In the Country
By Mia Alvar
Knopf, 347 pages, $32
Music for Wartime
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 228 pages, $31
In his essay Art That Stays Home, included in the recent volume Where I'm Reading From, Tim Parks takes direct aim at the homogenizing effects of globalization on national literatures. In the new literary economy, Parks argues, international sales are the ultimate goal, but selling across borders – particularly to countries that might have radically different histories, attitudes and ideologies – requires the excision of anything local, any kind of nuance or particularity that would prove too foreign or difficult for a contemporary reader to comprehend. The classic novels of the globalization era, Parks argues (here echoing a similar argument forwarded two decades ago by Stephen Henighan), rely on easily accessible situations and emotions and leave out anything that might be uncomfortable or confusing for a reader not steeped in a particular culture.
"The universalist approach, that is," Parks writes, "invites us to extrapolate or identify some easily communicable, generic element – unequal power relationships, existential anxieties, or some key idea central to all human life – and tells us that this is what matters about the work of art, not the nature of its engagement with its culture of origin, with the colors of the rooms, the furnishings, the things people wore, or habitual body postures of the time." Flannery O'Connor could never make it as a writer in the age of globalization, so defiantly idiosyncratic is her work, so insistently is it embedded in a specific time and place. Dutch novelist Herman Koch, on the other hand (Parks's own example), travels easily – the family tension in his novel The Dinner readily supplants a more focused examination of contemporary Dutch culture and society.
Mia Alvar is perfectly placed as a writer of the new globalized literary culture. Born in Manila and raised in Bahrain and New York City, Alvar is a true diaspora author, straddling three separate cultures. All three appear at different points in the nine stories that comprise Alvar's debut collection, but only rarely do we get the sense that the stories are truly wedded to their settings; many of them could easily be transplanted to different cities on different continents without much in the way of alteration.
Esmeralda is grounded in a specific time and place: New York City on September 11, 2001. It tells the story of a Filipina cleaner who has conducted a fleeting affair with a businessman who works in an office on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center towers; when the terrorist attack occurs, she connives her way onto a medical transport headed for ground zero with the intention of locating her erstwhile lover. The story is told in the second person, which is always a risky pose for an author to strike: Too often the voice comes off sounding unnatural and affected, as is the case in certain moments here. The use of 9/11 as a backdrop locates the story in a specific time and place, true, but also seems like a bit of a dodge, an attempt to lend the story greater heft than it would otherwise have.
By contrast, Old Girl, about a woman whose arrogant and thoughtless husband – a former politician in the couple's home of Manila – decides on a whim to run the Boston marathon, suffers from the malaise Parks isolates in his essay; the danger the husband faced back home (he was imprisoned as a result of his political activities, which may or may not have included a terrorist bombing) is sketched broadly and never truly comes alive for the reader, while the domestic strife that results from the marriage of a self-absorbed man to a long-suffering woman is universal in the most basic sense.
Alvar addresses fraught material and milieus: The history of the Philippines is turbulent (as is evidenced in the volume's title story), and there are attempts made to deal with class and racial disparities around the Filipino immigrant culture in the Middle East. But the impulse to universalize these stories at the expense of zeroing in on what makes them unique too often means the stories end up resembling the radionovelas (soap operas) so many of Alvar's matrons consume.
Rebecca Makkai also ranges widely in her debut collection – from Hungary during the Second World War to contemporary Chicago – but the stories are united by a focus on the twin poles alluded to in the book's title, and a penetrating streak of psychological acuity and insight. An author's note at the back of the book indicates that the 17 stories in the volume – a remarkably heterodox group, varied in terms of subject and approach – were written over the course of 13 years, and it shows: Evident patience and care have been taken with these stories to tease out their meaning and emotion while retaining an admirable subtlety and suggestiveness.
In addition to the broad themes of music and war, other elements help integrate these stories. Racial prejudice surfaces in Painted Ocean, Painted Ship, in which a Coleridge scholar runs afoul of the administration at the university where she teaches when she mistakes a Chinese-American student for a recently transplanted Korean. In Cross, a celebrated cellist returns home after a summer away to find a makeshift cross on her lawn marking the spot where a female motorcycle passenger died in a collision. When she calls the local sheriff's office to ask for specifics about the accident, she is told that it happened "out in front of that Oriental musician's house."
Counter to Alvar's maximalist tendencies (the stories in In the Country average around 30 pages apiece, with the title story maxing out at close to 90), Makkai works in miniature, often employing elision as a narrative strategy. Everything We Know about the Bomber provides a list of brief, elliptical paragraphs that offer the information alluded to in the title as a means of illustrating the final impossibility of truly gaining access to another person's motivations or drives. And Exposition, presented as an audiotape transcript of evidence in the (apparently politically motivated) murder of a concert pianist, literalizes the elisions by redacting specifics of time, place and personages.
Makkai is unafraid to inject uncanny or curious elements into her narratives – an elephant in a travelling circus keels over dead, bringing to an end an extended drought in a small town and replacing it with torrential rains; a miniature version of Johann Bach climbs out of a contemporary woman's piano, grows to full height and commences an affair with his startled host. We accept these bizarre situations thanks to Makkai's confident control and her careful modulation of tone and pace. Ultimately, Makkai's stories evince an opposite impulse from Alvar's: Where the latter strains to make the specific universal, the former finds her power in uniqueness and individuality.
Steven W. Beattie writes a monthly column about short stories for The Globe.