Sheena Patel’s I’M A FAN (Graywolf, 203 pp., paperback, $17) is an impolite novel about romantic obsession, set in a liberalized but inequitable sexual economy that rewards the white and rich. The unnamed narrator, a young brown woman living in London, spends much of the book online, fixating on the white, married and much older “man I want to be with” and the other women in his life. Imagining herself meeting one paramour in particular, she wonders, “Would I tell her I know who all her friends are and I watch their stories too, would I tell her I screenshot the photos she takes of herself and study her face so intently sometimes I fear I’ve picked up some facial expressions or tonal inflections from her?”
For all the detail she reveals about these strangers’ lives, the narrator tells us comparatively little about herself. We are offered few, if suggestive, details about her nice enough boyfriend and her upbringing by working-class immigrant parents who “deliberately did not speak their languages to me so I would not be put at a disadvantage.” The narrator is not even the other woman, she is only an other woman.
Though she ruminates on the sociocultural machinations that shape her desires, she is not exempt from their power — treating love like a gameable system that she has yet to crack. She rails and seethes and then regrets the railing and seething, bringing her no closer to the object of her obsession. She kisses a girl and likes it, though not enough to override her interest in acquiring male approval. Meanwhile she derides the ways in which her lover’s other lovers perform antiracism in corny, confused ways: “privileged white women talking about care of the Earth and the land as if they are distinct from the white people who are racist and those who have pillaged this burning, now volatile planet of ours.”
The novel is claustrophobic in theme but its style is loose, allowing the narrator’s ferocious id to spin out thrillingly and unapologetically. Her vague aspirations to become a writer register as somewhat cursory next to the attention suck of the narrator’s romantic abjection; Patel’s clever novel suggests just how easily such ambitions can be lost in the power imbalance of heterosexual libidinal attachment.
At the beginning of Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s CANDELARIA (Astra House, 305 pp., $28), a soapy, apocalyptic picaresque, the titular 86-year-old murders her doting boyfriend in their kitchen in Boston. From there the novel follows three generations of women in Candelaria’s Guatemalan American family as they make their way together on a hellish Christmas Eve, as people around them are shot, stabbed, eaten or more symbolically consumed during an earthquake.
Candelaria is not the only character in crisis. Her daughter Lucia is desperate to find her youngest daughter, Candy, a recovering heroin addict who “was always being bailed out of jail by her poor mother” and now finds herself pregnant. Lucia’s middle daughter, Bianca, is an archaeologist who’s been kicked off her work site in Guatemala by the adviser with whom she’s been having an affair. After faking her own death, the eldest sister, Paola, has re-emerged after 10 years as Zoe, a spinning instructor beholden to a wellness cult leader.
Lozada-Oliva’s imagination draws upon an inventive mix of narrative traditions — from melodrama to zombie horror to slacker comedy — but the pleasures of the stylistic mash-up do not compensate for semantically incoherent prose at crucial narrative junctures. Late in the book, a mysterious first-person narrator — the rock that is seemingly also the “alien parasite thing” that, while assuming the flesh suit of Bianca’s dead ex-lover, impregnated Candy — makes a baffling confession regarding its role in Candelaria’s son’s death years earlier:
“Yes, that was me, all those years ago. Not really. A seed of me. / You see, I cannot help myself. / I have a duty. It is in my biology. / I cannot make you understand. / I was always the key they turned. / The earth is dying, that is true. I have felt it for so long. Since I arrived, / it has been a place of death.”
Is this homicidal “seed” meant to be a metaphor for intergenerational trauma? Could the alien stone signify an attitude toward humanity’s endless and destructive impulse for consumption? Might the rowdy plot signal the ubiquity of everyday violence? Perhaps, but the author’s meaning too frequently gets lost in the mystifications of word salad.
Alice is 13 and watching “Pocahontas” with her kid cousin when the cartoon woman starts speaking to her through the TV screen, telling her the real story of her kidnapping by the English after she met John Smith at 10. This early scene is just the first of many mental breaks sustained by Alice, the Indigenous Mohawk protagonist of Alicia Elliott’s AND THEN SHE FELL (Dutton, 349 pp., $28).
By adulthood, Alice’s life has become a plodding tour of misery. She’s reeling from the recent death of her mother; often aggrieved by and suspicious of her husband, Steve, a white anthropologist who’s writing a book on Indigenous planting; and struggling to bond with her newborn daughter. Living off the rez for the first time, Alice experiences middle-class America as a series of microaggressions by cheerful white women who self-deprecate about their wine consumption. When a neighbor disposes of Disney DVDs that no longer “spark joy,” Alice takes the discards, noticing that they’re “all movies featuring leads who aren’t white” — including “Pocahontas.” Feeling increasingly alienated, she slips further into mental illness.
Frights abound, including an apparition called “the Shape,” a nod to the hallucinatory “shape” in Miranda July’s “Making Love in 2003” (which also features a love object named Steve). Alice’s Shape is “a presence, something whole,” and it makes her promise to “keep writing,” to tell the story of Sky Woman, the “mother of our nations” who is also known as Mature Flowers. Chapters from Alice’s ensuing book appear throughout the novel, and they mark a distinct departure from her previous writing about smarmy white men. The text-within-a-text also becomes a mirror through which Alice sees herself anew: “I’ve been thinking about how destroyed Mature Flowers was over her father. I feel bad for her, and I relate to her literally twice over.”
Despite intrusions of the uncanny, little is left to mystery in this novel. In earnest, pedestrian exposition, Elliott sacrifices momentum to draw a picture of intergenerational trauma that includes dislocation, alcoholism, police harassment and violence. Alice’s hamstrung agony mushrooms until one particular delusion encourages her to seize upon the redemptive power of narrative. “Your writing will plant seeds, too,” her grandmother’s ghost tells her. “That’s why it matters. You have no idea what decision of yours, what seed, is going to grow into a sturdy, powerful tree generations down the line.”