Whether a compact three pages or an expansive fifty, each of the ten stories in Daniel Alarcón‘s accomplished second collection, The King is Always Above the People (Riverhead, $27) unfolds with the economy and power of a fable. Most take place in an anonymous “town,” “city,” or “capital” of an unnamed country, the setting conveyed in the broad strokes of a stage set. The dramas that play out are mainly political and familial. After a long period of stability—“autocracies are nothing if not stable”—an unsettling crime wave engulfs the nation. But people aren’t helpless. In “The Thousands” they build settlements from the detritus of their society, and will not be moved. Family dynamics prove more complicated. Brothers deny one another. A father apprentices his son to a blind beggar. Throughout, Alarcón explores the elusiveness of truth and identity. From the man mistaken for his brother so often he stops correcting people to the lawyer who snaps and is a “different person” each time his son visits the asylum, to the traveler whose “real work was pretending I wasn’t lonely,” these characters play a dizzying number of roles, pretending, acting, lying, conning, and not always sure themselves who they are. At bottom, what’s authentic is the compassion and care with which Alarcón depicts these people. For all his sure-footed literary technique, these are some of the most richly emotional stories around.
Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories (Seven Stories, $45) gathers in one volume all the short fiction written by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. This beautiful tome holds nearly 1,000 pages’ worth of short stories Vonnegut wrote from the 1940s to his death a decade ago, including five previously unpublished works. Featuring a foreword by Dave Eggers and section introductions by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield, editors and long-time friends of Vonnegut, the book is organized thematically along the lines of Romance, War, Future, Science, and other broad topics. Vonnegut was prolific in many genres, and his work has inspired several generations of new writers, such as myself. His stories stand up through troubled times, and his morality and clear prose continue to resonate.
A prolific and dexterous author of both novels and shorter narratives, T. C. Boyle has won awards for literary excellence, nature writing, and, with the title piece of his ninth collection, been included among The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy writers. These twelve stories give us a future rich with revolutionary technologies and rife with environmental challenges, but one also featuring conflicted characters who face many of the existential pitfalls familiar to us today. Thanks to The Relive Box (Ecco, $25.99), a father and daughter can re-watch a happy past while ignoring their crumbling, isolated present. In another piece an epic California drought brings an affluent neighborhood a deluge of greed and desperation, while for a couple considering a genetically designed child, their ambitions lead to the dilemma of keeping up with the Jones’s DNA. The stories, whether dark or light, reveal how we continually look to the marvels of new science to soothe the constant human ache.