Faced with a veering, crazy-making, constantly fragmenting contemporary world, a new breed of fiction writer is emerging. What’s remarkable about these authors’ work–which represents some of the best novels and short stories being written today–is not only how inventively it portrays the complex realities of life on the edge of the 21st century, but also how gracefully it moves beyond the literary trends of the recent past.
A lot of mainstream American fiction in the 1980s was “dirty realism”: trailer-park or tract-house tales littered with references to cheesy consumer products, with condescension never far away. Meanwhile, novels of gay awareness, Hispanic and Asian American experience, and punked-out urban apocalypse highlighted the themes of ethnic, social, and sexual identity. The towering figure of Toni Morrison helped bring new depths of myth and history to the distinguished tradition of African American writing.
The 10 writers featured here–first-time novelists as well as veteran writers, each with a book published in the past year–have mastered those advances and taken the art of storytelling into new territory by altering and recombining them in fascinating ways. We selected them after conversations with writers, editors, and other discerning readers across the country. They’re not the most famous names on the fiction shelves, but they’ve all sparked the enthusiasm of book people by the richness of their visions and the bold ways they frame them. All of these writers shun the coziness of the small and private perspective, the comforts of the ethnic or social cocoon, in order to portray not just characters, but our multifarious modern world itself, with its unpredictable mixtures of viewpoints, heritages, high and low cultures, inner and outer realities. They paint big pictures, give context, make sense of the world by refusing to make it simpler than it is.
Riffing on life in an African American Gotham
Colson Whitehead was a child growing up in New York when he first felt the odd allure of elevator inspection records, “those little certificates under glass,” he explains, “where the inspectors leave their initials month after month.” The elevator inspector, he says, “is a kind of secret hero in New York.”
Whitehead, 29, wrote television criticism for The Village Voice after graduating from Harvard. He liked the new breed of thoughtful, complex police shows like Homicide and the British series Prime Suspect as well as the hip crime novels of Walter Moseley and James Ellroy, and decided to try his hand at a book about an elevator inspector-sleuth. “At first, I thought I’d plunge the character into a situation that he knows nothing about. But then I began to think more and more about the world of elevators. Elevators began to bleed into other areas of my thinking.”
Elevators took over, in fact. Whitehead’s brilliant, funny, poetic first novel, The Intuitionist (Anchor) depicts a skewed, film-noirish urban universe, very like New York, in which elevator inspection is more than a job–it’s a subculture, a way of life, and ultimately a vision of human possibility. Whitehead’s hero, the dedicated, unflappable Lila Mae Watson, is the city’s first black female elevator inspector. She’s caught in a deadly power struggle between two factions in the Department of Elevator Inspection: the Empiricists, who examine the cables and suspension gear the old-fashioned way; and the upstart Intuitionists, who work by meditation and sudden insight. The formidably accurate Lila Mae is a major asset for the liberal Intuitionists, until a high-tech elevator she has just inspected goes into free-fall and smashes. Lila Mae’s struggle to clear her name ends up as a battle to vindicate black creativity, intuition, and vision.
Whitehead’s city is a complex mix of contemporary issues and the urban imagery of 40 years ago. “I did that to suggest that things have changed but they haven’t changed,” he says. The style he creates to portray this world is equally intricate and rich–a supple, jazzy instrument that can swing from deadpan satirical fantasy to a straight-ahead portrayal of the pain and stoicism of black people living in a ham-fisted white world, looking for the ultimate elevator that will take them up and out.
A. MANETTE ANSAY
A leap of faith with an eye on social change
When A. Manette Ansay was disabled by a rare muscle disorder at the age of 20, she began looking for a career she could pursue sitting down. “I picked writing out of the air,” she says. She made a New Year’s resolution in early 1987 to write for two hours three times a week. The result of her leap of faith, followed by time at Cornell, has been a book of short stories and three novels, the most recent of which is River Angel (Morrow). The characters in the novel live in small-town Wisconsin, a setting Ansay knows well: A New Yorker now, she grew up in the little Wisconsin town of Port Washington, north of Milwaukee. Ansay also understands that in such a place faith can be very much a live issue. A lapsed Catholic, she can still write: “I understand the desire to believe. I live every day with the weight of that desire.”
