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.
There’s so little to be happy about these days that when something comes along that sparks some joy we cling to it like a life raft. The Tiger King didn’t do shit for me but I couldn’t put Sam McPheeters’ book Mutations down. I tore through it in a day and a half, skipping meals and work along the way. I doubt I would’ve read it any slower if there was no plague outside my door or if we had a human being for a president, it’s that good.
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.