: university, pretty girlfriend, even social success. But, in this prequel to Trainspotting, after the death of his younger brother, Rent falls apart and starts hanging around with his old pals, including Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie, and being drawn irresistibly into their wacked-out plans.
Set against 1980s Thatcher-era Edinburgh–with its high unemployment, low expectations, and hard-to-come-by money and drugs Irvine Welsh’s colorful crew lunges from one darkly hilarious misadventure to the next. Gritty, moving, and exhilarating, Skagboys paints their dizzying downward spiral with scabrous humor and raw language.
Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf
Working in the traditions of Robert Walser, Robert Pinget, and Laurence Sterne, Ror Wolf creates strangely entertaining and condensed stories that call into question the very nature of what makes a story a story. Almost an anti-book, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions takes as its basis the small, diurnal details of life, transforming these oft-overlooked ordinary experiences of nondescript people in small German villages into artistic meditations on ambiguity, repetition, and narrative.
Incredibly funny and playful,Two or Three Years Later is unlike anything you’ve ever read—from German or any other language. These stories of men observing other men, of men who may or may not have been wearing a hat on a particular Monday (or was it Tuesday?), are delightful word-puzzles that are both intriguing and enjoyable.
The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey
The whimsical, macabre tales of British writer H. H. Munro—better known as Saki—deftly, mercilessly, and hilariously skewer the banality and hypocrisy of polite upper-class English society between the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the beginning of World War I. Their heroes are clever, amoral children and other enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty or fatuousness, bad faith or simple tedium of a decorous and doomed world.
This selection of Saki’s most polished dark gems comes paired with illustrations by the peerless Edward Gorey, whose fine-lined pen-and-ink drawings evoke, in all their fragile elegance and creeping menace, Saki’s Edwardian drawing rooms and garden parties, along with their population of overly delicate ladies and their mischief-making charges, spectral guests and sardonic house pets, flustered authority figures, and all manner of delightfully preposterous imposters.
what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway
Marie Calloway emerged in 2011, a controversial, compelling young talent whose work drove intense and polarized discussion from its first appearance. Her debut work of fiction, what purpose did i serve in your life, examines the nature of sex and the possibility of real connection in the face of degradation and blankness. Its interlocking stories follow a chronological arc from innocence to sexual experience, taking in the humiliations of one night stands with male strangers, the perils of sex work, and the caustic reception that greets a woman working and writing in public. It is a brave and pitiless examination of yearning in an era of hyper-exposure and a riveting account of the moments of transcendence seized from an otherwise blank world.
The No Variations: Diary of an Unfinished Novel by Luis Chitarroni
A self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plots, of literary references both real and invented, and is populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and, in turn, produce their own ideas for books, characters, and poems . . . A dizzying look at the backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, and is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.
May is here and there are lots of new paperbacks on the shelves. Here are just a few that have my attention.
The Last Interview: and Other Conversations Jorge Luis Borges
Days before his death, Borges gave an intimate interview to his friend, the Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube. That interview is translated for the first time here, giving English-language readers a new insight into his life, loves, and thoughts about his work and country at the end of his life.
Accompanying that interview are a selection of the fascinating interviews he gave throughout his career. Highlights include his celebrated conversations with Richard Burgin during Borges’s time as a lecturer at Harvard University, in which he gives rich new insights into his own works and the literature of others, as well as discussing his now oft-overlooked political views. The pieces combine to give a new and revealing window on one of the most celebrated cultural figures of the past century.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories by A. Igoni Barrett
When it comes to love, things are not always what they seem. In contemporary Lagos, a young boy may pose as a woman online, and a maid may be suspected of sleeping with her employer and yet still become a young wife’s confidante. Men and women can be objects of fantasy, the subject of beery soliloquies. They can be trophies or status symbols. Or they can be overwhelming in their need.
In these wide-ranging stories, A. Igoni Barrett roams the streets with people from all stations of life. A man with acute halitosis navigates the chaos of the Lagos bus system. A minor policeman, full of the authority and corruption of his uniform, beats his wife. A family’s fortunes fall from love and wealth to infidelity and poverty as poor choices unfurl over three generations. With humor and tenderness, Barrett introduces us to an utterly modern Nigeria, where desire is a means to an end, and love is a power as real as money.
Dark Back of Time by Javiar Marias
Called by its author a “false novel,” Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías swears to be fiction, but which its “characters”–the real-life dons and professors and bookshop owners who have “recognized themselves”–fiercely maintain to be a roman à clef. With the sleepy world of Oxford set into fretful motion by a world that never “existed,” Dark Back of Time begins an odyssey into the nature of identity and of time. Marías weaves together autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed pilot, a curse in Havana, and a bullet lost in Mexico.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, introduction by William Gibson
In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.
Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust; translated by Kim Thompson
Back in 1984, a rebellious,17-year-old, punked-out Ulli Lust set out for a wild hitchhiking trip across Italy, from Naples through Verona and Rome and ending up in Sicily. Twenty-five years later, this talented Austrian cartoonist has looked back at that tumultuous summer and delivered a long, dense, sensitive, and minutely observed autobiographical masterpiece.
A Day in the Life by Senji Kuroi
A Day in the Life features twelve portraits of the vivid and curious realities experienced by a man in his sixties. These stories focus on the tiny paradoxes and ridiculousness we each witness and of which we often take no note. Ranging from a visit to an exhibition of blurry photographs, each taken with an exposure time of exactly one second, to the story of a man stalked through the streets by a stranger for no greater a crime than making eye contact, A Day in the Life demonstrates why Senji Kuroi is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature
Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue
Shocking, erudite, and affecting, these twenty-odd short stories, “micro-novels,” and vignettes span a vast territory, from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. to the late nineteenth-century Adriatic to the blood-soaked foothills of California’s Gold Rush country, introducing an array of bewildering characters: a professor of Latin American literature who survives a tornado and, possibly, an orgy; an electrician confronting the hardest wiring job of his career; a hapless garbage man who dreams of life as a pirate; and a prodigiously talented Polish baritone waging musical war against his church. Hypothermia explores the perilous limits of love, language, and personality, the brutal gravity of cultural misunderstandings, and the coldly smirking will to self-destruction hiding within our irredeemably carnal lives.
Here are just a few paperbacks coming out in February that have my attention. Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments section.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do edited by Meredith Maran
Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips, and secrets of the successful writing life.
Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heartbreaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation. Read Jennifer Egan’s essay.
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
Distraught over the sudden disappearance of his wife, Zack tries to drown his grief in Tijuana, then returns to the U.S. with a stolen stash of marijuana. Using this as an impetus to change his life, Zack sets off for New York with the weed and a vintage Nikon. Through the lens of the old camera, he starts rediscovering himself by photographing an America we rarely see. His journey unleashes a series of erratic, hilarious, and life-threatening events interspersed with flashbacks to his relationship with Stella and life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
A suspenseful, darkly funny love story, 18% Gray won both the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award and the Flower of the Readers Award when it was first published in 2008, and received the praise of critics everywhere.
Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey
Merlin: the very name summons up images of the wizard of Camelot — magician, prophet, and counselor to Arthur. The legend is famous but the truth is less well known: Merlin was a real historical figure, a champion of the old way of the Druids, a British man who hailed not from England or Wales, as traditional wisdom would have it, but from Scotland.
Adam Ardrey, who stumbled upon some of the hidden sources of Merlin’s life while researching the history of a Scottish clan, offers compelling evidence that links a very real Merlin figure into the histories of other real and prominent sixth century figures. “Finding Merlin” uncovers new evidence and reexamines the old. The places where Merlin was born, lived, died, and was buried are identified, as are the people surrounding him — his nemesis, the fanatic Mungo, and his friend, the hero Arthur. In this impressively researched and accessibly written book, Merlin leaps from the pages of legend into history.
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; Barbara Wright
Contributors: Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Jesse Ball, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, Frederic Tuten.
Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable.Here is new proof.”
A new edition of the famous modernist story told ninety-nine different ways — with newly translated exercises by Queneau and contributions by some of today’s most acclaimed stylists.
Hat tip to Sarah Gerard, writer and bookslinger, for bringing this one to my attention.
How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them by Ben Yagoda
How to Not Write Bad uses this basic tenet — what Ben Yagoda calls “not-writing-badly” — to illustrate how we can all write better, clearer, and for a wider readership. Yagoda offers advice on crafting sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction, punctuation, and grammar and that display clarity, precision, and grace. He then moves on to the art of constructing whole paragraphs—focusing on cadence, consistency of tone, word repetition, sentence transitions, and length.
In a fun, comprehensive guide, Yagoda lays out the simple steps that we all can take to make our writing more effective, more interesting—and just plain better. As “lolspeak” and texts take over our linguistic consciousness, Yagoda emphasizes the lost art of grammar and the well-constructed sentence. He provides clear grammatical rules to help students and writers everywhere write better; this is a book for anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Love stories, with a twist: the eagerly awaited follow-up to the great Russian writer’s New York Times bestselling scary fairy tales
By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia.Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people across the life span: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness. With the satirical eye of Cindy Sherman, Petrushevskaya blends macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace and shows just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.
Exodus by Lars Iyer
A wickedly funny and satisfyingly highbrow black comedy about the collapse of Western academic institutions under the weight of neoliberal economics and crushing, widespread idiocy.
Lars and W., the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes of Spurious and Dogma—called “Uproarious” by the New York Times Book Review—return and face a political, intellectual, and economic landscape in a state of total ruination.
With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply—although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerilla philosophy movement—conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges—that will save the study of philosophy after the long, miserable decades of intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.
Granta 122: Betrayal
Without love there can be no betrayal – love of a country, a brother, a wife, a platoon mate, a family. In this issue of Granta, Janine di Giovanni witnesses a nation, Syria, betraying its people; Karen Russell imagines a soldier inscribing the memory of a fellow soldier on his back; and Colin Robinson writes about ancient brotherly friction resurfacing in a game of paddleball. From the playgrounds of New York City to the alleyways of Damascus, here is the theatre of betrayal.
November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.
The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.
It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.
In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.
Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.
The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.
The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”
From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.
The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.
Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.
The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Houdini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.
This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.
Let’s be honest, a roundup of horror and dark fantasy books around Halloween is pretty obvious but such occasions are good opportunities to read books otherwise forgotten or overlooked the rest of the year. There’s a mood in the air during the fall season that lends itself to this sort of reading–the weather is colder, the nights are darker, and, at least in October, the neighborhoods are awash in plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns. This year, I’m making an effort to drag some seasonally suitable short story collections off my shelf.
If you’ve been putting off reading masters of the genre, if there are new authors who have caught your eye, or if you have a few neglected scary books currently on your own shelf, be obvious, pick them up, dig them out, and embrace seasonal reading.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Recalling a dinner party he and Angela Carter had attended, Salman Rushdie, in his eulogy for Carter, called her “the most brilliant writer in England.” Her writing, known to have a feminist streak, was dark and fantastical. There is no better place where all three are on display than in her short story “The Bloody Chamber,” and the collection in which it appears The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. More than a retelling of fairy tales, they are a complete rewriting, some vaguely recognizable only because of the makeup of the characters.
The title story, based on the French folktale Bluebeard, opens with a young woman, age seventeen, on her wedding day. She is to leave her family house and live in a castle with her new husband, a French Marquis. Their first night together she is entrusted with a ring of keys by her new husband as he is called away on business to New York. The palace is hers to explore–cabinets and safes and all–except for one room, which she is told never to enter. But, as is often the case with stories, both real and imagined, temptation takes hold and the girl finds her way to the west tower and into the forbidden space. Naturally, as one would expect, it was a setup, a trap, and the new bride must face the consequences.
In “The Tiger’s Bride” a young, Russian girl is a mere chip in her father’s gambling habit. After a losing hand she is given over to a beast as part of his winnings. While not a direct interpretation of The Beauty and the Beast, one can see the architecture in place. Meanwhile, the final three stories–”The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”–are reimaginings, often grotesque, and cringe inducing, of Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolves, werewolves, and feral children populate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These short gothic tales, with their twists and turns, are subversive, unsentimental, often erotic, and champion women as the masters of their own destinies–the heroine of their own stories. If you’re looking for a classic of the genre, one that stands outside all the others, look no further than Angela Carter.
Opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber
I remember, how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Bestselling author Neil Gaiman is not in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. One of the most in-demand fantasy authors writing today, he’s often asked to contribute work to various anthologies and publications. People love his writing–and for good reason. His stories are well-crafted, the language rich, rhythmic, and vivid. Collected in Smoke and Mirrors are 29 short stories and poems, many previously published in magazines and included multi-authored collections.
In his thorough introduction, an annotated guide of what’s to follow, Gaiman begins by defining what stories are:
Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.
Fantasy–and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another–is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.
He continues, explaining how each story came about, why he wrote it, and for whom. One was an outgrowth of an idea his agent had mentioned one year when angels were all the rage. “Troll Bridge,” one of my favorites, written for an anthology of fairy tales for adults edited by Ellen Datlow, is about a boy who encounters a troll on a walk and puts off the creatures demands over the years. It.
“Looking for the Girl,” narrated by a man mesmerized over the years by a girl he once saw in a copy of Penthouse, was written for, self-referentially, the magazine mentioned in the story. Another tale, written in 1983 and about haggling with assassins, came about when Gaiman fell asleep to a radio program discussing buying products in bulk.
Smoke and Mirrors features many nuggets of Gaiman greatness. If you’re a fan, chances are you already own this one. But if not, or if it’s hanging around on your shelf like mine was, grab it now, don’t wait, you won’t want to move until it’s finished.
Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.
I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.
It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.
So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.
When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.
Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.
Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.
The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.
For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.
However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):
Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.
While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.
In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”
However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:
Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?
An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.
Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.
At a time when publishers are concerned about ebook pricing, many believing that going below a certain dollar amount devalues both the book and the author (a theory I am sympathetic to), an intriguing project from a major publisher is taking place. Forty Stories, a labor of love spearheaded by Cal Morgan, publisher and editorial director at HarperCollins, is available today as a free ebook through all major retailers.
