Short Story Collections for an Ever-Changing World

By John Lanchester
178 pp. Norton. $26.95.

This intriguing debut collection grapples with technology and its illusion of convenience, choice and escape. Lanchester, a British novelist and journalist, has a sharp eye for social class and setting in his ghost stories for the digital age.

“Which of These Would You Like?” portrays the absurdity and horror of incarceration. The narrator repeatedly asks, “Why am I here?” Rather than answer, his captors order him each day to select from a brochure of handcuffs, scaffolds and hoods to prepare for his own execution. “This is all about you. You’re in control. You’re in control of everything!” a guard says, in chilling doublespeak not unlike the tech companies that promise privacy even as they collect and mine your data.

Several stories begin energetically, with a catchy premise, but may leave some readers wanting more: A haughty academic encounters cursed audiobooks, a clerk receives a cursed selfie stick, a reality show contestant struggles to gain her footing and a woman flees haunted telephones.

The narrator of the first story — “Signal,” a retelling of “The Turn of the Screw” — takes his family to the country estate of a friend who has “ascended to some new stratosphere of international wealth.” Even though the narrator warns his son, “You aren’t allowed to ask for the Wi-Fi password before you say hello,” he and his wife soon abandon their children to video games, iPads and movies. The mysterious appearances of a tall man stooped over his mobile phone are innocuous, then menacing — whether he’s of this world or another.

By Te-Ping Chen
235 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Paper, $15.99.

Chen’s dazzling debut roams China and its diaspora, following its strivers and dreamers: an online activist who wants to expose government injustice, an elderly farmer trying to build an airplane and a call-center worker who escapes an abusive boyfriend, among others in 10 riveting stories. A reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Chen excels at gritty realism, vividly portraying the widening gap between China’s haves and have-nots. Riches seem tantalizingly within reach but always recede for a flower girl who gazes at skyscrapers on the Shangahi Bund, or for a government administrator who envies those “buying, buying, homes and stocks and second and third houses.”

Their yearning for social and economic mobility is poignant, but also leads at times to cruelty, corruption and apathy. A few stories take speculative, absurd turns, as in the sly “Gubeikou Spirit,” in which commuters wait for months at a subway platform, or in the excellent “New Fruit,” which depicts a tawny-skinned crop whose taste evokes feelings of beauty, pride and “the way your daughter’s tiny socked feet sounded romping.” Later, the fruit surfaces “dark and discordant” emotions and shame; a character remembers an “old man in a dunce cap that he and some of his schoolmates had beaten until he’d collapsed and … well … it was many years ago and those were different times.”

It’s an apt metaphor for the reckoning due in China. Though the characters never mention the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen Square massacre by name, the turmoil of the past haunts them as they rush headlong into the future.

By Jordi Nopca
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem
211 pp. Bellevue Literary Press. Paper, $16.99.

The characters in this mordant debut collection are young hustlers in Barcelona, overeducated, overworked and underpaid. Freelancing and taking on multiple side jobs amid Spain’s financial crisis, they’re forever hoping for something commensurate with their education and experience — or at least a little respect. Nopca, a Catalan journalist and novelist, examines how capitalism is rigged against his characters, who are at times determined, desperate and dissolute.

In the satirical “An Intersectional Conservationist at Heart,” an editor tells a young arts reporter to solicit her sources for opinion pieces, adding, “If they don’t ask you what the rate is, don’t offer anything; it can be a selfless contribution” — a familiar refrain to anyone who’s ever been offered work “for exposure.” Some characters are driven to alcoholism, pills and attempted suicide, as in “Àngels Quintana and Fèlix Palme Have Problems,” while others go mad. In “Swiss Army Knife,” a couple end up stalking an author. Another couple, in “We Have Each Other,” volunteer to get a lobotomy of sorts, which makes their every worry — and every care — go away. To others, though, they seem like “zombies.”

In Lethem’s witty translation from Catalan, the 11 stories are heartbreaking and hilarious, tender and violent. When a wife reads aloud from a book “written with a sizable number of circumlocutions, which were somehow addictive,” she could be describing Nopca’s stories, which have the intimate, meandering quality of neighborhood gossip.

By Allan Gurganus
240 pp. Liveright. $25.95.

Several of the nine stemwinders in Gurganus’s rollicking collection take the form of largely one-sided conversations. An antiques shopkeeper chats with a grad student, a boy who flew in a hurricane spills his tale decades later to a reporter, and a pet store owner corners a stranger in a bar.

The author is by turns plaintive and picaresque. His narrators urgently want to say their piece, perhaps because they’re underdogs, used to being misunderstood, dismissed or ignored. “Words were never my strongest suit,” says the hapless deputy sheriff of “The Mortician Confesses.” “A person needs college to explain this mess.”

Even those with the quietest of lives can be heroic, whether a retired grammar school librarian who revives a showman in the bawdy “My Heart Is a Snake Farm” or a retired insurance agent who rescues his neighbors in a flood in the wistful “Fourteen Feet of Water in My House.” Though old-fashioned and folksy in speech, the characters are well aware of changing mores, like the feisty tour guide fielding impertinent questions from visitors about local hangings in “The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC) — Light Lunch Inclusive.”

In the most powerful story, “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” a small-town cholera outbreak in 1849 has eerie parallels to today’s coronavirus pandemic. A portrait memorializing a hero doctor is sold on consignment because he no longer fits in with the library’s contemporary décor; he’s “kinda gloomy.” One can’t help wondering: A century from now, how will people remember the heroes of 2020?

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