Short Stories

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

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

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

HONEY IN THE CARCASE

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HONEY IN THE CARCASE BY JOSIP NOVAKOVICH

In his newest collection of short prose, Josip Novakovich takes the reader on unexpected and familiar journeys: from hitchhiking through the American heartland; to one man’s modification of his body to procure a near-perfect likeness to a sibling rival, in the arena of love; and a war-torn eastern European village, where bombs drop as frequently as rain, and one resident, teetering on the edge of losing everything, just wants to be reunited with his beloved bees. Novakovich’s stories are rife with brilliant and keen observations. His unique brand of moral exploration and honed wit is often coupled with horrendous acts of violence, appearing and concluding as quick as light glints off the edge of a blade. These drastic shifts from the lighthearted to disturbing (sometimes in the physical sense, other times in the cerebral), while they shock and surprise, are an inevitable and necessary driving force behind his 14 stories that provide the reader with characters plucked from everyday life and demonstrate the breadth and elasticity of Novakovich’s ability as a master storyteller. Reading each of the stories in Honey in the Carcase is like traveling a winding country highway at night, taking in what the headlights shine upon, never certain of what they will illuminate around the next turn.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Nicholas John-Francis Claro

RAIN AND OTHER STORIES

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RAIN AND OTHER STORIES BY MIA COUTO, TRANSLATED BY ERIC M. B. BECKER

Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories maps out a Mozambique that’s torn with war, heartbreak, and loss. While some of the stories read as fables, offering meditations on the lives of men and women grappling with displacement and rebirth, a Chekhovian subtly is achieved, even when their realism turns to the magical: “The flowers, the one’s with a blue glimmer, began to swell and soar toward the sky. Then, all together, they plucked the girl. . . She was swept away into the same womb where she’d seen her father extinguished, out of sight and out of time.” In other stories, readers witness the departure of characters as Couto’s narrators suggest an uncertainty of their return. And it’s this uncertainty, and the motif of rain and all of its implications, that connects one story to the next.

However, what’s most successful about this collection are the ways in which Couto repeatedly asks unanswerable questions, piquing reader curiosity. Take “War of the Clowns,” a story of two manipulative clowns who, through their arguing and violence, profit off an entire city and incite war and inquiry. “What’s going on?” ask the spectators of the clowns, and although Couto describes to readers what occurs, he never tells us why. Instead, confusion swells among spectators until the “supporters divided into two camps, [and] little by little, two battlefields began to form.” By the end of the story, answers manifest through subtext, and the effect is both chilling and tragic. In this collection, Mia Couto, via Eric M. B. Becker’s aesthetically rich translation, packs an emotional resonance in each story—despite brevity, many only reaching five pages—that lingers with readers long after putting the book down.

Biblioasis.

—Review by Patrick Font

NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS

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NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS BY ZSÓFIA BÁN, TRANSLATED BY JIM TUCKER

Jim Tucker’s translation of Zsófia Bán’s 2007 story collection, Night School: A Reader for Grownups, doesn’t read like a translation at all. Nor does it read like anything you’ve ever perused—unless you’ve read Night School in another language. A frenetic homage to the textbooks Bán once encountered in German class that “skipped from transportation to the Holocaust to Gummy Bears—in that order,” Night School takes readers on a wild romp through a kaleidoscope of postmodern fairy tales. We learn the just-so story behind Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, encounter the 19th-century naturalist Henri Mouhot trekking through the Laotian jungle, and find ourselves privy to an email exchange between the characters of the 18th-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All flaunt their meta-awareness: Mouhot’s wife quotes Heart of Darkness, which had not yet been written, and predicts his impending death, as Victorine Meurent predicts Manet’s, and Laika the Dog stoically predicts her own.

Night School might not seem to lend itself to translation, so bursting with slang, neologisms, tongue-in-cheek zingers, and off-the-cuff historical and literary references, yet one cannot deny the sheer Dadaist power and Seussian flare of lines like this one from “Motherwhere”: “They searched for her […] in the cold turkey clinic, in the Wild Turkey still […] in the market square, in the market research center […] in the ash cans and trash cans, under the bumps and in the sumps.” Assignments and images litter the collection and frequently, we are instructed to argue pro or con. Bán’s humor transcends language barriers, and Tucker’s translation never leaves us wondering what we’ve missed out on by not speaking Hungarian. A must-read for anyone who needs a break from the grim currents of contemporary literature, yet still craves the heady thrill of a really smart book.

Open Letter.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

MADAME VICTORIA

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MADAME VICTORIA BY CATHERINE LEROUX, TRANSLATED BY LAZER LEDERHENDLER

Using the unidentified skeleton of a woman found in 2001, outside of Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital, as her nexus, Catherine Leroux creates a collage of womanhood: fluidity and joy; erasure and pain. In twelve separate stories, she imagines variations of the life of this woman, Victoria, which inevitably end with her death. She peppers the collection with small chapters on the nurses and hotline workers, all while the public continues their quest to identify her. It would be easy for this type of structure to become disjointed, as each Victoria is fully realized—a sex worker proud of satisfying her customers, a time traveler, a grieving teenage mother, an experiment-turned-invisible, a lover who didn’t uphold her end of a suicide pact—but Leroux uses the repetition of these themes to maintain her cohesion: arrows pointing north, characters with heterochromia iridium, movement and migration.

Lazer Lederhendler’s English translation also sparks and simmers with luminous prose, allowing Victoria to emerge as a guiding star, the one constant in a shimmering landscape. “She gets the feeling every now and then that time has remained suspended since the first day she entered this house and that whole generations have passed through her hands, where they were rocked and wiped before racing toward adulthood; that, in their turn, those adults, the corners of their mouths still studded with cereal crumbs, send her their offspring not yet able to speak their given names; that from one generation to the next these people are increasingly shapeless, and that in a few years nothing will be left of them but vague outlines.” Juxtaposed in this way, Madame Victoria honors all women on the margins, all women dismissed by society. It tempts us to reconsider the ways in which we think of victims, showing us that if we listened, there is much they could teach us about ourselves.

Biblioasis.

— Review by Joy Clark

THE NEW ORDER

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THE NEW ORDER BY KAREN E. BENDER

Karen E. Bender’s new story collection is steeped in the present political moment, with an eye to our future. Our cultural corrosion—especially our denial of sexual assault and gun violence—impacts Bender’s female narrators in quiet, resounding ways. The young protagonist of “This Is Who You Are” develops anxiety as she copes with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a classmate and the bombing of a Jewish school, made personal by her identification with one of the bombing victims. “History always felt like it was breathing softly behind us,” she says.

The New Order delivers deceptively straightforward reflections on the mundane, as the reader is drawn into worlds much like our own. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” a small family moves to an unnamed Asian city to escape a stalker back home, only for their daughter to be bullied at school: “We stood under the sky, a fragile blue tarp; beneath it, we felt almost invisible. Most people were invisible to other people, except when others saw them and wanted to harm them.” Cruelty is not always immediately evident in Bender’s stories, though its consequences echo. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” a government initiative to pay complainants in the workforce for their silence backfires when a woman facing harassment refuses to barter away her pain for monetary compensation. The narrator’s final, plaintive thought captures the essence of the collection’s wist and cynicism, hope and hopelessness. She sits on the discarded couch of a woman whose life has been obliterated because she spoke out, and wonders “what would happen to all of us.”

Counterpoint Press.

— Review by Sara Ramey