What the denizens of the fictive Ambient, Wisconsin, most desire to believe, or debunk, according to their convictions, is that their town has been visited by an angel. An overweight, unattractive, and very devout little boy named Gabriel, tormented by his schoolmates, is either pushed or frightened into jumping off a bridge. Miraculously, his body reappears in a nearby barn–dead, but rosy-cheeked, warm, giving off a sweet scent. For believers, Gabriel has been lifted from the waters by the river angel, an apparition that has guarded the town for a century.
Around this tale–based on real events–Ansay spins a portrait of a small town undergoing gentrification, strip-malling, loss of farms, and loss of face-to-face trust. Ambient’s citizens do their best to keep the faith–any faith, be it a rigid personal code, the land speculator’s gospel of rampant “development,” or the kind of spirituality for which the town’s angel is very real.
“I’ve visited lots of small towns recently,” says Ansay. “The more they are in transition from the old agrarian base to the new economy, the likelier there are to be supernatural events, like angel visitations.” Angels aren’t just a tired marketing trend for such people, she adds; they’re “a way we save ourselves. Angels are homemade; we tailor angels to our needs.” In a world of Wal-Marts, she seems to be suggesting, this is not the meanest of handicrafts.
Inside the skin of a vampire artist
When Jim Shepard was a 6-year-old in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he accidentally saw the silent vampire film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, made in 1922 by the German director F.W. Murnau. “I was left in front of the TV by an inattentive baby-sitter,” he recalls. “The film came on, and I still haven’t recovered. It simply demolished me.”
Today, at 41, Shepard is a fiction writer known for his virtuoso shifts of subject and theme; his first four novels ranged from a story of Italian American family life (based on his own childhood) to an account of the 8th Air Force in World War Two. But Murnau’s poetic, apocalyptic vampire tale continued to haunt him. Shepard’s elegant biographical novel Nosferatu (Knopf) is an homage not just to a film, but to the entire life and work of a great and tormented artist.
Shepard, a graduate of Brown, teaches film studies as well as creative writing at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, so he was well acquainted with Murnau’s biography. Yet obstacles cropped up as soon as he delved into the inner man. “Murnau’s family resists giving up information on his homosexuality,” says Shepard. “So I had to go to Germany, hire assistants, and scour the film institutes and old archives.” What emerged was an image of a theater man turned film director who took part in the lively gay subculture of interwar Berlin. But as Shepard puts it, Murnau was also “a pathologically private man who thought he was making passionately personal movies, but who was seen as someone who made beautiful but cold ones.”
Shepard’s microscopic knowledge of Weimar Germany, matched with his litarary gifts, make this novel an utterly convincing journey into a doomed time and a doomed psyche. Though Murnau’s coming out is handled with deft lyricism, this is no mere novel of gay awakening. And though Murnau has to face both casual and calculated homophobia, the real source of his pain lies deeper–in the mystery of what we can and cannot know about ourselves. “Murnau could never figure out why he felt so isolated,” says Shepard. “Ultimately, he demolishes his own world–but I think we all do.”
Discovering a secret dimension of the Chicano experience
When she was in her 20s, Kathleen Alcalá was hit over the head by the power of the written word to convey lived reality. A friend showed her a piece by Joan Didion called “Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” a nonfiction account of a murder trial in the California suburbs. “I grew up in San Bernardino,” she says, “and Didion’s piece caught exactly the atmosphere of those towns in California–centerless, neither rural nor urban. The friend who showed me the piece said, ‘Now I understand the stories you tell about where you came from.’ In other words, nothing’s believable till you see it in print!”
As Alcalá, 44, evolved into a writer–via Stanford, a stint as a press officer for the Democratic National Committee, and work as a documentarian for KNBC in Los Angeles and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting–she never forgot the power of storytelling as testimony. Despite her background and résumé, she didn’t turn into a nonfiction chronicler of suburban alienation. Instead, she has written three mythopoetic works of fiction, including her latest work, The Flower in the Skull (Chronicle).
In straightforward prose with just a hint of “magical realism,” The Flower in the Skull tells the story of Concha, a Mexican Indian woman driven out of her homeland by the Mexican army. Concha’s tribe, the Opata, were an agrarian people, enemies of the Apache and traditional allies of the Mexican government. But in modernizing 19th-century Mexico, as elsewhere, Indians, whether “good” or “bad,” were ultimately simply in the way.
