Novel

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

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

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

FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED

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FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED BY K CHESS

They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t even exist. UPDs, or Universally-Displaced Persons, are the refugees from an alternate world destroyed by acts of terrorism against nuclear plants who have crossed over into our world in hopes of survival. K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived follows Hel and Vikram, two of the 156,000 UPDs that make it through before contact with their world mysteriously vanishes. Hel, a former surgeon, left behind an ex-husband and young son, while Vikram mourns not his family, but that he could not bring more books with him. Hel and Vikram wrestle with how to integrate into our strange world and they create a space for remembering their own, a museum. The words on these pages now belong to the men and women who’ve never before existed in our world. Chess’ reflections on choice, survival, and fate illuminate her characters’ decisions: how they will live in a world that does not want them, a world that worries they have shown up to ruin this world’s timeline as well. The debut novel is absorbing and quick-paced, full of loss and surprising reversals, and with it, K Chess has crafted a story that is universally relevant.

Tin House.

—Review by Lucas Palmer

OFF SEASON

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OFF SEASON BY JAMES STURM

Originally released serially, during the fraught and divisive days leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, James Sturm’s graphic novel Off Season tells the story of a marriage as it crumbles. Mark and Lisa are divided by their failed attempts at understanding and comforting one another’s inner despair; each chapter is a short vignette, taking on one moment at a time. The mundane springs to the surface—snow tires, kids demanding cookies, a cold beach; meanwhile the fraught backdrop of the election, economic instability, the universal pains of watching someone you love die—all take the background as American burdens: impossible to look at directly, impossible not to carry.

Sturm’s art is muted in shades of grey and blue, sometimes so soft it seems perceived through tears. All the characters are drawn with cartoon dog faces, which lends a gaze of kindness to their worst moments, and also reminds us how much one struggling, broken-hearted person resembles another. The story moves slowly, through present-day and memory, showing the reader how the moving pieces of a life can work in harmony or grate against one another. In one scene, Mark (who is the focalizer of the story) lies awake listening to his wife sob, and admits being, “. . . slow to recognize what I am hearing.” Confessional moments like these offer mirrors of our own moments of missed connection, slow-to-start empathy. Through close examination of these moments, Sturm offers a meditation on where things go wrong, and the difficult self-reflection we must employ to steer them right again.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Joy Clark

RIDDANCE

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RIDDANCE: OR: THE SYBIL JOINES VOCATIONAL SCHOOL FOR GHOST SPEAKERS & HEARING-MOUTH CHILDREN BY SHELLEY JACKSON

Shelley Jackson’s postmodern gothic novel, Riddance, covers the lives of headmistress Sybil Joines and her new pupil, turned stenographer, Jane Grandison at the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children in late 19th century Boston. Each woman’s life is marked with travesty from childhood, largely due to their speech impediment, but Sybil is determined to use what society sees as a disability as a tool to communicate with the dead. Throughout the novel, Jackson builds a world of necrophysics where mouth objects and language are explored as avenues of existence and communion between the living and the dead: “Death is not departure but arrival. We are latchkeys kept by wanderers against a future homing. With our last strength, we fit our bodies into this locked world, and turn.”

Later, the loss of a student and murder of a school inspector cause speculation over the school’s competence, moral standards, and the headmistress’s mental health. And as Sybil and Jane become closer, their voices become less distinguishable from each other, as well as the dead they interact with more and more. Jackson’s experimental frame of poetic prose, documentation, and photographs, which describe the minutiae of how her characters experience the world around them, is carefully wrought, showing a deep love of language, both for herself and the world she’s created.

Catapult.

—Review by Jenee Skinner

THE ORPHAN OF SALT WINDS

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THE ORPHAN OF SALT WINDS BY ELIZABETH BROOKS

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, The Orphan of Salt Winds, interweaves flashbacks and present-day reflections of the troubled soul, Virginia Wrathmell. In 1939 England, 10-year-old Virginia is adopted by Clem and Lorna, a couple who believes their marriage can be saved by a child. Clem instantly presents Virginia with a sense of belonging but Lorna, though alluring, remains emotionally distant and has a curious relationship with the overly involved neighbor and widower, Max Deering. When a German airplane crashes at the spark of World War II, Clem disappears in the isolated marshes on a search for the pilot. Virginia and Lorna’s lives take an unexpected turn, leading to a decision that Virginia will regret for the rest of her life.

The Orphan of Salt Winds simultaneously functions as a gothic, historical, psychological mystery and bildungsroman. Brooks vivid comparison of the beautiful and tumultuous landscape and Virginia’s life is artfully rendered: “The winds and tides remember, as do the birds, and the cockles, and the shrimps, and the sand worms, and the whispering reeds, and the grasses, and the lichens, and every single stone in the old seawall. I know they remember, because they passed the story on to me—a stranger—just as I passed it on to you.”

Tin House.

—Review by Jenee Skinner

ÖRÆFI: THE WASTELAND

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ÖRÆFI: THE WASTELAND BY ÓFEIGUR SIGURÐSSON, TRANSLATED BY LYTTON SMITH

Öræfi: The Wasteland, Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s stunning novel, translated by Lytton Smith, opens on an injured Austrian toponymist—naive, curious, passionate to a fault—ostensibly arriving at Skaftafell National Park Visitor’s Center after dragging himself down a glacier. There, he is treated by a vacationing veterinarian, the brilliant, frenzied Dr. Lassi, and the two swap tales of how they, and the wasteland, have come to be there. What follows is a collection of Icelandic stories, realist and mythic, historical and fictional, nestled inside an epic adventure. It is at once a history of place, and a man’s intensely personal journey through the elements of the land, and of his own mind. A delightfully complex play on the epistolary novel, the narration of Öræfi is layered, at times coming to us through five or six levels of character interpretation.

On translating Öræfi, Lytton Smith says: “The fiction of translation is physical: a translation is a creation in which one geography gets moved to another.” Read Öræfi to be transported to a world of beauty, horror, treasure, and ghosts. Full of tall tales, mighty storms, mysterious sheep, and impossibly large traveling trunks, Öræfi: The Wasteland draws you in to its baffling web, asks you to linger in this brutal, exquisite place

Deep Vellum.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe