Early Novels by Pik-Shuen Fung, Rahul Raina, and Alex McElroy

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GHOST FOREST
by Pik-Shuen Fung
257 p. One World. $26.

In Fung’s quietly moving “Ghost Forest,” the author takes a choral approach to the family story of his eponymous narrator, following his father’s long illness and death. The young woman’s family immigrated to Vancouver in the 1990s, but her father remained in Hong Kong to pursue his manufacturing business, visiting them only occasionally. “The astronaut family,” he explains, “is a term coined by the Hong Kong media. A family with an astronaut father – he flies here, he flies there.” The narrator learns at an early age to look for his father in places where he empties, like the smell of his pajamas he left behind after one of his short trips to Canada.

In pristine monologue passages, Fung interspersed her daughter’s narration with the first-person voices of her mother and grandmother into a timeline leaping from the present to the past, connected by a sort of dream logic. The short segments travel from China to Canada and the United States, with multiple stops in between, carrying generations around the world and leaving many behind.

The narrator is an artist and his fascination with traditional Chinese xeyi freehand painting is a convenient visual analogue of the novel form. “You can paint the ocean with a single line,” says his teacher. In similarly restrained, written lines, “Ghost Forest” reveals a father in fine detail, albeit hidden from both physical and emotional distance. The narrator’s genius lies in his perception of his father at the bottom of his neglect, as in a particularly beautiful moment when he sees his father pop out from under a hospital blanket, sway from side to side, and “stare out the window, expressionless.” “Ghost Forest” is sometimes melancholic but never regrettable; deeply felt, but not inhibited. There is joy and compassion in what is missed, and Fung’s elegant storytelling achieves so much with deceptively little.

HOW TO MISS THE RICH
by Rahul Raina
325 p. Harper Perennial. Paper, $17.

There’s nothing slow, subtle, or secretive about this muffled novel, told with dead voice over by Ramesh, a 24-year-old swindler who describes himself as “lower middle class.” Born, raised and traumatized in a contemporary Delhi where a cartoonish bad father shows little mercy to his poor son, Ramesh is a capital-P Hero that grabs our attention despite the constant reference to his life of invisibility. As a storyteller, he goes to court using “Slumdog Millionaire”-style tropes and then invokes the white, Western gaze that embraces them. His point of view, the pace of the novel’s pace, is a delight, even as it periodically stalls from its often-on display heavyweights.

Outright refusing to pity, Ramesh learns to play by the corrupt rules of the game and rises from abject poverty by offering his services as an “educational counselor” to wealthy youth before the tough All India college entrance exams. Read: Takes the tests for them. Toppers (“Toppers”) may be famous – unless they are Muslims, in which case they are clearly ignored, one of Raina’s many random references to the everyday anti-Muslim bias that further separates Indians beyond caste.

When Ramesh unexpectedly places privileged but lifeless student Rudraksh in the Topper position, the “teacher” appoints himself as Rudi’s “principal”, enjoying the booty born of the 18-year-old’s twins, while both of them have a tight grip on the 18-year-old’s coat. Rudi, the host of a popular game show, angers the wrong local tycoon by humiliating the man’s son on-air. This starts a series of moderately proficient kidnappings involving both Rudi and Ramesh, filled with bizarre impersonation, hypocrisy, sloppy romance, and severed fingers. Bracketed with emotional flashbacks to the saintly nun who taught Ramesh, the second half of the novel revises the plot with rowdy glee. While it’s a little longer than it should be, “How You Miss the Rich” is still a pretty fun novel, a potential summer blockbuster, trading nuances for bold hits.

ATMOSPHERES
by Alex McElroy
304 p. atria 27 dollars.

In a world where “cadence is far more important than content,” as McElroy puts it, this poignant satire – the genre that is eerily close to reality – takes the premise of the contemporary relationship between impressing and followers to exhilarating extremes. Like “Abducting the Rich,” “Atmospheric” has a main character built for the limelight that has become infamous through greed, mercenary deception, violence, and social media. open the story media picture, McElroy introduces Sasha Marcus, the beautiful founder and spokesperson of the wellness program known as ABANDON. On the verge of even greater wealth and fame, she quickly falls out of favor with a badly worded applause on Instagram.

Sasha can only see herself through the eyes of others, and the others she surrounds are either condescending rivals or flatterers – until she finds herself with both. Under siege in her New Jersey apartment, Sasha is brought in by her oldest friend, Dyson, who persuades her (without difficulty) to cooperate with him to start a cult. He tells her that Atmosphere will offer rehabilitation by isolating white men in Pine Barrens, New Jersey, by destroying their phones and starting them on a rigorous physical and mental training course. Through this process, the members (called Atmosphers) will ideally become something more steamy and whole; less threatened by their own masculinity. “The more men we bring in, the fewer people in the world who abuse women and kill themselves,” Dyson says.

This is an outstanding piece: McElroy’s world-building resonates in a masterful, entertaining, and uplifting way. “impressive It wasn’t a word anyone used yet,” says Sasha. “It was an idea buried in the ice, waiting for its prison to melt.” Just shy of the reality we currently occupy, “The Atmospherians” is filled with visceral, often sickening emotions, as expressed by Sasha’s impulsive shifts in mood and impressionability. Health is oblivion, and while fleeing from one kind of cult to another, Sasha begins to grasp the power of her own influence and loses her ability to resist it. Whether we are online or not, “Atmospheres” encompasses all of us in its broad and sharp scope. The algorithm would not want otherwise.

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