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Terese Svoboda

Recipient of a Guggenheim, Terese Svoboda is the author of seventeen books of prose, poetry, memoir, translation, and biography, including six books of fiction—most recently, Bohemian Girl.

Blurbs

“Svoboda transports readers to a fantastical American West in this collection of stories that surprise, disturb, and amuse in equal measure."

– Publisher’s Weekly

“A devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.”

– Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

“[Svoboda’s] enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Featured Book

Great American Desert

Water and Life and Death: Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda

06/01/19

“He gave us life,” the people of a western settlement earnestly say about the man—Dutch Joe—who digs wells or maybe divines water in the Great American Desert they have chosen to try to settle. He gave them water, and so who is a kind of spiritual leader or variety of folk hero in a story—neatly called “Dutch Joe”—in Terse Svoboda’s new collection Great American Desert which holds inside of it all of the work and boredom and ambition and helplessness and the fear and the monotony of settler life. “I have it on good authority that you can tell the future by looking up from those holes,” Dutch Joe tells them and us. “It has to do with those stars you see that way. But you don’t want to look up too often. If the sky comes down, we’ll all be wearing a blue cap.”

The whole collection occupies a wild but familiar American West then and now and maybe someday. It is connected by the space—the Clovis in what we know now as New Mexico (“Camp Clovis”), explorers chart the “great American desert” (“Major Long Talks to His Horse”), the settlers break ground on the land with their water guru Dutch Joe, desperate dut bowl farmers try to eke out a kind of existence and live a kind of life on the disappearing land (“Dirty Thirties”), citizens in a cold war atomic town live and lose their lives in the shadow of The Bomb (“Bomb Jockey”), and so on, and so on.

Water and life and death soak the pages. I come from a place full of ice and rivers and many lakes; I have spent very little time in deserts. It is only after I am several stories in to the collection that it occurs to me how large a space water must occupy—metaphorically, spiritually, mortally—in a place as dry as a desert. Having it, polluting it, searching for it, its lack, the desire: these energies pulse under every parched story.

The collection is eerie, touching, speculative, reflective, funny, tragic, and bittersweet. “Ah civilization” one of her characters reflects, and this may be the second thread in the braid: living and dying and doing it all with other people in human society. The stories unearth what is good and what is ugly and what is futile in us. For me there are several other stories which particularly stand out, but each is individually strong and worth the reading.

The very first story—“Camp Clovis”—is a dreamy, shadowed, bittersweet story told in “we”s which starts as if a familiar summer camp story and flows silently into an extinction tale about the Clovis people. Even without obvious magic, it has a hard-to-place flavor of something mystical.

Her story “Hot Rain” has worked its way in to my brain and my heart and seems likely to stay there. It has a fractured, disorienting story about an elderly man, his suspicious caregivers, his adult children, and the lack and decay of parental love. Everyone is a little awful and a lot human and certainly hurt and vulnerable. Tenderness and anger and generosity and selfishness and grief permeate each paragraph. It is such a clear sketch of a family, of desperate and damaged people, of being angry with someone who is dying. At one point the group goes to a restaurant for a meal together and it goes achingly awry: ” “We are ungrateful and unworthy, Dad is telling us, beaming as if he’s just discovered the true meaning of being a parent. At our age he figures we don’t need to be coddled, protected from the truth the way we were in our upbringing, not acknowledging all his years of upbringing-neglect, the true truth.” And yet it still pulls a few laughs from me.

“The Mountain” is a strange and disturbing fairy tale. It unfolds in a city-village that exists then-now-always in which all the children have been lured into the mountain by a pied piper—or perhaps sacrificed to the mountain—except for but one girl. She has a limp and fell behind and so was saved; subsequently the parents beat for being free. She suggests that the town may pay to get their children back, but this suggestion instead of calming the distraught parents enrages them as they descend into absurd, banal infighting about who should pay more and why. They decide to sacrifice the kind and queen to the mountain, who do not like hits idea at all and suggest that the people simply have more children, and who thwart the plan by murdering the girl at the doorstep of the mountain and either chaining, deporting, or promoting the parents into acquiescence.

Finally, the collection closes with what is for me the strangest and most evocative story: “Pink Pyramid.” In a dark, bizarre, and isolated dystopian past/present/future a man and a woman live in a travel home in the glow of a huge pink pyramid. What has happened, and what is happening, and what will happen outside of the immediate events of their interactions is shadowed; what matters is the emotional energy between the two, and it is heartbreaking and beautiful. With no explanation of the pyramid, the gas, the work, the shadowy threatening “they” who had sensors supposedly everywhere, the cataclysmic war, or anything else, the reader is forced to read only the immediate reactions of the two. But is he a ghost? A figment of her imagination? Is she? We are suspended in curiosity.

This is a wonderful, and fiercely original collection for anyone who enjoys fiction in any genre—literary, speculative, horror, romance. It ticks all of the emotional boxes. Even still disoriented by and under the spell of what I read, I can confidently recommend it.

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