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The Plot Thickens

A trio of excellent new books illuminates what happens when highbrow writers dive into genre fiction. (Spoiler alert: Pages will be turned)

According to Wikipedia—a slightly dubious source, but credible enough for our purposes—genre fiction is defined as “plot-driven [fiction] written with the intent of fitting into a specific genre.” But it’s also known, the site tells us, as “popular fiction,” which might explain why the sorts of writers who were once content to be thought of simply as “literary” have lately been willing to embrace styles, such as fantasy or horror, that were formerly considered downmarket. (Of course, as anyone who’s ever read Octavia Butler or even Mary Shelley can attest, there have always been excellent writers working within the various genres. Furthermore, as Edan Lepucki—author of the forthcoming post-apocalyptic novel California (also pictured right)—convincingly argued in a 2012 essay on The Millions, literary fiction is itself a kind of genre, with its own tropes.) Fortunately, the marriage of highbrow author to high-concept plot is frequently a happy one, as exemplified in three well-written new books, page-turners all.

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon—a debut novelist whose brief back-of-book biography boasts of degrees from both Brown and Columbia—offers a literally literary spin on speculative fiction: The story takes place in a terrifyingly believable near-future in which people have become so dependent on their “Memes” (basically: smartphones on steroids) that they begin to fall victim to a dangerous, aphasia-causing “word flu.” It’s not a spoiler to note that the best treatment for the sick seems to be a prolonged course of old-fashioned reading and writing; the bulk of the plot, which also borrows heavily from noir, follows twenty-something New Yorker Anana as she attempts to figure out what (or who) is causing the illness…and to locate her missing dictionary-editor father.

Frog Music, from Emma Donoghue, the best-selling author of Room, is another mystery that occurs in the midst of an epidemic. This time, though, it’s smallpox, and the setting is San Francisco in the sweltering summer of 1876. Blanche, a burlesque dancer and prostitute, witnesses the shooting of Jenny, a pants-wearing frog catcher who, Blanche fears, has been killed as a result of their newfound friendship. The story skips back and forth, moving forward from both the moment of Jenny’s death and the time of the women’s first meeting, a month prior, as Blanche tries to locate her missing baby and, in her own way, solve the murder. (This vivid book could also be classed as true crime: All of the main characters were real people, and most of the major events described actually occurred, although the ending is, as Donoghue admits in an afterword, based upon her own theory of Jenny’s never-closed case.)

Lastly, there’s An Untamed State by the essayist and short story writer Roxane Gay. The plot is pure thriller—a privileged Haitian-American woman is abducted outside of her wealthy parents’ Port-au-Prince estate—and the author winks at other genres, too, referencing both fairy tales and the trashy ripped-from-the-headlines films aired on certain cable networks. But it’s the psychological realism of this harrowing novel that will keep you reading: The narrator’s 13-day captivity ends up costing her and her family far more than the ransom demanded by the brutal, desperate men who took her, and the story keeps going even after she’s free, as she works to rebuild her self.



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