No doubt about it, we’re living in an accelerated era, a time when technology expedites everything from buying groceries to getting the news. Pushing boundaries and mixing genres, the authors of five new collections of short fiction capture the nature of the here and now, and speculate about tomorrow. If you’re wondering what the world is coming to, these writers can give you a hint.
T.C. Boyle published his first work of fiction 38 years ago and has since earned the status of literary legend. His bemused yet compassionate view of the human condition is on full display in The Relive Box and Other Stories, a timely collection that explores the decline of nature and the takeover of technology. In the title story, an addictive device that allows users to watch their pasts unfold comes between single dad Wes and his teenage daughter, Katie. In “Are We Not Men?” Roy and Connie decide to have a baby after 12 years of marriage, at a time when genetic editing enables couples to choose the traits of their children. A few of the narratives (the tale of an ant invasion, for instance) seem to come straight from “The Twilight Zone,” but Boyle balances these strange situations with poignant portrayals of the people caught up in them. Boyle is a master mood-mixer, and this funny-scary-sad collection is filled with stories to be savored.
21ST-CENTURY FAIRY TALES
“Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle,” writes Carmen Maria Machado in the first story of her electrifying debut, Her Body and Other Parties. These foreboding words serve as a setup for what’s to come in this edgy, erotic collection. Throughout eight stories, Machado uses allusions to folktales and myths along with elements of magic realism and fantasy to explore the inner lives of women. In “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator wears a ribbon around her neck that’s off-limits to her partner. Its purpose is revealed in a scene of offhand horror that brings to mind the brutality of the Brothers Grimm. In “Inventory,” a woman takes stock of her past as she flees a deadly virus. “Especially Heinous” is a creepy re-envisioning of the TV series “Law & Order: SVU” that features a demon and a pair of clones. Machado moves from the surreal to the real and back again with incredible ease. This spellbinding collection marks the arrival of an impressive new writer.
TOM HANKS, FICTION WRITER
With his delightful Uncommon Type: Some Stories, beloved actor Tom Hanks takes on the role of writer and proves to be a natural. Hanks isn’t just dabbling here—he can really write. A tale of romance gone awry, “Three Exhausting Weeks” is the hilarious chronicle of an incompatible couple whose relationship quickly runs its course. Virgil and Bud, a pair of World War II veterans, reminisce on the phone in “Christmas Eve 1953,” a moving, nostalgic story that includes powerful scenes of combat. “A Junket in the City of Light” is a brilliant sendup of the movie industry that follows Rory, a would-be star, as he promotes his first film. In some way big or small, a typewriter features in each of the 17 stories. It’s an appropriate symbol for narratives that are all about communication and connection. Given the intelligence Hanks brings to the craft of acting, it makes sense that he would have a knack for storytelling. Filled with warmth, comedy and wisdom, this companionable collection is as appealing as its author.
SHORTS THAT RUN DEEP
National Book Award-winning author James McBride delivers his first short-story collection with Five-Carat Soul. In this wonderfully varied batch of stories (none of which have been published before), McBride moves between eras and characters without missing a beat. “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set” is the story of “the most valuable toy in the world”—a train designed for the son of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that has made its way through history and landed in the hands of the enigmatic Spurgeon Hart. “The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” is an extended narrative that could provide the foundation for a novel. Set in a beleaguered black section of Pittsburgh during the Vietnam era, it’s a beautifully wrought coming-of-age tale narrated by a boy named Butter. Throughout the book, McBride effortlessly adapts different voices and perspectives, from a cranky, hooded guard who prepares people for the afterlife (“The Moaning Bench”) to a Union Army soldier who rescues an orphan (“Father Abe”). With this multifaceted volume, McBride proves once again that he’s a writer of remarkable range and facility.
A CAREER COLLECTION
Stretching across nearly three decades, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first collection of stories, Fresh Complaint, tracks his rise as a writer and offers a fascinating look at the development of his genius. In novels like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011), Eugenides explored the fluidity of gender and the dynamics of relationships in ways that were perceptive, compelling and original. Fans will find more of the same in this satisfying collection. “The Oracular Vulva,” first published in The New Yorker in 1999, features tormented sexologist Peter Luce, who’s conducting research in Indonesia. “Baster” (1995) tells the story of middle-aged Tomasina and her unorthodox approach to getting pregnant (yes, a baster is involved). A new story, “Complainers,” is the plaintive tale of two longtime female friends, one of whom is stricken with dementia. Throughout, Eugenides demonstrates his unfailing expertise as a chronicler of the routines and rituals, motivations and aspirations that comprise the human condition. This retrospective volume is a welcome addition to his body of work.