Kristopher Jansma’s original and unusual novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (Penguin, $16), is akin to a journey through a hall of mirrors. On the surface, it’s the dazzling life-story of an aspiring writer. Entranced by his best friends—perpetually successful, witty, beautiful, and creatively modernist—the unnamed narrator turns their exploits into the foundations of his own stories. But does he unfairly idealize these unwitting muses? Is he plagiarizing not their work, but their lives? And if so, does this make his work fraudulent? From chapter to chapter, names and relationships change, until the reader can no longer discern what is “real” from what is imagined—which leaves only the truth that appropriation is ultimately disastrous.
A father who disciplines his daughter “looked as if he’d been sent all the bills in the world and couldn’t pay them.” A little girl “sounded small and strange, as if she lived in a fairy tale”; in fact she does live in a fairy tale, and by its rules, she is perfectly normal. In such lines, New Zealand’s Janet Frame crystallized whole lives, and her short stories, in turn, encapsulate much larger narratives. Frame’s characters are generally outsiders; they’re poor, ill, or disenfranchised by some perceived oddness. But they are not passive. Frame describes one woman as having “a kind of helplessness” in her eyes that “would change in a flash to defiance.” The two dozen works in Between My Father and the King (Counterpoint, $15.95) are stories of that flash. Frame (1924-2004) was institutionalized herself (saved from a lobotomy by winning a writing award) and she questions authority by showing how even those who have it—the rich, the doctors—are subject to fate’s reversals. Frame has tremendous empathy as well as imagination, and her brilliant portrayals of life from the perspectives of children and patients show how these marginalized individuals supplement their partial understanding of reality with dreams, myths, and stories, creating for themselves alternate realities that may collide with the accepted one, but that may also allow them to thrive.
From The Girl in the Flammable Skirt to Willful Creatures, the fiction writer Aimee Bender has proven herself a master of the short story. The fifteen meticulously crafted pieces in her latest collection, The Color Master (Anchor, $15), feature characters such as a woman who mends the torn-apart flesh of tigers and a child who cannot recognize other people’s faces—figures that provoke an elegant disquiet. Enter Bender’s spare, strange, and often heartbreakingly lovely small worlds, and when you re-emerge, it’s with something fundamentally shifted. Bender is that rare writer who can achieve much with few words—just one quality which makes this work so compelling, important, and utterly enjoyable.