You might have noticed—you thinking person you!—that it is book awards season. As it is nearly impossible to read every selection on the longlist, shortlist, or even winner list, I have provided five excerpts that could, truly, have come from almost any of them.
Darnley was Mina’s second-least favorite cousin. She had gone to some forgettable college in the Southwest but managed, partly because she had an amazing ass and partly because she never took no for an answer—and really, Mina thought, who knew which had come first—to secure a six-figure job as an executive assistant at a hedge fund in Stamford run fairly exclusively by Princetonians and called, with clubby predictability, The Tiger Fund. While Darnley had certainly gotten lucky in the physique department, it needed to be said that her estimable trio of gluteal muscles had much to owe to her being a master equestrian, and when she told Laurel she was spending the month of February mansion-sitting and exercising her boss’ quartet of Crabbet Arabians, Mina found herself, despite a shame that engulfed her with monsoon suddenness, hoping to get an invitation. Indeed an invitation arrived, and so it was on the eve of Valentine’s Day that Mina, all puppy fat and virginal curiosity and hastily Lubridermed psoriasis packed into Macy’s house-brand velvet dress, found herself picking at the blistered seat of a New Jersey Transit train bound for a glamorous-sounding place called Lawrenceville.
Saskia and Calvin’s first conversation took place over something called an Absinthe Negroni and started out stilted, flat, featureless, like a prairie where you kept hoping to see a house but saw only prairie. Saskia was overwhelmed by the animate rubberiness of his upper lip. Was it her, or was it truly that every time he made a point he looked like he was about to blow into a medieval flute? But after some time, it reached her mind—when telling the story years later she would always say that she didn’t know whether the Absinthe or the Negroni was the conduit of this information—that Calvin reminded her of her uncle, her uncle so much younger than her mother (really inappropriately so, considering Saskia’s grandfather’s age and her grandmother’s love of the salon) who seemed suspiciously game to accompany her pubescent, bikinied self on all those low-tide razor clam expeditions.
Pash and Naomi were acquainted through social media through friends of the latter’s from the graduate program in English at Hopkins, an institution from which she had gone running—well, really sprinting—on the cusp of her 34th summer. Her unfinished dissertation, essentially a meditation on whether Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville had actually fucked or had merely exchanged fevered correspondence, still sat on her hard drive, persistent as a crow on a telephone wire, and was saved under “uraaloser.” Before meeting in person they had an exhaustive Facebook correspondence—Naomi couldn’t help but draw parallels between herself and the subject of her doomed life’s work—which often kept them up late, into that time of night where it is not just late but where the sky becomes not so much a sky but a dark piece of felt stretched somehow over and then hospital-tucked into the corners of the universe. They talked about love, late-term abortions, other people, Judaism, ISIS, Henry James and Edith Wharton, tuna melts, cancer and hand blenders. Naomi told Pash it was OK to throw out old cross-stitched nursery rhyme wall hangings. Pash told Naomi it was OK to drink too much every night. Each admitted to watching Homeland with a powerful yearning to be legitimately insane, but with blonde hair. Although without the humidifying powers of sex, Naomi nonetheless felt she was falling in love. Pash’s Yankee mock-rigidity somehow, inexplicably, reached back in time to Naomi’s hardened ancestors, potato-frying Kievites whose rightly paranoid suspicion of truly everything Naomi could feel, like a fish under winter ice, lurking under her affable, secular Brooklyness.
Rafi didn’t know if he should feel more successful. When did one consider oneself a success? Was there some concrete way of knowing, and was it the not-knowing the sign that was the problem, or the success (or lack thereof) that was at issue? Did you ever feel like a success? Were successful people successful or simply people who were successful at feeling successful? Or—and this was somehow terrifying, even to his Baudrillard-schooled mind—at merely looking successful? More and more, as he grew older, and his face began to be ever so faintly, attractively, he liked to think, lined with the proof of passing time, he realized that reality and truth were not only opposites but in fact had very little to do with one another. He now regarded truth and reality the way an unpopulated planet might its surfeit of moons—with mild interest, but not enough energy to develop an organic understanding of how one might differ much from the next.
After they were truly broken up, after the albums and the enameled Norwegian cocktail forks and the Joan Didion books and semi-useless white Mac cords, like twice-neutered sea worms, their metal mouths and anuses cold after storage, had been divided and taken to their various new apartments, she found she had time to ache. The ache started at the warm, pliant underside of her tongue, seeped into the meaty, dank lagoons inside her strong teeth, and flowed down her throat, and even up her nose, where she imagined it tiptoeing from cilia to cilia as it made its way into her brain. Here, the ache thinned and blackened, and she thought of the way a river spreads along a flood plain, first reaching out weakly, almost amoeba like, until all the amoebas figured out they were all in one place and might as well take this opportunity to transform into one great, merciless, opaque sheet.
Illustration by Bobby Finger, source photo from Shutterstock
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. Find her @sarahlovescali.