Concha makes it to Tucson, where she works as a domestic, gives birth out of wedlock, lands a husband, moves to Nogales–struggling all the while for a little peace and luck in love. In heartfelt episodes based on the lives of her grandmother and great-grandmother, Alcalá paints a moving portrait of people fighting to be happy despite having been robbed of the Opata world where their happiness was possible.
Alcalá also tells the story of Shelly, a modern-day Chicana with a job in publishing who goes to Tucson to learn more about the apparently vanished Opata. Instead, she discovers the rich, secret Indian dimension of the Chicano experience. “The Opata were the ‘well-behaved’ Indians,” says Alcalá. “They did the common labor in Tucson. Eventually they were absorbed into the identity called Mexican American.” But indigenous people are part of Chicano communities across the country, she notes. “Native people were driven off their land, but they didn’t ‘vanish.’ They’re everywhere.”
A man-bites-snake story
It was the rigors of medical training that made the India-born and Arizona-raised Sanjay Nigam, 39, a lover of literature. “I was in the middle of my residency,” he recalls, “and my sleep schedule was totally upset. So I started reading the big books–Proust, Tolstoy, Pasternak.” A medical-research stint in New York gave Nigam a chance to connect with that city’s literary life via readings and friendships–“my unofficial M.F.A. program,” he calls it. The first story he sent off was accepted by the prestigious journal Grand Street. That tale, “Charming,” would eventually evolve into his deft first novel, The Snake Charmer (Morrow).
The Snake Charmer is the story of a middle-aged ne’er-do-well named Sonalal who plays the flute for tourists in Old Delhi while his beloved snake, Raju, dances. Sonalal is a drinker and a womanizer whose sharp-tongued wife is fed up with his inability to earn enough–or bring enough home, anyway–to support the family.
One day, Sonalal’s life changes forever. He plays so well, and so long, that he’s showered with money; yet in the process he exhausts poor Raju, who bites him. Sonalal isn’t hurt–Raju’s fangs and venom have long since been extracted–but he’s enraged, and he bites Raju in two. The man-bites-snake story makes all the papers, and Sonalal is a celebrity. But he’s also suddenly afflicted with impotence, remorse about Raju, and, worst of all, inability to make music. What to do? Sonalal’s dilemma leads him to, among other places, a fly-by-night sex therapist named Dr. Seth, who asks him about his bowel movements, mumbles some Freudian gibberish, and declares him a homosexual.
Nigam, now a professor and researcher in the Harvard Medical School, clearly relishes the satirical potential of this unusual case history–but his novel is far from merely funny. His skill, his love for tumbledown Old Delhi–where his grandparents used to live–and his sure eye and ear for Indian detail make his novel a fascinating hybrid. It is a timeless-feeling fable about art, love, and transcendence that is also spiced with the real: film music, Sanjay Gandhi, and India’s rush into the world economy. And as for Sonalal himself, Nigam puts it best: “Like all my characters, he’s flawed–that’s what makes him interesting–but he’s also after something higher. And that pursuit is what lets him hang on to just a little nobility.”
When Ellen Miller, 31, was growing up in New York City–where she still lives–she was faced with a painful puzzle. “I saw people the media called addicts and dismissed,” she says. “I couldn’t accept the idea that what these people were doing to themselves was meaningless, or merely ‘fun.’ It didn’t look fun. It had to have some kind of purpose, it had to be some kind of quest.”
The addict-heroine of Ellen Miller’s debut novel, Like Being Killed (Dutton), is on a quest for, among other things, oblivion. A 25-year-old graduate of Brown who lives in squalor on New York’s Lower East Side, Ilyana Meyerovich snorts heroin, and her drug use has slipped well beyond the recreational. Jewish, brilliant, burned out, obsessed with her ethnic past, the workings of the human body, and the pain of being alive, she’s no Gen X spoiled brat but rather a worthy descendant of all the tormented intellectual heroes of American Jewish fiction, from Saul Bellow to Philip Roth.
Ilyana is doing her fucked-up best to deaden the memory of her betrayal of a beloved friend: Susie Lyons, her onetime roommate. In portraying Susie, Miller does the most difficult of fictional tricks–she creates a character almost wholly good and still genuinely believable.
