Our quintet of quality this week includes The Great Believers author Rebecca Makkai on Zadie Smith’s new short story collection, Joan Frank on Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, Stacey D’Erasmo on Liz Phair’s candid memoir, James Wood on Jokha Alharthi’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, and Maureen Corrigan on Saeed Jones’ “raunchy, mean, nuanced, loving and melancholy” coming-of-age tale.
“Some… more traditional stories have landed in Smith’s first collection, Grand Union, and while still brilliant on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the often hilarious skewering of humanity, they’re the least successful ones here, sour notes in a collection in which the best pieces achieve something less narrative and closer to brilliance. The more traditional stories become most interesting as examples of a mode from which Smith seems to be evolving away … Thrillingly, the best work in Grand Union is some of the newest. Among its previously unpublished stories and the two most recently published ones, we find the surreal, the nonlinear, the essayistic, the pointillist … For a lesser writer, we might wish more avidly for an editor to have stepped in to carve the book into something more specific, more pointed. But Smith’s stature will have made many of her readers completists and her artistic development a matter of interest. While the collection might not coalesce as a unit, it contains some of Smith’s most vibrant, original fiction, the kind of writing she’ll surely be known for. Some of these stories provide hints that everything we’ve seen from her so far will one day be considered her ‘early work,’ that what lies ahead is less charted territory, wilder and less predictable and perhaps less palatable to the casual reader but exactly what she needs to be writing.”
“Syllable for syllable, it’s stunning work—arguably better than the original … these stories create a world almost unbearably addictive for its beautiful, agonized truths … People are weak, locked, blinkered. They suffer cruelties, reversals. Yet in strange adaptations, many find ways through or past it. Without room for the swaths of material I long to quote, I can only cite the marrow of ‘Olive’s’ glory: wave upon wave of unflinching insight, delivered in language so clean it shines. Sentences flow in simplest words and clearest order—yet line after line hammers home some of the most complex human rawness you’ll ever read. … Strout dwells with uncanny immediacy inside the minds and hearts of a dazzling range of ages … I have long and deeply admired all of Strout’s work, but Olive, Again transcends and triumphs. The naked pain, dignity, wit and courage these stories consistently embody fill us with a steady, wrought comfort. In Olive’s words: ‘What a thing!'”
“More often than not in this uniquely thoughtful, self-aware memoir, the horrors she describes are mistakes she made, ethical challenges she failed, and moments of anxiety, bewilderment and being lost, often literally and sometimes because of her own flawed decisions … Being in the textual presence of a grown-up who, in midlife, is going over the gaps, the failures and the cruelties for which she is accountable is as bracing and refreshing as it was to hear that much younger Phair express her ambition to, how shall we say, take her lover ‘like a dog’ and continue ‘everything I’ll do to you’ until a crucial part of him ‘is blue.’ From then until now, Phair insists on her right to be seen as, and takes the considerable risk to be seen as, a messy, complete, appetitive, responsible human being. Would that many could do the same … Phair writes with great detail about what it is to be rudderless, frightened, confused, and yet willing to keep going without being able to see very far ahead … If the clichéd rock star story is a fever chart of rise, fall, rehab and redemption à la Rocketman or Her Smell, Horror Stories is more an archipelago of intense episodes of unknowing with the implicit understanding that life is a wayward, unresolvable business … Phair’s musical imagination, process, influences, stylistic changes and the sounds she hears in her head are conspicuously absent…there is barely a line in the entire book about songwriting or playing the guitar, the talents for which she became famous and which, in fact, have been her life’s work and support … Her relationship to music seems to have been the longest and maybe the most demanding love of her life, the one for which she has been willing to get lost, to fail, and to try again over and over for decades. Call me a selfish fan, but I have to say that’s one story in all its horror and passion I would love to hear.”
“The [novel] form’s remarkable adaptability is on brilliant display in Celestial Bodies, a searching work of fiction … one of the book’s signal triumphs is that Alharthi has constructed her own novelistic form to suit her specific mimetic requirements … She gives each chapter, in loose rotation, to the voice of a single character, and so makes contemporary female interiority crucial to her book while accommodating a variety of very different world views … the third-person narration devoted to the female characters is so flexible and sensitively alert that you often forget it’s not in the first person … The novel moves back and forth between the generations very flexibly, often in the course of a single page or even paragraph, owing to Alharthi’s deft management of time shifts … Celestial Bodies…seems to break free of narration as it is commonly understood in Western fictional literature. The leaps and swerves seem closer to poetry or fable or song than to the novel as such … One effect of devoting so much space to intensely realized female interiority is to render the women vividly dynamic and mobile—restless, yearning, ambitious—even when reactionary or just maternally sedentary. The form speaks eloquently. Indeed, the great pleasure of reading Celestial Bodies is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct.”
“One could say that Saeed Jones’ new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is a classic coming-of-age story. A boy grows up in Texas; he’s black, gay and isolated; he’s raised by a single mom; he struggles with identity, goes off to college and, eventually, achieves a wobbly sense of self-affirmation. But Jones’ voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down … How We Fight for Our Lives is at once explicitly raunchy, mean, nuanced, loving and melancholy. It’s sometimes hard to read and harder to put down. Jones’ memoir effectively deep-sixes any illusions I had that it must’ve been a little easier in recent decades to come of age as a queer black boy in Texas … How We Fight for Our Lives is a raw and eloquent memoir. I don’t think I’m taking away from the particularity of Jones’ experience when I say that, in passages like the one above, Jones also speaks to how difficult it is for nearly everybody to hold onto to that vulnerable construction we call our ‘selves.’ Jones reminds us that an Invisible Man, illuminated only with a bare bulb, is not only unseen by others—he is barely seen by himself.”