The plays of Mac Wellman. Pretentious nonsense? Or clever fun? Damned if I know. Over the years, I’d read nearly every play by the sexteguagenarian, Obie-award winning, Guggenheim fellowship recipient, thus developing an unhealthy obsession with bad pennies, cheese, crows, and engaging in analytical discussions about every Wellman-loving director from Jim Simpson to some undergrad. I thought, “Pshaw. I’ve got this.”  

I was determined to not be the ditzy, inarticulate actor who gushes “I love Mac Wellman” and then, when asked to support her view, dishes out a puzzled look. I had smart things to say about the kooky, yet philosophical writer. Still, I wasn’t going to drone on with doctoral gobbledygook about Brechtian storytelling, Beckettian landscapes, puppets, social metaphors, and references to Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and meter.

Meg Tuite’s novel, Domestic Apparition, challenges the strictures of the novelistic form. One could qualify it as a “novel in stories” or even call it a collection of stories, but by the end of reading it, its cohesiveness and narrative pull firmly place it in the land of the novel, albeit a unique one, both in structure and content—one that perhaps only a small press would publish (and by saying that, I’m applauding small presses everywhere).

Why would Peter Cameron, a twenty-first century American living in Manhattan, write a period piece set in postwar provincial England? I was intrigued. Coral Glynn, Cameron’s sixth novel, is a departure from his most recent work, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. That critically acclaimed book is a smart, quirky first-person coming-of-age story about an urban teenager filled with postmodern angst, written with the edgy nerve befitting our post-terrorism, neo-Prozac age. I first discovered Someday through my now-teenage son, since it was originally marketed for young adults. If it is not on your radar, it should be.

The moment a body loses contact with the ground, moving into air, moving into water, it must immediately account for the paces and drags of that new medium. Pamela Ryder’s debut, Correction Of Drift (FC2, 2008), addressed this concept both literally and practically: structured as a “novel-in-stories,” the book triangulated on the Lindbergh kidnapping, borrowing navigational principles and a well-rutted American narrative to ground her challenging, lyric flights. Compiling fifteen stories that largely (or entirely) predate that first full-length, A Tendency To Be Gone presents an artist unmoored, ascending exultant heights while demonstrating the perils of dead reckoning, where a miscalculation multiplies upon itself and leads progress further and further off-course.

The stories in Gary Lutz’s first three collections often derive their linguistic energy from a narrator’s imprisonment in an ill-fated marriage, a soul-crushing job, or a body that causes more anxiety than joy. His most recent collection, Divorcer, continues to worry at the subject of confinement.  Narrators make frequent reference to the inescapable dictates of their DNA: “I wasn’t foremost even in my body,” one says, “where my parents spoke themselves up out of my disposition.” Time, too, seems to resemble a cage: “One day got chocked into the next: there was a blockiness to time, like a month’s evident rectangulation on a calendar tacked fast to a wall.” (“I Have to Feel Halved”) Hours get “razored into ever keener minutes that [can] barely cut anything away.” (“Middleton”) Evenings are “narrowing”; sleep is “unramifying” (“To Whom Might I Have Concerned?”). Lutz’s stories have the urgency of a phone call made just before a plane crash. His narrators live in existences that, claustrophobic to begin with, are now closing in on them even more. They have no time for small talk or pleasantries.

In Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden, a world of people, events, and creatures become seen—not seen the way we see Twitter updates, but the way we see a new land for the first time.

The speaker of the title poem is a knowledgeable tour guide, a lover writing letters by hand, a mother speaking to the baby in her belly. The voice ebbs and flows between watcher/participant, mother/lover, I/We. The poem emphasizes dichotomy–us vs. them, insider/outsider, safe/endangered–only to dissolve such boundaries a moment later. The taken-for-granted becomes seen, the political becomes intimate, the intimate becomes public–and all of it swirls together like the waters of the ocean. The speaker is on a tour of the world by boat; she is of the sea–a cetacean; she is on a trip with her lover; she is Homeland Security agent; she is detainee. We the readers are also in shifting territory, observing and participating in a land both familiar and strange. The work is full of language from Homeland Security and the George W. Bush presidency. It also contains language of pregnancy and birth. Something is trying to be born. We stroll through a fantastic garden of whales, embryos, fences, labels.

One of the first poems in Megan Boyle’s debut collection selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee is called “everyone i’ve had sex with.” The last poem in the collection is called “lies i have told.” Besides the lack of capitalization, what makes Megan Boyle’s poetry fascinating is that readers will often find themselves questioning where the line between fact and fiction is to be drawn, and also whether to laugh or cry. With these poems, Megan Boyle has taken stream-of-consciousness writing to an entirely new level, and she has done so brilliantly.