For Miller, who earned her M.F.A. from New York University, what’s important as she tells the story of the friends’ breakup and Ilyana’s harrowing decline is finding a balance between the two young women’s perspectives. If the death-obsessed Ilyana looks away from the half of life that’s generous and loving, Susie looks away too: “Susie believes that everything can be fixed,” says Miller. “But what Ilyana knows is that some things are just irreparably unfair and unfortunate.”
It’s a measure of Miller’s honesty and talent as a writer that Ilyana’s journey to the lower depths never seems either noble or inhuman. Says Miller, “I was equally impatient with the media, who stripped down junkies’ lives and consciousness to nothing, and with a certain punk-rock nihilism that said ‘drugs are authenticity’ and made the quest for the high itself into the main character. The quest–and my book–doesn’t end with the drug; it ends with the human heart.”
Stark truth from the Kafka of Croatia
A Croat brutalized by a Serb during the Balkan war of the 1990s runs across his tormentor in a restaurant and murders him, only to see another man who resembles the torturer even more, and then another. A Croatian woman, gang-raped in the war, turns sexual procuress to survive and then marries a politically ambitious physician who can’t quite bring himself to trust her. A young woman is murdered by a jealous lover, and her door, punctured by three silvery bullet holes, becomes a sacred relic for a 10-year-old boy who adored her.
The people who fill the stories in Josip Novakovich’s Salvation and Other Disasters (Graywolf) are forced into states of grace and damnation by the violent recent history of the Balkans, and by a legacy of authoritarian irrationality that can turn everyday life surreal in a second. “What people take to be bizarre or expressionistic in, say, Kafka, is just the way things are in Eastern Europe,” says Novakovich. “You don’t have to invent much.”
Novakovich, 42, left Croatia in 1976 to go to Vassar. He majored in psychology with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist. “I wanted to explore the philosophical aspects of Freud, and instead they were making me fiddle with rats and electrodes,” he says. “The textbooks bored me too. So I began to read Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.”
He also wrote reams of letters to friends at home. “I was very confused between the two cultures,” he says. “I mean, even Americans are confused by America.” The writing habit grew into three collections of tales and true narratives mixing folkloric magic, humor, and the grim realities of war. Now living in the Cincinnati area with his Nebraska-born wife, Jeanette, and two children–he teaches writing at the University of Cincinnati– Novakovich looks back on the landscape of conflict in his homeland with sadness and a very Eastern European irony. “Before the Balkan war a lot of my themes were American; but once it happened, I had to write about it,” he says. “Think of me as somebody suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Or, if you prefer, a war profiteer.” The profit that Novakovich amasses in this richly and poetically written, mind-expanding volume is the sense that although life is threatened by war, life is also enriched by the dark and terrible understandings it brings.
To finish her complex and subtle first novel, Our Sometime Sister (Coffee House), Norah Labiner tucked herself away in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “The snow was falling, I was alone in a friend’s cabin, and there was this Jack London feeling,” she recalls. “It was great and it was horrible. I had no excuse not to do the writing.” This combination of pioneer spirit and aloneness with the self can be found all the way through the novel, which combines lively storytelling with Labiner’s unique skill at conveying psychological depth.
Half of Our Sometime Sister is the tale of Pearl Christomo, a bright, unhappy teenager whose divorced mother is engaged to a smarmy, vaguely sinister personal-growth guru. Pearl is still fiercely loyal to her scholarly father, a professor of history, and fights a guerrilla war against her new fake father. Eventually, the adamant Pearl is packed off to an exclusive school, where she begins a long struggle to find herself as a writer.
It may seem like a standard-model coming-of-age story, but the 31-year-old Labiner, who labored on the novel for nearly 10 years, while studying at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, had something richer and stranger in mind from the beginning. Pearl is a novelist, and interspersed between chapters of the main story, we hear the voices of the fictional characters Pearl is creating: the handsome, charismatic, unfaithful Aaron; the beautiful actress Theresa; the pale young playwright Winston; and assorted younger siblings and older mentors. It’s soon clear that all these figures reflect different aspects of Pearl’s imagination and yearning.
