Order and Chaos, Mostly Chaos, in 3 Debut Novels

HOW TO ORDER THE UNIVERSE
By María José Ferrada
Translated by Elizabeth Bryer
180 pp. Tin House. $19.95.

“Is it good to know the inner workings of things? To know what makes them tick?” It’s a question M — a very organized 7-year-old girl — poses to the reader late in Ferrada’s exceptional novel. M’s systematic attempts to make meaning out of her chaotic life may be futile, but they offer a canny insight into her magical mind.

In “How to Order the Universe,” M — narrating the story from the future — accompanies her father on his trips to sell hardware in Pinochet-era Chile, delighting in the strange wonder of the new towns she visits. She worships a deity she calls the “Great Carpenter,” who guides the entire universe using sales principles: “The orders were never exact,” M explains; “imprecision … was one of the first laws of sales, and of life.” If M’s “parallel education” is the lessons she learns while skipping school to work for her dad, then the reader falls into a parallel universe along with her.

M doesn’t arrange her world like a toolbox for fun — she does so out of necessity, in an attempt to make sense of her strange childhood. Ferrada — a prizewinning Chilean children’s book author — cleverly pulls the curtain back at just the right moments to offer a more objective view of M’s young life, to track the story of her disenchantment. M idolizes her father, whose actions suggest there’s more to him than can be contained inside such a neat little box. In elegant and simple prose, ably translated from the Spanish by Bryer, the author disperses clues to explain what M cannot, like the cause of her mother’s sadness. M’s logical thinking reflects the human instinct to create order out of chaos, but her coming-of-age is realized only once she begins to grasp her messy reality, the tragedies of her childhood, the consequences of her parents’ choices.

Transience pervades this slim novel: in the father’s itinerant career, in the pace at which new information undermines M’s prior conception of life. And the book is itself transient. Ferrada turns the story on its head several times with just one sentence. You’ll find yourself at the end before you know it, still wondering if M finally found the order she craved.

WE PLAY OURSELVES
By Jen Silverman
322 pp. Random House. $28.

Cass, Silverman’s 30-something protagonist, wants to start her life over. A queer struggling playwright whose reputation has been wrecked by a mysterious professional scandal, she flees New York for Los Angeles to escape her past. “There’s more space, it seems,” her mother says, “for you to — try things and — make mistakes and — I didn’t have any space to make mistakes.” But for all the space she finds out West, Cass’s new start only leads back into uncomfortably familiar territory.

That is: female rage. Once in Los Angeles she takes on an edgy new project with a filmmaker next door, making a documentary about teenage girls that grapples with rage in its overt, violent form. But Cass exhibits her own kind of fury, at the turns her life has taken, at a younger writer of whom she’s woefully envious. Compared with its male counterpart, Silverman’s female rage is quieter, more vindictive, more inscrutable. Dogged by the consequences of her anger until the end, Cass finds herself confronting, once again, whether her hunt for success will lead to her inevitable demise.

“We Play Ourselves” offers a delightful, satirical glimpse into the entertainment industry and the price of fame. But Cass is less of a stereotypical Hollywood egomaniac than a garden-variety millennial, pining for a not-quite-ex and ordering takeout. Still, she approaches the world with openness and humility, taking responsibility for her own misery as she crawls out from rock bottom.

Silverman balances wit with earnestness, the laugh-out-loud moments highlighting the absurdity of writing — whether plays, films or poetry, the genre she skewers most adroitly in a pitch-perfect parody of an overhyped ingénue. Cass’s desperation for a new, simpler life is universal. As she falls again and again, the reader believes she has the heart to pick herself back up.

DETRANSITION, BABY
By Torrey Peters
340 pp. One World. $27.

The pursuit of parenthood can be as astonishing as it is cruel. There are those who are forced into it against their will, those who can’t have it the way they hoped and those who can’t have it at all. In fact, there are as many different ways to be a parent as there are to be a person, and crafting such an identity for oneself consumes each of the three central characters in Peters’s compassionate and convincing novel, “Detransition, Baby.”

It begins as all three interconnected individuals find themselves far removed from the satisfaction and stability they have always craved. Reese is a trans woman who once got “as close to domesticity as she figured possible for a trans girl,” only to start sleeping with married men and wanting a baby. Reese’s ex Ames recently detransitioned (when they were together, he was Amy), and he still seems hung up on her and unsure about his gender identity. Early on he calls Reese to tell her he’s gotten his boss, Katrina, pregnant. A cisgender woman at the top of her corporate career, Katrina has just survived a miscarriage and bad divorce. The three of them wonder if this baby might be just the answer they all need.

Peters weaves together this multifaceted cast in ways that leave the reader empathizing with each one even as they undermine one another. Her characters are so vividly drawn and human that the reader comes to feel personally close to them; and, like friends, their self-destructive or selfish behavior can be disappointing. But so too can their dark humor add levity to life’s heavier moments, as when Reese enumerates the reasons she attends funerals: to feel something, to be social and because they “remind her not to kill herself.” Peters doesn’t shy away from exposing her characters’ flaws.

Nor does she shy away from an original plot. As Katrina’s pregnancy progresses and the characters shift in their desires and identities, we remain hooked on their every word. Delivered with heart and savvy, their deliberations upend our traditional, gendered notions of what parenthood can look like.

By the end of “Detransition, Baby,” questions remain unanswered, but still the reader somehow feels satisfied. Perhaps because Reese, Ames and Katrina feel to us more like friends than characters, we don’t expect their loose ends to be tied up. We simply hope for the best.

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