Peter Orner is a true writers’ writer, which is to say a writer writers complain to writers about readers not reading. His novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (a title, one senses, Orner had to fight hard to retain) ranks high among the best works of fiction about Africa ever written by an American, and his collection Esther Stories contains work to rival that of David Means and Tobias Wolff. Orner’s latest collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown, $25), is bundled into four sections and includes more than fifty pieces of fiction — “stories” is too grand a word for many of them — and yet tops out at a slender 208 pages. In other words, this is one of the oddest, most diffracted story collections to come along in some time. Imagine Brief Interviews with Hideous Men written by Alice Munro.
Again and again in Orner’s work, someone tells someone else a story. Sometimes the stories are about someone telling a story about someone telling a story. His fiction has a vaguely tribal, incantatory feel. In one of Last Car’s more conventional stories, a man, for reasons he cannot explain, returns over and over to a Chinese restaurant in which a murder has taken place. Eventually the man has an inconclusive conversation with a waiter who has something to confess — and not the thing you think. If Orner wrote a piece of fiction about, say, a bank robbery, it wouldn’t be about the robbers, the teller, or the police. It would be a story about someone describing having once met the guy who sold the robbers their ski masks.
Throughout the book, Orner drops in one- or two-page fragments, chunks of seeming memoir, and stray bits of historical fiction (a story about Isaac Babel’s execution in Lubyanka prison, another about Mary Todd Lincoln’s difficulty sleeping). He bravely saddles these pieces with such please-don’t-read-me titles as “Spokane,” “1979,” “February 26, 1995,” and “Geraldo, 1986,” the last of which transforms Geraldo Rivera’s ill-fated spelunking of Al Capone’s vault on live television into an extremely funny, and bizarrely poignant, contemporary parable: “Maybe someone back at the station was thinking, Now at last we’ll get rid of this chucklehead. Geraldo looks as if he wants to eat the microphone’s afro.”
Orner’s sentences don’t pop and glitter. They’re impressive, but quietly so, like skywriting. Here is Orner setting a scene in which a mother has just learned that her son killed himself in prison:
Jean Alper at the kitchen table, Gastonia, North Carolina. September 1986. Tomorrow is tomorrow. The phone is on the floor. It’s ceased to repeat itself. There may be other sounds out the open kitchen window, but she doesn’t hear them. Someone might be mowing a lawn. She wouldn’t know.
And here is his deftly bleak evocation of a city park: “The tall trees, nobody playing tennis.”
The best name for Orner’s methodology might be “conservative experimentalism.” He does all the traditionally writerly hoop-jumping things — narrative, character, dialogue, denouement — extremely well, but with noticeable impatience. (“Tomorrow is tomorrow,” indeed.) One of Orner’s best new stories involves a couple who have lied to friends for so long about having escaped a legendary Boston nightclub fire (they’d in fact left the nightclub an hour before the fire) that the lie has isolated them from the truth of their feelings for each other. In another story, a husband dies before his divorce from his wife is made final. At the funeral, the widow thinks, “I said I wanted to be alone, not alone alone.” “Alone” and “lonely” are words that appear frequently in these stories, yet this doesn’t seem to be simple conjuration of literary mood; it feels more primal, more personally afflicted, than that.
“Goya,” Orner writes in another story, “was one of the few artists who truly understood the nature of everyday degradation.” Peter Orner, too. His characters suffer, but not for their creator’s pleasure and certainly not for ours. Orner’s dark stories become, in this sense, strangely affirming: keep out signage along the low, straight path toward alone alone.
Does America need another novel about bookish young New Yorkers falling into and out of one another’s beds? Probably not. So I thought until I read Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt, $25), a funny and surprisingly sympathetic examination of the romantic sociopathy of youthful litterateurs.
The novel’s main character, known to all as Nate, is an ambitious thirty-year-old writer with a modest number of broken relationships behind him, a book coming out, and a dismally tender pain in his heart. Nate’s pain derives from an easily accounted truth: when it comes to women, he is a judgmental, manipulative twerp. “When he was younger,” Waldman writes,
he had imagined that as he grew up, he would become progressively less shallow and women’s looks wouldn’t matter as much. Now that he was, more or less, grown up, he realized it wasn’t going to happen.
Waldman doesn’t seem interested in condemning, lamenting, or pathologizing Nate’s condition. He’s not some pop-novel stock villain, nor is he held up as any kind of worried-over sociological emblem. Rather, Nate becomes the vessel by which Waldman explores the gender dynamics of a specific place (Brooklyn, mostly) at an equally specific time (now, roughly). Placed throughout the novel, however, are callbacks to the social literature of the nineteenth century — to George Eliot’s work in particular, from the novel’s epigraph to the sly suggestion that Nate may be an echo of Tertius Lydgate from Middlemarch.
Waldman captures smart-enough literary party patter so well (“Zeno’s Conscience, right? Doesn’t James Wood, like, love that book?”) that many of her readers may find themselves squirming in hot-faced recognition. The novel is especially wry whenever Nate and his friends discuss grand ideas for essays: one character wants to write a “hit piece” on the concept of the meritocracy, for instance, because, he explains, for every Jude the Obscure “there are a thousand other stonemasons who lack Jude’s intelligence. Meritocracy is great for guys like Jude, who had talent. For the others, it’s bad news.”
