There’s something slippery about the contemporary literary essay, which sometimes seems designed to allow its real subject—perhaps a personal experience or a critical intervention—to evade capture by the reader for as long as possible. The essayist will often present an accrual of observations or vignettes structured to reveal meaning in fits and starts, as if to state a thesis outright would be to strip it of its fragile ephemerality. But this delicate art of obfuscation becomes a natural mode of narration in Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms, an exquisite collection of linked essays that centers the idea of escape as a presiding principle, not just in form—as these essays break from conventional expectations in provocative ways—but also in content. In these pages, the grounding conventions of the horror film serve as handholds as the essays circle around themes of the body and grief and survival. All the while, something sinister lurks in the white space between the paragraphs, an unnamed threat that is felt rather than seen.
I have a friend who often refers to the line from Rachel Cusk’s 2014 Guardian interview, in which she admits that before writing the Outline trilogy, the conceit of traditional fiction, the idea of “making up Jack and Jill and having them do things” suddenly felt “fake and embarrassing.” As autofiction—or at least the idea of the author being starkly present in the book—becomes more and more common in the world of fiction. I wonder why it is that seven years after Cusk’s statement, traditional fiction stills feels so oddly fake and forced at times. Is it because the need for personal stories, the ones that take us out of a fictional world (one that has stretched to the other realms of life; identities stretch and comingle with our created identities online more than ever) have this intrinsic, vital sense of being urgent that standard fiction lacks? In her work, Cusk seems to bridge the divide between eutrapely (friendly, intellectual conversation that smells of heliotrope as Julio Cortazar writes about in Final Exam) and the real distance we find ourselves living from other people, both physically and emotionally. This bridge is also expertly occupied in Pola Oloixarac’s third novel, Mona, translated from Spanish by Adam Morris.
The poetry of L.A.-based poet Alexis Rhone Fancher, both hooks and unravels the reader as it speaks to raw, no-holds barred experiences and dives with abandon and precision into the complicated wreck of sexual encounters. In Erotic New & Selected, Rhone Fancher’s sixth book, the poet comes full circle with familiar themes—lust, hunger, grief, loss, ravishment and celebration.
There is a moment in her new book The Pahrump Report, when Lisa Carver responds to a question about her occupation by answering: “I am a writer.” Yet in that moment, the word “writer” struck me as a lacking descriptor for all that Carver does in creating a written work of art.
The book chronicles a dizzying three-year period of Carver’s life, as she moves across the country with her husband, builds a home, gets divorced, rents an apartment, falls in love, gets betrayed, tries doing stand-up comedy, visits a brothel and has several other Pahrumpian adventures. It’s a piece that most exemplifies Carver’s skill for not just making a living from writing, but more importantly, making her writing from living.
After strangling his wife, sociologist Hélène Rytmann, in their Paris apartment, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser authored a memoir depicting the episode. The Future Lasts Forever was published in 1992. Almost three decades later, artist Tatiana Istomina tackles the narrative from the perspective of Rytmann. Her Fhilosofhy of the Encounter is ostensibly by Rytmann (Istomina is listed as the editor)—a Rytmann descending with a pen and a pair of scissors upon her husband’s book.
I think the idea of labor has become something of a deadening note for today’s fearful public. We are all of us a chorus of the overworked. Forgotten, underfed, middling labor. Beset by hateful prejudices, uncontrolled viruses, deceitful media and neighbors, we drift, aimlessly, from one calling to the next, a cycle of duress begetting fitful sleep after fitful sleep, guessing how our meager indulgences got us here. Pushed totemically across the game board, no amount of training can prepare the worker for the whipcrack of life, the breaking of spirit.
Philip Roth famously wrote in 1961 that the increasing unreality of American life threatened to outrace the imagination of American fiction, and that there was little hope for novelists against a news cycle that, as he put it, stupefied, sickened and infuriated on a daily basis. This turned out to be false, but writers have had to work double-time to keep up with the culture. Indeed, many great novels in the second half of the 20th century dramatize this very inability to cope with the derangement of modern times. That writers would try to assimilate the insanity of the Trump-era into their work is thus a foregone conclusion. Many of these attempts are likely still in the works, but Lauren Oyler’s debut novel Fake Accounts takes one of the first real cracks at it.
Stillicide is the latest offering from Cynan Jones, which was written first as a radio play for BBC Radio and adapted into a short novel. An assemblage of narratives that revolve around a single issue, Jones’s latest book is a bit different from his previous books as it’s a speculative novel about global warming that looks to a future that we may be doomed to face.