These three collections of short fiction all come from the pens of white American women, but beyond that they differ so wildly as to provide a primer on the diversity of contemporary fiction. The most accessible pleasures here come from Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong (Mysterious, $23), wherein the endlessly prolific and inventive Joyce Carol Oates turns her hand to the horror genre. Even at its most literary, Oates’s fiction has always been saturated with gothic overtones, so her transition into the subterranean byways of slasher fiction seems only natural. These potboilers about murder, obsession and death have a genre funkiness, a greasy pulp seaminess, that is reminiscent of forgotten subscription serials and old “Twilight Zone” installments, albeit enhanced by episodes of operatic gore. For Oates, whose worldview is as flinty as that of any of her male peers, true horror is rooted not in the supernatural — that would be almost reassuring — but in the things that men and women do to each other under the spell of attraction, sexual or familial. “All love is desperation,” thinks one of the characters, speaking for them all. “This is our secret.” The pastiche runs more to Stephen King than Henry James, but it provides satisfying jolts.
Andrea Barrett is temperamentally the exact opposite of Oates; her stories of scientists at the turn of the 20th century and beyond have an evocative, sepia-toned beauty to go with their psychological insight and subtle characterization. The protagonists of Archangel (Norton, $24.95), five cunningly linked stories that take place between 1873 and 1939, are deeply engaged with the spirit and practice of observation. For one of them, “the act of throwing himself at one problem . . . lit up every other aspect of his experience in the world.” The questions that “Archangel” raises — Is dedication to the rigors of science inimical to emotional connection? Is the course of progress always linear? Is mentorship inherently tyrannical? — are given beautifully modulated exploration. Barrett writes lovely, lambent prose, balanced and graceful, and the historical settings are established with an easy authority. The result is nonetheless faintly airless, verging on dull: These character studies are so finely shaded that they run the risk of seeming small, and the stories are not marked by explosive plotting, to put it mildly. After Oates gives you an ax murder with Tarantinoesque relish, descriptions of the laboratory procedures for tracking the genetic variations in fruit flies seem fussy.
Blessed with an outrageous imagination and a restless hunger for stylistic innovation, Aimee Bender is a writer of unusual range and ambition. Not every story in The Color Master (Doubleday, $25.95) comes off flawlessly, but the best of them make the safer triumphs of less energetic writers feel timid and rote in comparison. Bender is a New Fabulist, a spinner of cockeyed fairy tales that float ethereal fantasies — bloodthirsty ogres married to tomboys, seamstresses who sew up damaged tigers — in a droll, deadpan tone. There are other writers working in this vein — Karen Russell and Wells Tower come to mind — but Bender may be the funniest and loosest of the lot and also, perhaps, the one most attuned to the poignant emotional distances between people (and ogres). In this way, “The Color Master” exemplifies the signature literature of our time. Its hybrid narrative form belongs to our moment just as surely as Raymond Carver’s minimalism to the 1980s or sardonic accounts of suburban adultery to the 1950s. With its yearning for authenticity, however obliquely expressed, it stands as the most legitimate literary reaction to a post-millennial world both jaded and hyperstimulated. One of Bender’s baffled, irritable protagonists comes to “the faint realization that there were many ways to live a life and that some people were living a life that was very different than his. . . . Comfort and fear rose together inside him. Like standing in the middle of a meadow, where no one had his back.” Comfort and fear, indeed; good watchwords for the strange pleasure of Bender’s fictional universe.
Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.