Waldman’s — and, consequently, our — sympathy centers on Hannah, a charming, smart, and decent young woman Nate spends most of the novel by turns hotly pursuing and coldly withdrawing from. Their initial courtship is rendered in sharp, bright scenes that are great (if somewhat light) fun to read; but as Nate grows moodier and crueler, a more observant and merciless novel takes form. Without a trace of cant, Waldman imagines her way into the mind of a talented, callow young man as he slides from one romantic possibility to another, and with equal acuity she imagines a reasonable young woman’s righteous response. Nate and Hannah’s calmly vicious arguments are easily the highlight of the book. In Waldman’s final pages — one of the more genuinely sad happy endings since Lydgate wound up stuck with Rosamond Vincy — no character is condemned or ruined. After all, “wrong reasoning,” as George Eliot wrote, “sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions.”
Regina Gottlieb, the narrator of My Education (Viking, $26.95), Susan Choi’s fourth novel, tells us, very early in the book, “Graduating from college, I’d suddenly found I’d Grown Up, and graduate school was my Eden, where I named and possessed all the precious, first things.” The reader braces herself for commencement through yet another campus novel. Not only that, but a novel that belongs to the campus novel’s most dubious subclass — the horny-professor novel, in which a hapless, naïve student succumbs to the virile magnetism for which academics are so well-known and feared. But like Adelle Waldman, Choi takes the constituent parts of exhausted subject matter, subtly alters them, and skillfully upends expectations.
Her besotted lovers are twenty-one-year-old Regina and thirty-three-year-old Martha Hallett, the brilliant professor wife of Regina’s equally brilliant Chaucer mentor, Nicholas Brodeur. (Everyone in this novel is brilliant, more or less, save for a few pothead townies.) Regina and Martha’s affair begins abruptly, after an awkward faculty dinner party (Choi is as good as David Lodge at capturing the vanity of the professoriat), and soon enough Martha is driven from her husband, Regina from her English department. Where are they driven? Into bed, mostly. Choi’s novel wildly caroms in tone while describing her lovers at play, sometimes opting for Anglo-Saxon bluntness (“she renewed her assault, deftly reversing herself so her redolent cunt squashed my face”) and sometimes employing prose that is practically flannel in its overheated plushness (“We lay hours on end raptly stroking the other’s smooth face . . . we wept a great deal and loudly; and endured our orgasms like shipwreck survivors with hoarse shrieks of actual fear”). While it is sometimes purposefully manic, and often raunchy, My Education is never embarrassing or badly written. For Choi, sex is never just sex. She doesn’t care that it’s sometimes weird, unpleasant, or ugly.
Patient with her story, observant with her details, and often mordantly funny in her asides (“The etiquette of contacting an ex-lover’s child to ostensibly compliment him on his blog is not yet codified”), Choi walks a line in her fiction between Jamesian traditionalism (meandering sentences, minimized space breaks, a meditative voice) and sociopolitical blade running (she is the author of a fictional retelling of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and brainwashing, American Woman, and a Unabomber-meets-Homeland Security novel, A Person of Interest). My Education, which eschews the burden of presumed topicality, establishes how good a novelist Choi has become.
This is made especially apparent in her portrayal of Regina, a childish, almost repulsively needy presence on the page. Here she is after losing an argument with Martha:
Now that we had privacy I was shrieking and throwing her kitchen door wide on its hinges. Down the length of her drive and the prosperous lane with its tasteful stone walls and its fake hitching posts I went wailing without inhibition.
Soon after, she tells us that Martha began to upbraid her “in the worldly-wise, weary voice that I most would have liked to despise, if I could have despised any part of her.” Yet the way Choi balances the Regina who narrates and the Regina whose actions are being narrated (the temporal distance between these two selves becomes clearer as the book goes on) is evidence of a formidable intelligence. Regina is something new: an infuriating, self-absorbed narrator whom you not only don’t loathe but sort of love. Meanwhile, characters who in many other novelists’ hands would be mere scarecrow presences (a fish-loving roommate, a Brazilian housekeeper, a snooty German au pair) are fully imagined and sometimes unnervingly real. As Regina thinks after being confronted by Martha’s husband, Nicholas: “At that moment, I think we each genuinely believed ourselves to be the protagonist, and the other a naïve and pardonable walk-on whose role might even have a tragic end.” In many ways, this sentence doubles as Choi’s statement of purpose — to write fiction full of characters who, right down the line, are the stars of their own stories.
Regina and Martha’s doomed love affair, like many doomed love affairs in fiction, starts out as a form of highly reciprocal stalking and turns into an equally reciprocal attempt at violent erasure. Significantly, the word “lesbian” barely appears in this novel, and “homosexuality” never does. As Regina explains, “I didn’t love Martha for being a woman, and would have loved her no less had Shakespearean whim turned her into a man.” What Regina’s difficult education finally amounts to Choi doesn’t bother to explain, beyond its having something to do with the “calm steady light of adulthood.” Most books about growing up regard the process as a grim, necessary business, like a root canal of the consciousness. In the unexpectedly warm final scene of this otherwise devastating book, Choi suggests something radical — that growing up might actually be a rare and complicated pleasure.