June 28, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 19°C

Dissecting America

Said Sayrafiezadeh's "Paranoia": " When April arrived it began to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen soon…"
By Patricia E. Fogarty
Published: 2016-06-11

dited by novelist Ben Marcus, "New American Stories" covers the decade between 2005 and 2015 and includes works by more than 30 major authors. Many of the stories in this collection are distressed and ironic, if not vaguely nostalgic for some more certain past. They place American society on the dissection table and use language as a scalpel.

Reading instructions for this 750-pager? Savor slowly.

The volume opens with Said Sayrafiezadeh's "Paranoia" in which unsettling phenomena operate in parallel but seem to interact. Narrator Dean notices that a unseasonal heat wave comes at the same time as a menacing swerve in national politics: "When April arrived it began to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen soon and there was nothing anybody could do about it… some line has been crossed." Unusual events course through the American city where Dean lives, their consequences felt both by Dean and the man he befriends, an undocumented Chilean named Roberto. The ominous prevails. Dean sees a train with "long tubular objects, missiles no doubt, twenty feet long, thirty feet, covered with canvas and strapped down with canvas belts."

In his introduction, editor Marcus says the selections will "ambush reader-expectations through overwhelming language assault." They are quite different, he explains, from "traditional, plot and character-driven fiction." Though the stories are in fact rich in character and theme, it is keenness of language that maneuvers and holds together plot leaps, time overlaps, and terseness of dialogue.

Jesse Ball's "The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr" means what it says: four young men are dead before their time. Like Sayrafiezadeh, Ball examines the way social dynamics can alter events without a citizen's knowledge. The four youths of the title are in a pub when one tries to pick up a girl at the counter. "You know," she objects, "you can't just speak to people. That’s not how things are anymore." In fact, on the pub wall is a list of rules that covers all behavior in the town. The list is both new and puzzling to the youths, who get a little drunk and do something foolish, and damaging. In the four succeeding episodes, each learns how the new system works at a price.

Time and again, stories quickly and nimbly crisscross time and narrative lines. "A story is an improvisatory dance," adds Marcus, "think of language as your primary way of performing it."

"New American Stories," published by Vintage books, is edited by Ben Marcus.

Robert Coover's "Going for a Beer," which comes at the volume's midpoint, is a reminder of just how long the 84-year-old Coover been an innovative storyteller, able to effectively straddle the print and online eras. Coover's early hypertext fiction workshops allowed online readers to click on boxed words to tap into a range of virtual allusions. Later workshops shifted from reader to author. While writing, his students were placed in a virtual reality environment called CAVE that integrates visual imagery, narrative, sound and text. His emphasis on such integration has had an immense impact on the course of American fiction.

In Coover's story, an alcoholic standing at a bar has a series of hallucinations based on his life's events. Is the woman in the corner his ex-wife? Did he just have sex with her? Is anyone sitting there at all? Coover is a master plotter. By the story's end, his alcoholic's unrelated but interwoven visions all make collective sense.

Kelly Link sets character distress against the background of a dystopian future. In "Valley of the Girls," a ruling group of very rich elders — the "Olds" — clone real children to make them into replacements — "to protect [the Olds'] generation from the kind of embarrassment a real child often causes." Perhaps in homage to a style in fashion at the start of the online era, the names of the children are set in hypertext blocks. In print, the jokey device diminishes an otherwise affective tale.

Zadie Smith also goes dystopian in "Meet the President." Standing on an English seacoast ravaged by an unknown war, a boy plays a virtual reality game devised by the nation’s new leaders. If he wins, he gets virtual introduction to important people, like the president. His efforts are interrupted when he meets two of war's impoverished dispossessed. They lead him to a hidden survivors colony in which the virtual is set aside in favor of actual emotions.

Not all the writers chose the dystopian means or parallel lives. Deborah Eisenberg's enthralling "Some Other Better Otto" examines everyday dialogue in search of the language of love.

But Marcus is right: these edgy stories assault the ways we view our lives, and our society. Here's a long volume that's also a brilliant read.

Print | Email | | | 1


Patricia E. Fogarty

A matter of stardust

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has written a stunning book about physics, helping to explain the infinite.

Eco's last game

The writer's final novel, "Numero Zero," pokes mischievous fun at the conspiratorial tendencies of Italian media.

Something bad

Javier Marías digs into the web of secrets and lies (and sex) in post-Franco Spain of the 1980s.


Zero K

Don DeLillo's latest future-sprawl, cryonic freezing included, doesn't quite know what it most wants to say.

The North Water

Ian McGuire's 1859-set whaling detective story captures the 19th-century spirit of Melville and Poe.

Forty Rooms

Olga Grushin's semi-autobiographical novel weighs in on missed opportunities.


A Cure for Suicide

In Jesse Ball's unsettling novel, suicide has a "cure" of sorts, but the price is profoundly surreal.

A Little Lumpen Novelita

Roberto Bolaño's understated Rome-set novella is a posthumous example of the Chilean writer's genius.

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

Donald Barthelme's controlled zaniness helped paved the way for the likes of George Saunders and China Miéville.


Roman Tales

Alberto Moravia's tales of blue-collar Rome men in the postwar help explain neorealism.

A Love Affair

Dino Buzzati's overlooked 1963 masterpiece is a perfect companion to La Dolce Vita.


Film Staff

Don't call me captain!

Tim Miller's "Deadpool" works so hard at being a satire it eventually wears away its vulgar welcome.


Patrick Masterson

Beginning with Ben Lukas Boysen

The new album by the Berlin-based electronic producer and sound designer is a resonantly emotional experience.


The Last Stand of Ms. Betty J. Washington

Jenna Leigh Evans: "The landlord claims I can't have anybody living with me, even though that's illegal. Plain illegal. Are you listening?"


Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

Everything you need to know about visiting or moving to Tuscany, Italy.