Our Fab Five this week includes Julian Lucas on Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, Parul Sehgal on Danez Smith’s Homie, Ismail Muhammad on Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, Fergus M. Bordewich on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie, and Laura Miller on Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.
“…an electrifying portrait of sex’s power to lacerate and liberate, to make and unmake our deepest selves. The book arrives amid a wave of mainstream interest in the erotic lives of gay men, but its frank exploration of kink, loneliness, shame, and dark pleasures hearkens back to a less carefree period—as though to restore a charge of risk and consequence to queer sex in the era of corporate pride and Call Me by Your Name … self-reflexive in outlook, as concerned with the purpose of passion as with its fulfillment … The book’s sex scenes unfold like revelations, effortlessly braiding inner drama with precisely choreographed intimacy. Greenwell’s long, luxuriously becomma’d sentences, always on the edge of ending, create a tension receptive to the lightest touch: a shift in rhythm, or one clause’s tiny revision of its predecessor, can entirely alter the chemistry of a scene. He melds an incantatory cadence with the catechistic language of porn, which is ridiculous until you’re ‘lit up with a longing that makes it the most beautiful language in the world’ … Bulgaria itself provides a less stimulating backdrop. Too often, Greenwell aligns the narrator’s angst with its vaguely sketched political malaise, as though the nation, too, feels trapped between a repressive status quo and libidinal chaos … Despite his seven years in Bulgaria, the narrator remains a self-conscious interloper, and the scene a perfunctory engagement with circumstances that might have added dimension to Greenwell’s otherwise intimately powerful work.”
“I’d like to invent or order up new adjectives to describe the startling originality and ambition of Smith’s work. I’d like to unwrap some brand-new words, oddly pronged words, to convey their wary intelligence and open heart. Instead, I can only yoke together antonyms to convey anything of their particular vibration: their joy-dread, hunger-contentment, holy-profanity. These poems emerge from places of paradox, and are animated by the spirit of the dozens, where deep love can be best conveyed through imaginative insult … The radiance of Homie arrives like a shock, like found money, like a flower fighting through concrete. It is a paean to friendship—’that first & cleanest love’; a hosanna to those ‘friend-drunk’ boys on their bikes and the companions who sustain Smith, who have kept despair and suicide at bay … Each poem feels like a maze designed to take the poet and the reader to some new destination, some new understanding … This is a book full of the turbulence of thought and desire, piloted by a writer who never loses their way. That compass—provided by friends, influences, collaborators—stays steady. ‘I need no savior,’ Smith writes, ‘but their love.'”
–Parul Sehgal on Danez Smith’s Homie (The New York Times)
“…a different sort of Silicon Valley narrative, a literary-minded outsider’s insider account of an insulated world that isn’t as insular or distinctive as it and we assume. Wiener is our guide to a realm whose denizens have been as in thrall to a dizzying sense of momentum as consumers have been … Complicity is Wiener’s theme, and her method: She’s an acute observer of tech’s shortcomings, but she’s especially good at conveying the mind of a subject whose chief desire is to not know too much. Through her story, we begin to perceive how much tech owes its power, and the problems that come with it, to contented ignorance … For all her caustic insight and droll portraiture, Wiener is on an earnest quest likely to resonate with a public that has been sleepwalking through tech’s gradual reshaping of society … Wiener is wittily merciless in portraying how susceptible she was to ‘the sense of ownership and belonging, the easy identity, the all-consuming feeling of affiliation’ that start-up culture promotes … Her real feat is exposing her own persistent failure to register the big picture.”
“Zucchino offers a gripping account of one of the most disturbing, though virtually unknown, political events in American history … a grim but fascinating story, and an instructive one … The Wilmington massacre stands out as the only coup against a stable, elected government in American history, a government that was objectionable for no other reason than that it was biracial … Mr. Zucchino welds probing research and a crisp writing style into a dramatic rendering of events, and he goes on to show their ramifications for African-Americans across the South … Mr. Zucchino’s narrative toggles skillfully between the city’s black community and the activities of the white insurrectionists … Thanks to Mr. Zucchino’s unflinching account, we now have the full, appalling story. As befits a serious journalist, he avoids polemics and lets events speak for themselves. Wilmington’s Lie joins a growing shelf of works that unpeel the brutal realities of the post-Civil War South … it is books such as these, not least Wilmington’s Lie, that have redeemed the truth of post-Civil War history from the tenacious mythology of racism.”
–Fergus M. Bordewich on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (The Wall Street Journal)
“If Such a Fun Age were a novel by Jonathan Franzen (which it often resembles in its shrewd, omnivorous, absorbing depiction of the way we live now), Emira would be helplessly plunged into a media circus of ever-escalating absurdity. Reid chooses a quieter, more intricate register. She’s interested in how what feels like an upsetting but peripheral experience to Emira…activates a tissue of fantasies in the people around her, particularly the white ones … Such a Fun Age is blessedly free of preaching, but if Reid has an ethos, it’s attention: the attention Emira pays to who Briar really is, and the attention that Alix fails to pay to Emira, instead spending her time thinking about her. It is the same consideration Reid spends on Alix herself, the careful, curious way she excavates the desperation and loneliness behind Alix’s many performances. The novel is often funny and always acute, but never savage; Reid is too fascinated by how human beings work to tear them apart. All great novelists are great listeners, and Such a Fun Age marks the debut of an extraordinarily gifted one.”