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.
Kathryn Cowles’s second book, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World, contends with the formalism of poem as object, in the sense that a poem holds a literal position in space and time. Her eminently accessible, readable collection belies a circular and circling complexity that questions the role of language as a deictic tool in making sense out of a reality that exists with or without us.
Three novels in to his career, I think it’s safe to say that Dexter Palmer’s work can be sorted alongside the likes of Rupert Thomson, Ali Smith, and David Mitchell — which is to say, of writers who essentially reinvent themselves from book to book. Palmer’s latest novel, Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, is set in 18th-century England. It’s as different from his previous novel, the heady time-travel novel Version Control, as Version Control was from its predecessor, the disquieting steampunk narrative The Dream of Perpetual Motion.
Thomas Chatterton Williams always knew there was something off about the simplistic race classifications he was forced to deal with since childhood. The son of a light-skinned black man and a white woman, Williams understood he was different, that he inhabited an interstitial space between the rigid racial categorizations society imposed on him. For years he performed intellectual work to break away from those impositions. However, holding his newborn daughter, a pale baby with blazing blue eyes, triggered a need to finally come up with a solution. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is the result of Williams’s quest for answers.
Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is a bomb wrapped in gift paper. The cute kitties on the cover, the innocuous title, and the synopsis, which mentions the book is about the writer tending to “a community of cats,” all contribute to making the book seem harmless. It’s not. Instead, the narrative is a brutal chronicle of a man’s descent into madness because of his cats. Bloody, violent, and dealing with themes like fear, suicidal thoughts, and mental illness, All My Cats is a wild, explosive read that should contain a warning: many cats were harmed in the making of this book.