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Bucking Tradition: 10 Interesting Takes on Pulp

There’s a reason that acclaimed authors of literary fiction, from Borges to Atwood, from Houellebecq to Moody, find resonance in the pulp tradition. Detective stories, science fiction, and tales of horror can inform and influence novels that seem to be more rooted in reality or mundane life. But some of the most interesting work occurs in the space between the two — novels and stories that aren’t necessarily rooted in one literary tradition.

To cite two examples not in the list to come: Kinglsey Amis’s The Green Man manages to function as both a ghost story and a meditation on the presence (or absence) of God; Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl smartly speculates on the geopolitics and technology of a post-oil future, but is also a small masterpiece of classical conflict and plotting. What follows are ten novels, past and present and forthcoming, that fuse pulp thrills with stylistic flair, and arrive at a place that avoids easy categorization. (Except, perhaps, “enjoyable reads.”)

Terese Svoboda: Pirate Talk or Mermalade

Terese Svoboda’s spare, dialogue-only prose lends her novel of the high seas an intentional murkiness that pays off in its second half. We see brothers whose relationship becomes ambiguous, pirates who aren’t necessarily pirates, and killers who’d much prefer to live a life of peace. It’s a seafaring novel stripped down to its rhythms: the dialogue between mothers and children, the tilting of ships in the ocean, the hesitant final walk of the condemned.

Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps

Grace Krilanovich’s novel of vampires, roaming punk houses, and convenience stores in the Pacific Northwest is a hallucinatory deluge, a place where the present and past are in constant flux, where the mundane and the fantastic bleed into one another. Like Brian Evenson, Krilanovich borrows certain tropes from horror fiction, but the terror that she’s after is a much more elemental one: the loss of self, the question of identity, and the demolition of what could be considered real.


Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water

Deep Water could be said to be Patricia Highsmith’s entry in Eisenhower-era studies of suburban alienation (see also: Yates, Cheever). Protagonist Victor Van Allen is a stunningly repressed figure, more attentive towards collections of snails and bedbugs than the horrifically dysfunctional state of his marriage. Except, given Highsmith’s fondness for repression and antisocial behavior among her characters, Deep Water plays out like a suburban comedy of manners with teeth — to say nothing of the body count left in its wake.

Amelia Gray, Museum of the Weird

Amelia Gray’s followup to last year’s collection of linked flash fictions, AM/PM, shows off a far different stylistic range. Here, she deals equally in historical contemplation, musings on off-beat relationships, and genre procedurals gone awry. The last of these is embodied by “A Javelina Story,” in which a clerical error results in a group of wild hogs replacing a police detail monitoring a hostage situation. It’s a crime story gone absurdist gone tragic — and it, like much of this collection, finds wrenching emotion at the center of the most surreal scenarios.

Tony O’Neill, Sick City

At the core of Sick City is a crime novel: an unlikely pair of protagonists trying to sell off a classical MacGuffin — in this case, a late-’60s sex tape featuring multiple icons of the silver screen. But O’Neill’s also discovered that the basic genre structure allows him plenty of space to discuss his own preferred topics. Here, those include the horror of reality television, the flaws of the recovery movement, and the general excellence of Dexy’s Midnight Runners — tangents and subplots that add up to something more resonant than expected. And given that each of his protagonists is struggling with a copious drug addiction, the plotting of this novel is similarly impossible to pin down.

Matt Bell, How They Were Found

Matt Bell’s debut collection of short fiction covers abundant ground, from the fairy-tale deconstruction of “Wolf Parts” to the imploded tale of crime and punishment contained in “Dredge.” Bell’s fiction is taut and surreal, and the best stories in this collection — such as “Hold On To Your Vacuum,” with its structure somewhere between dream and video game — seem both classical in their approach and utterly modern in their sensibility.

Michal Ajvaz, The Other City

Michal Ajvaz’s novel of a man’s journeys into a surreal mirror of Prague plays out like an eccentric cousin of China Mieville’s (also excellent) The City & The City. At times, the adventures of Ajvaz’s protagonist have a self-consciously postmodern feel to them — a touch that, in other hands, might feel clunky. Thankfully, these pulp-laced trips into unmapped territory are chronicled by an author with a healthy sense of humor and a fine capacity for mirth.

Val McDermid, A Place of Execution

For the first two-thirds of Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that it feels a bit familiar. Period setting, an awful crime, a dedicated investigator on the case: these are all standard elements of the police procedural. And then McDermid pulls off one of the most impressive structural shifts ever — something that’s less a twist than a complete revision of all that’s come before.

Robert Bingham, Lightning on the Sun

The events of Lightning on the Sun cross continents, exploring the fallout of a drug shipment sent from Cambodia to late-’90s New York City. (Brooklyn aficionados may appreciate a brief glimpse of a pre-gentrification Williamsburg.) Bingham’s novel bristles with morally taut moments, of empathic characters making the wrong decision in situations where the stakes are progressively higher and higher. As it moves towards a haunting final image, the novel rarely leaves Graham Greene territory — a space in which moral questions and life-threatening situations sit side by side.

Muriel Spark, Memento Mori

This unclassifiable novel finds a group of elderly acquaintances haunted by a voice repeatedly calling them on the telephone. “Remember you must die,” they’re told — to a wide range of reactions, from shock to a scientific sense of detachment. The unseen caller — spectral or physical — both sits at the center of this novel and at its periphery; arguably, the caller might well be the periphery of these characters’ lives. And while there’s something of the ghost story to be found in Memento Mori, the final work is something altogether stranger, a sometimes comic, sometimes moving novel that defies easy categorization.