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Review: Debut fiction from Sergei Lebedev, Alvaro Enrigue and Amy Gustine

Oblivion

By Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina W. Bouis

New Vessel, 290 pages, $22.50

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Heralded as a key novel for understanding today's Russia, Oblivion is about a quest across Siberia's gulag-strewn tundra with a shocking view to the horror of Russia's Soviet past. But then, even describing it as "the horror" is not quite right; such words obscure more than they express, and for nearly 300 pages Lebedev relentlessly attempts the opposite: to strip away mannerism and access the underlying sensation. It makes for intense, dense prose low in sentimentalism but high in feeling. Reading Oblivion is like walking in a thick fog where you can see only so far as arm's-length in front of you. It requires that you read it slowly, edging along the ledge one word at a time, because the sentence's path may turn sharply at the next semicolon. For all it demands, it rewards in rich surprises. The story of a country slipping into oblivion and history's reckoning.

Sudden Death

By Alvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer

Riverhead, 262 pages, $35

Some people don't like novels. Some people aren't interested in Cortes, Caravaggio, Vatican sexual intrigue, the fall of the Aztec Empire, Mexican towns inspired by More's Utopia, Europe burning in the flames of the Counter-Reformation, or bawdy, street-rules, Renaissance tennis, but they may find themselves enjoying Sudden Death, Alvaro Enrigue's English-language debut, which happens to be a novel though it doesn't read like one. Four-fifths in, the book has a metafictional crisis: "As I write, I don't know what this book is about." Composed of short chapters that read more like history than fiction, it isn't strictly about any topic listed above. If it's about anything, it's the death of the Renaissance and the birth of Mexico, told through a duel in the form of a tennis match. Its unifying factor: Enrigue's anger at a historical injustice, a rage that turns this novel into something greater than its already great parts.

You Should Pity Us Instead

By Amy Gustine

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Sarabande, 222 pages, $22.50

If you look close enough, no family fits what we mean by normal. The crux of Maggie Nelson's memoir The Argonauts, published last year, this point finds its fictional realization in You Should Pity Us Instead, each story concerning family in this queer sense. In the title story, Molly, brushing off local backlash against her husband's atheism, says, "You should pity us who have no faith. We're lonely and anxious." It's said tongue-in-cheek but there's truth to it: These stories elicit something on the border between pity and empathy – pity without the condescension, empathy with the knowledge that it can never be absolute – for lonely and anxious people. In a cover blurb, Karen Russell describes the writing as pellucid – the most accurate term. Amy Gustine writes with clarity as if simply describing what passes in front of her. That seeming artlessness, fiction stripped of fiction's aura, shows true mastery.

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