Like real women, fictional women are often seen as wish-fulfillment. The “strength” that we look for in a female protagonist is often there for sentimental purposes, and rarely resembles the iron, irradiated accountability that matters in real life, a type of strength that’s like the desert—unsparing and mercurial. Blessedly, this is the milieu of Claire Vaye Watkins, born in Death Valley, daughter of Charles Manson’s chief lieutenant. Her heart-stopping 2012 collection Battleborn opens with a character named Razor Blade Baby, the product of a Family orgy, born when Manson sliced her out. Another story, “Man-O-War,” features a hermit scavenger picking up unused fireworks on the 5th of July and finding, instead, a pregnant teenager, bruised and half dead of heatstroke; what pair could possibly be more feeble, you think at the beginning, and then by the end, you wonder who could ever be so strong.
I blew through the last quarter of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in the wee hours, gasping. Surprise is rare in literary fiction, which is snobbish with its pleasures, generally picking meditation over movement; surprise is even rarer in novels that run on language as flush, wild and glinting as Groff’s. “Goodness, he would lick her crown to hallux,” thinks teenage Lotto, just before fucking his teenage crush (“hands blistered to blood,” Groff writes; “her eyes overflowed the liner”) in the actual middle of a house fire. Romance, to Lotto’s wife, is like “corn rammed down goose necks, this shit they’d swallowed since they were barely old enough to dress themselves in tulle.” The style is wrought heavily but carefully, and its force is like water—pulling you under, letting you float.
What makes a good summer read? Should it be light, briskly-paced, suitable for digestion in one hot afternoon on the nearest available beach or patio? Sure, that’s one way of looking at it, but it also feels like a waste to shield your summer self (one of the best and strongest selves) from the books you’ll carry with you long after the warm weather has worn off. So, por que no los dos?
These days, the New Yorker fiction issue is so bad it’s hard to imagine anyone liking it who wasn’t told to. It wasn’t always this way. Through his “New Yorker short stories,” J.D. Salinger reveals himself to be more than a writer for teens who’ve discarded Ayn Rand and have yet to discover Dostoyevsky. John O’Hara spun his filthy yarns into portraits of middle-class misery. And so on.
Today, Stephen King’s 55th novel, Finders Keepers, will be published by Scribner. I expect the book will be a bestseller, and King’s name will be in the press even more than usual between its publication and the June 25 premiere of the third season of Under The Dome, a television series based on his novel, and for which he’s an executive producer.
In a 2013 interview with Joe Fassler, horror fiction maestro Stephen King reflected on the magnitude of a novel’s introductory sentence. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” The first sentence sets the stage—however long or short the text—and hints at the “narrative vehicle” by which the writer will propel the book forward. King continued: