Kristen Roupenian’s debut collection, You Know You Want This (Cape, £12.99), comes hotly anticipated. Her short story, ‘Cat Person’, went viral when the New Yorker printed it in December 2017, becoming the second most read article published by the magazine that year. Told in an apparently simple, confessional voice, it recounts 20-year-old Margot’s courtship with 34-year-old Robert, beginning when she flirts while selling him sweets at an art-house cinema, building via text messages, culminating in a night of terrible (for Margot) sex from which she can’t quite be bothered to extricate herself, and continuing in the nasty afterlife of Robert’s increasingly aggressive texts.
Everyone read it and everyone argued about it. Twitter even spawned the account @MenCatPerson, charting men’s reactions to the story, then women’s responses to these reactions, and so on — because what appears to be an easy read, in fact cannily delineates the subtle shifts in power dynamics within a relationship, chiming with bigger conversations about consent and #MeToo.
The author is at her best in ‘Cat Person’ mode, writing forensically about dating, relationships and desire, exposing the psychological underpinnings of the violence and rage that puncture the surface. The final ‘Whore’ of Robert’s rapid-fire text messages to Margot in ‘Cat Person’, and Ted’s vicious sexual fantasy in the opening to ‘The Good Guy’, shock, even as Roupenian helps us understand where they come from.
Other stories in the collection lean towards fable, such as ‘The Mirror, the Bucket and the Old Thigh Bone’, in which a princess chooses a suitor who is in fact just an assemblage of these objects; and ‘Scarred’, in which a girl creates her ‘heart’s desire’ from a spell book; their fantastical settings detract from the force of Roupenian’s explorations into our psyche. Her exposure of our raw desires is most potent when tethered to a disarmingly quotidian setting: an office, a child’s birthday party, a motel room. In these stories, she infuses mundane reality with a thrilling layer of menace.
Violence also ripples through Mouthful of Birds (Oneworld, £12.99), the first collection of the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s stories to be translated into English, in the wake of her debut novel Fever Dream’s shortlisting for 2017’s Man Booker International Prize. In the title story, a man watches his daughter skip over to a birdcage and take out the bird. Then: ‘When Sara turned back to us, the bird wasn’t there anymore. Her mouth, nose, chin and both hands were smeared with blood. She smiled sheepishly.’ In ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, a man murders his wife, stuffs her into a suitcase, where she lies ‘purple, coiled like a worm in tomato sauce’. Then his attempts to confess to the crime are countered by people hailing him as a ‘genius’; they see it as a work of art, which a curator titles ‘Violence’.
Schweblin is adept at creating these surreal images, distilled from our latent desires and preoccupations. In ‘Preserves’, a woman’s ambivalence about having a baby is rendered in her transforming her foetus into ‘something small, the size of an almond,’ which she spits out into a preserving jar to be kept for a more suitable time. There are 20 stories in this collection: some feel a little sketchy; others sear into the mind’s eye.
Small, explosive and powerful, Jokes for the Gunmen (Granta, £10.99) by the Palestinian-Icelandic writer Mazen Maarouf (translated by Jonathan Wright) is a bullet of a debut. Maarouf often uses a child’s perspective as a naive filter on an adult situation, thereby capturing the perverted reality of life in a warzone. In ‘Cinema’, a child’s teddy bear is a source of comfort because it’s stuffed with processed cheese, parcelled out half a wedge at a time between a boy and his sister while they shelter from bombs. In the title story, the child narrator experiences war largely through how he’s treated by other children at school. When his father is beaten up by gunmen, he’s bullied; but when his twin brother is killed by a bomb, he’s happier: ‘They stopped making fun of me, because it would have been improper to laugh at a classmate whose deaf brother had been blown up by a shell.’ Here is the terrible twisted logic of a child’s war-zone life.
Maarouf, who is also a poet, has described a poem as ‘a piece of freedom’; this collection shows what happens to words, and lives, when war takes freedom away from them — when the easy innocence of a joke is corrupted into a currency that means the difference between life and death.
Picnic in a Storm (Corsair, £12.99, published in the US as The Lonesome Bodybuilder) is the first collection of Yukiko Motoya’s stories to appear in English. She has won numerous awards in her native Japan, including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for ‘An Exotic Marriage’,a striking novella-length piece that is included here.
Her stories tend to begin with a relatively normal situation, which she then tugs in a thoroughly weird direction; many feature marriages and the limits of communication within them. In one, a wife trains as a bodybuilder, piling on muscle while her unobservant, uninterested husband remains oblivious. Only when he finally arrives at her gym does she find she is able to pose and show him ‘all the expressions I’d never shown him before… This is me, I tried to tell him.’
Physical transformation is also at the heart of ‘An Exotic Marriage’, which begins: ‘One day, I realised that I was starting to look just like my husband.’ The narrator confides in a neighbour, who warns her to ‘be careful. You’re accommodating’ and then tells a story about a married couple, in which the woman stopped herself from taking on her husband’s features by placing rocks between them to act as ‘my stand-ins’. The threat of this merging is felt more keenly when the narrator describes her ‘image… of marriage’:
There are two snakes, and they each start cannibalising the other one’s tail. And they eat and they eat at exactly the same speed, until they’re just two heads making a ball, and then they both get eaten up and disappear.
These uncanny stories surprise, unnerve and haunt.