In January of 2009, Morgan started an online community for short story writers called Fifty-Two Stories. As the name suggests, each week a new story would be posted for free on the website. For all you trivia junkies, Simon Van Booy’s “The Missing Statues” was first. From 2009 until the first half of 2011 the output was consistent. Then, in August of last year, something happened and only one story was posted that month. Someone would have to be a complete jerk not to forgive Morgan and his crew for the lapse, given that no one involved is paid. (According to an excellent profile on the ebook collection from The Atlantic Wire, Morgan spends his Sundays reading through and selecting from hundreds of submissions that come pouring through the site’s open call for works.)
You’d think the people behind Fifty-Two Stories would pick up where they left off without a word, as if nothing happened, but no, they actually thanked readers for their patience and decided to make good on the stories they “owed”—all forty of them. These stories were first made available a few weeks ago as a downloadable PDF—a rough layout for anyone who’s experienced one on their ereader—but today, the official release date, a fully formatted edition is here.
Included in the collection are innovative up-and-comers—a subset of fiction writers that Cal Morgan has become known for publishing—as well as a few who have made a name for themselves over the years. There are also a handful of unknowns, some of whom will see their work published for the first time.
The book opens with Ben Greenman’s “Ambivalence” and, as would be expected of Greenman’s ever-engaging prose, the first few lines are bound to hook the reader:
When a girl is skinny, and calls you late at night, and you glance at the calendar, and it is four days before you are scheduled to get married, and the girl you are marrying is not the skinny girl but another girl, a girl who has already departed for the city where your wedding is to be held, it is your job, most probably, to hang up the phone. When you do not hang up the phone, you have not done your job. When you invite that skinny girl to your apartment, and then you jump into the shower so that you will be clean, taking special trouble to wash the parts that matter, and then you mess up your hair so that you will look as though you haven’t gone to any special trouble, then you are doing another job entirely.
Another contributor who I was excited to see involved with the book is essayist, editor, and short fiction writer Roxane Gay. “In the Manner of Water or Light” tells the story of a multigenerational family in Haiti as told by a granddaughter far removed from the atrocities her grandmother suffered as a young woman. As Gay is known to do, she makes the reader consider the political and social situations of those beyond the borders of American and European patriarchies.
Other writers in the collection whose names might resonate with readers of this blog are Blake Butler, Adam Wilson, Shane Jones, Jess Walter, and Elizabeth Crane—many of whom are published by HarperCollins. While I dug into the stories written by those known to me, I was equally eager to discover the unfamiliar. Among those I hadn’t yet heard of, two stood out: Lindsay Hunter, with her chilling abduction story “A Girl,” and Alexander Lumans, whose “Eighty-six Ways to Cross One Desert” is comprised solely of odd questions.
In a time, as mentioned in my introduction, when the publishing industry is questioning the future of the printed book and the health of the market as a whole, I couldn’t help but wonder, will people, after reading this collection, go out and buy the work of the authors who are published or will they seek out the next free ebook? Putting aside my financial curiosity, it’s obvious that anyone who cares about books will find this project heartwarming. Forty Stories proves that just because something is free, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. This collection is priceless.
Last month, The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), a service organization for independent literary presses and magazines, hosted its annual GIANT Lit Mag Fair at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown Manhattan. For one day hundreds of literary publications cover tables and fill rolling carts throughout the store. For $2 each, regardless of original price and without limit, people can buy journals they normally wouldn’t have easy access to.
Among the titles available are those that are well-known, such as Granta and Conjunctions, as well lesser-known journals and obscure zines. The fair is an excellent place to discover new writing with little monetary risk.
Each year literary fans descend on the bookstore with multiple tote bags and oversized backpacks and often don’t leave until they are full. Others come to meet representatives of the journals who stand around answering questions. Whatever one’s intention for being there, it’s hard to walk away empty handed.
This year, I came across an interesting flash fiction journal caught my eye. NANO Fiction, currently on its 10th issue and in its 10th year, with its glossy cover, stood out from many others. The illustration, a woman standing in a dark forest with three rabbits in her arms, reminded me of the 50s style drawings of pulp comics. In fact, in the middle of the book, there’s a statement from the artist, Michael C. Rodriguez, where he explains that much of his inspiration for the work comes from fashion illustrations of women from the 1940s to the 60s. He goes on to say:
This series of images is composed of romantic narratives with underlying themes of love, isolation, deprivation, and man’s destructive nature. They represent life as a journey full of difficulties that are often hidden by the exterior illusions we choose to share with each other. The work illustrates this perspective by contrasting the mix of beautiful/romantic imagery with destructive undertones.
One could say the same of the stories included in the issue. Taken as a whole, there is a poetic darkness to the issue. From the gruesome description of the butchering of a deer after a hunt to hints of incessuous feelings towards a cousin, these stories are subversive in varied ways. Although the stories maintain their quality from beginning to end, my favorite remains the first, “Her Favorite Color is Light,” a piece that describes a synesthesiac experience.
Nora thinks the air and smell are one. You breathe in sweet or sour, musty or moldy or wet-dog or chicken-broth scented. You breathe out your own smell, and this is how animals know you. She’s five and reads the number one as white as snow, the number two is bluer than a dead man’s lips, the number four as orange-red like the tips of flames. Five is green as grass. Ask her to add two and five, and she’ll say a dead man’s lips and green grass equal a funeral that lasts seven hours.
In addition to the printed product, NANO Fiction’s website offers a weekly feature, a mixture of stories from the print edition, writing prompts, interviews, and reading suggestions. The editors also run an annual flash fiction contest with a $500 prize. Their current call for submissions closes August 31st, with the winner announced in September.
If the latest issue of NANO Fiction is any indication to what the journal is like as a whole, you should set yourself a reminder to look for the next one in the fall.
The day I bought Brooklyn Noir, I got off the subway in my neighborhood and saw police posters taped along the row of poles. I walked over to get a good look at the crude pencil sketch, to see what the man, rendered, had done. Later, I would look up the full story. The night before, at 10pm, a man in his 30s looking for a fight, got into a brawl with a random 20-year-old on the train. They got off in Brooklyn and continued the senseless fight on the platform. The guy in the sketch wrestled both himself and the stranger onto the tracks but only he made it back up alive. Amidst the horror and confusion, the perpetrator fled the scene.
The weight of this incident transformed me, stuck with me for days — and still comes to mind as I stand safely behind the yellow line. It’s something that makes you think of your own family members, either as victim or survivor. It makes you consider your daily commute. I can’t imagine an adult living in New York who hasn’t worried about the possibility of being shoved onto the tracks by an unstable person, of which there seems to be no shortage. After all, even the sanest person, at the height of rush hour, has at one point or another fantasized about pushing an inconsiderate neighbor (don’t lie, New Yorkers).
Our constant vulnerability makes the Friday night incident so chilling. Randomness. It could’ve happened to any one of us. Stepping into this scene, new book in hand, you almost have to forgive me for asking, “who needs Brooklyn Noir when you have the local news?”
With the gruesome death reverberating in my bones, I tucked the book into my bag and made my way above ground.
