Fiction

THE POLYGLOT LOVERS

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THE POLYGLOT LOVERS BY LINA WOLFF, TRANSLATED BY SASKI VOGEL

The Polyglot Lovers is a manuscript written by Max Lamas, a lauded middle-aged author, whose ego Lina Wolff deconstructs in her sharp and satirical second novel of the same name.

Wolff’s meta-tale begins with Ellinor, who is traveling to Stockholm for a literary critic she met online, a man named Ruben. Ellinor finds Ruben repulsive; nevertheless, she carries on with their date: a night that ends in violence. In an act of revenge, Ellinor calmly waits until Ruben falls asleep before destroying his most prized possession—Max Lamas’s sole manuscript. Cut to part two: Max’s perspective. He dreams of a particular woman, he tells us, “A very young polyglot lover with enormous, white, milk-scented breasts.” His sentiments are familiar, cliché even, but Wolff pushes his language ever so slightly toward the absurd, incorporating numerous descriptions of female bodies and moments of existential dread (“the tristesse, oh the tristesse!”). In the third and final section, Wolff gives voice to Lucrezia, whose grandmother, an Italian marchesa, is the main subject of Max’s manuscript. Wolff’s tonal shifts between sections are handled deftly by Saskia Vogel, the translator responsible for bringing this novel into English.

The French author Michel Houellebecq also appears in many forms in Wolff’s novel: in references, on Ruben’s secret bookshelf, as an epigraph to Max’s section. But Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers is not about Houellebecq, per se—it is about the recurring figure of Houellebecq in the literary world. Readers will inevitably conjure their own equivalent to him, and to Max Lamas, and Wolff encourages us to do so, for her novel raises the following questions: how do we define literary genius, and who do we allow to define it for us?

And Other Stories.

—Review by Anna Vilner

SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD

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SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD BY BRIAN EVENSON

In Song for the Unraveling of the World, Brian Evenson explores what it’s like to be unsettled in one’s own home and skin. His story collection is part horror and part psychological thriller, exploring both the obsessive thoughts and the uncanny situations the characters face, coming about in many different ways: a man is visited by his therapist in the middle of the night for several nights in a row; a film director goes to any length to record the sound of a room; a sister prevents her brother from opening a secret door in their home; and, in an attempt to understand human culture, alien sisters trick-or-treat for the first time. In the title story, a father can’t find his daughter, yet still hears her voice coming from her room, and must not only accept her loss, but also the loss of his sanity—as is the case with many of the characters in this book: “Did he even want to live in a world like this, one that was always threatening to come unraveled?” In these moments of unraveling and unrest, Evenson projects into the unknown. Here in “Shirts and Skins,” a story about a man trapped in a manipulative relationship, Evenson leaves readers feeling most disturbed and empathetic: “She would find him eventually. . .  But for a moment at least he could pretend, could enjoy the glorious feeling of crouching alone beneath someone else’s skin. Maybe it would give him something to look back on. Maybe it would give him enough to sustain him through at least one or two of the long and bitter years to come.”

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Patrick Font

TRIANGULUM

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TRIANGULUM BY MASANDE NTSHANGA

Come for the unexpected convergence of Afro-futurism, eco-terrorism, alien abductions, and more. Stay for the unsettling meditations on South Africa’s dystopian past and present, the grandiose yet subversive re-imagining of humanity’s relationship to nature, and the poignant impulse, from which no character is spared, to make aliens of each other and of themselves.

Come for the classic spy thriller-cum-bildungsroman: a teen trio explores their sexuality while following breadcrumbs in pursuit of missing children (inexplicably free, of course, from adult supervision). Stay for the narrator’s hapless quest to understand her vanished mother—carrier of mental illness as well as mathematical genius—even as she herself begins to vanish, too, into a set of Russian-doll personas.

Come for the pleasure of any good puzzle. Stay because after delving so deeply into so many narratives and narrative frames, each with different sets of rules and competing conceptions of truth, you’ll want to keep questioning what’s real within the novel instead of just questioning what’s real.

