So, it’s the new year, a time when many a bibliophile makes a reading list for the coming year (month; week?), or writhes in helpless anguish beneath the tower of unread books that has accumulated over the past one. Perhaps you look through the annual “best of” lists and despair—how have you missed so much? How have so many fizzy, tangy, erudite and all-around intriguing words filtered through the publishing mill without your knowledge?
Perhaps start with Coolest American Stories 2022, an anthology edited by Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey and the inaugural volume of a series that promises to deliver an annual smorgasbord of verbal delights. Released Jan. 11 from Itasca Books/Coolest Stories Press (are you getting it yet?), the collection includes pieces from SA Cosby, David Ebenbach, Lori D. Johnson, Frances Park, D.Z. Stone and more. Within you’ll meet a maladroit divorcé who commits a social blunder at a birthday party (“Happy Birthday, Honey Vanlandingham”); a coked-out 1980s businessman who thinks too highly of himself and generally behaves exactly as one might expect (“Boss”); a David Foster Wallace boi upon whom news of the writer’s death does not have the anticipated effect (“All of This is Water”); and a host of other curious characters.
This is just a sampling of the alleged coolest-of-cool for the coming year. Some, I’d agree with—very cool indeed. My personal favorites include Frances Park’s “The Summer My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon,” in which two sisters disassemble and assemble their identities in an attempt to distance themselves from their lineage, Matthew Goldberg’s “Therapunitive Intervention” wherein a distracted pharmacist attends a state-mandated retreat led by monks, and “Pantera Rex,” a previously unpublished story by SA Cosby which taught me the word “stygian.” While these live up to the criteria the editors set out on the Coolest American Stories’ website: “...riveting, stunning, and courageous,” some are more in the vein of...cool story, bro. I’m looking at you, “Boss.”
In the interest of having you continue to read this column throughout the year, I won’t tease my picks for coolest stories/books/essays/zines/etc. coming out in 2022, but I will heartily recommend Jawbone from Ecuadorian poet/novelist Mónica Ojeda, which is set to be released in English next month from Coffee House Press with a translation by Sarah Booker.
Mandíbula (Jawbone) was originally published in 2018 by Candaya, in the original Spanish, and just the year before, Ojeda was named one of the Bogotá39—a list of exceptional fiction writers under 40 from across Latin America. In her upcoming third novel, Ojeda follows two friends who have claimed one another as sisters: Fernanda Montero Oliva and Annelise Van Isschot. They belong to the self-proclaimed “most perfect group in class” at the Delta Bilingual Academy, High School for Girls until Fernanda is kidnapped by her literature teacher (don’t fret, I’m not spoiling anything—this happens on page 1) following a dark rift that causes the girls’ friendship to unwind.
Two narratives rasp against one another in a conflict of dissonant realities. The reality of Fernanda and Annelise’s turbulent friendship, and that of Miss Clara López Valverde, the literature teacher whom the girls call “Latin Madame Bovary,” is a study in abjection in the Kristevan sense: The horror exists in, and is generated by, a delicious but unsettling uncertainty of self and non-self whereupon realities are created and cast off.
Ojeda’s poetic craft shines through Jawbone’s prose. It’s a deeply visual book in which seemingly transparent images introduced early on are lacquered over with layers of meaning as the story progresses, building a patina of dread. The book’s anxiety dwells in the space between characters. Who, in a friendship, dictates reality? In this case, reality is woven (or unraveled) by Fernanda and Annelise, but it’s never quite clear whose reality the reader is inhabiting.
Jawbone must have been a challenge to translate, too. Its privileged and well-educated characters already speak in a pastiche of languages. Booker is careful to preserve the nuances of the characters’ shifts between Spanish and English without aligning with the common English-language practice of using italics to designate “foreign” words, which, as she explains in a translator’s note, “creates an artificial and problematic division between self and other.” She also maintains the “sonorous experience” of the dialogue by leaving snippets of Spanish slang untranslated.
Another idiosyncrasy of Ojeda’s language is her fondness for invented portmanteaus—“1966-Twiggyface,” “Nicki-Minaj-booty,” “sleeping-angel-of- history voice”—which give texture to the rhythm of her prose, as well as a glimpse into the girls’ cultural experience, locating them within a cultural narrative without jarring the reader out of the book’s atmosphere. In short? It’s cool.