‘Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America Dau Prize’: The Ties That Bind

by Cade Johnson

Each year, Catapult publishes an anthology of the twelve recipients of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, which highlights writers who demonstrate exceptional talent in their first published short stories. In this year’s installment, Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America Dau Prize (240 pages; Catapult), editor Yuka Igarashi’s introduction observes that the un-ignorable presence and impact of money unites the collection. But reading through these stories, it’s hard not to focus, perhaps as a result of the pandemic’s transformation of the ways we socialize, on the stories’ exploration of group dynamics, as well as […]

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‘Antkind’ by Charlie Kaufman: One Very Long Laugh

by Colton Alstatt

As a screenwriter and director, Charlie Kaufman has won acclaim for movies like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York—but not from film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, the protagonist of Kaufman’s new avant-garde romp, Antkind (705 Pages; Penguin Random House), who, in a meta twist, maligns the author time and again, often before B. is hit by a bicyclist, or buried beneath an avalanche of books, or falls into a manhole. (He does that a lot.). Reading Antkind is a bodily thing, so full is it of gut and heart. For once, the cliché […]

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‘Bestiary’ by K-Ming Chang: Dark of the Mind

by Corinne Leong

From Plath to Vuong, the poet-novelist has long been a centerpiece of literary conversation, subverting convention to craft impossibly engaging narratives. K-Ming Chang, a poet by precedent, comes prepared to contribute to that legacy. Her first novel, Bestiary (272 Pages; One World/Random House), is suffused with lyricism, a multigenerational, mythological, and magical-realist retelling of one family’s fraught history.  Bestiary’s three narrators are referred to only as Daughter, Mother, and Grandmother. Their narratives are interwoven, and converse and collapse upon each other. Though Chang’s novel is largely lyric and non-linear, its through-line is deceptively simple: Daughter learns the myth of Hu Gu Po—a […]

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‘Just Us: An American Conversation’ by Claudia Rankine: Confronting White Silence

by Cade Johnson

The title of Claudia Rankine’s new collection of essays, Just Us: An American Conversation (352 pages; Graywolf Press), alludes to a Richard Pryor quote from a 1979 stand-up routine about the criminal justice system: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” The quote is just as potent now as it was then, with mass incarceration making prisons disproportionately Black, and relevant to Rankine’s stance as she confronts white silence and privilege. But the title also evokes community, a sense of a unified “us,” as well as the more private “us” that exists when we […]

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‘Straight from the Horse’s Mouth’ by Meryem Alaoui: Vivid and Vividly Angry

by Michelle Latiolais

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth (304 pages; Other Press; translated by Emma Ramadan) was originally published in French as La vérité sort de la bouche du cheval by Éditions Gallimard, Paris, in 2018. One reads a tremendous amount of work in translation these days, and it is a bounty, what translators make possible for us. I am forever grateful, and particularly, most recently, for this first novel by the Moroccan-born writer Meryem Alaoui. The novel is a vivid, and vividly angry, first-person portrait of Jmiaa, now thirty-four, but forced into prostitution by her destitute husband before she is twenty. Jmiaa […]

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‘Daddy’ by Emma Cline: An Unsettling Glimpse

by Zack Ravas

The coverage surrounding Emma Cline’s rise to literary fame has tended to focus on everything but her work—a seven-figure book deal with Random House, her young age, a copyright case involving an ex-boyfriend that was definitively shot down in court. But unfortunate as this is, the writing is what matters. Cline’s first novel, The Girls, transplanted the story of the Manson Family to late Sixties Northern California. While the Manson murders were a well-trod subject long before the book was published in 2016, Cline found a way to make the narrative feel compelling again by using it to tell a […]

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‘The Party Upstairs’ by Lee Conell: Where Expectations Meet a Harsh Reality

by Nessa Ordukhani

Lee Conell’s first novel, The Party Upstairs (308 pages; Penguin Random House), is a provocative testament to class division and the boundless nature of self-absorbance. Alternating between the perspectives of Ruby and her father, Martin, Conell offers us a glimpse into a microcosm of New York where tensions are high, and resentment seems inevitable. Ruby, saddled with a niche degree and few job prospects, is forced to move back to her childhood home—the basement in an Upper West Side apartment building where her father is the super. Martin, exhausted by life and desperate for a moment of peace, must continue […]

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‘Telephone’ by Percival Everett: The Futility of Play

by Michelle Latiolais

One can read Percival Everett’s latest novel entirely ignorant of why it is titled Telephone (232 pages; Graywolf Press), as I did, or one can be in the know. Supposedly there is an A, B, and C version, and thus the title. I have read the B version, and that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Discrepancies may occur, or indeed will occur, and like those dinner parties in which everyone argues over whether the superior novel is Mrs. Bridge or Mr. Bridge, now we can convene to argue our preferred version of Telephone, except I think this may […]

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‘Zero Zone’ by Scott O’Connor: Looking Out, and Beyond, Art, Angst, and Agony

by Paul Wilner

“The guards let them stay in the dayroom longer than usual, on account of the fact that the world might end,’’ Scott O’Connor allows, writing about a convict named Tanner and his friend Emmett deep into his enthralling new novel, Zero Zone (Counterpoint Press, 320 pages). The “fact’’ in question is the Three Mile Island meltdown—the jailbirds are disappointed that it fizzles, but there’s more—much more—apocalyptic tension to come here. O’Connor’s work is a spooky, sometimes sepulchral portrait of the confluence between the overlapping lives of Jess Shepard, a Los Angeles installation artist who has created a space near an […]

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‘Luster’ by Raven Leilani: Turning the Gaze Backward

by Colton Alstatt

As the era of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike—sex-norm-subverting Baby Boomer writers—passes, something about the sexual rutting of white men grows tired. New scrutiny appears for their works; Updike’s late fiction, David Foster Wallace said, exemplified “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation[’s] impassioned infidelities.” In response, a new wave of American authors are emerging to re-examine the Complicated White Man’s extramarital affair. Thirty-year-old Raven Leilani’s first novel, Luster (227 Pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux), tells the story from the other side, as a young Black woman involves herself in the open marriage of an older […]

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‘My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog’ by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias: An Offbeat Chorus

by CJ Green

Legna Rodríguez Iglesias’ eclectic novel-in-stories, My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog (207 pages, McSweeney’s; translated by Megan McDowell), is a boundary-breaking work. Its various episodes slide comfortably along the scale of prose and poetry, and somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. (In an early disclaimer, Iglesias notes, “Any resemblance to actual events can be blamed on me. I don’t care.”) Comprising fifteen stories, all composed by a single fictional(ized) protagonist, Iglesias’s self-assured voice transfigures into multiple others: that of an old dead man, a young girl, a wistful ex-con, and even a French bulldog. Certain voices are nostalgic, empathetic; others […]

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‘Suitor’ by Joshua Rivkin: The Power of Ambiguity

by Cade Johnson

The term “suitor” evokes the masculine role in courtship, and in Joshua Rivkin’s latest collection of poetry it takes on many forms as his poems grapple with masculinity, personal history, and desire. Suitor (88 pages; Red Hen Press), whose title Rivkin tells us early on comes “from the Latin secutor,/ to follow,” proves an expansive rumination on the self, what it means to succeed those who came before you, as well as the pursuit of desire. Rivkin’s poems emphasize a need to unearth perspectives previously unknown. In doing so, Rivkin sheds patriarchal categorizations of good and bad, of binaries and a […]

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