What Stella Sees, Sarah Kornfeld’s complex debut novel, is about convergence and displacement. Above all, it is about perception: the consequences of its absence and the obligations of its presence. Young Stella is ill, it seems, with a peculiar form of epilepsy that eludes diagnosis and treatment. Her parents Rachel and Michael are in the throes of divorce, increasingly estranged from their own selves as well as one another, while they careen off specialists and medical regimes, a process that takes them from New York and San Francisco to Paris in search of a cure for their daughter. Yet Stella sees other things, too. Her seizures are a kind of vision-state in which she is able to explore the ocean depths, discovering real and imagined creatures that inform her art – the art of creating worlds of meaning inside the tiny whorls of seashells.
Come the Tide is a sun-soaked, water-drenched, variegated collection of thirteen short stories that explores the ambiguous psychic implications of the now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t liminal terrain where dry land meets restless water. Ancient myths haunt these tales of oceans and islands, lakes and swimming pools, while bodies of water of all kinds – with their dangers and temptations, promises and secrets – weigh heavily on human protagonists drowning in uncertainty, insecurity and betrayal.Continue reading
Jendi Reiter’s wise and ambitious novel Two Natures is the story of young gay man Julian Selkirk who, Crusoe-like, finds himself washed ashore in New York in 1991 and ‘dependent on the kindness of strangers.’ Julian is an aspiring fashion photographer, whose career lows and highs quickly alternate, mirroring his personal exploration of the gay scene and his search for love. The spiritual and the carnal, the beautiful and the sordid, interweave in complex patterns, overshadowed by the gathering AIDS crisis, as the years to 1996 become increasingly hostile to difference. The intensely personal is the politically fraught, and Julian has to cope with the vagaries of love and ambition while mourning friends and lovers.
Fine writing transcends generic boundaries. Should we call An Incomplete List of My Wishes, Jendi Reiter’s outstanding collection of short stories, Southern fiction? Possibly, but only as long as we permit a Southern sensibility (however defined) to extend as far north as New York and Connecticut. Is it LGBTQ? Assuredly, yet the breadth of human response the book elicits encompasses far more than specific issues of sexual/gender identification. Is it historical? In part, but the 1990s reside still in many living memories and can comfortably coexist with the present. May we even call these prizewinning works short stories? Only if we allow that a short story need not necessarily tell a story, or that it can tell many stories all at once.
The epigraph to Above An Abyss, Ryan Masters’ marvellous collection of two beautiful and stunningly juxtaposed novellas, is from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ ‘Trampoline Games’ and ‘The Moth Orchid’ approach this idea of existential precarity from entirely different directions, yet the two stories complement one another in breathtaking, unexpected ways.
In an era of flash and twitter fiction, we are apt to forget that short is not new, and that literary heritage includes the aphorism and the pensée as much as it does the triple-decker novel and the epic poem. Kafka’s stories, for example, often extend for no more than a paragraph or two, while much Classical myth and fable is similarly concise. Motivations and contexts change with the times, however. The subtitle to Dead Aquarium – ‘i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith’ – references the lower-case exhaustion and peculiar ennui that overcome contemporary culture when confronted with the grand, upper-case questions about Identity and Destiny, Value and Extinction that stalk us through the wind-strewn detritus of the back alley and the shopping mall.
Satire flourishes in desperate times and is often the last refuge of a desperate writer. If that is so, Jeffrey Perso, the author of Water Bodies, is as accomplished as he is perhaps desperate. If satire can be broadly defined as that which mocks human vice or folly by means of derision, irony or wit, then Water Bodies is satire par excellence. Its targets are specifically American, yet its reach is truly global, for stupidity and wilful ignorance care little for national boundaries.