Suburban rot, dystopian food futures, and metaphysical detective stories in three new novels worth reading this month.
Photographs by Alex Reside
Little Fires Everywhere, By Celeste Ng
Despite being located outside Cleveland, Shaker Heights was supposed to be a utopian community. The Shakers may have died out long ago, but their quixotically designed suburb still exists today, along with its remnants of Shaker ideals: “Thoughtful planning, a belief in equality and diversity. Truly seeing everyone as an equal.”
It’s such a great place to set a novel, it makes you wonder why no one’s done it before Celeste Ng. Her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, explores the divides between family and identity. At the center is Elena Richardson and her four kids, who make up a well-meaning status quo of a familial unit. The new arrivals to town, Mia Warren and her teen daughter Pearl, offer the Richardsons glimpses into a more creative, nomadic lifestyle. But the real schisms come after a friend of the Richardsons — a white couple — attempts to adopt a Chinese baby, discovered abandoned at a local fire station. The controversy surrounding the cross-racial adoption splits not only the town in half, but the families as well.
Like Everything I Never Told You, Ng’s excellent debut, the book plots its way into a smart, accessible conversation about race and class. But free of the restraints of Everything’s thriller construction, Little Fires gives Ng the space and patience to confront how progressive-minded communities approach identity: “Everyone sees race… The only difference is those who pretend not to.”
The “little fires” are literal fires in the novel, but you can see how it’d make an easy metaphor for the town’s dynamics, too. But in the end, what Shaker Heights needs isn’t small fires squelched—it might need one big one to burn it all down and start again.
Sourdough, By Robin Sloan
The world of Sourdough is one that’s self-aware that it’s a dystopia of sorts. Lois Clary is a young woman who programs robotic arms, a soulless job at the appropriately soullessly named General Dexterity. Like many of her friends, Lois subsists on a nutritious gel called Slurry (imagine Soylent taken to a vertically integrated extreme) until she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough. It’s there she discovers a magical bread, one that upends not just her dietary habits, but her approach to the world.
When the two brothers who run the soup shop leave town, Lois is left with a parting gift: a sourdough starter, somewhat magical and very temperamental (bread starters are alive, after all). She becomes obsessed with baking, and that obsession yields a popular small business that takes her to a mysterious spaceship-like market called the Marrow Fair (“like an underworld Ferry Building”), where she’s encouraged to give her bread company a gimmick: The bread will be made by the robotic arms that Lois used to program.
The central conceit feels brainier and more clever as the book progresses, especially as the parallels between engineering and baking solidify. The same vibrancy that pervades Sloan’s first book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, finds its way in Sourdough. But whereas Mr. Penumbra concerned itself with a dichotomy between analog and digital, a gentle critique of Silicon Valley wrapped in a good-natured adventure, Sourdough finds a darker, sharper take on the Bay Area and its relationship to labor. How do we preserve the soul of a workforce that’s being replaced by automation?
Science fiction is almost by definition cynical — often a look into a future that should be avoided. Sourdough, for all its genre-hopping, always feels good-natured. It’s a novel stuffed full of ideas, but it never gets bogged down by them, thanks to the pleasant clip and voice that Sloan employs throughout.
For Isabel: A Mandala, By Antonio Tabucchi
Even at a very brief 144 pages, For Isabel: A Mandala is a lot of things: a detective story, a fable of sorts, a tour of European cities and a series of wild and eccentric characters. In a set of diary entries, an absinthe-loving journalist claiming to be Tadeus wants to locate an old Communist friend, Isabel, who disappeared in Lisbon years ago. What follows is a series of accounts of what happened to her — some conflicting, all of them strange.
The book is divided into nine sections — circles they’re called, evoking the Hindu/Buddhist symbol referenced by the book’s subtitle, but also not too subtly Dante’s Inferno. It’s not as pretentious as it sounds, though. For Isabel leans on its idiosyncrasies, but it’s often more interested in taking things to a weird place than a logical one. Take, for example, this philosophical musing that Tadeus encounters in Switzerland: that if the universe is infinite, then what’s the point of having astronomers, man. Wild, right?
Anyway, all that is a parallel to Tadeus’s own search for the fate of Isabel, which does come to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Not that that matters. It’s a cliché to say it’s about the journey instead of the destination, but For Isabel finds a clever way to say it. “Just think of me as someone who searches,” Tadeus says. And throughout the novel, the search is satisfying.