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

By Pik-Shuen Fung
257 pp. One World. $26.

In Fung’s quietly moving “Ghost Forest,” the author takes a choral approach to her unnamed narrator’s family history, after her largely absent father’s protracted illness and death. The young woman’s family immigrated to Vancouver in the 1990s, but her dad stayed back in Hong Kong to keep his manufacturing job, visiting them only sporadically. “Astronaut family,” she explains: “It’s a term invented by the Hong Kong mass media. A family with an astronaut father — flying here, flying there.” The narrator learns early in life to seek her father in the spaces he vacates — like in the smell of his pajamas, left behind after one of his brief trips to Canada.

Fung intersperses the daughter’s narration with the first-person voices of her mother and grandmother in passages of pristine monologue, the timeline leapfrogging from present to past, connected by a kind of dream logic. Short chapters move from China to Canada to the United States, with multiple stops in between, carrying generations across the globe and leaving many behind.

The narrator is an artist, and her fascination with traditional Chinese xieyi freehand painting is an apt visual analog of the novel form. “With a single line, you can paint the ocean,” her teacher says. In similarly restrained, written lines, “Ghost Forest” reveals a father in fine detail, though obscured by distance both physical and emotional. The narrator’s genius is in perceiving her father beneath his omissions, as in a particularly lovely moment when she sees his feet poking out from under a hospital blanket, wagging from side to side, as he “stared out the window with no expression.” “Ghost Forest” is at times melancholy, but never regretful; deeply felt, but unencumbered. There is joy and tenderness in what’s missed, and Fung’s elegant storytelling accomplishes a lot with deceptively little.

By Rahul Raina
325 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper, $17.

There is nothing slow, subtle or discreet about this raucous novel, narrated in deadpan voice-over by Ramesh, a self-described “lower lower middle class” 24-year-old scammer. Born, bred and traumatized in a contemporary Delhi that shows little mercy to the poor son of a cartoonishly villainous father, Ramesh is a capital-P Protagonist, demanding our attention despite constant references to his life of invisibility. As a storyteller, he revels in cliché, using “Slumdog Millionaire”-style tropes to court and then call out the white, Western gaze that laps them up. His perspective is a delight, even if the novel’s pacing stalls periodically from his frequent, exposition-heavy asides.

Testily rejecting all pity, Ramesh learns to play by the corrupt rules of the game, rising out of abject poverty by offering his services as an “educational consultant” to wealthy teenagers ahead of the grueling All India college entrance exams. Read: He takes the tests for them. The highest scorers (“Toppers”) can become celebrities — unless they are Muslim, in which case they are pointedly ignored, one of Raina’s many casual references to the everyday anti-Muslim prejudice that further separates Indians beyond caste.

When Ramesh unexpectedly launches the privileged but lackluster student Rudraksh into the position of Topper, the “tutor” appoints himself Rudi’s “manager,” ensuring a firm grip on the 18-year-old’s coattails as both enjoy the spoils born of their duplicity. As the host of a popular quiz show, Rudi angers the wrong local magnate by humiliating the man’s son on live TV. This sets off a series of moderately competent kidnappings involving both Rudi and Ramesh, peppered with campy impersonation, double-crossing, perfunctory romance and severed fingers. Bracketed by sentimental flashbacks to the saintly nun who gave Ramesh his education, the second half of the novel skims through plot points with rowdy glee. If a little longer than it needs to be, “How to Kidnap the Rich” is still a tartly entertaining novel, a potential summer blockbuster, trading nuance for bold strokes.

By Alex McElroy
304 pp. Atria. $27.

In a world where, as McElroy puts it, “cadence was far more important than content,” this cutting satire — the kind that hews eerily close to reality — takes the premise of the contemporary relationship between influencer and followers to exhilarating extremes. Like “How to Kidnap the Rich,” “The Atmospherians” features a main character built for the spotlight who achieves infamy thanks to ambition, mercenary deceit, violence and social media. Opening the story in medias res, McElroy introduces Sasha Marcus, the beautiful founder and spokesperson of the wellness program known as ABANDON. On the brink of even greater fortune and renown, she falls swiftly into disgrace by way of one poorly phrased clapback on Instagram.

Sasha is only capable of seeing herself through others’ eyes, and the others she surrounds herself with are either condescending rivals or sycophantic hangers-on — until she finds herself with neither. Under siege in her New Jersey apartment, Sasha is fetched by her oldest friend, Dyson, who persuades her (without much difficulty) to collaborate with him in starting a cult. The Atmosphere, he tells her, will offer rehabilitation to white men by isolating them in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, destroying their phones and initiating them into a rigorous course of physical and mental training. Through this process, members (so-called Atmospherians) will ideally become something more vaporous and whole; less menaced by their own masculinity. “The more men we bring in,” Dyson says, “the fewer there are in the world harassing women and killing themselves.”

This is exceptional writing: McElroy’s world-building is artful, funny and bracingly resonant. “Influencer was not yet a word anyone used,” Sasha says. “It was merely an idea buried in ice, waiting for its prison to melt.” Just shy of the reality we now occupy, “The Atmospherians” is full of visceral, often sickening emotion, as expressed through Sasha’s impulsive shifts in mood and impressionability. Wellness is oblivion, and as she flees from one kind of cult to another, Sasha comes to grasp the power of her own influence — while losing her ability to resist it. Whether we’re online or not, “The Atmospherians” includes all of us in its vast, cutting scope. The algorithm wouldn’t want it any other way.

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