However gruesome the news gets, New Yorkers are a resilient bunch. The morning headlines are a constant reminder that we live in a city riddled with violent acts yet there’s a strong sense of pride. Those “I Love NY” shirts are not just for tourists. We carry on — and for most of us, we wouldn’t dream of doing so elsewhere. This attachment is fiercest at the borough level. To Manhattanites, Manhattan is the best; for those in Queens, it’s their corner that shines; same goes for The Bronx and Staten Island. Then there’s Brooklyn, the feistiest of them all — but, of course, I’m biased.
When Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books launched their city-specific noir series in 2004 it only made sense that they would begin at home.
Edited by Brooklyn-native crime writer Tim McLoughlin, Brooklyn Noir is divided into four parts: Old School, New School, Cops & Robbers, and Backwater Brooklyn. With each story taking place in a different neighborhood, the borough’s diversity is in full view. Pearl Abraham takes readers into the exclusive Hasidic community in Williamsburg — a group who still fights the bike lane that passes through their housing complexes for fear of exposed flesh — while McLoughlin’s “When All This Was Bay Ridge” is a sketch of a once-Irish neighborhood where the original population clings to its roots by way of a local bar.
From the inside looking out: Picture an embassy in a foreign country. A truly foreign country. Not a Western European ally, but a fundamentalist state perennially on the precipice of war. A fill-the-sandbags-and-wait-for-the-airstrike enclave. That was Olsen’s, home to the last of the donkeys, the white dinosaurs of Sunset Park. A jukebox filled with Kristy McColl and the Clancy Brothers, and flyers tacked to the flaking walls advertising step-dancing classes, Gaelic lessons, and the memorial run to raise money for a scholarship in the name of a recently slain cop. Within three blocks of the front door you could attend a cockfight, buy crack, or pick up a streetwalker, but in Olsen’s, it was always 1965
In “New School,” Adam Mansbach takes us to Crown Heights where Abraham Lazarus, a white, weed-slinging Rasta, sets out on a revenge mission against the unknown thug who robbed him of his pounds of drugs that morning.
Tap tap BOOM. Birds ain’t even got their warble on, and my shit’s shaking off the hinges. I don’t even bother with the peephole. It has to be Abraham Lazarus, the Jewish Rasta, playing that dub bassline on my door.
BOOM. I swung it open and Laz barged in like he was expecting to find the answer to life itself inside. A gust of Egyptian Musk oil and Nature’s Blessing dread-balm hit two seconds after he flew by: Laz stayed haloed in that shit like it was some kind of armor. He did a U-turn around my couch, ran his palm across his forehead, wiped the sweat onto his jeans, and came back to the hall.
“I just got fuckin’ robbed, bro.”
The stories in Brooklyn Noir are dark, gritty, and realistic with a “ripped from the headlines” type feel: conversations started in chatrooms taken offline, crooked cops covering their tracks, the revenge of an abused woman. It’s almost odd to call this collection is enjoyable, yet it’s one of those rarities where you think you’ve found your favorite story until you move onto the next. It’s not surprising that Akashic published two more Brooklyn-themed noir collections or that they invited McLoughlin back to edit them.
Whether you’re a born-and-raised Brooklynite, a transplant, or have never stepped foot inside this glorious corner of the world, Brooklyn Noir is an absolute must-read for noir-aficionados and the crime-curious alike.
Last night at McNally Jackson three magazine editors came out to give the crowd a behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process. Deputy Editors Ellah Allfrey and James Marcus, of Granta and Harper’s Magazine, respectively, were joined by Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker Fiction Editor, for a round table discussion moderated by John Freeman.
John, the Editor of Granta, started the night with a question about the latest Vida results, an organization that tracks female representation in magazines — stories and reviews written by women and books written by women, reviewed. Deborah revealed the generational divide she sees in the submissions to her magazine. Stories from writers age 40 and up come from more men than women while with those from writers under 40 the ratio is close to an even split. James admitted that the results from Harper’s are “rotten” (articles written: 13 female:65 male; book reviews: 10 female:23 male; author’s reviewed: 19 female:53 male). Their fiction split is close to even but because they publish foreign reportage, most of the nonfiction articles come from men. Ellah was happy to report that Granta did very well, with more female contributors than male. Ellah attributes this to their magazine’s tradition of publishing each issue based on a theme.
The group went on to discuss the steady stream of material flowing into the slush pile and how they wade through it — a mixture of interns and editorial staff. John brought up the lack of short story writers in Britain, which Deborah boiled down to the lack of encouragement from the publishing market. If there are less than a handful of places to sell your short story, why write one? Ellah, visiting from England, mentioned that with the rise of innovation of how the stories are consumed, as audio on BBC Radio for example, the situation overseas is improving.
Talk of different ways of experiencing the written word inevitably led to discussion of digital. The New Yorker has a fiction podcast where contemporary authors, featured in the magazine, choose a story from the archive to read aloud. The magazine also have a book blog where twice a month Deborah speaks with the author whose fiction is featured in the current issue. Granta features new writing on their site nearly every day. And while Harper’s is slower getting into the digital game, a conscious choice by the top decision maker, there is talk about a change in policy.
The liveliest part of the evening might easily have been when all four took turns discussing the writers they were enthusiastic about. And, so, this week’s “On the Shelf” segment comes from the experts. Here were their answers.
Deborah named Callan Wink who wrote the short story “Dog Run Moon” for the magazine. You can check out his Q&A with Deborah here. His story is subscription only but from what it sounds like, it’s worth paying for. Looking ahead, she is currently reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir, due out from Random House in 2012.
James chose Clancy Martin who published the book How to Sell with FSG in hardcover and then Picador in paperback. He also mentioned Bonnie Nadzam who came out with the highly acclaimed, award-winning novel Lamb last year.
John’s picks were Louise Erdrich for her short story writing skills and Julie Otsuka, a past contributor to Granta, who wrote Buddha in the Attic. He called the author Ross Raisin a “ferocious stylist” and suggested everyone read him. And finally, he mentioned Richard Ford’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories from 1990 for his comments on short story structure.
Ella highlighted a new Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta who writes stories about lesbian lovers in Africa and environmental issues that threaten the country. I believe she’ll be published in the magazine soon.
Patrick Ryan, Granta’s associate editor, when he joined in the discussion to share an adorable slush pile story, mentioned Chris Dennis, a recent contributor to the magazine.
I know my reading list just got longer. What short story collections are you reading? What new short story writers have your attention? Comments are open.
“You are normal. It’s the speed that made you a freak.” – Jerry Stahl, ‘Bad’
The popularity of “Breaking Bad,” the television show about a chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth, makes Akashic Books’ latest drug-themed collection, The Speed Chronicles, particularly timely. This anthology of fourteen multiple-authored short stories, with points of view spanning the range of possibilities, tackles the different ways in which meth permeates peoples’ lives. From addicts to loved ones to neighbors, The Speed Chronicles is a multifarious reading experience neatly packed into a mere 226 pages.
