Brandon Taylor and Clare Sestanovich explore the unbearable lightness of being in their luminous new story collections.

By Leah Greenblatt
June 21, 2021 at 02:20 PM EDT
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objects of desire & filthy animals
'Objects of Desire,' by Clare Sestanovich, and 'Filthy Animals,' by Brandon Taylor
| Credit: Knopf; Riverhead Books

As we all emerge blinking into a post-pandemic world, our collective attention span a hollowed husk of internet flotsam and half-remembered Netflix, short stories seem to offer about as much content as our broken brains can handle; a baby-steps path back to the kind of deep-dive reading we used to love. The tales in Brandon Taylor's Filthy Animals (June 22) and Clare Sestanovich's Objects of Desire (June 29) promise all the perks of great literature - drama, atmosphere, indelible characters - but little else in the way of comfort; they're too keyed into the alienation and absurdities of modern living to pretend otherwise.

Taylor, at least, has been here before - "here" being in and around the same unnamed Midwest college town where his lauded 2020 debut Real Life took place. A blue-collar engineer stumbles into sexual awakening with a grad student in "Ann of Cleves," while a nanny may have gone as feral as her charges in "Little Beast," and a girl named Grace faces a terminal diagnosis in the lovely, elegiac "What Made Them Made You." Through it all, Taylor returns again and again to the love triangle between a suicidal math major and two tempestuous dancers, a tangled pas de trois of race, identity, and perception.

The protagonists in Objects - mostly women, mostly young - don't knowingly interconnect, though each seems to have reached some kind of inflection point, even if it's visible to no naked eye but their own. In "Security Questions,"a drifting twentysomething has an affair with a much older man, with his architect wife's permission; in "Wants and Needs," another spends a fraught summer with the stepbrother she never quite had. Sestanovich, an editor at The New Yorker, writes with a kind of bracing cold-plunge clarity that Taylor's more elliptical prose tends to lack. But both tap into the peculiar, primal struggle of becoming who you are, and all the stories you have to tell yourself to get there.

Filthy Animals: B+
Objects of Desire: A

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