A home in Turin, Italy (Paola Chaaya/Unsplash)

Over the years, I’ve received many wonderful books by some of my favorite writers, new releases and hard-to-find editions from an author’s backlist alike. I’m happy to say I’ve appreciated each gift and, after quickly checking my bookshelf this week, I can say with near-total confidence that I’ve enjoyed reading most, if not all, of these titles, whether they were short-story collections, novels, biographies, or memoirs.

As far as I can recollect, however, I’ve never received from family members or my closest friends a book by a first-time author. Either, I assume, because it takes time for a new author to enter the gift-giving zeitgeist or, perhaps more tellingly, because the risk of presenting a title by an emerging author outweighs the certainty of a safer selection from a more established one. Safe is sensible, I understand, but so is a sweater or a Hallmark card stuffed with cash. Writing a book is anything but sensible, and this Christmas I’ve committed to championing young writers brave enough to buck convention and disrupt our expectations for what’s possible. 

Risk brings its own reward, and in her surreal and stylish novel, Y/N (Astra House, $18, 224 pp.), Esther Yi gives her readers more than their fair share, and plenty to ponder. The book’s unnamed narrator is a Korean American living in Germany, where she works as a copywriter for an Australian expat’s business in canned artichokes. “My job required me to credibly infuse the vegetable with the ability to feel romantic love for its consumer.” After her roommate drags her to a concert by a South Korean boy band with “supernatural charisma,” the narrator becomes obsessed with Moon, the band’s youngest and most luminous member, whose “fluid, tragic, ancient” dance moves leave her—like millions of other fans around the world—“permanently destabilized, unable to return to the spiritual attenuation of her daily life.” Shaken, or perhaps set free, she starts penning Y/N (Your/Name) fan fiction about her love affair with the mega-star who writes pop songs inspired by the great works of art and literature. (“The album, a statement of protest against Oedipus’s capitulation to darkness, celebrated too much seeing, too much light.”) When Moon shockingly quits the band, the narrator travels to Seoul in search of him, an existential odyssey that parallels her own Y/N fan fiction. And this, dear reader, is when things start to get absurd. Pynchonian conspiracies and Pirandello-like characters advance the story and its narrator toward a logical-illogical endpoint, which is at once tantalizingly close and satisfyingly complete. That Yi navigates such weirdness with stylized precision and authorial purpose is a testament to her profound talent. This is a short book, but undeniably significant, a destined-to-be-classic by an emerging artist that wrestles (materially, spiritually, and intellectually) with today’s culture of mass fandom and the individual feeling of disconnection that has come to define this increasingly absurd era.

Writing a book is anything but sensible, and this Christmas I’ve committed to championing young writers brave enough to buck convention and disrupt our expectations for what’s possible.

“All of us are magic wrapped in skin,” writes Elizabeth Acevedo in Family Lore (Ecco, $30, 384 pp.), her accomplished first novel for adults. The Marte family women possess special powers and closely held secrets. Flor, the second-oldest sister, can foresee death. Pastora, the third Marte sister, can read people’s truths. And Camila, the youngest, is an expert herbalist. Only Matilde, the eldest sister, is without the hereditary affinities of the Marte family. At the start of the novel, Flor decides to host a living wake, inspired by a documentary recommended to her by her daughter, Ona, a professor of anthropology at City College and owner of a “magical alpha vagina.” Flor’s wish, and what it portends, is cause for concern and the impetus for the Marte women to finally reckon with their long history of inherited trauma and self-inflicted wounds. Set in the three days between Flor’s declaration and her wake, the novel alternates liberally among the Marte women, the past and the present, and Santo Domingo and New York City. But, in Acevedo’s assured rendering, the story never sacrifices urgency or loses sight of its primary concern, namely how the Marte women—mothers, daughters, aunts, and nieces—are all able to conjure the power demanded of them to survive the world. “I have learned that knowing when is never as important as how,” Flor announces at her own wake. “Not in the method, of course, but as in, how did the person live well? How did they die well? Well loved, well departed, well farewelled?”

The winter of one’s life isn’t the only time to consider such questions. Ro, the narrator of Gina Chung’s Sea Change (Vintage, $17, 288 pp.), an affecting if somewhat uneven debut, is hitting the big 3-0 hard. Emotionally adrift and psychologically unsettled amidst a rapidly changing climate emergency, she is estranged from her mother, and her longtime boyfriend, Tae, has recently left her to colonize Mars. Her best friend, Yoonhee, is too preoccupied with her career and her upcoming wedding to pay Ro much attention beyond the occasional apologetic text. Ro’s only sense of normalcy is her entry-level job at an aquarium in a New Jersey mall. There, she cares for Dolores, a giant, highly intelligent octopus captured by a crew in the “Bering Vortex,” a chemical-filled gyre that has turned the Bering Strait into a toxic ecosystem—the same stretch of sea her marine-biologist father disappeared in during an expedition years earlier. When a wealthy investor purchases Dolores for his private aquarium, Ro spirals and tries to figure out, in between drinking sessions, how she ended up alone on dry land. “Other people’s joys have always seemed more solid to me than my own,” she admits halfway through the novel. “I’ve never trusted happiness, have trouble with the very notion of it. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should try and pin down or rank or quantify or even declare, because you never know when it might disappear in the night, leaving you with nothing but questions and an unending ache.” What starts off as a devastating account of ecological alienation slowly settles into a safer, though still worthy, story of a young woman’s arrested adolescence, a familiar bildungsroman that—like the other two novels under consideration here—risks just enough to announce the arrival of a young author who will likely come to defy our expectations as readers.

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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