If you hate the word “snotty”—the taste of reading that word, the visceral memory of that kid in grade school who actually did keep a collection of boogers stuck to the inside lid of his desk—it’s going to be hard to read Tod Davies’ novel-length fairy tale, The History of Arcadia: Snotty Saves the Day. But you’re an adult (fairy tales were the YA–adult crossover genre before Harry Potter and the Hunger Games), so you’ll stick with the fewer-than-200 pages (including footnotes and ink drawings), and find this book really is hard to read.

A preface from the reviewer: Those who know me on Tumblr (or from the bar) are privy to my bias against suburban, domestic fiction. The minutiae of bored people facing the pressures of childrearing and their own mortality have never been my cup of tea, even when magnificently depicted.  I have an admitted preference for things that are, well, a little out there.

There is a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction coming out these days reflective of society’s state of mind. We’re expecting the end times, waiting for everything to crumble. Religion and the media just perpetuate the sentiment, and the imagined methods of our destruction are as varied as the timelines.

Embassytown is weird-fantasy rock star China Miéville’s tenth book in as many years, a streak scheduled to continue by one per year according to the Del Rey promo copy.   At his recent reading at Public Assembly in Brooklyn, Miéville, though muscular and imposing with a nice helping of tattoos and metal rings in his ear, looked abashed sitting spot-lit on a stage at an erstwhile rock club.  The room was full; a typically nerdy reading crowd with a smattering of fishnet and black tee subculture kids.  These were his people.

When you enter the world of Paul Tremblay most anything can happen, and usually does. His recent collection, In The Mean Time (ChiZine Publications) defies expectations, the cover art a soft purple hue all filled with glittery type. It shows the faces of two sweet girls, which at first glance (pay attention, readers, the show starts here) could be two sisters sitting very close together, twins maybe. But no, it’s a two-headed girl, the first of many things that are not what then seem to be, the first of many times where Tremblay takes you by the hand and whispers sweet nothings in your ear, all the while the world falling apart around you, infrastructures crumbling, supplies running out, strange diseases wiping out the populace. But beyond all of that is the emotion, the humanity of what it must be like to exist in such end days, and it is here that he ratchets up the stories to more than just post-apocalyptic terror, dwelling in the individuals and families that are struggling to survive, to connect, to have a normal conversation, a memory that doesn’t send it all fracturing into shards of a former existence. It’s here between the floors where there’s no light, and yet, a sprinkling of hope.

Christopher Russell’s first solo show for the Luis de Jesus Gallery at Bergamont Station in Santa Monica, is an exploration into how images make up a narrative. It starts off with some abstract prints: a pattern motif encapsulated by a series of X-Acto knife slashes that form a “frame” around the image. The borders are spray-painted and blurred, turning the whole thing into a vignette – a memory of nothing. Along with the collage-like illustrations in the back room, these pieces resonate like a confused echo of the decadent romanticism Russell displayed last year at the Hammer Museum. The show includes a giant, hand-illustrated, hand-bound tome, behind which hang monochromatic prints of varying sizes, each one a different version of a ship lost at sea or sinking into a foggy gray backdrop. Unencumbered by spray paint and X-Acto knife slashes, they seem to bring a bit of peace to the show, even if they fail to deliver an emotional impact with sail ships boxed into a postcard-sized frame or placed almost cartoonishly aslant on a larger print.

I’d heard a lot about The Avian Gospels (Short Flight / Long Drive Books) before ever reading it. I’d stared at those covers online, the red and gold, the abstract of birds in flight, and imagined what a combination of The Birds, The Road, and The Stand might look like. Would it be dense language, a languid read of heavy prose? The sample online hinted at that. Would it be a story of nature rebelling against man, an image of a phone booth, birds attacking it, stuck in my head? Would it be a journey across the wastelands, a cast of misfits striving for redemption? It is all of these things, and at the same time, none.

As I’ve harped about before, my biggest gripe with contemporary novels is that they sometimes don’t finish what they start. They can begin with a certain level of craft, story-telling, writerly attention–whatever you want to call it–and end up in 10 or 25 or 50 pages something less than that. I notice this more in novels from big commercial publishers, but it’s hardly an exclusive club. This sudden slip down the chasm of mediocrity seemingly can happen in any new book, by any publisher, at any time.