Come for the high-stakes proxy wars between competing corporations and terrorist cells and megalomaniacal visionaries. Stay for the quiet assurance that novelists and readers have a quantifiable bearing on the future, too.

Come for Triangulum. Stay for next masterpiece that Ntshanga’s sure to turn out, and the next, and the next after that one. Once you open this novel, there’s no walking away.

Two Dollar Radio.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

FLOWERS OF MOLD

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FLOWERS OF MOLD BY HA SEONG-NAN, TRANSLATED BY JANET HONG

In Ha Seong-nan’s gripping and courageous Flowers of Mold, the author triple-underlines those distasteful aspects of our lives that we’d rather ignore: the putridity of leaky trash; the greasy, lingering smell of fried chicken; children’s crackers crushed underfoot; the solid clunk of an alarm clock to the jaw. Her characters are working-class people: pear farmers, car salesmen, electricians, sushi chefs, pre-pubescent gymnasts—whose everyday lives flout mundanity by revealing just how commonplace accidents, violence, and pain truly are. And yet, these stories conserve a thread of improbability in their sheer unpredictability, in the unsettling treachery of having another question your reality for you. In “The Woman Next Door,” a housewife is slowly displaced by a sinister newcomer; in “Nightmare,” a young girl’s waking horror is written off as nothing but a dream; and in “Onion,” a woman commits the unthinkable, yet, as she runs, can find no evidence of her crime.

Recycled in the stories in Flowers of Mold are the unbearable summer heat, the shocking discovering that fish have tongues, an old security guard, the life cycle of a billboard—lending Ha’s stories a feeling of simultaneity that makes them spill across each other, coexisting but never meeting. Ha is a master of the short story and hooks the reader without revealing or resolving too much too cleanly. Translator Janet Hong is built of the same stuff, handling Ha’s stories with a delicacy and attention to detail that should serve as a model for all in the profession.

Open Letter.

—Review by Samantha Kirby

AVIARIES

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AVIARIES BY ZUZANA BRABCOVÁ, TRANSLATED BY TEREZA NOVICKÁ

Zuzana Brabcová’s Aviaries, translated from the Czech by Tereza Novická, is a lesson in literary phantasmagoria—not for the faint of heart. Composed of oscillating diary entries, vignettes, dreams, observations, interior monologue, meditations, short anecdotes, newspaper headlines, and anecdotes from both poetry and prose, it presents a kaleidoscopic picture of present-day Prague, a world reeling with political strife that treats disadvantaged people badly and seldom makes sense.

The novella opens in 2011 with the death of Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia. Contemporary news reports and headlines provide a bleak background to this snapshot of the life of the protagonist, Alžběta, a woman living on the fringes of a relentlessly unforgiving Prague. She navigates a world of confusing characters that exist in and outside her imagination in Prague’s Smíchov district. She is unemployed and struggling with mental illness. Her troubled thoughts contribute to the fragmentary nature of the text, told in both third person and, what can only be described as, a distant first person. The result is profoundly confusing, yes, but also strangely satisfying, particularly as it contributes to Alžběta’s interactions with the women in her life, including her mother, her sister, and her dumpster-diving, Bob Dylan-dating daughter, Alice.

Completed just before Brabcová’s untimely death, Aviaries received the Josef Škvorecky, a Czech language award, in 2016 for best prose of the year and, in 2017, was shortlisted for the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award. Czech cultural-political monthly journal Literární nonviny called it, “A sophisticated testimony about social exclusion.” And now, Twisted Spoon Press and translator Tereza Novická have brought it to you.

