THE ALMOST MOONAlice Sebold
Matricide is a tough act to follow, but Helen, the protagonist of Alice Sebold's second novel, pulls it off: after suffocating her 88-year-old mother with enough force to break the woman's nose, she spends the night tenderly bathing her, then lays the body out in a basement meat freezer before heading off to seduce the son of her best friend. It's an audacious opening on par with the gambit of Sebold's best-selling debut, The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by a dead 14-year-old girl. But where that novel radiated hope as well as grief and longing, this one is pitiless. Helen, with her tagline "Noli me tangere," recalls the stone-cold antiheroine of Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays.
That's not to say The Almost Moon isn't affecting in parts, particularly the middle section depicting Helen's hellish adolescence with her caustic, manipulative, and agoraphobic mother. Sebold also has a firm grasp on the delusions of the elderly, how they can become seized with fear that an ATM will eat an arm or convinced that a cell phone is a grenade. Still, when she tries to enlarge the novel's orbit beyond Helen and her mother, introducing an ex-husband who rides to the rescue (he's an ice sculptor—get it?) and a couple of daughters, this becomes a banal and rather ridiculous domestic potboiler. —Kate Schmidt
AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE TO WRITERS' HOMES IN NEW ENGLANDBrock Clarke
Like disco, domestic minimalism never really went away. For all the maximalist fireworks, what the McSweeney's generation ultimately trades on is glimpses of the same old upper-middle lifestyle. Brock Clarke's novel, a new example of this awful hybrid, traffics in picaresque mystery and metaliterary satire, but it's the same strenuous simulation of suburban desperation that caused thousands of young writers to throw their pens down in the 80s. Sam Pulsifer, an amnesiac escapee from a fiction-workshop novel, has no idea who he is—and the reader of his briefly promising 300-page faux memoir has no idea either until about page 47, when he goes from sympathetic enigma to maddening enabler of take-it-or-leave-it plot machinery, a lifelike robot doomed to blankly poeticize the misfortunes he's programmed to endure.
The supposedly righteous, unbelievably cold female characters are here in the persons of Pulsifer's wife and mother; the distant, failed academic father is on hand too, along with a bevy of fiercely withheld yet guessable secrets. And Clarke makes fine use of a supreme genre device, whereby characters prove their verisimilitude by only ever answering a question with an epigrammatic dodge, an empty but telling echo, or another question. It's a shame, because Clarke has penetrating things to say about the blurred, compromised states of the modern memoir and novel, which resonate with everything from O.J. Simpson to J.T. Leroy. Unfortunately they're buried beneath a pile of bad faith. —Brian Nemtusak
THE BEST OF LADY CHURCHILL'S ROSEBUD WRISTLET Edited by Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant
In his ingratiating introduction to this anthology, a celebration of the first decade of a semiannual slipstream zine, Dan Chaon waxes about Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet's daring reclamation of genre fiction. It's the usual apologia Anglophones roll out to justify their interest in magical realism, which basically boils down to "This stuff is just like SF except it's really well written." Well, there's nothing in this collection as mind-bending as the work of Octavia Butler or Robert Holdstock, which would be fine if Chaon hadn't set up that expectation in the first place. I also haven't figured out the purpose of the little boxes and short pieces devoted to the editors' impeccable if mundane taste in tea, liquor, and indie rock, other than to reassure readers that the people behind the scenes are classy hipsters who just happen to publish stories with fairies in them.
That said, the good stories—there are several, and they are really good—more than make up for the bad. The Iron Curtain fatalism in Theodora Goss's poetic and allegorical "Rapid Advance of Sorrow" and the ringing Caribbean patois of Nalo Hopkinson's "Tan Tan and Dry Bone" impart a vivid sense of place—the overlap between real world and other world—from their first sentences. Karen Russell's "Help Wanted" brilliantly builds an entire world in a very short time, and Sarah Micklem's "'Eft' or 'Epic'" is a neat bit of pseudophilology that manages to recall both Borges and Tolkien. The many gems make the book well worth the trouble. You can skim the precious bits—that is, if you can stop rolling your eyes. —Monica Kendrick
THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO
Oscar de Leon loves women. Fat, virginal, and cripplingly nerdy, he's the unlikely hero of Junot Diaz's freewheeling first novel whose "wondrous life" is marked by a series of unrequited passions that no mere reality can crush. It's the hopeful idiocy of Oscar's love—more, even, than his girth (300-plus pounds) or his geekiness (he gets his nickname when, dressed up like Dr. Who for Halloween, someone tells him he looks like Oscar Wilde)—that sets him in stark opposition to the stereotypical macho Dominican male, whose casual misogyny here is practically an arm of the state.
