Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders (Quercus 261pp £8.99), a collection of stories set in contemporary East Coast America, contains much to admire. The title story relates the collapse of Kathleen and Terence’s marriage. Just as Kathleen is prepared to tell their son about the decision to divorce, Terence is attacked and beaten into a coma. The injury delays the inevitable; he is trapped in ‘the sleeping carapace … the cage of his body’, and Kathleen is forced to attend to a man she has long since stopped loving. ‘Forks’ describes a doctor, Tom, his relationship with a nurse, Stephanie, and the baggage that comes with it: her addict brother, a military veteran and amputee, who demands medication from him. Although ‘deep into Stephanie’s life’, Tom can see ‘how much he hated me. For being a doctor, for fucking his sister. For having both my feet, for waking each day without pain.’ Tom must decide whether he is willing to help ease the pain – and to what extent – of someone who despises him so intensely. In ‘Robbing the Cradle’, a young music teacher plans to break the law to get pregnant because her husband is infertile. Her courtship of one of her students is related in painstaking detail and leads, inevitably, to destruction.
There are a couple of dud notes. ‘Vigo Park’ reads like a creative writing exercise: ‘There’s a gun at the beginning of this story, placed here so that you know it’s going to go off by the end.’ Ohlin is an unshowy writer but she occasionally strives too hard for the meaningful phrase. Nonetheless, individual stories leave their mark and she is in command of her unifying theme: the risk and unavoidable pain of relationships.
Karen Russell ranges further afield with Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Chatto & Windus 243pp £14.99), which constitutes an exploration of genre. The titular story concerns vampires who have discovered that lemons are ‘a vampire’s analgesic’. In ‘Reeling for the Empire’, women in Japan under the Emperor Meiji are poisoned, mutating into ‘some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female’, and are forced to spin silk to aid the country’s industrialisation. ‘The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979’ describes angsty teenager Nal Wilson and his discovery of a seagull nest filled with trivial items from the future, including his own pass for a school trip to Whitsunday Island, which he uses to insinuate himself with the girl he fancies. Otherworldly powers are used to distinctly human ends.
Strongest here is ‘Proving Up’, in which 11-year-old Miles Zegner is dispatched by his father to take the same windowpane to a number of neighbouring Nebraskan farms to ensure they each ‘prove up’ to the inspector, since a window is the ‘final strangeness’ of the Homestead Act requirements. ‘I saddle Nore, explain the day to her, her ears flattening at the word Inspector.’ His voice is mesmerising, quietly poetic in the face of the harsh terrain and changeable weather of the untamed West. Elsewhere, though, voice lets Russell down: two very different stories – ‘The New Veterans’, about a masseuse in Wisconsin, that calls to mind Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and ‘The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis’, in which young bullies in New Jersey get a form of comeuppance – are narrated in indistinguishable tones. Russell has no shortage of imagination, but it would have been refreshing if she had occasionally departed from her default voice.
The same can be said for Simon Rich’s The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories (Serpent’s Tail 212pp £9.99), several of which have occupied the ‘Shouts & Murmurs’ section of the New Yorker (they recall Woody Allen’s humour pieces for the magazine). As vignettes accumulate, it feels as though these are experiments for sketches on Saturday Night Live – a programme to which Rich has contributed – rather than stories in themselves.
Yet there are many episodes to enjoy, such as ‘I Love Girl’, the story of a caveman and his attempts to woo Girl. He suspects she is a witch (‘She knows all of the numbers: “six”, “eight” – you name it’) but ‘Girl makes me feel this way, like I am going to die’. Rich is omnivorous in his subject matter – ancient gods, futuristic science, folklore – and the repeated juxtaposition of unusual, even absurd settings and modern Lower Manhattan dating idioms is rewarding. The scenarios are satisfyingly wide-ranging. In ‘Set Up’, the protagonist is given the chance to date Gorbachaka, a real-life troll from under the Brooklyn Bridge. He horrifies his friends by declaring her ‘an ugly fucking troll!’ ‘Unprotected’ is narrated by a condom in one Jordi Hirschfeld’s wallet (‘In the middle of wallet, there live dollars. I am less close to them, because they are always coming and going’). ‘NASA Proposal’ is an astronaut’s novel attempt at wooing his co-worker in space by means of an experiment ‘to determine the effects of zero gravity on human mating’. With regard to obstacles, the scientist writes: ‘Really, all you have to do is find two people in outer space who live together, preferably in some kind of pod or orb, and say to them, “We’re doing this experiment.”’ When Rich’s own experiments succeed, the pieces are an irreverent pleasure.
For a sense of a coherent whole, though, it is Peter Stamm’s We’re Flying (Granta Books 370pp £14.99) that tops this bunch. These 22 stories hint at emotion beneath the page with a compelling, regular insistence. Distinct craft is at work: stories echo between its two sections, ‘We’re Flying’ and ‘The Ridge’. In all the pieces, Stamm’s prose (in Michael Hofmann’s fine translation) is unadorned and riveting. A village pastor in ‘Children of God’ becomes convinced that a pregnant girl has conceived without coitus. He takes her in, only to start a relationship with her. Another fallible cleric features in ‘Holy Sacrament’, where Reinhold contemplates his wandering flock and comes to Sunday service only to discover that not a single member of the community is in attendance. ‘Whatever he turned his hand to had failed.’
In ‘Expectations’ an older woman begins a relationship with her younger neighbour, who lives in the apartment above her, but realises: ‘We’re in closer touch when we’re apart, when we only hear each other.’ ‘The Hurt’ describes a jilted teacher who systematically destroys all the furniture he has inherited: ‘I had no idea how much work it was to destroy something.’ A less skilful writer might emphasise the crucial moments in these stories and, in so doing, rob them of their strength. But Stamm allows the pieces to resonate on their own terms.
The ‘ridge’ appears in several stories. A teenage girl found living among the ridge’s trees in ‘In the Forest’ struggles to adapt to metropolitan life; in the wild she had ‘learned just to be there, in a state of alert indifference’. A farmer cultivates its slopes in ‘Seven Sleepers’, and in ‘Sweet Dreams’, the collection’s most cunning story, Lara and Simon, a young couple, travel up to one of its villages. Lara notices a man on the bus watching her, who later crops up on television. He is a writer explaining his inspiration: he saw a couple who ‘reminded me of my youth … It’s that blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out that interests me.’ It’s quite possible that Stamm is referring to his own methods – until the story’s end, when the writer had ‘become just as much an imaginary figure as Lara and Simon’. Just as a hint of autobiography is offered, it is swiftly withdrawn, and the reader must follow Stamm in his alert equanimity to his subjects.