Twisted Spoon Press.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

LEAVING RICHARD'S VALLEY

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LEAVING RICHARD’S VALLEY BY MICHAEL DEFORGE

Michael DeForge’s Leaving Richard’s Valley invites you in with its quirky style and zany characters—keeps you reading with unexpected turns, insights into city living, and subtle commentary on modern capitalism. “Do you ever get this feeling that living in a city is kind of like being at a party that’s gone on too long?” asks Paul the Spider, one of the many creatures that has joined Richard’s Valley, a health-obsessed cult that has turned its back on the “toxicity” (both metaphorical and literal) of the city and has made a home in a Toronto public park. Their leader, Richard, is vapid, enigmatic, and slowly growing bored of his followers and the life he has built for them. When a group of friends breaks Richard’s strict rules to save Lyle the Raccoon from a mysterious illness, they are exiled by Richard and his fanatical lackey, Caroline the Frog. Forced to make their way in a city plagued with cults and gentrification, the animal friends quest for a home, a community, and a purpose in their new world.

Michael DeForge’s simple, delightfully bizarre style opens the mind to new interpretations of faith, the hero’s journey, and the purpose of art in the modern world. Entirely black and white, this is a world in which spiders become masseuses and supermodels, snakes fall in love with raccoons, and butterflies interrupt the narrative to provide the history of fictional places. A witty and strange rumination on cult mentality, obsessive love, and city life, Leaving Richard’s Valley surprises the reader with each page.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS

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THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS BY LINDSEY DRAGER

Lindsey Drager’s latest novel, The Archive of Alternate Endings, makes a needle of Halley’s Comet and a thread of its tail, along which are strung the beads of myth and history. Hansel and Gretel, Edmund Halley, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Johannes Gutenberg, a dancer, a programmer, multiple witches, and a space probe that transmits folktales into the abyss, all shuffle across the novel’s stage, which spans a millennium, taking place in the years that the comet returns. “[N]othing in this life is unbent,” Wilhelm Grimm remarks one evening in 1835, “and as such all things intersect.” These intersections, somehow, make the novel cohere.

Drager has managed to synthesize the meta abstractions and intricate structures of experimental fiction with the rich, warm, living essence of good, old-fashioned, character-driven prose. Alternate Endings is unapologetically Borgesian, at once a library of Babel and a garden of forking paths, but its ideas hold meaning because real people live and die by them, caught up in spirals of shame and compassion, always on the verge of—but never quite tipping over into—understanding. Always siblings strive to protect each other. Always outcasts lose themselves in murky woods. Always the same story with different endings—or different stories with the same one. You get the distinct impression, upon closing the novel, that you could open it again and find that the stories inside have been evolving and metastasizing, new concepts cropping up on every page. You might be tempted to try this. Do.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA

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SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA BY SARAH PINSKER

Sarah Pinsker’s stories nestle in the cracks of our world with strange concepts that resound emotionally with the reader. Some of the realities found here contain more verisimilitude. In “Talking With Dead People,” a woman constructs replicas of murder houses and, powered by A.I., the houses speak in the voices of the dead. Other realities convey distorted or futuristic visions of Earth. In the title story, “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” cruise ships peopled by the wealthy sail endlessly to avoid the contaminated land. A scavenger finds Gabby, one of the ships’ musicians, washed up on the shore. Gabby relearns the earth and its relics of civilization. “Funny how you don’t realize the last time you see something is going to be the last time,” she says of turtles, now likely extinct.

An atmosphere of nostalgia and doom pervades the collection. The characters act out of deep wells of fear, hope, and longing, as the environment collapses or is transformed unrecognizably. In “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” a man who loses his arm in a farming accident wakes up with a bionic replacement and becomes convinced that he is a road in Colorado. By some glitch in the technology, his self is twinned. The concept is whimsical but the story, like all of Pinsker’s stories, considers what it means to be human when the circumstances we associate with humanity have changed. A longer story, “Wind Will Rove,” considers the value of human history out of context. A history teacher aboard an intergenerational colony ship finds that art, especially music, is meant to thrive with creative synthesis. The defamiliarization of the ship, reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost,” allows Pinsker to explore how the past is lived in the present, and whether humans are resilient enough to secure a future beyond our polluted planet.

Small Beer Press.

—Review by Sara Ramey