The Lay of the Land

For me, a sense of place is crucial to fiction, whether I’m reading it or writing it. I don’t mean that it’s more important than, say, character or story or theme or the writing itself or whatever else you need to make great fiction. But I do mean that place informs all those other things, or even precedes them—place is quite literally the stage on which lives are lived and stories are told—and that the more acutely sensitive a writer is to this basic but profound fact, the better off the work is going to be. And the definition of “place” here is meant to be as broad as possible: state, city, neighborhood, nature, a room. It’s easy to cite Alice Munro’s Ontario, or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, but the house in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is no less a landscape, in my view, than the desert in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the ocean (or, hell, the ship) in Moby-Dick. Here are four books, each of which whisks you away to a place you’ve never been before—destinations both real and imagined—and gives you the lay of the land.”

By Andri Snaer Magnason

In the nearish future, an Icelandic entrepreneur named Ovar LoveStar has managed to out-Apple Apple and effectively commoditize all human interaction: friendship, love, even death. The trick was figuring out how to ‘transmit data via birdwaves’ and basically turn all of life into a form of sponsored content. The novel, which shifts back and forth between LoveStar in his private jet, where he is taking stock of his life, and a young couple named Indridi and Sigrid who are deeply in love, and trying to stay that way despite having been ‘calculated apart’ by LoveStar’s matchmaking software. It’s an incredibly funny book, and manages to be both whimsical and bitingly satirical at the same time. Magnason does a stellar job of world-building; he pays loving homage to his home country while at the same time making the wild future he’s dreamed up feel scarily plausible and cohesive, if not remotely sane.

Snow in May
By Kseniya Melnik

Snow in May consists of nine short stories set in a Russian city called Magadan, historically known as “the gate of hell” (it was the entry-point to the Gulag Archipelago) but also, in its way, an attractive place to live — there’s an artistic community, government subsidies for living there, and cheap flights to and from Alaska, which means imported Western goods as well as the possibility of escape to America. The stories jump around in time from the ’50s to the present day, and some characters recur — as you’d expect they must in such an isolated, insular region — so the stories of small individual lives knit together into a time-lapse panorama of Magadan (and Russia, and the world beyond). Melnik’s prose is clear-eyed and swift, with endings that often burst into a distinctively Russian naturalism: ”As he ran, he thought of the plate-eyed cows at the village and the uppity goats, the earthy carrots, the cold river with tickly blue fish, and the gang of dirty-footed kids his age who smoked cigarettes and could catch a goose with their bare hands.” Easily one of the best debuts I’ve read this year.

Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine
By Stanley G. Crawford

A slender, dense, raucous novel, first published in 1972. Mrs. Unguentine, narrator and namesake of the ship, recalls forty hallucinatory years at sea with her husband, a volatile and enigmatic drunk, roving the globe on a barge like a floating island. In an afterword to the 2008 reissue from Dalkey Archive, Ben Marcus praises Crawford’s ‘architectural dreamwork, end-times seascapes so barren they seem cut from the pages of the Bible, [and] cooly-rendered Rube Goldberg apparati . . . ‘ Here’s a taste:  ‘At night when all was illuminated by the powerful floodlights Unguentine had salvaged from an abandoned dredge, the dome as seen from inside reflected the gardens in its five hundred panes and faceted and rearranged all the leaves and flowers into patterns of nameless intricacy, kaleidoscopic. Nude we would caper then, eyes domewards, fascinated by the pornography of our disembodiment, as if beneath a leafy heaven and the limbs of lounging gods, as it used to be all painted.’

Conditions Uncertain and Likely to Pass Away: Tales
By Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford was a poet, mostly. Born in Mississippi, he lived in Memphis and later Arkansas, where he died gruesomely, in 1978, at age twenty-nine: three pistol shots to his own heart, with both his wife and his lover in the house. Stanford was prolific, and is probably best known — in those cult circles where he is known — for his epic poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. I think most of his work is out of print. I didn’t even know he wrote fiction until I happened to see this book sitting on a shelf (an edition from 2010, so hopefully still available). Intrigued by the title, I picked it up and was immediately drawn in. Stanford’s South is lush, humid, ominous, and whacked-out. If ‘The Fire and the Hearth’ was your favorite story in Go Down, Moses, or if you finished Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy and found yourself wanting more, then this book is a good choice. Some of these ‘tales’ are stronger than others, but there are at least a few unqualified masterpieces (‘Hitchcock’s Tale,’ ‘The Fool’s Tale,’ ‘Ben Fallow’s Tale’) and anyway the real triumph of the book is this: Stanford takes a region written (and re-written and over-written, by geniuses and hacks alike) to the point of exhaustion, and finds something original and striking to say about it. He renews the land.