Series Editor Joseph Mattson felt there was a problem with drug literature, one that he hoped to avoid. In most books, the drugs and drug user are either celebrated or condemned — romanticized and glorified or demonized. Instead, Mattson chose stories that “reflect not only both ends of the dichotomy [speed’s ability to spark ebullience as well as wretchedness] . . ., but, more crucially, the abstractions within and between.”
Jess Walter’s “Wheelbarrow Kings” is a great example of the complexity Mattson was hoping to illustrate. The intensity of the story doesn’t hit you until the end; in the midst of it, you’re sucked into the single-minded focus of two meth addicts with dreams of pawning a television for drug money. We witness this life through the thoughts of one of the men. “I’m hungry as fuck.” the story starts out. The meth addict’s mind we inhabit is on the slow side. Its owner naive, thoughtful of others, and likable. His only goal is to find a way to eat and pay for his drugs.
As he and his friend struggle with moving a giant TV through the streets without a vehicle, they’re harassed by kids on bicycles and accused of theft by an old man standing in his front door. You start to feel sorry for them — and therein lies the surprise. “Wheelbarrow Kings” humanizes the men you see on the streets stripping electronics of their copper, the ones you sneer at, step away from, or ignore. By the time you finish this story it’s too late; you’ll never look at them the same way again.
Tao Lin’s ‘51 Hours” was the first story I read, which set the bar high; his name on the cover was reason alone for buying the book.
Aptly named, the story follows a group of friends — hipsters, for lack of a much better term — around Brooklyn and Manhattan as they take drugs, look for drugs, and talk about drugs. They keep themselves going with Adderall and meth and by grabbing minimal sleep at odd hours. No one gets busted, no one dies of an overdose, no meets a tragic end; instead, it’s a sketch of amateur meth heads teetering on the edge of decline.
Told in an exaggerated style, mimicking the speed of the drugs, what’s most impressive about “51 Hours” is how Lin kept the technique from feeling contrived. There’s the staccato dialogue:
“I used Adderall for the first time the other day,” said Andrew.
“Oh, sweet,” said Jack. “Did you like it?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think it would work.”
“How many milligrams did you use?”
“Forty,” said Andrew.
“Jesus,” said Jack.
“I used twenty and it wasn’t working so I used another twenty.”
“Nice,” said Jack.
And the simple, often grammatically poor, active sentences, mimicking restless ambivalence:
“Jack asked if Daniel wanted to go to the bookstore. Daniel said, ‘Not really,’ but that he would go if Jack wanted. They decided to sit in a cafe called Verb to decide what to do next. They walked there and sat and each ingested ten milligrams of Adderall.”
Tao Lin’s story, in its lack of sensationalism, is utterly convincing.
Jerry Stahl’s, ‘Bad,’ in which an addict unleashes a stream of conscious, is another strong piece. Not the most reliable of narrators, he goes back through his life, recalling nightmarish moments and equally nightmarish people that inevitably come along with a seedy lifestyle: a speedfreak prostitute whose mother gave her Dexedrine as a child, a stint at rehab where the ability to bear restraints is a sign of improvement, and a the dealer’s setup in a motel room where a five-year-old boy cringes at the touch of a grown man wearing a cowboy hat. The clever one-liners and dark, accurate insights give the story poignancy:
“What people who were never addicted don’t understand. You did not do this shit for pleasure. You did it for relief”
“What a good drug does. Is make you believe perfection is what you are going to feel forever”
“Speed never made you smarter. It just let you be what you already were longer.”
“One day you wake up and you’re letting your appetite sign your checks.”
“The first time you go to a laundromat , without speed, you hate that the spinning laundry is boring. . . . It used to explain the universe.”
“Except for everything you knew about her, Penny seemed almost normal.”
Two other stories in the collection worth noting are Sherman Alexie’s ‘War Cry,’ a story set on an Indian reservation and Rose Bunch’s ‘Pissing in Perpetuity’ about an average family living next to a meth addicted single mother.
From William S. Burroughs to Jim Carroll to Irvine Welsh, drug lit has always been a favorite of mine. The subject, whether the author focuses on the drug or the user, lends itself to experimental fiction. The Speed Chronicles, with it’s many voices and styles, is an engrossing read, even if you’ve never touched a drug in your life.
Buy The Speed Chronicles at IndieBound
SMITH Magazine is best known for its Six-Word Memoir project. In 2006, with the belief that everyone has a story to tell, Editor-in-Chief Larry Smith, Tim Barko, and Contributing Editor Rachel Fershleiser, came up with an online challenge: “Can you tell your life story in six words?”. This idea has since spawned six books and a robust online writing community.Interested in giving writers more space to flesh out their ideas, SMITH Magazine asked storytellers to write about a moment that changed their lives; and so, The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure came to fruition.
Contributors, ranging in experience — some with multiple, award-winning and best-selling books to those who have never had a letter-to-the-editor published — sent in their personal stories. The Moment, going beyond the normal essay collection, features written narratives, photographs, comics, illustrations, and handwritten letters. Contributors include household names such as Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Gregory Maguire as well as up-and-coming writers such as Tao Lin and Said Sayrafiezadeh.
This week at McNally Jackson, contributors gathered to read their work to a standing-room only crowd. Kicking off the evening was experimental journalist A.J. Jacobs with his short story, “Chalk Face,” about the time he realized grown-ups are “not flawless authority figures”. Mira Ptacin, founder and executive director of the New York City-based monthly reading series and storytelling collective Freerange Nonfiction, read her story about the moment she, literally, hit the ground running and shook off the grief from the loss of an unexpected pregnancy.
There were visuals as well: a slideshow about the moment a father fell in love with his infant son, a video montage from photojournalist Gillian Laub about her grandparents’ inspiring relationship, Matt Dojny’s handwritten and illustrated story about his experience with a homeless man on the subway, and Jerry Ma’s comic panels about the time he quit his job in finance to pursue a life in art.
Now in its sixth year, SMITH Magazine continues to celebrate “the explosion of personal media and the personal stories that celebrate the brilliance in the ordinary”. Go on over and contribute your six-word memoir or, if you’re feeling particularly verbose, share your life-changing moment.
If you’re in New York and you missed this week’s reading, you have another chance to catch The Moment contributors at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Thursday, January 26th.
What’s on the shelf:
The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure
“ The Moment is a collection of and moving personal pieces about key instances – a moment of opportunity, serendipity, calamity, or chaos – that have had profound consequences on our lives.” [via website]
Six-Word Memoir collections
“When Hemingway famously wrote, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” he proved that an entire story can be told using a half dozen words. When the online storytelling magazine SMITH asked readers to submit six-word memoirs, they proved a whole, real life can be told this way too. The results are fascinating, hilarious, shocking, and moving.” [via IndieBound]
And from the readers:
My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself by Living as a Woman, Becoming George Washington, Telling No by A.J. Jacobs
“Bestselling author and human guinea pig A. J. Jacobs puts his life to the test and reports on the surprising and entertaining results. He goes undercover as a woman, lives by George Washington’s moral code, and impersonates a movie star. He practices “radical honesty,” brushes his teeth with the world’s most rational toothpaste, and outsources every part of his life to India—including reading bedtime stories to his kids.
