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Arts & Culture

Laura van den Berg’s stories are narrated by bad-ass women

Orlando writer’s new short-story collection, Isle of Youth, is the best book of 2013

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by Laura van den Berg | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 256 pages

Early last year The New York Times Magazine told us “George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.” Of course, Saunders knows as well as anyone else that if there’s one thing that humans are steadfastly and permanently bad at, it’s predicting the future. And Joel Lovell, who wrote the Times piece, was dead wrong.

Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More followed soon after Saunders’ book and, for my money, blew it out of the water. And then Laura van den Berg, who grew up in Orlando and sets much of her work in Florida, closed out the year with her second collection, The Isle of Youth, which is not only better than Saunders’ collection, but as good as anything else that came out this year.

But top 10 time is over and we’re not Hemingways, putting writers in the ring against one another as if they were page-turning pugilists. Still, van den Berg’s story “Lessons” may in fact offer a lesson on the current state of our literature. In the story, a gang of cousins escape their apocalyptic, anti-government family and start robbing banks in gorilla masks. The story could almost be the sort of gloriously violent fantasy that animated Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers – except for the gun-shy boy Pinky, who would rather build robots. Beside his kick-ass sister and cousins, he appears weak and ineffectual. And his broken little robot can seem like a symbol of the sad little stories written by so many male writers today, up against the brilliant gust of narrative coming from the younger generation of women (like Sheila Heti, Rachel Kushner, Karen Russell and Jen Michalski).

As male writers grow smaller and more pusillanimous, the women grow larger and tougher – not tough in a braggadocio fashion, but rather as if the quiet moment when a doctor called Joan Didion a “tough customer” in the moments after her husband’s death went viral, secretly infecting an entire generation.

Or maybe it’s not about gender or generation at all, because in reality, van den Berg is sui generis. But she does seem unstintingly tough. Certainly, her characters either are badasses, or think they are. Take the woman who begins “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name” with the flat, cool recitation that “[t]he first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing” and proceeds to narrate the story through a series of marital disasters. Or take the fly-by-night sisters in “Opa-Locka,” who half-ass it as private investigators, littering their rooftop stakeout with beer cans, Cheetos and NoDoz. Or the woman who follows a troupe of acrobats when her husband leaves her in Paris. Or again the twin who tricks her sister into impersonating her while she takes care of some shady business in the titular “Isle of Youth.” These are all seriously fucked-up women in generally bad situations, but they manage to muddle through – and to narrate the hell out of their muddling.

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