Meg Tuite’s latest collection, White Van, has foreboding, danger, and violence from cover to cover. Even the haunting cover with lightning striking a black van, defies our expectations and turns things upside down. Tuite’s collection is a series of poetic prose entries; some of the sections seem straight micro-fiction, while others appear more like poems. They defy easy categorization, just like Meg Tuite. What draws each one together is the brutal energy of a world of serial killers, pedophiles, pornographers, kidnappers, suicides, prostitutes, and loners. Tuite’s dystopian landscape is one I remember well from my Brooklyn of the 1980s. Each kid on the block was told to watch out for the infamous white van because you didn’t know what would happen if they grabbed you and threw you in there. Did it mean death? Dismemberment? Sexual exploitation? Rape? Drugs? Prostitution? Your imagination and nightmares were left to sort the dark, twisted possibilities. Tuite plays with this fear and journeys readers down the rabbit hole into this unnamed, but presumably American, hellscape of torture and brokenness, and she does so with a jarring style of brutal intensity as she bears traumatic witness to pain, suffering, abandonment, and forgetfulness.
Chloe Caldwell is an essayist known for her bold personal essays, resonant pieces about love, longing, addiction, and attempting to find meaning in mundanity. Heidi Julavits once wrote, in a review of Caldwell’s 2016 collection I’ll Tell You in Person (Emily Books, 2016), “Chloe Caldwell has written the ideal ‘female companion book’ – meaning, while reading I’ll Tell You in Person, I felt like I had a female companion with me at all times.” Her inviting and unpretentious prose imbues a strong sense of warmth into all of her work, allowing the essays to read like an assortment of polished diary entries.
Are we looking for the absolute truth of love or the absolute feeling of it? Or is the question better put: is love whatever best suits our personal needs, or is love ineffable? In Bud Smith’s novel, Teenager, one can imagine it as a light flickering past the darkness in our lives. The main character, Kody, would likely say that he was too dim to comprehend the deep meaning of such things. After all, he is a teenager and can only know what he has already seen and what he imagines. What he has seen is a bleak mixture of foster homes, a hellish high school, juvenile hall, and then Teal. To the world, she was Tella Carticelli, but to him, she was his LIGHT flickering past his darkness. She was his “Teal Cartwheels” and no obstacle or sense of reality could keep him from her. Or her from him.
Robert Lopez’s latest novel-in-stories reads like a stream of conscious search for hope. A Better Class of People connects back with some of his characters from Good People from 2015, and the trilogy will be concluded with The Best People in 2024. All of the stories are first person narratives, told by a singular alienated narrator. The voice throughout A Better Class of People is hypnotic and rhythmic and often unreliable. Lopez has said that sound and energy are keys to his writing process. That’s where it all starts for him. And, you can hear the effect of this in every story of this collection. We’re on a ride with an impulsive voice and it’s uncertain where we’re going or where we’ve been here. Every other story is a subway interlude—you see this reflected by a train symbol above the table of contents. At times, the book is darkly funny and sometimes downright disturbing and tragic. There are even times the storyteller is potentially dangerous; he might or might not have a gun and often considers “shooting someone in the face.” Overall, the sound of the voice, like the electric currents of the subway, creates drama, intrigue, danger, and tension, and it pulls the reader through a strange, dystopian world that is both fascinating and unforgettable.
Literary noir maestro Fuminori Nakamura has always been interested in understanding the psychology of crime, and in My Annihilation he allows that obsession to shape the entire narrative. The result is a dark novel that’s the literary equivalent of a puzzle box; an experimental, relentlessly cerebral story in which every narrator is unreliable, memories are tampered with, and reality is as shifting as points of view.
Jonathan Evison has called it a vision quest. Hell, he’s even said he’s taking a shot at the Great American Novel, when referring to his seventh novel, Small World, a multiple perspective, multi-generational story about a western American train about to crash. We follow the lives of several characters in 2017-2019, with chapters included from their ancestors back in the 1850s. What unites them is their western journeys and desires to make something better for themselves. Evison’s big-hearted American epic delivers contemporary characters with their pioneering pasts, and he pulls it off without preaching or pandering. While Evison has used different timelines in novels like West of Here and Legends of the North Cascades, Small World feels bigger and more in keeping with our post-pandemic future. It’s a Dickensian 19th century throwback, grappling with big American themes and ideas: multiculturalism, westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, gold rushes, technological advances, homesteading, slavery, immigration, bigotry, and regeneration through violence. It’s a timeless American story, with vivid well-rounded characters, who have a lot to tell us about the world we live in today as well as the one we’ve inherited from the past. Small World is a great ride into the complicated, dark hearts of the American story, and it reads like Evison’s best work, to date.
A Previous Life is unlike anything Edmund White has written, In fact, for the first thirty pages or so, I was sure the work couldn’t be White’s. But then the hallmarks of his style emerged: the easy juggling of plotline intricacies, the multi-character interactions, the trademark allusions to world art, classical composers, opera – White could handily depose Ken Jennings on Jeopardy so vast is his knowledge of culture, politics, history.
With Sheila Heti’s new novel Pure Colour, Heti paints a setting of living in the “first draft” of the world. We enter the novel in the “moment of God standing back,” between this first draft and whatever will come next in the second. My first instinct was to call it a mess—but this actually makes sense, because Heti is attempting to portray to readers a first draft of creation, which is also a mess. The author is capturing the feel of a world that is also filled with idiocy and miracles, at once. While there is a skeleton of a storyline— most of the plot in Pure Colour is filtered through the main character, Mira—the surrealist and philosophical conversations in this novel feel like both a departure for, and distinctly marked as, Heti’s work and captures something true about the times in which we are living.