Junot Díaz once wrote that short stories “strike like life and end with its merciless abruptness as well.” Three new collections offer moments of insight and escape, only to zip away, as ephemeral as life itself.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, was born in Vietnam and came to the United States with his family as a refugee in 1975. Dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere,” The Refugees is a selection of nine stories from Nguyen’s 20 years of writing. Set within California’s Vietnamese community or in Vietnam, these tales display an extraordinary range of perspectives stretched between two worlds, as parents and children grapple with memories that comfort or haunt. A ghostwriter’s dead brother returns as a ghost, dripping wet, but their mother seems to be expecting this surprise guest. An aging couple in an arranged marriage struggle as the husband’s dementia causes him to call his wife by another woman’s name. We all find ourselves between cultures, and Nguyen considers these boundaries with an empathetic and often humorous eye.
National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard’s (The Book of Aron) keen interest in time and historical detail take center stage in his fifth collection, The World to Come. These 10 stories make vast jumps, from a snapshot of 1600 B.C. Crete to a modern-day parable about the American health care system. Perhaps the most evocative stories here are epistolary—an anxiety-inducing account of an ill-fated arctic exploration and the poignant, immersive title story about a woman’s double life on the American frontier. Though these tales vary wildly in temporal setting, a thread of quiet isolation coupled with a longing for connection binds these characters together. For masterfully crafted historical fiction, there are few contemporary authors who can rival Shepard.
BEAUTY IN SQUALOR
Following her brilliant breakout novel, Eileen (2015), Ottessa Moshfegh proves her remarkable prowess once again with Homesick for Another World. This dark collection arrives on a current of unease, each story focusing on people filled with a seemingly hopeless desire for connection: A broken man pines for the manager of a videogame café, a woman hates her unhinged boyfriend but lacks the will to leave him, an English teacher spends her summers strung out in a dying town. In blunt, unflinching prose, Moshfegh reveals her characters’ deepest anxieties and perversities without judgment or sympathy. Spiking her stories with pitch-dark humor, Moshfegh adeptly captures what it means to be alone; if you’ve ever felt homesick while sitting in your own living room, this book is for you.
This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.