Faculty Picks: Rebecca Schiff on short stories by Abigail Ulman, Tracy O'Neill on Marie NDiaye's novel of unknowing


I know a book has gotten to me when I start texting my friends asking if they’ve read it. “You read Hot Little Hands?” “Have you by chance read Abigail Ulman’s story collection?” I want to discuss it and I want to discuss it now. I want everyone to know that in this world of James Bond remakes and tepid bestsellers, there’s a writer daring to say something new, to tell us what she sees, to describe things I’ve felt but haven’t yet articulated. In nine poignant, sexually frank stories, Abigail Ulman articulates what it’s like to be young and female so accurately that this book could almost be a primer. (A primer for what, I’m not sure.) Ulman’s stories have range—a twenty-two-year-old culture blogger decides to have a baby instead of finishing the book she’s under contract to write; a Russian gymnast’s visit to the U.S. takes a disturbing turn—but somehow they feel personal, too. I loved “Head to Toe,” in which two Australian teens get so bored with late adolescence that they go back to horse camp; and “The Pretty One,” a story that flips the conventional script of longing and obsession so that the fixated one is the female narrator, and the pretty one is a male bar-back with “black converse, tight gray jeans, a yellow T-shirt inside out, and a bunch of curly brown hair pushed to the side of his forehead.” A lifetime of descriptions of female beauty hadn’t prepared me for what it might be like to lust, along with the narrator, for a male object, to see how closely her crush is tied to the boy’s beauty, to understand exactly why she’s afraid to screw it up. I’d stumbled upon the female gaze, and I long to gaze with Abigail Ulman wherever she next turns her head. — Rebecca Schiff

As a kid, I never checked out scary films on trips to the local video rental store in Merrimack, NH, and I once told a man I was dating that watching a zombie movie felt, to me, like watching the two-hour cardio session of several people who'd not dressed for the occasion. Nevertheless, I find myself of late allured by a particular style of horror defined by a high-wire plot of unknowing. Recently, I began reading My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (translated from French by Jordan Stump), who won the Prix Goncourt in 2009. The story of a couple who have become deplored by their small community without any seeming reason for it and who are shocked by the sudden appearance of a strange wound on the man's abdomen, the novel balances lucid prose with mysterious unease. Its conceit mobilizes and turns on its head our desire to find rationale for the infliction of cruelty, asking us to consider the everyday horror we enact as we mark and withdraw from others, and as we believe that the presence of horror suggests horror is deserved. — Tracy O’Neill

Rebecca Schiff and Tracy O’Neill are members at the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Non-Fiction.