Without diving too deep into the current political landscape, it’s fair to say that the question, “What now?” has been asked over and over again since Donald Trump was elected President last week. The question has been asked by many with a sense that the “American experiment” might have reached some kind of an end point.
To the extent you are worried that observation might be true, Allegra Hyde’s new short story collection, Of This New World, is a very important book.
Winner of the John Simmons Iowa Short Fiction Award, many—though not all—of these 13 stories focus on failed or misguided utopian schemes. The collection begins with Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden and ends with a couple trying to procreate on a colony on Mars.
These stories could be described as “after the fact.” In each story, Hyde begins with the consequences of idealistic thinking and how these characters must start over and come to some new truth about their lives.
“Shark Fishing" is about a demagogue who has founded an environmentalist school for rich high schoolers in the Bahamas. “The Future Consequences of Present Actions” is a retelling of the story of Charles Lane, an 18th Century Transcendentalist who founded the Fruitlands commune before becoming disenchanted and joining The Shakers.
The narrator of “Free Love” sums up the central idea of the collection nicely with the realization that “losing someone you care about doesn’t have to mean losing yourself as well.” Losing the dream that was supposed to take you to the promised land doesn’t mean you can’t find some poignancy and beauty in life.
There is some hope in that sentiment, but it would be inaccurate to describe this book as hopeful. The stories contain more of a stoic wisdom. In “Ephemera,” the narrator notes, “While Smythson was unsure of plenty—the existence of God, the mechanics of sex—he knew such things were dangerous. Loving and gun-shooting, their dangers never kept people from messing with them.” Que sera sera, you could say.
In that sense, the book is arguably an anti-Dubliners, which James Joyce described as “a collection of epiphanies.” The characters do learn something by the end of each story, but the realizations are much softer. Each conclusion reached by someone who’s already been burned by their idealism and not quite ready to face their idealistic thinking again.
Not all the stories fit this mold exactly. “Flowers for Prisoners,” for example, follows a Mexican woman who doesn’t know what has happened to her adopted son as he attempts to cross the border in the United States. Even when the stories aren’t exactly about a failed idealism, there’s a thematic relevance to the stories—the need to strive for something greater than oneself—that makes the exception fit the rule.
The stories can be very funny a lá George Saunders, but they are less satirical. That sense of humor works well for a book that is less about our current culture than a kind of thinking that has plagued human beings since day one.
Of This New World is published by University of Iowa Press.
A native of New Hampshire, Allegra Hyde received her B.A. from Williams College and her M.F.A. from Arizona State University. Her stories and essays have been published in New England Review, Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, and many other venues. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as a notable mention in Best American Essays 2015. Roxane Gay selected her work for "The Wigleaf Top 50 [Very] Short Fictions of 2015," and she was a finalist for the 2015 Million Writers Award. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, the National University of Singapore, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, The Island School, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission.
Reviewed by Edward Derbes, prose editor, Hayden's Ferry Review