In his first novel, Gavin McCrea accesses the intricacies of Marx and Engel’s Communist revolution through the ordinary magic of fiction. Mrs. Engels (Catapult; 368 pages) explores the subtleties of a historic movement through the vantage of Lizzie Burns, Frederick Engels’ longtime companion and eventual wife. Lizzie, an illiterate Irish woman, is both an outsider and part of Frederick’s inner circle in London—at once the closest to the proletariat and the furthest from Marx and Engels’ ideals. Her position allows the story’s perspective to refreshingly shift from observing Engels and Marx’s work life and ideals to registering the domestic decorum and politics that have shaped Lizzie’s life. As Frederick imagines what could be, resenting the illusory social norms that dictate what is, Lizzie, to survive, must occupy herself with the very reality he and his peers frequently abhor or ignore.
Margaret Atwood knows a thing or two million about the dystopian novel. Atwood’s latest, The Heart Goes Last (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 320 pages), begins familiarly: in the midst of a dire economic and social depression, a young couple chooses between freedom and chaos or comfort and constraint. As The Heart Goes Last develops, though, the form evolves from sociological study to fable. People and places turn out to not be what they seem, offering complexity but also dream-like distortions. Stan and Charmaine, the couple at the center, discover that the pressure for them to choose between good and bad, right and wrong, has little to do with embracing either notion. They begin to wonder if they are choosing anything at all. What starts as a traditional dystopian take on human mores becomes a surreal look at the breakdown of free will.
After losing their jobs and homes in a massive fiscal downturn, Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, fleeing from roaming vandals and looters, and surviving off of Charmaine’s meager tips at a sleazy dive and off the spongy fried chicken wings she gets from the shop next door. Theirs is a contemporary situation taken to a logical extreme. When Charmaine sees an advertisement for a program offering families and individuals a return to the comfortable and quaint middle class existence they had before, she can’t resist. “Remember what your life used to be like?” the man in the ad asks. Neither she nor Stan fully realize the repercussions of their signing up for the Consilience/Positron twin cities project.
For Edward Darby, the meaning of life can be found in the curve of a well-crafted watch, in an antique table’s warm weight, or in the balancing stroke of paint on a chaotic canvas. The protagonist of Jill Bialosky’s new novel, The Prize (Counterpoint; 325 pages), lives his life according to the principle of cultivating beautiful things. Edward believes structure, attention to detail, and erudite emotion will bring him happiness. He looks to art to reveal the importance of ordinary life, but also as a means to transcend it. Over the course of the novel, the lacquer of Edward’s curated existence—his career as a partner at a prominent New York City gallery, his resourceful wife and sweet daughter, his well-adjusted sense of ownership and loss—flakes away.
Bialosky, an editor, poet, and novelist, probes art as escapism in The Prize. She depicts most of her characters as being in one of two conflicting camps: the purists and the opportunists. Edward’s convictions about true art are called radically into question when a temperamental young ingénue begins to blur the lines between artistic intent and calculated interest. In addition to the muddling of his professional affairs, the quaint home life Edward has strived for has become sterile and detached. Edward’s once doting daughter is now a disinterested teenager; his wife Holly’s refreshing distance from the art world is stretching into a chasm of dissimilarity. As the cracks in his life deepen, Edward recedes further into his devotion to beauty and art.
If Jesse Eisenberg’s first fiction collection were made up of simple extended bits, in which Eisenberg takes an initial premise and wittily wrings it for every drop of comedic juice possible, the book would still be an entertaining read. What makes Bream Gives Me Hiccups (Grove; 256 pages) more than that, however, is the dissection of social anxiety underlying each piece. Through a myriad of perspectives—from a precocious, broken-homed nine-year-old boy and an obnoxious college freshman with self-projection issues to Carmelo Anthony after an irritating run-in with a fan—Eisenberg relates a collective understanding of how difficult it is to both like others and also feel liked.
At first it’s hard to imagine any continuity in a collection that features the Bosnian genocide, Alexander Graham Bell, and a guy at a bar tripping on manufactured hallucinogens. But Eisenberg, through intimate points of view, a commitment to each comic premise, and a nerdy but unpretentious deployment of knowledge, links these seemingly unrelated stories. He shows that at base everyone has that Charlie Brown-like combination of hope and disappointment: cynical enough to know the football is going to be swiped away at the last moment, but hopeful (or possibly deluded) enough to try again, anyway.