Diaz's book bounces from Oscar's youth in Paterson, New Jersey, to a frustrated stint at Rutgers, to past and present scenes in the Dominican Republic—the through line the damage an ancient fuku, or curse, has wreaked on Oscar's family. The tale's dusted with enough magical realism to suit the mostly tropical setting, but it's Diaz's expansive ear for language that makes the whole thing swing. Narrated (mostly) by Yunior, Oscar's onetime roommate and his sister Lola's on-again, off-again flame, the story rushes across the page, words stumbling and jostling each other in a mashup of Spanglish and Dominican slang, veering off into discursive footnotes that'd make David Foster Wallace blush. And though it's Oscar's life story that gives the book its title, what really sticks are, unsurprisingly, Diaz's women: fierce, smokin' Lola and her equally ferocious, once-bodacious mother, Beli, whose own alternately rambunctious and tragic adolescence begins the arc that sets Oscar's own beginning, middle, and end in motion. —Martha Bayne
THE COLLECTIONGioia Diliberto
(Simon & Schuster)
Isabelle Varlet, the fictional young seamstress of Gioia Diliberto's novel The Collection, leaves her village after World War I for a job in the Paris atelier of the legendary designer Coco Chanel. She lands in the center of the revolution in women's clothing that introduced a more relaxed, modern way of dressing. The book demonstrates an impressive commitment to historical research, with cameos by rival designers and now-obscure personages of the day as well as compelling details of the world of couture, such as the seamstresses' ritual of sewing strands of their hair into the hems of bridal gowns for luck and the painstaking construction of toiles, the muslin models for the designs.
Diliberto underlines the differences between Isabelle, the good girl who avoids being corrupted by the intrigue and backbiting that surround her, and Chanel, the bold businesswoman with a groundbreaking style and a messy private life. Isabelle, who goes on to live quietly and securely ever after with her war-veteran beau, says of her boss, "She'd rather be dead than poor and ordinary." The lovingly rendered atmosphere of the era helps make up for not-quite-3-D characters and a dull subplot about stolen toiles and knockoff artists. To readers entranced by fashion these things won't matter, for Diliberto knows the emotional power that a perfect dress can pack. As Isabelle notes while gazing at a creation she has labored over, "For a moment I forgot my sorrows and deceived myself that the world is a better place than it is." —Heather Kenny
MY FELLOW AMERICANSKeir Graff
Keir Graff's second novel (after Cold Lessons, published in January under the pseudonym Michael McCulloch) ought to make for a nifty post-9/11 paranoid fantasy. But slack pacing and a lackluster protagonist make it, well, kinda 9/10. The country's unnamed president (ahem) has suspended voting and given himself a third term so he can take the war on terror all over the globe. But life goes on, and freelance journalist Jason Walker continues to indulge in his hobby of architectural photography. Which is what gets him nabbed by Homeland Security and flown to Egypt—that, and the fact he's half Lebanese—for a couple days of torture. Coerced into working as an informant, he comes back to Chicago and eventually gets caught between his frat-boy Homeland Security handler and a sincere, and therefore suspicious, Lebanese immigrant.
The few dashes of wit—at a White Sox game Walker's handler makes a beer run during the national anthem—are crippled by a plot that lurches from one point to the next with little urgency. And in a laboriously local story, there's some ugly sloppiness (Walker has a cabbie take him to Clark and Division, but the resulting scene is obviously set at Clark and Diversey). It's Walker's character, though, that most undermines the story. His sleepwalking passivity might be chalked up to his brief ordeal in Egypt, but he was an unquestioning slug before that. It's one thing to not be guilty of any crime, but Walker's kind of innocence—in this day and age, and in this book—that's unforgivable. —Patrick Daily
(Soft Skull Press)
The latest novel by UIC prof Cris Mazza springs from two New England legends, one about a shipwrecked baby rescued by lighthouse keepers in the late 1800s, the other based on the story of a real woman who drowned in 1931, the Lady Ghost of Hendricks Head. Fortysomething Chicago stockbroker Tam Burgess, retired early but deadlocked in life, visits Maine to help her sister research the family genealogy. At 12 Tam had been a promising swimmer, but her dreams ended when she had a grand mal seizure in the pool. She was saved from drowning by her older brother, Gary, but resents him from that point on, especially once he becomes a sportswriter, fitness-book author, and search-and-rescue hero. "My downfall became his glory," she says, and her spite becomes as incapacitating as her epilepsy. Obsessed with the shipwrecked baby and the Lady Ghost, Tam envisions parallels between their lives and hers: could they be related, or familial "doubles"? Her research goes beyond visiting graveyards, scouring town records, and having sex with a lighthouse caretaker to inventing emotions for her ancestors; as she digs deeper, more and more generational karma comes to light, and there are some startling revelations toward the end. The lighthouse serves as an apt metaphor throughout Mazza's compelling family drama: though it's a haven from rough waters, "a fixed, sturdy faithful place," getting there can be treacherous. —Jerome Ludwig