And in a new adventure, Jacobs undergoes scientific testing to determine how he can put his wife through these and other life-altering experiments—one of which involves public nudity.
Filled with humor and wisdom, My Life as an Experiment will immerse you in eye-opening situations and change the way you think about the big issues of our time—from love and work to national politics and breakfast cereal.” [via IndieBound]
Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology edited by Jerry Ma
This pioneering collection brings together 66 top Asian American writers, artists and comics professionals to create 26 original stories centered around Asian American superheroes – stories set in a shadow history of our country, from the opening of the West to the election of the first minority president, and exploring ordinary Asian American life from a decidedly extraordinary perspective.
Black Elephants: A Memoir by Karol Nielsen
“An aspiring writer and reporter, Karol Nielsen went trekking through the Peruvian Andes at the height of the Shining Path terror, looking for adventure and a good story. She found Aviv, an Israeli traveler fresh out of his mandatory military service—a war-weary veteran of the first intifada—dreaming about peace. Black Elephants follows this idealistic pair as they explore the Americas, until Aviv, inexorably drawn to his homeland, asks Karol to come with him to Israel. There, the couple’s lovingly laid plans—for Aviv to attend university, and for Karol to work on a kibbutz, study Hebrew, and get to know his family—are suddenly tested by the eruption of the first Gulf War. Nielsen’s memoir paints a poignant and harrowing picture of love during wartime. Against a backdrop of bursting bombs and air-raid sirens, gas masks and sealed rooms, relationships are frayed, and romance becomes a distant memory. This story, so candidly and clearly told, powerfully illustrates the terror, loneliness, and absurdity of war and its invisible casualties.” [via IndieBound]
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon. She’s written for The New York Times, Time Out, The New York Observer, and more, and is the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.”
The Festival of Earthly Delights (forthcoming May 2012) by Matt Dojny
“The Festival of Earthly Delights is a humorous bildungsroman set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Puchai. The protagonist, Boyd Darrow, has recently moved there with his unfaithful girlfriend to give their relationship a second chance. His adventures, and misadventures, are relayed in a series of letters to a mysterious recipient.” [via IndieBound]
Grabbing the copy of the 1991 graphic novel My New York Diary as it sat on the St. Marks Bookshop discount shelf was a no-brainer. This slim comic by Canadian-born artist Julie Doucet, reissued in 2010 after being out of print, appealed to my younger, angstier self, the one who coveted zines and a punk rock ethos.
My New York Diary is made up of three autobiographical stories. The first is the awkward loss of her virginity—a cringe-worthy event involving a near-homeless, possibly inappropriately older man. The second is of her time at junior college studying fine art where she lives with a conspiracy theorist and attracts unstable men, one of whom attempts suicide in her room the night before her final project is due. The third, and meatiest, is the story of when she left her native Montreal for New York City. In the spring of 1991 she moved into the Washington Heights apartment of her pen pal, a guy who had become her boyfriend after one visit the month prior.
Following the book’s leitmotif, the guy turns out to be a bit unhinged, controlling her friendships, feeding her drugs, and distracting her from cartooning with games of Candy Land and bottles of alcohol.
Doucet first published her mini-comic Dirty Plotte by way of a Xerox machine but her year in New York coincides with the time she spent working on a book for Drawn and Quarterly, an independent comic book publisher in Canada. Her style is dark and detailed with thin lines, cross-hatching, shadowing, and other textural techniques. Her characters look ragged, half-starved, and drug-addled, which might have more to do with the company she kept rather than the manner in which she chooses to draw. Throughout the book she’s surrounded by depressed, struggling artist types who work odd jobs, if at all, and drink and take drugs to excess. No one appears to have enough money for a vacuum cleaner— including Doucet herself.
From a quick glance, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that she was published in Robert Crumb’s magazine Weirdo. This inclusion in a 1981 issue earned her critical attention and future offers from The Village Voice and New York Press.
Having grown up in Montreal, English is not Julie’s first language and it shows in the writing for My New York Diary. There are minor grammatical errors and sometimes strange language usage, however it’s never confusing and only adds to the quirkiness of the book and the artist.
In bitch magazine, once co-editor and publisher of Punk Planet and current-day media activist, Anne Elizabeth Moore, said of Doucet’s work, “if I really think about something I read that made me gack with identification—that spoke to me in a pretty deep way about being a girl in the kind of world I was living in—it would have to be Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte comic books.” If you’re feeling particularly nostalgic for your DIY-loving days or are craving some unabashed, punk rock memoir writing, My New York Diary is for you.
On the Shelf: Here are a few things that will go well with My New York Diary:
LP by Minor Threat
This was MacKaye’s first band before forming Fugazi. They’re mostly known for coining the term “straight edge”. This album is fast, loud, and angry. In short: awesome.
Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus by Aaron “Cometbus”
In 1981, Aaron Cometbus, as he’s known, began this hand-written, photocopied zine in Berkeley, California. Most of his material is about living in punk houses, touring with bands, and living on the bare minimum with emotionally unstable friends. He’s still writing and co-owns an independent bookstore in Brooklyn.
BUST magazine founded by Debbie Stoller, Laurie Henzel, and Marcell Karp
BUST began in 1993 as a photocopied zine. I know because as an intern in the 90s I had to scan the early copies so they could be archived online. It’s a women’s magazine for indie-minded women: women who give the finger to convention but wear makeup and dresses, women who know how to change the oil in their car but who can also knit a mean scarf. Still going strong, and in a bi-monthly glossy format, BUST is core reading material for women who think Vogue cover stories could just as easily be written for The Onion.
Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
“In this engaging and provocative volume, bell hooks introduces a popular theory of feminism rooted in common sense and the wisdom of experience. Hers is a vision of a beloved community that appeals to all those committed to equality, mutual respect, and justice.
hooks applies her critical analysis to the most contentious and challenging issues facing feminists today, including reproductive rights, violence, race, class, and work. With her customary insight and unsparing honesty, hooks calls for a feminism free from divisive barriers but rich with rigorous debate. In language both eye-opening and optimistic, hooks encourages us to demand alternatives to patriarchal, racist, and homophobic culture, and to imagine a different future.” [ via IndieBound]
Gardenburger Veggie Medley burger
“A farmers’ market blend of delicious vegetables and grains with broccoli, rolled oats, savory onions, red and yellow bell peppers, crisp carrots, brown rice, and water chesnuts.” Gardenburger is my favorite veggie burger maker. They use the least number of processed ingredients and their patties are never dry—even when you toss them in the oven. You really can’t go wrong with any of the different varieties but I usually grab the straight-forward Veggie Medley.
“Literature is a product of its influences. We all riff on something, work against a certain background, mine a vein of thought or style to which somebody else showed us the way.” –K.J. Bishop
“The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even new?” These are the questions that began a 13,000 word response from authors, editors, and science fiction aficionados in 2003. The conversation may have started elsewhere but it reached fever pitch after author M. John Harrison brought the conversation to his Third Alternative Message Board. An abridged version appears in The New Weird, part anthology, part exposition, edited by science fiction power-duo Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
When the publishing house Tachyon approached Ann and Jeff the two were skeptical. Jeff’s writing, which includes the novels City of Saints and Madmen, Finch, and Shriek, has often been labeled “New Weird,” a distinction that has made him uncomfortable. Ann, a publisher and, up until recently, the Hugo Award-winning editor of Weird Tales, dislikes the term out of concern for pigeonholing authors. After some discussion between themselves and with the publisher, Ann and Jeff began the project. Both still have reservations about the supposed category but through their research, conversations, and readings for the book, they’ve decided that there is a “core validity” to New Weird. They see a commercial life beyond the unwitting creators’ original intentions as well as new writers further developing the style.
In his introduction, Jeff marks 2003 as the year “readers and writers had become aware of a change in perception and a change in approach within the genre.” Taking elements from the New Wave of the 1960s, such as mixing genres and injecting a political point of view, and adding the “unsettling grotesquery” of 1980s horror, exemplified by the writings of Clive Barker, New Weird, with its “understanding of and rejection of Old Weird,” became its own unique genre—or did it? Therein lies the question The New Weird sets out to answer. Does the New Weird exist? If so, what is it, why is it here, and who benefits?
The New Weird is carefully structured to present a comprehensive picture. The book begins with the section “Stimuli,” a collection of stories from the New Wave and Horror movements. Those included are M. John Harrison’s “The Luck in the Head,” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities,” Michael Moorcock’s “Crossing into Cambodia,” and Simon D. Ings’ “The Braining of Mother Lamprey,” among others.
New Weird, as a subgenre, takes strange fiction into the 21st century. Many of its writers are influenced by current political situations and offer a fresh, thought-provoking look at the issues we face today. It’s as writer and scholar Darja Malcolm-Clarke says in her essay, “One of speculative fiction’s greatest abilities is to defamiliarize our own world so that we can better see it — and the New Weird has a way of forefronting how the social terrain operates and affects everyday people.”
Throughout the book, British writer China Miéville is credited with launching the New Weird into the public’s consciousness. Miéville’s novel Perdidio Street Station, published in 2000, was the first commercially successful book of its kind; before that the subgenre only enjoyed a cult following.
China’s stands out in the crowd because of his academic background and demeanor. Even if you haven’t read his books, his interviews are a profound experience. His dissertation, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, written for his International Relations PhD from the London School of Economics was published in the UK under a historical materialism series. It’s no surprise that China’s fiction is submerged in political and social metaphor.
Konrad Walewski, editor, translator, and anthologist, says the New Weird is innovative “at the level of setting and characters,” dominated by “multicultural and multiethnic societies of humans, monsters, and all kinds of hybrid forms”. As for subject-matter, he says the New Weird “rejected many jaded fantasy tropes, including the clash of good and evil, and chose the exploration of such problems as otherness, alienation, and even from both in its physiological and existential dimension.”
In “Evidence,” the chapter of short stories from writers considered New Weird, Miéville’s “Jack” introduces readers to a prominent character type in New Weird writing: the Remade, a lowly class of citizens often comprised of criminal offenders whose bodies have been grotesquely, often painfully, modified, typically as state-sanctioned punishment. With an ending O. Henry would be proud to call his own,“Jack” shows the dubious side of law enforcement—just one imagined outcome of a destroyed society, a familiar setting in the New Weird.
In other examples of what’s possible with an oppressive government, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” imagines eating in public as a capital offense and in Jeffrey Thomas’s “Immolation” there’s a growing tension between “birthers,” a.k.a. humans, and “cultures,” those with a human-like form created specifically for industrial work.
If you’re involved in the publishing industry or if you’re an engaged reader, the most interesting part of The New Weird comes when the fiction ends. The chapter “Symposium” offers a look inside the initial debate, includes fleshed-out essays from science fiction authors, and thoughts from European editors and publishers.
When weird fiction writer Zali Krishna asked if the term “‘Weird’ refers back to Weird Tales – a pre-generic pulp era where SF, fantasy and horror were less well defined,” science fiction veteran, and forum moderator, M. John Harrison responded, “It makes an exact illusion to Weird Tales and especially the fact that, back then, in that marvellous & uncorrupted time of the world everything could still be all mixed up together — horror, sf, fantasy — and no one told you off or said your career was over with their firm if you kept doing that.” This historical remembrance naturally leads to the question: why do we have so many subgenres and do we really need another?
The conversation provoked varied responses, some of them admittedly self-contradictory. Many who are skeptical of genre-splitting feel as science fiction critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan does: “Labels are marketing gimmicks.” Concerned for the author, editor, reviewer, and anthologist Jonathan Strahan feels “any label reduces and limits perception of a work of art, and so is often less than helpful.” But as one of those self-contradicting types he adds, “I also note my own tendency to a) label and b) use labels. It’s something I try to fight.”
Although the VanderMeers didn’t include China’s remarks, the full discussion is archived online. There you can read his response to the “gimmicks” argument: “I’m astonished by the number of claims that this label (or all labels) is no more than ‘a marketing gimmick’. Undoubtedly, if this caught on, marketers would attempt to use it – just as they do, ad nauseam, with ‘surrealist’. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘surrealist’ isn’t a useful term”.
Speaking from the perspective of a reader, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, I believe, taps into the thoughts of many science fiction fans when she says, “on one level, to me personally, it doesn’t matter whether the New Weird is ‘real’ or not — the New Weird as an idea led me to a set of texts I might not have otherwise pursued.”
Although the majority of bookstores break their fiction up into specific sections there are a few who, believing it to be a show of democracy, mix genre fiction in with their general titles. While this noble endeavor may work in smaller independent stores it can be a frustrating experience when implemented on a larger scale, say, in stores such as Barnes & Noble and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. For those who enjoy spending a good hour in the sci-fi, fantasy section looking for new books, merging all fiction into one section turns the foraging experience, once pleasurable, into a nightmare scenario.
Author K.J. Bishop, in her essay, also makes this point—with a caveat: “There is no doubt some advantage to be had from labelling fiction under rubrics of genre, period, style, and all else that helps a reader find, on the shelves of a bookstore, something to their taste. But there are disadvantages, too, for both reader and writer, the chief of these being, I think, that a label invites a particular reading of the work and discourages other readings.”
A tone set by some of the detractors is that publishers choose labels for sinister gains. Czech editor Martin Sust, when speaking of the New Weird imprint he created, said, “For the first time we can publish very good fiction in one great book line, with the most successful titles helping the others. The result? All of the books in this line have sold well, meaning we can branch out and buy a few experimental titles as well. . . . It has also forced other Czech publishing houses to make room for books by fresh new fantasy writers”. His sentiments are echoed by other publishers who contributed to the book—categories make it easier to sell books and while this means more money for publishers it also means more money, and ultimately more book deals, for writers.
Since the online discussion eight years ago and The New Weird’s publication in 2008, “many of the writers associated with the New Weird and collected in this volume are already transforming into something else entirely,” notes Jeff VanderMeer. But as every diligent fan knows, history is important. The New Weird helps readers appreciate writers like Miéville, discover less-noted ones like Jeffrey Thomas, and calls attention to the legacy of great writers who came before them. The New Weird does not offer definitive answers, which is the point. Literature is complex.
