Once upon a time, when postmodernism was young—before it became what-the-hell-is-postmodernism-really(?) and post-postmodernism—unique literary conceits were enough to draw oohs and ahs from critics. Think of John Barth with the nested narrative loops and literary equations of Lost in the Funhouse; Nabokov with the fiction inside poetry inside criticism of Pale Fire; or Coover with his cinematic A Night at the Movies. Great as those works were in their time, the audacious formal tricks that defined them have, to a great extent, already been tried. The novel as screenplay…or treatment…or cinema, for example, has been done and done and done. So much that when I came to Charles Yu’s latest, Interior Chinatown, I wondered whether there could possibly be enough of a point to what seems primarily a formal experiment. Could Yu, a writer I confess to liking, even admiring, possibly do enough to justify publishing a novel like this in 2020? Then I read it. And, in this instance, at least, reading is believing.
The United States’ opioid epidemic continues to cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that nearly 450,000 Americans died of overdoses involving opioids between 1999 and 2018, with more than 46,000 of those deaths occurring in 2018 alone. The crisis has personally impacted Rose Andersen, whose debut memoir The Heart and Other Monsters sorts through the past to better understand the life of her younger sister Sarah, who suffered a fatal drug overdose in 2013, when she was twenty-four. At the onset of this story, we are provided a disclaimer: Some of the events in this memoir have been fictionalized, imagined by the author in instances where she was not physically present to witness what actually happened. The invented scenes pertain to the nature of Sarah’s death; while Sarah was indeed a drug addict who died of an overdose, Andersen has reason to believe she was murdered, and in this book, she lays out the case.
Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song is a prescient novel that is being published at the perfect time. In fact, it so timely that I almost feel like every reviewer should remind readers that writing a novel, editing it, sending it to an agent, selling it, and then editing it again is a long process, so when they read this and think “Wow, this is ridiculously prophetic!” they need to remember that Tremblay wrote it way before the current pandemic.
My first encounter with Kathe Koja came via the novels published by the surreal horror imprint Dell Abyss in the 1990s. The Cipher and Bad Brains were profoundly unsettling works on their own, as well as memorably serving as proof of concept for a more unsettling strain of horror that opted less for scares than for dread. Since then, Koja’s milieu has only expanded; with books like Under the Poppy, she’s displayed a penchant for forays into history, and her body of work also involves an extended commitment to theater.
You could fill a bookshelf with fictional work set in a character’s imagination during a life-or-death struggle. From Shane Jones’s Daniel Fights a Hurricane to Ian Edington and D’Israeli’s Kingdom of the Wicked, storytellers have seized on the opportunity to blend phantasmagorical imagery with psychological acuity, creating works that can resonate on multiple levels. There are others I could mention, but to reveal some of them would be to spoil a narrative twist. With Kevin Bigley’s debut novel Comaville, there’s little doubt as to where the novel’s protagonist is — it’s right there in the title.
In the introduction to her short autobiographical novel Olivia, the newly rereleased lesbian classic published anonymously by the Bloomsbury Group in 1949, fifteen years after her friend André Gide’s polite dismissal of its merits, Dorothy Strachey writes:
This account of what happened to me during a year that I spent at school in France seems to me to fall into the shape of a story—a short, simple one, with two or three characters and very few episodes. It is informed with a single motive, tends to a single end, moves quickly and undeviatingly to a final catastrophe. Its truth has been filtered, transposed, and, maybe, superficially altered, as is inevitably the case with all autobiographies.
Strachey casts herself in her novel as the young and fiercely intelligent Olivia, the narrator of this blistering account of adolescent desire and first love who’s sent at the age of sixteen from her home in England to a finishing school just outside of Paris. Upon her arrival, Olivia becomes captivated by Mademoiselle Julie—who runs the school alongside another woman, Mademoiselle Cara—when she first recognizes her attraction during an evening gathering when Julie reads aloud from a Racine play. Olivia wonders later what part the actual text itself contributed to the sudden blooming of desire, or whether it was something else entirely: “If she hadn’t read just that play or if she hadn’t called me up by chance to sit so near her, in such immediate contact, would the inflammable stuff which I carried so unsuspectingly within me have remained perhaps outside the radius of the kindling spark and never caught fire at all?”
Exacting and lyrically prescient, Cynthia Atkins’s Still-Life With God presents God as gods, as sun, moon, and stars, yes, but also as God encompassing all aspects of the self: selves created and molded into whatever form we desire. This collection finds Atkins finding faith and spirituality in unusual places and things, in and within inanimate objects, like Cracker Jacks, the Internet, and a medicine cabinet. Here God is a shock jock, an alibi, and imaginary friends. Employing beautiful concisions suffused with allegory and metaphor, Atkins offers poem after delectable poem, the sweetest of candies with dark and satisfying centers. Atkins guides us through a journey in search of the divine in all things, whether embodied by our bodily wreckage or the machines of our madness. Moreover, Atkins is skilled at depicting the chaos and joy of human existence, simultaneously. Still-Life with God delights in all contradictions.
In this stunning debut, award-winning Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa lays bare the plights of people living in the margins in 14 singularly impressive stories. Most of the stories in this collection center on the lives of Lao immigrants, taking a leaf out of the life of a writer who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand before emigrating with her parents to Canada.