Did you know that some of our most admired contemporary writers were first published by a small press? These authors might be undiscovered today if not for the bold initiative of a small press that took the creative and financial risk to publish that debut novel or story collection.
Over the next few months we want to highlight some of our favorite debuts by authors whose careers were launched by a small press—books that definitely belong on your reading list.
O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno
(Chiasmus Press, 2010)
An absolute gem and personal favorite, Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel (reissued by Harper Collins in 2017) explores the interior lives of Mommy, her twenty-something daughter, Maggie, and homeless immigrant, Malachi. While Maggie is self-destructive, and Malachi suffers visions and aspires martyrdom, Zambreno reveals the self-satisfied, Midwestern housewife, Mommy, as the most disturbed and pernicious of the trio. Short chapters at the beginning and the middle of the novel feature a Greek chorus whose refrain laments the daily, unremarked deaths of ordinary people. Meanwhile Maggie, sex-craved and despairing, cannot reconcile her desire to be free from Mommy with her need to be loved, and she is tormented by the vengeful Furies as she fights to extinguish Mommy’s influence in her life.
In the dozen or so years of her impressive and label-defying writing career Zambreno has made her mark as an author who probes her subjects’ consciousness (and oftentimes her own) with an honest intensity that is unsettling, painful, and very often, bitingly funny. O Fallen Angel is no exception with its depiction of Mommy, a woman overflowing with proud self-regard and narrow-mindedness and also Zambreno’s clever word puns, deployed to surprising and satisfying effect.
McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh
(Fence Books, 2014)
Reissued by Penguin Books in 2019 following the success of the novels Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and the story collection, Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh’s tense, atmospheric novella, McGlue represents the author’s initial foray into the ranks of published authors. And what a remarkable debut it is! McGlue tells the story of a sailor of the same name, an incurable drunk, who is accused by his shipmates of murdering his friend and fellow sailor, Johnson during a stop in Zanzibar. In the months that follow the ship slowly makes its way back to the US while McGlue, locked in the ship’s hold and suffering from delirium tremens, dreams of past exploits with Johnson at various ports of call.
As in her later works Moshfegh explores the liminal space between her characters’ dreams and realities—this blurring of boundaries places readers in the unsettled minds of her protagonists and produces an intriguingly disorienting affect. Perhaps most remarkable is how Moshfegh so ably creates the sodden, sweaty, and unforgiving world of McGlue’s nineteenth century commercial seafarers, a place and time so removed from the contemporary settings of her later novels.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
(Coffee House Press, 2011)
Ben Lerner’s first works were poetry collections published by the wonderful independent poetry house, Copper Canyon Press. A few years later Leaving the Atocha Station, his first novel, was released by Coffee House Press. Its protagonist is a young American poet, Adam Gordon, on fellowship in Madrid, who worries that he is incapable of having “a profound experience of art,” unlike the people he sees at art museums, music performances, and poetry readings, who appear to be truly moved by art. His immediate response is to increase his daily dosage of tranquilizers, which does nothing to relieve his acute self-consciousness and smug distain for Madrid’s amateur art scene.
Adam claims poor Spanish as an excuse to not communicate with his friends and lovers in an open and authentic way. This exploration of how we manipulate speech for our own ends is a theme that Lerner takes up in later novels, such as The Topeka School. While Adam, in many ways, is a disagreeable protagonist, it is easy for the reader to be charmed by his egoism and cynical view of human nature. Though jaded Adam retains an abiding faith in the potential of words, deeds, and art, so long as they remain in the “flattering light of the subjunctive.”
Originally published on the Republic of Consciousness Prize blog