César Aira’s Artforum is a love letter to the homonymous magazine in which the author explores and exposes his obsessive relationship to the publication and his travails to find copies of it in the wild in Argentina. However, it’s much more than that. Aira is a master of language known for infusing his narratives with as much philosophy as humor, and he does that here in a brilliant series of short essays/stories/journal entries that chronicle his travails to find the magazine.
Like the Bible, Ben Katchor’s book The Dairy Restaurant begins in the Garden of Eden. But his paradise is a clean, well-lit diner where a weary Jew can order a plate of gefilte fish or some blintzes and sit and dream. An encyclopedic elegy to a way of eating and living, it is mournful, exhaustive, and deadpan funny in roughly equal measure. It is also unlike any book I have ever read.
B.R. Yeager’s novel Negative Space is a coming-of-age book full of autumnal imagery and featuring a trio of narrators each struggling with complex issues within their own lives. In that, it is familiar. It’s also a novel in which the border between life and death is navigated with little explanation; where unsettling rituals spark paranoia and obsession; where certain familiar sights and sounds pull back to reveal horrors lurking on the other side. It’s not always the easiest of reads — due to both its structure and its subject matter — but it is deeply rewarding, in its own harrowing way. Reading it at a time when familiar routines are upended at a moment’s notice and the idea of a status quo seems like a luxurious illusion, it feels perfectly suited to this moment in history — a distillation of every emotion I’m feeling right now, in the form of a narrative both familiar and thoroughly unpredictable.
Say you’re a fiction writer and you’d like to allude to the communications technologies of the present moment. There are plenty of ways you can do this, from coming up with your own lightly-altered versions of real-world services to embracing an accurate picture of your smartphone’s suite of apps circa the moment you’re putting words on paper. The difficulty with the latter, though, is that the ups and downs of the tech world don’t always match up with the time it takes to get a book published; the way that Vine went from buzzed-about to deprecated in a relatively short period of time illustrates just how difficult of a juggling act this can be.
A caveat: Foreign Bodies is Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poetry, but it’s the first and only one that I’ve read. By my own standards as a critic, this lack of familiarity with a writer’s work usually disqualifies me as a reviewer of one of their books. The only exception I make for this is when I read a book that is so fantastic and exhilarating and rich that I’m compelled to write less of a review and more of a celebration, a fan’s note, a paean to a particular book’s achievements. This is one of those cases.
At what point does fiction become horror fiction? Is there some immutable border, some checklist of elements to be tallied, that propels a particular story or novel out of the realm of the disconcerting and into that of the outright horrific? Certain notable collections, including Jac Jemc’s False Bingo and Amelia Gray’s Gutshot find a balance between deft narrative construction and something both ineffable and unspeakable. That’s the space in which Natanya Ann Pulley’s new collection With Teeth occupies as well: meticulously written, while all the while abounding with glimpses of the bizarre and brutal.
Dear friends of my mother live in francophone Europe, where the currents of post-war diaspora deposited them. They have one child, and he died in his 20s. He was a non-blood cousin, distantly perfect—in musical ability, marks, temperament. Through Notes from an Apocalypse, I thought about catastrophe and bereavement and him. I thought about tragedy and scale, about the circumstances of my U.S. citizenship and my parents as Vietnamese youth in the 1970s, and about how cruelly cases I’ve read for law school teem with injury and death, the phrase “could not recover for loss of companionship.” I remembered my cousin having been mourned and gone before I was even a teenager, and I was going to write something neatly connected, revoltingly so, to having watched personal apocalypse in one’s family, in periphery. I remembered my feet dangling during the announcement. Abject smallness. Upon resurrecting the whole memory for inspection, though, I found that I’d been in college, the summer after my first year. 17, the body in that memory gradually became—I’d had a first drink, many; a first kiss. I remember now a hotel bedspread in central California, dry-heaving at the revelation that my parents hadn’t told me when he died, for fear of burdening me.
In rural India, Doctor Saheb and his loyal pharmacist struggle to keep a small practice afloat. They face the impossible task of keeping their office sterile with only limited resources, barely enough to service the community, let alone keep the natural world at bay. The operating theater needs to be regularly fumigated to keep the roaches out. Doctor Saheb has begun to grow weary of the constant pendulum swing between being the only surgeon serving an entire village and the lack of support from the bureaucrats in the government. His hair is graying and his patience is thinning. It is after a long day of administering the few polio drops he’s been given to the village children that he receives visitors that have arrived just before closing: a man who claims to be a teacher, his pregnant wife, and their young son. Despite Doctor Saheb’s dismissal of them, they claim to have an emergency that cannot wait, and one that can’t be spoken of in public. It isn’t until they display their wounds to him that he understands that this situation is not a garden-variety malady that can wait until morning. With the wounds this family has, they should not be alive. The teacher explains, as best he can, that they are the living dead, and unless Saheb repairs their wounds by morning, they will die all over again.