Music for Wartime is Rebecca Makkai's third book but her first collection of short stories, which is unusual considering her short stories have appeared in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, the annual anthology that collects the best literary short fiction published the previous year.
Twelve years in the making, Music for Wartime operates in three modes: stories that take place in a contemporary setting, stories that are set in the past and those that blend the two together. The stories also cohere around the book's titular themes, though I would argue that while some stories expand beyond the realm of music into other genres of art, war looms in a past that feels neither distant nor forgotten.
In "The Worst You Ever Feel," a masterful violinist has a finger cut off by his jailers. And in "The Briefcase" a political prisoner, who'd worked all his life as a chef, assumes the identity of a physics professor to escape the firing squad. The story opens in medias res:
"He thought how strange that a political prisoner, marched through town in a line, chained to the main behind and to the main ahead, should take comfort in the fact that all this had happened before...He thought of mankind as a line of miserable monkeys chained at the wrist, dragging each other back into the ground."
Makkai's stories serve as an urgent and artful reminder that oppression strives but never quite succeeds in stifling the creative spirit.
Rivka Galchen's second book and first collection American Innovations presents narrators who are slightly out of step with reality. Whether it's the expectations of well meaning but overbearing parents or the creeping suspicion that the object of one's desire is a time traveler, these characters are hemmed in by forces beyond their control.
Though published last year, the paperback was released earlier this month. The jacket copy reveals that these tales "are secretly in conversation with canonical stories." For example, "The Region of Unlikeness" is informed by Jorge Luis Borges' "The Aleph" but given a contemporary setting and a female protagonist.
In this story a woman befriends a pair of gregarious philosophers in a café. Stymied by her inability to decipher their relationship, she insinuates herself in their lives, which gives her great pleasure until the younger, more handsome of the two disappears.
Because each of the stories in American Innovations has an analog in literature, one could say their fates are predetermined by authorial constraints. But the stories are also in conversation with one another. Themes repeat, motifs recur, opening up worlds within worlds. Reading Galchen is not unlike surveying the work of MC Escher, both baffling to the eye and pleasing to the imagination.
Gutshot is Amelia Gray's fourth book and third short-story collection. Her stories are uncompromisingly edgy and urgent in tone. They are often marked by their direct delivery and the best of these are like miniature monologues. In "These Are the Fables" a woman informs her boyfriend that she is pregnant. Her lover's response is mixed:
"Your folks are dead. And I have a warrant out for my arrest. And you're forty years old. And I am addicted to getting tattoos. And our air conditioner's broke. And you are drunk every day. And all I ever want to do is fight or go swimming. And I am addicted to keno. And you are just covered in hair. And I've never done a load of laundry in my life. And you are still technically married to my dealer. And I refuse to eat vegetables. And you can't sleep unless you're sleeping on the floor. And I am addicted to heroin. And, honest to God, you got big tits but make a shitty muse."
And what is her response to this catalog of horrors, this litany of endless woe: "These were minor setbacks on the road to glory."
While Gray's stories are often distinguished by their darkness, they are buoyed by a sharp sense of humor. In "Go for It and Raise Hell" a Camaro driving New Mexican terrorizes his patch of desert with his pitiless worldview:
"Carl is coated in the filth of the world. Carl does not believe that the meek shall inherit. He knows that you never know what is enough until you find out what is more than enough."
When he isn't "flipping endless J-turns" or hitting on waitresses, Carl imagines the movie of his life that he calls, GO FOR IT AND RAISE HELL, and when is that ever not excellent advice?