One day earlier this spring, botanist Nick Jensen visited one of the few “super blooms'' in California following a bone dry winter across the state. Under a bluebird sky, he hiked among displays of wildflowers that popped like confetti in sweeping hues of orange, purple, pink, and yellow. Native species like California poppy, lupine, and purple owl’s clover overtook the volcanic landscape known as North Table Mountain and spritzed their sweet perfume across the cool afternoon.
Jensen wasn’t alone—the rare spectacle had drawn thousands of people to the ecological reserve only an hour outside of Sacramento. In true super bloom fashion, visitors brought selfie sticks, sundresses, and wide brimmed hats, posing among the vast fields of color. Some crushed the very flowers they came to see.
But if novelists’ experiences help define their work, then their ubiquity of certain experiences threatens to homogenize novels. This is a common criticism when leveled at “the canon” of Western literature, written almost exclusively by white men, but it remains true beyond the critical lenses of race and gender, through the perspective of labor. If what we do for work helps define the stories we tell, then the novelist’s economic reliance on teaching is flattening the novel.
In our pandemic world, casual conversation has been all but eliminated. The closest thing I get these days is saying “thank you” to a delivery person or greeting a grocery store clerk. Even then, I’m hesitant to linger—every unnecessary moment with a stranger feels taboo, every breath a hazard. And, now, in the absence of chit-chat, I feel isolated and unenergized. This has led to a potentially controversial revelation: small talk gets an unfairly bad rap.
In his latest book, Sun speaks directly to people, like me, whose lives are composed of constant transitions. Aware of and experienced in goodbyes, the writer course-corrects his energy to the present, to reorient himself in the communities around him. He strives to "fill the blankness" of weekends in the city; but "instead of turning to people, or to hobbies, or to Going Places or Seeing Things, I find it easiest to turn to doing more work to try to fill, or perhaps keep at bay, that emptiness and that feeling I can't ever fill that emptiness enough," he writes. In an unserious tone, he confronts this learned response of coping with loneliness through productivity. It's a conversation Sun had initiated through his alien character Jomny in his 2017 graphic novel, Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too — except this time around, he deals with burnout in his own, more personal, voice.
Nives, the novella, is ingeniously constructed around the dialogue these characters have with one another that reads like an extended two-character play. Emotions whiplash and the most unexpected of secrets and epiphanies emerge. And, it's all thanks to the plucky presence of Giacomina, the chicken. This delightful and affecting novella affirms the truth of Emily Dickinson's famous line: "Hope is the thing with feathers."
Menon’s skill with the short story is evident in Fragile Monsters, whose several plotlines running between 1922 and 1985 are braided together in a bravura construction. Intricately connected narrative digressions act as tributaries to the family story, giving flesh to minor characters or riffing on political events. It’s clever, satisfying, and often playful. It’s also an especially well-tailored form for a story set in Pahang over the course of the 20th century, where wars, migrations and occupations succeed, and converge on, one another: the novel’s multiple strands accommodate different histories, voices and perspectives.