For a genre—in the widest sense of the word—whose focus is analysing the world, it’s amazing there aren’t more critical theory books such as this one. The VanderMeers have expertly compiled a must-have for every serious reader’s bookshelf; but remember, as Jeff concludes in his introduction, “New Weird is dead. Long life the Next Weird.”
The New Weird at Tachyon
Buy The New Weird at IndieBound
Archived discussion on New Weird
The New Weird: Notes and Introduction at Jeff’s site
Michael Cisco’s essay “New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene”
Interview with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about The New Weird (opens with sound)
Interview with Ann and Jeff at the Functional Nerds
Contributor Jonathan Strahan’s science fiction podcast, “Coode Street”
Weird Tales magazine
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
*The New Weird features a full list of recommended readings
Paolo Bacigalupi is best known for his 2009 Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, The Windup Girl, a story set in a near-future, post-peak oil, environmentally-catastrophic Bangkok. But before he’d written his highly praised long-form fiction, Bacigalupi came onto the scene with hard-hitting short stories. The 2008 collection, Pump Six, brings many of them together in one place.
Paolo and his work are followed closely within the science fiction community, and for good reason; in addition to the awards listed above, he’s won the John W. Campbell Award and the Locus Award, among others. His name is known outside of the genre world as well; mainstream news outlets, such as the Guardian, praised The Windup Girl to the hilt, TIME magazine included it in their 2009 year-end “Top Ten of Everything” list, and environmental outlets interviewed him asking for his thoughts on the future.
Just as the early science fiction writers of the 1960s were influenced by the space race and the cyberpunk movement of the 80s expressed concern over the coming technological revolution, Bacigalupi, often categorized as “biopunk”, asks us to think about our current environmental uncertainty.
In an interview with Orbit books, when asked about the near-future worlds he creates, where resources are scarce and the environment bleak, Bacigalupi said, “It feels like we’re on the cusp of a series of major shifts in the way our world works, whether that’s a loss of cheap and easily portable energy or global warming, and that raises a lot of question marks about what our future will really look like. . . . I don’t really see major trend lines pushing us in some other, more positive or sustainable direction, so it feels untruthful to me, if I write about anything other than depleted and broken futures.”
On where he finds his material, in an interview with the environmental site Grist, Paolo discussed the important role environmental journalists play in his work: “what they report provides almost perfect fodder for stories, mostly because they can only take the stories so far. Environmental journalists point the way toward saying, ‘The world is changing.’ What I can do with science fiction, then, is say, ‘Well, let’s see how that looks.’”
Instead of categorizing his stories as dystopic, he prefers to call them, if need be, “fear fantasies” or “if this goes on” stories.
Today, most people pay little attention when an obscure creature in the rain forest lands on the endangered species list but what would happen if in the future one of our most common animals, the dog, a household pet, ceased to exist? This is the set up in the Hugo and Nebula nominated story “People of Sand and Slag”. Set in the not-so-distant future, a small group of miners, maintained in their toxic environment by the medical innovation “weeviltech,” which allows them to eat anything and heal quickly, come across what must be the last surviving dog. The dog, its species having thought to have been killed off generations ago, has not adapted to the new surrounding and acts as a reminder of what life was once like. The group isn’t accustomed to, and feels pity for, its fragility and specialized needs: actual food, clean water, and time to mend from injuries. In the end they must make a choice, do they keep the animal alive, care for it regardless of the expense and inconvenience, or do they kill it and free themselves from the hassle created by this seemingly lesser being?
“People of Sand and Slag” reflects Paolo’s thoughts on technology and human advancement. Sure, we can create comforts in the future but will we be moral, will we live noble lives? “That’s what the story is really about. Yes, we can have all the technology in the world and still make some really, really bad decisions. We can create a hell where nothing is left alive except for us, but where we can be very comfortable, because we’ll accept whatever we have to in order to meet our immediate desires. Ultimately, the characters are given a choice between preserving something that’s natural versus their entertainment and expediency, and they naturally choose entertainment and expediency first. And we do that every day,” he told Locus magazine.
Similarly, “The Tamarisk Hunter,” a story inspired by reports of Colorado’s Glen Canyon Dam’s decreasing water level, asks what humans would do if they were faced with a long-lasting, devastating drought: would we help or destroy each other?
The one original story in the collection, “Pump Six,” is named after the sewage pump that facilitates the Upper West Side of Manhattan, roughly Columbia University and the surrounding neighborhood. “Pump Six” begins with indications that things are not quite right. The protagonist’s wife is checking the oven for a gas leak with a lighter, they’re having trouble conceiving, bacon is scarce, and there are degenerative “mash-faced monkey people” known as trogs squatting in Central Park, sleeping in alleyways, and copulating on streets in broad daylight. Even those who are supposedly normal human beings are behaving oddly: miscarriages and illiteracy are on the rise while trog-like tendencies become more widespread as IQ points drop.
Soon the failing sewage system, one-hundred years on since its last inspection and now with the manufacturer out of business, is releasing toxins into the city’s water supply. What happens when infrastructure fails and there’s no one to fix it? A chilling thought for all those dependent on public utilities.
Many reviews of The Windup Girl make reference to William Gibson, the man who coined the term “cyberpunk”. Pump Six opens with “Pocket Full of Dharma,” one of the more tech-infused stories in the collection. In it we follow Wang Jun, a street kid whose livelihood depends on clandestine errands and theft. After a failed attempt to rob a tourist, Jun is witness to a murder and tasked, by the killers, with delivering a data cube. After the hand-off goes awry, curiosity gets the better of him and he hacks into the mysterious object. In it he finds the Dalai Lama’s consciousness. “Pocketful of Dharma” is a subtle story about geopolitics in the future and one that most echos the work of the now-classic author Bacigalupi’s often compared to.
It’s worth noting that two stories in the collection, “The Calorie Man” and “The Yellow Card Man,” are considered prequels to The Windup Girl. If you’re curious about his longer work you have a preview, or, if you enjoyed the full-length novel, there’s more.
The stories Bacigalupi writes have an ambitious agenda: they’re looking to overthrow our modern day mythologies—the adventure and exploration stories that tell us we can become rich and successful. Instead, when Paolo writes he’s “wondering about the creation of another set of myths and models, where we start to get excited about the possibility of being a sustainable species rather than a rapacious species.”
Bacigalupi is roundly praised for his worldbuilding and Pump Six is evidence of his ability to place the reader inside the dark crevices of the cities he creates. While reading you can feel the grime that coats the walls, see the smog that blankets the horizon, and imagine your chemistry changing in some sort of Darwinian response. Motivated by fear of what we might become, Bacigalupi creates decayed worlds so palpable it makes utter devastation seem as if it’s knocking on our door—as if in 10 years we’ll all wake up short of breathe and unrecognizable as the humans we are today.
Buy Pump Six at IndieBound
Paolo Bacigalupi’s website
Interview on io9’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Interview with Grist
Interview with TIME’s Techland
Excerpts from interview with Locus Magazine (2007)
Interview with SF Signal
Interview with Rain Taxi
Interview with Orbit books Part I
Interview with Orbit books Part II