Dispatches | May 20, 2011

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read two new books by writers who are younger than I: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration. Seth published several stories in The Missouri Review, and I met him years ago when he was the youngest writer ever to win our Peden Prize. He was still an undergraduate at Bowling Green back then—though slightly older than a “traditional” student—and we interns were struck by his pragmatic approach to sending out work: whenever a rejection came back, he told us, he sent out another piece. This practice is of course not the key to his success, but it’s not incidental to it, either, and I’ve tried to adopt it as my own in the years since. Meanwhile Seth has placed stories in a lot of great magazines, and was recently feted by One Story as a Literary Debutante.

I’ve been waiting for The Tiger’s Wife since reading two of Obreht’s stories in summer, 2009. “The Laugh” appeared in The Atlantic Fiction Issue; an excerpt from her novel appeared as debut fiction in The New Yorker. This was the summer after Obreht graduated from Cornell’s MFA program, and she was 24 years old. Her youth was trumpeted a bit more loudly the following summer, when her story “Blue Water Djinn” appeared in The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 series. Well under 30, Obreht also published an essay about Balkan vampires in the November 2010 Harper’s. The Tiger’s Wife has been enthusiastically received—with good reason. But “Twilight of the Vampires” might be the best illustration of Obreht’s powers: drawing from folklore, scholarship, and interviews, she brings energy to a subject from which pop culture seemed to have already sucked all the life. With a lot of humor along the way, this essay manages to make vampires interesting—and scary.

That I read Obreht’s and Fried’s books side-by-side was deliberate. I did so in part to test my own character: could I read these books without working myself into a frenzy over their imperfections—as I have once or twice, after reading successful writers of my own generation? I was also curious about whether I’d find any commonalities between the books besides the authors’ ages. The answers I found are closely linked: I passed the character test because of the very qualities that the books share. Both Fried and Obreht draw on history, legend, and the supernatural in their fiction—and they both weave these materials together without veering into the realm of the twee. In past summer reading frenzies, I’ve been drawn unwittingly into that realm. I can feel myself heading there if a book’s title is a little too long, if its plot might pass for children’s literature, if its protagonist seems to fascinate the author more than she does me. I’ve wondered once or twice where the editors were napping when they might have been pruning fanciful subplots from such books or cutting one of the too-many narrators. Such concerns didn’t enter into my experience of reading Obreht or Fried. What did strike me was that here were two writers in command of their material, claiming authority rather than resting on precocity.

Fried’s stories are often written in a first-person plural voice (five out of the eleven pieces in The Great Frustration) and/or describe the ways solitude can inhere in a collective experience (see the title story or “The Misery of the Conquistador”). The mode of these stories tends to be retrospective, reflective—his narrators are often trying to reason out why they have been tested in the ways that they have. Fried is a master of lyrical closing paragraphs that lay clear the chasm between his characters’ desires and their fulfillment—paragraphs that draw the reader into the same complicated gap. There is an air of allegory about these stories, though they seem less like political allegories than like commentaries on character. Obreht has said in interviews that she draws heavily both from experience and research, having, for example, never visited Tanzania, where “The Laugh” takes place. Born in Belgrade, she was raised in Egypt and Cyprus before emigrating to the US in 1997. One imagines that much of The Tiger’s Wife came from research: the protagonist’s career (she’s a doctor); the circumstances of a Balkan village in the 1940’s. In the present-time of the novel, Obreht’s protagonist is trying to do aid work in Balkan country than neighbors her own. The atmosphere of the place is unsettled in the wake of the wars that have shaped Natalia’s childhood and medical training; class and ethnicity are lightning rod qualities in this transforming landscape. By way of Natalia’s thoughts about her grandfather, also a doctor, very recently dead, the novel shifts for chapters at a time into the early 20th century past—when this country was on the margins of World War II, partially cocooned by its still-provincial ways of life, and connected to the larger world in part by the escaped tiger that haunted its outskirts. The Tiger’s Wife is one of those rare stories set in two times, two places that presents both compellingly. I didn’t find myself longing for one over the other, flipping ahead to see when we’d get back to the real story. There’s a lot of heart in both storylines (human and otherwise).

In short, I’m glad to be positioned in such a way to follow both of these writers’ careers from their very beginnings. Here’s a taste to get you started, too.

“He could feel the tiger just beside him, through the wooden planks, the big, red heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs, the weight of it groaning through the floor. My grandfather’s chest was jolting, and he could already picture the tiger bearing down on him, but he thought of The Jungle Book—the way Mowgli had taunted Shere Khan at Council Rock, torch in hand, grabbing the Lame Tiger under the chin to subdue him—and he put his hand out though the tarp and touched the coarse hairs passing by him.”

From The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

“The fact of the siege would live on in some elusive metaphor. It would affect the way our descendents talk or the way they think about talking. It would change the way they think or the way they think about thinking. In whatever language that is taken up, perhaps, the word for desired might be the same as the word for conquered. The word for correct the same as the word for victory. There might be no word for weak due to the presence of the word unnecessary.”

From “The Siege” by Seth Fried.

Stephanie Carpenter is a former TMR staff member and Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Flint.