Dazzling New Short-Story Collections – The New York Times


Three dazzling new short-story collections rattle and shake with horror and heartbreak.
Credit…John Gall
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By the end of BEING HERE (160 pp., University Press of Kentucky, $21.95), the discrete gossamer threads of Manini Nayar’s linked stories have become entangled in our minds, by beautiful design. The secret tunnels that connect these pieces are where this slim volume holds its intensity — the way the recurring character Nina, an Indian immigrant to the United States, can hold within her a pregnancy, a marriage, her mother’s voice, memories of her faraway home, the reverberations of both colonialism in India and terrorism in America.
Though it’s presented as a collection, “Being Here” ends up reading like a generational novel, with twisting strands of DNA. In the Indian immigrant communities Nayar describes, from the Himalayan foothills to Manhattan to South Bend, Ind., connections thin with geographical distance. Nayar tests how far familial relationships can stretch before breaking.
Through multiple stories and perspectives, Nina stays close. Once in America, the young bride lives through cancer, divorce and worse. Her family story requires this fragmented telling: Broken hearts must be told in broken ways. Nayar reassembles the pieces while leaving the stunning cracks still visible.
And the stories outside of Nina’s world fall into place around her: the man who murdered his young wife in India and now dines with a racist white woman in New York; the charming uncle who steals jewelry from his own family; the snobbish, mourning mother who is also a colonial apologist; a runaway child; the Indian American immigrant who conflates 7-Elevens with 9/11. Nayar makes even the tangential reappearances feel epic. In “Tintinnabulations,” the driver of a used red Ferrari can feel the spirit of its former owner, who dies in a crash elsewhere in the book. “Something of its provenance remained in the chassis,” Nayar writes, “causing James Hanrahan to brake and look over his shoulder sharply one September afternoon while he was driving to Chicago, as if he sensed a presence there.” With this collection Nayar reveals the invisible details that unite us, even if we are “not around to witness any part of these brief convergences and eddies, carried lightly into history, now insubstantial as air.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s HOW STRANGE A SEASON (282 pp., Scribner, $26.99) is a collection of horror stories couched in the glittering worlds of privilege: Lifestyles of the Rich, Permanently Damaged and Totally Despicable. The women who haunt these pages — former beauties, former athletes, formerly full of potential — have been kneecapped by the patriarchy. Raised on a system whose perks they’ve enjoyed, they’ve been bred to breed, to protect entrenched hierarchies. Mothers parade daughters on marriage circuits — cocktail parties and country clubs — hoping to catch a big one. Money has corroded these minds.
The men are also contemptible. They pay to go on a “Big Dig” and spend the day operating dude-size Tonka trucks, unearthing planted loot. They steal, drink, hurt women. They do nothing. With inherited wealth, they shirk the responsibilities of fatherhood and marriage. They are along for the ride, unable to stop or even acknowledge the evil that years of sexism, racism and capitalism have wrought.
Even the characters who engage in art or ecology do so frivolously, like dilettantes. A floral artist creates tremendous and tremendously expensive installations only to see them rot in a day or two. A college student named Lily takes a job as an environmental activist charged with persuading coastal North Carolinians to eat the invasive (and poisonous) lionfish. Wade, an older, trust-funded drunk, spells out the truth: “You’re trying to tell these poor folks how to fix a rich folks’ problem.” Wade is a specialist in guilt. “He ties himself to the front of the pier when the storms come in,” as a way of making amends “for his family owning all that land and enslaving people.” A local cashier notes, “I just don’t think that’s how asking for forgiveness is done.”
Most disturbing is the novella “Indigo Run.” On a South Carolina plantation in the 1950s, marriages and families are crumbling. The land itself is toxic, having been made productive by enslaved people’s labor. Bergman’s characters have upheld noxious traditions for so long that poison tastes like love; and the only character left standing hopes, sympathetically, that a terrible storm or raging fire will someday burn it all down.
For the South Indian immigrants in Sindya Bhanoo’s tender and precise debut, SEEKING FORTUNE ELSEWHERE (226 pp., Catapult, $26), life happens somewhere between Pittsburgh, Washington State and Bangalore. Though the view is broad, Bhanoo’s focus is clear and tightly observed, centering the decisions and difficulties of a global life, some of them gut-wrenching. In the epigraph, Bhanoo quotes Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient”: “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” After reading these stories, we do.
Bhanoo’s characters are outsiders twice. These are immigrants with comfortable lives in America who, for various reasons, now find themselves evicted from their hard-won sense of belonging. These ruptures are the heart of Bhanoo’s tales. A professor hosts homesick Indian graduate students at his house for dinners and holidays, until he learns from a local reporter that some students now “claim you made them do personal work for you against their will, that you never paid them.” An estranged mother who left her daughter in the care of her ex-husband attends that daughter’s wedding, only to discover almost everyone else at the ceremony has been invited on the couple’s “buddymoon” except for her. There is the teenage girl whose father has left home to pursue a life as a popular “spiritual leader and scholar-mystic,” paying more attention to his devoted, if deluded, followers than he pays to his own daughter.
And in the O. Henry Prize-winning story “Malliga Homes,” we meet a widow who’s just moved into a senior residence outside Coimbatore, India. “No amount of expensive stone or carefully worded praise from my daughter can change what Malliga Homes is,” she says: “a place for those who have nowhere else to go.” The widow surprises herself by blurting out to her fellow community members — older Indian parents whose grown children live abroad — that Kamala, her own daughter in Atlanta, “plans to remodel our old flat in Chennai and live there.” It is both a lie and a dream of the way her life used to be.
These stories rattle and shake with the heartache of separation, rendering palpable the magnitude of small decisions in our less-than-small world.
BEING THERE
Stories
By Manini Nayar
160 pp. University Press of Kentucky. $21.95.
HOW STRANGE A SEASON
Fiction
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
282 pp. Scribner. $26.99.
SEEKING FORTUNE ELSEWHERE
Stories
By Sindya Bhanoo
226 pp. Catapult. $26.
Samantha Hunt is the author of “The Unwritten Book” and “The Dark Dark,” among other titles.
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