This week’s fistful of fabulous reviews includes Parul Sehgal on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, Rachel Veroff on Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl, Colm Tóibín on Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, Siddhartha Deb on Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, and Lidija Haas on Jenny Offill’s Weather.
“The motives of the book may be unimpeachable, but novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails … everything follows as predictably as possible … There is a fair amount of action in the book—chases, disguises, one thuddingly obvious betrayal—but if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences. There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy … the writing grows so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry. I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives … Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword, and the scenes on La Bestia are vividly conjured. Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin … The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist … What thin creations these characters are—and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations. The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous. The children sound like tiny prophets … The tortured sentences aside, American Dirt is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that ‘these people are people,’ while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore—and then congratulating us for caring.”
“… a true crime tale as thoroughly researched and reported as it is perplexing … offers a deep-dive into rural Appalachia, a region of the United States that is little understood, and it digs into questions of how deeply misogyny and bias can run inside a community. It is also an honest and endearing coming-of-age tale—one that will leave readers curious to know what Eisenberg will write about next … Eisenberg’s growing personal commitment to the summer camp for teen girls, and to her friends in this complicated rural ecosystem, emerges as the living heartbeat of the book … [Eisenberg’s] relentless reporting and attention to detail are what make the true crime elements of this book so enjoyable. Eisenberg unearths a web of people who were all deeply wounded by the Rainbow Murders—as well as by the community’s failure to solve them. She begins to see, firsthand, the effects that gossip, and years of speculating, can have on the collective beliefs of a small town. She sees how doubt can lodge itself in the psyche of a place, cause harm, and remain … accomplishes what any good murder mystery should. It shines a spotlight on a nexus of people and a place. Eisenberg’s tendency to weave in references to writers who’ve preceded her in the genre—Joan Didion and Truman Capote, for example—makes the reading experience uniquely thoughtful and introspective … The insights into human nature are the real gritty, good stuff you get from reading a masterful work of journalism like this one.”
–Rachel Veroff on Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia(NPR)
“In much the way that other male American writers, such as Hemingway, Baldwin and Edmund White, have chosen Paris as the place in which their lone protagonist can be tested and changed, Greenwell uses Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, as his caldron … Greenwell displays an extraordinary skill at handling time … part of Sofia’s allure is that it is disintegrating, as Bulgaria itself is failing … Greenwell’s version of Sofia sometimes allows him to isolate his characters in a densely made monochrome. He can remove them from any natural hinterland, cover them in mystery and then allow them to emerge into a scrupulously modulated clarity … Greenwell’s book is a sort of wistful paean to the place where his protagonist lived in uneasy exile, or learned to grow up, or both … While he writes about sex graphically, Greenwell uses a crisp style to disguise the fact that he is really attempting to chart the characters’ complicated emotional needs … The unnamed expatriate in these stories is delicate, vulnerable, needy, thoughtful. He is someone who could be easily crushed emotionally, but he is also a born noticer, and less opaque than the main character in What Belongs to You. Since he narrates all of these free-standing stories in the first person, there is a cumulative effect as though the book were a novel. The reader begins each new story with concern for the main character; he is like one of those young men in 19th-century French fiction setting out to receive his sentimental education.”
“Is man an animal? If there is a question that reverberates through the entire oeuvre of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, one presented with great emphasis in his most recent novel, Serotonin, it is this. The question can, of course, be qualified in various ways. One could add racial or cultural or class modifiers—Is the white man an animal? Is European man an animal? Is the bourgeois man an animal?—because those are the categories of ‘man’ Houellebecq is interested in. But no matter how qualified, there is no getting away from the question in Serotonin … Houellebecq adds his trademark reactionary characterizations, marginalized groups always reduced to offensive stereotypes, women invariably reduced to body parts and types … It is a well-honed formula for Houellebecq, all the way down to the efforts to lend gravitas to this outlook through passing literary and philosophical references … None of this, in itself, is particularly impressive or imaginative, even if the pages turn smoothly and the occasional passing insight is on offer. Neither offensiveness nor high culture references can disguise the lurking suspicion that the writer is as shallow and limited in his understanding of the world as his protagonist … Decades ago, before his rise to fame, Houellebecq wrote of Lovecraft: ‘We read his stories in exactly the same spirit of sickness in which he wrote them.’ Serotonin suggests that we need to be very sick indeed to match the spirit in which Houellebecq wrote the book.”
“There’s much to be said for being maladjusted. More and more, perhaps, as the environment to which one is expected to adjust becomes more ruinous. The climate activist Greta Thunberg has flung back at her enemies (Donald Trump included) their attempts to shame her for her experiences with depression and for being on the autism spectrum. Her differences, she has pointed out, have helped her to remain focused on a problem many find too large, too painful, too intractable—and to keep saying what people don’t like to hear. It’s one thing to be willing to burn the world for profit; to allow it to happen out of embarrassment (as so many citizens, uncomfortable disrupting the status quo, could be accused of doing) is another. A feeling of social dislocation, of norms that can’t be upheld or that have ceased to make sense, pervades Jenny Offill’s slender novel … The novel’s warm yet depressive, gently apocalyptic tone—just like its sinewy form—is similar to that of Dept. of Speculation, but the new book carries with it an additional, grim implication that the world outside may be catching up with its sensibility … the entire texture of everyday living is infused with the mood of political and ecological disaster … Offill’s frequent jokes about depression, featured in both works, here unmask themselves as what they maybe always were: reminders of how nearly impossible it is to learn to live with things as they are.”