This is not a story with a standard buildup and “climax.” “I think of that way of writing as a masculine paradigm,” Labiner says. “I try to let my writing just swirl and swirl around a center.” Equally important to her is the deft mix of cultural references, from old TV shows to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Someone once asked me how I claimed the right to use Shakespeare in my book,” says Labiner, who lives in Minneapolis. “Well, I just like Shakespeare. He’s the ultimate entertainment text, with something for everybody. And high and low culture mix in everybody’s lives. Shakespeare and Harlequin romances draw on the same themes, and I’m going to draw on them too, to tell the story I want to tell.”
The absurdity of race–in black and white
Danzy Senna says her debut novel, Caucasia (Riverhead), is “the book I’ve been waiting all my life to write.” The 28-year-old daughter of the poet Fanny Howe, who is white, and the Mexican-African American journalist Carl Senna, Danzy had what she calls “an extremely racialized upbringing” in the ethnically polarized Boston of the 1970s. “I was raised according to what seems like a paradox,” she says. “To be very vigilant and conscious of myself as black, and to understand the absurdity of race. It’s not really a paradox; race is absurd when you see it as science, but exactly because it’s a social construction it makes sense as a political, social, and personal choice.”
The absurdities and poignant truths of race run through Caucasia, which is the tale of Birdie and Cole, the daughters of a Harvard-educated black intellectual father and a radical activist mother whose bloodlines are Puritan New England blue. Birdie could pass for Italian or Jewish; Cole is “cinnamon-skinned, curly-haired, serious.” Their father favors Cole, to Birdie’s constant sorrow, while the girls’ icily patrician maternal grandmother practically disowns her darker granddaughter.
The complexity increases when the family splits: Cole follows her father into exile in Brazil, and Birdie stays with her mother, now on the lam from the Feds. An uprooted Birdie–who had struggled to be accepted as black back in Boston and now passes as white in a small New Hampshire town–becomes an increasingly rebellious participant in the rituals of Caucasian smugness and racial fear. Her quest to reunite her family leads to the book’s climax.
Senna, a graduate of Stanford and the University of California at Irvine, writes essays as well as fiction about the conundrums of race (see Utne Reader, Sept.-Oct. 1998). “I work with the tension between the identity I’ve chosen–black–and the visible me,” she says. “I tell people that I’m Indian, Mexican, black, Irish, and English–and all they ever say is, ‘You don’t look black!’ People always want to know what I really ‘am.’ I never answer; instead, I ask, ‘Why do you need to know that?–which, after all, is the real question.”
Into the belly of corporate culture
In a sequence of six distinguished novels, 41-year-old Richard Powers has waded boldly into the most daunting modern dilemmas: the birth of mass culture and mass destruction; the fate of children in the modern world; the fate of consciousness itself in the cyber age. In Gain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), he works as both a historian of the American soul and an analyst of the American social psyche in the late ’90s as he tells two intertwined stories: the rise of a fictional multinational corporation called the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, and the agony and outrage of an ordinary woman whose malignant ovarian tumor was brought on by Clare chemicals.
Laura Bodey’s battle with Clare is set against a fast-paced but brilliantly detailed history of American business as seen from the vantage point of an enterprise that mutates from a tiny family shop in 19th-century Boston into a forbidding, globe-straddling giant. “I try to show the way a corporation talks, the voice a company develops to represent itself to the public,” says Powers. As Clare grows, that voice–revealed in the advertisements and PR documents with which Powers sprinkles the text–changes from Protestant piety into what he calls “the folksy, jargony, ‘we-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourselves’ language of modern marketing. What’s scary is when that tone begins to be used to placate the public, not just sell things to them.” Powers also shows just how recent the modern concept of the corporation is–mid-19th-century businessmen saw issuing stock as a last-ditch and rather disreputable measure, out of keeping with good, thrifty business practice.
The Chicago-born Powers teaches a multimedia course at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, although he has been able to support himself with his writing since the success of his very first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), which he wrote while he was working as a computer programmer in Boston. In 1989 he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. A six-year stint living and writing in the Netherlands followed; he returned to his home country, and home state, two years ago. What Powers calls “widely diverse reactions” to Gain have taught him a great deal about his readopted country. “It’s been attacked for bad-mouthing business and it’s been called the Great Republican Novel,” he says. “Business today is like religion; it’s hard to think clearly about. By looking closely, what I want to give is a sense of how enormously rapidly the corporate culture has developed, that it wasn’t always like this; that we created it and now it’s creating us.”