Annalisa Quinn

"I am authorized to perform acts of justice, power, and retribution, to deliver messages of comfort and healing," begins the angel that wrestled with Jacob in Mallory Ortberg's adaptation of the Biblical story, "Fear Not: An Incident Log."

At first, Asymmetry seems like a story we've heard before: Young, pretty would-be writer Alice launches an affair with Ezra, a literary celebrity several decades her senior. He gets a stent, she gets an abortion, he teaches her to pronounce Camus ("It's CA-MOO, sweetheart"), she picks up his meds, he calls her a "good girl," she calls him "cradle robber."

For the first few chapters, it seemed too tired and too insular a story to hear again all for the meagre reward of watching a lightly disguised Philip Roth ejaculate "like a weak water bubbler."

Editor's note: This review contains spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

This review contains language that some may find offensive.

Henry James, Mary Beard tells us in her new book Women & Power, liked to complain about women's voices — American ones in particular. Under their influence, he believed, language risked devolving into a "tongueless slobber or snarl or whine," like "the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog."

In the 17th century, the poet John Dryden satirized the deep anxiety around letting women learn the Classics:

But of all Plagues, the greatest is untold;

The Book-Learn'd Wife in Greek and Latin bold.

The Critick-Dame, who at her Table sits:

Homer and Virgil quotes, and weighs their Wits;

Hoaxes work when we want them to. These longings can be benign: think of Herman Rosenblat's beautiful, fake story about a girl who kept him alive by throwing apples over the fence of a concentration camp, and meeting her years later on a blind date. Who wouldn't want to believe a love story like that?

Sometimes, when Philip Pullman is tired or anxious, a floating speck appears in his field of vision. "I first saw it when I was playing the piano and I couldn't read the music because there was a damn dot in the way," he says, as we sit in the pleasantly jumbled living room of his farmhouse in Oxfordshire.

The floating dot will expand into a flickering ring of light, like a miniature, personal aurora. It can happen when he's driving, and he'll pull over to wait it out, or sleep it off when he's at home.

"What's worse, writing a trope or being one?" the narrator of Carmen Maria Machado's story "The Resident," asks. She is at an artists' colony, and one of the other residents — a "poet-composer" named Lydia — has snidely announced that the narrator's autobiographical writing plays into the madwoman in the attic stereotype, not to mention the crazy lesbian stereotype. "It's sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done," says Lydia.

Later, the narrator, whose initials are also CM, carves the words "Madwoman in her own attic" into the wood of her writing cabin.

King Lear, done right, verges on unbearable. A portrait of cruelty, betrayal, male power become impotent male rage, the disintegration of the mind, all delivered one after another like steel boots to the spine. "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods: They kill us for their sport," says one character.

So unbearable did audiences find it that for nearly 200 years it was performed with an altered ending, where Lear and his daughter live happily ever after.