In her first story collection since her acclaimed Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg offers 11 uncanny tales about women confronting misogyny, violence, the impossible economics of America, and their own slippery selves.
The terrain of Van den Berg’s difficult, beautiful and urgent new book, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, is an ecosystem of weird and stirring places you’ll want to revisit, reconsider, maybe even take shelter in. It’s easy to get going, because Van den Berg is such a master of setups ... Possessing some of Karen Russell’s spookiness and Otessa Moshfegh’s penchant for unsettling observations about the way we live now—personally incisive but alive with a kind of ambient political intelligence—Van den Berg feels like the writer we not only want but maybe need right now ... There is range here, particularly in characters and relationships: single people, mothers and daughters, loners, but also people engaged in the long dance of marriage ... Van den Berg is so consistently smart and kind, bracingly honest, keen about mental illness and crushing about everything from aging to evil that you might not be deluded in hoping that the usual order of literary fame could be reversed: that an author with respectable acclaim for her novels might earn wider recognition for a sneakily brilliant collection of stories.
... includes a few smart touches of metafiction, as the teacher of stories comments on the one she’s telling. On top of that—check out those verbs! 'Wept' and 'eavesdropped' throw off fresh glimmers, given the spin van den Berg puts on them ... A similar richness of reading pleasures brims in every one of these 11 tales ... offers the greatest distillation of [van den Ber's] talents to date. To pick a best story is beyond me; now I favor 'Volcano House,' now 'Karolina,' and now the closer, also the title piece ... The voice is just part of the excitement, with its pyrotechnic verbs ... Eye-popping description, however, is far from the only form of liveliness in these narratives ... magic often flits around the edges of Hold a Wolf, yet I count only two stories which entail something truly surreal.
... as in any Van den Berg story, the circumstances are dire without ever falling into the melodramatic. Rather, contemporary existence is dire. What lesser writers might hold up as bitingly satirical, like a man whose job is waiting in line for people to acquire a new electronic or bespoke cronut, Van den Berg presents as a matter of course. The world does not need her narration to invoke a despairing chuckle. Absurdity goes unremarked upon, because it’s the order of the day, and she has much more interesting things to say ... Fans of Van den Berg’s last novel, The Third Hotel, will find comfort (if anything in Van den Berg’s work can be considered comfortable) in stories like 'The Pitch' where the narrator confronts her husband about the other boy in a childhood picture. The story is a masterclass in suspense ... Van den Berg is not the only writer to make this move, but she is damn good at it. We suspend our disbelief to enter the story, we forget, our disbelief rendered invisible until we are explicitly reminded of it, then proceeding with caution—we won’t get fooled again—we suspend our disbelief once more, and somehow come out the other side believing in the story wholeheartedly. The trick is not making readers feel like they’ve been had, but for the story to confirm something they have perhaps long suspected: that things are as strange as they seem ... Above all, Van den Berg is a writer of wonderous understatement. Her stories end with readers feeling they have Wile E Coyote’d their way off a cliff and are only now realizing there is no ground left beneath them. Van den Berg’s introspective narration assures she is falling with us and is just as scared to find out where we are going to land—if we are going to survive.