I was in Austin this past weekend doing a panel for Nasty Women, but I had the first day of the festival all to myself. One of the big events I’d been dying to attend was the panel with Jeffrey Eugenides and Claire Messud. It’s a six hour drive from South Texas up to Austin, and I used the opportunity to finish listening to Fresh Complaint, a collection of stories written between 1988 to 2017. With the exception of the title story, most of the stories had been previously published in other places.
Early in the panel, Eugenides bemoaned a common description he’d been seeing in reviews of his book: it’s about depressed middle-aged men. “It’s not just about that,” he protested. “There’s a story about two older women, and there’s a story about a Pakistani teenager.”
Yeah. About that.
Although they’re set in contemporary Argentina, many of the short stories in Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire have an almost primal feel. A current of macabre superstition and urban legend threads the collection together, and nearly every story has some kind of undefinable darkness looming over its protagonists. The terror that transpired during Argentina’s relatively recent dictatorship — thousands were murdered in the 1970s and early 1980s — also haunts the pages. These are horror stories feel like they could be real.
Enríquez is very talented when it comes to creating atmospheric tension. Most of the stories take a surreal turn, but they all start out with recognizable contemporary scenarios: poverty, drug abuse, social inequality, childhood curiosity, obnoxious boyfriends. It isn’t until the reader is drawn into the relatable, reality-based settings that weird things start happening.
Set in the near future, Alexander Weinstein’s collection of speculative fiction explores our increasingly dependent relationship with technology. The characters in these stories openly have affairs via virtual reality, pay people to create memories for them, give birth to e-children and raise their families in an online simulation, and mourn the loss of outdated androids with sophisticated AI. Readers are left to make sense of this weird, sad, innovative high-tech “utopia” Weinstein has built.
I loved it.
The collection opens with “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” A family of four is eating breakfast when one of the children, Yang, begins banging his head into his cereal bowl. The boy is a Big Brother android, purchased to help raise their adopted Chinese daughter with some cultural awareness that her white parents cannot give her. Yang’s subsequent mechanical meltdown is deeply felt by all in ways they never expected; although he’s a machine, he’s always been one of the family.
With its eye-catching cover, Helen Ellis’s latest book had me at first sight: I am such a sucker for book covers, and this one was impossible for me to ignore. Add in the fact that I’m also a sucker for weird characters, short stories, and bizarre scenarios, and it becomes pretty clear that this book and I were meant to be. I wasn’t familiar with Ellis’s work before this, but I’d say her work is in the same vein as Aimee Bender and Ramona Ausubel’s…if one were to replace the magical realism with deadpan humor.
The twelve stories in the collection are all about women who are OVER. IT. in one way or another.
In “The Wainscoting War,” two neighbors battle it out via email over the decor of their shared hallway. It’s new money vs. old money, and the facade of tolerant politeness quickly gives way to all out war. Refined people throwing shade are present throughout the book, parceled out in thinly veiled insults and acerbic witticisms.
Having raved about Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a couple of years ago, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his latest offering. The Tsar of Love and Techno is somewhat similar to its predecessor in its focus: life during and after Soviet rule. But where Marra had a whole novel to convey the crushing weight of life under Soviet rule with Phenomena, accomplishing this same task a second time with short stories as his vehicle of delivery was probably a lot trickier.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a book of connected short stories. It’s a mixtape of sorts, an appropriate concept considering the symbolic significance an actual mixtape plays in several of the stories. The book begins in the 1930s with a Soviet censor, a genius in his own right, whose job it is to “correct” photographs, painting over offending parties that have been disappeared by the government and erasing them out of existence. For reasons he can’t explain, he’s drawn to the photograph of a ballerina whose identity he does not know. He leaves a small part of her visible on the photograph, a move that could jeopardize his life.