Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Hermione Hoby on Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi, J.W. McCormack on Donald Barthelme’s collected stories, Anna Mundow on Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, Hari Kunzru on Mario Vargas Llosa’s Harsh Times, and Moira Donegan on Lauren Groff’s Matrix.
“Generically speaking, there’s just one question driving the Künstlerroman, and it’s ‘How does this person become an artist?’ That narrative-driving ‘how’ relies, however, on the rather more metaphysical matter of ‘who.’ For any artist-narrator worth their salt, this inquiry is depthless—its richness residing in unanswerability, but also in the complicating and exciting fact of art and selfhood’s imbrication. Via Stephen Dedalus and his successors we duly understood that the growth of the person and the growth of the writer are coterminous, that self-knowledge and artistic integrity might, essentially, be the same thing. What happens, though, when the portrait is not of a young man, but of a fuckboy? … a startling, scabrous, big swaggy flex of a debut … Conroe is a protégé of the late and beloved Giancarlo DiTrapano of Tyrant Books, a publisher whose relationship to the mainstream was energetically antagonistic. In Fuccboi, a similar attitude presents in two ways, one more successful than the other. First, and most appealingly, it’s in the book’s magnetic voice, specifically, the total commitment to the distinctive argot by which this type of urban, young-millennial American male is recognizable … Fuccboi’s style proves to be a more successful vehicle for a fuck-the-mainstream taunt than its substance … Conroe is alighting on the perennial novelistic problem of diagnostician versus patient. Is his novel a vivisection of the fuckboy or a celebration of him? Mostly, we’re in the depthless ‘who’ of the Künstlerroman, where, through being reflexive and morally equivocal, the book is neither endorsement nor denunciation. In other words, it’s literature … Abandoning unanswerable inquiry for an embarrassingly binary alternative, Fuccboi finally asks a very dumb question: Is ya boy A Good Guy or A Bad Guy?”
“Reading through the 145 Barthelme pieces that make up the Library of America’s new Collected Stories, one thing becomes clear: here is a man who knew his own odor. An olfactory Amadeus, as it were, whose works are instantly recognizable not only for their compressed brilliance, offhand erudition, and homegrown internal logic, but for their distinctive scent … A lot of bold claims are made about the short story: that it’s an intrinsically American art form, that there is grace in its pruned finitude, that its careful zoning regulates the novel’s infernal cul-de-sacs. But something that is true of Barthelme’s work that is not otherwise the case is that anything can show up anywhere else. Nothing is expected, yet it all fits together with the satisfying click of a model city … I picture him crouched like Quasimodo at the terminus of the world, the place where things make sense, catching its detritus, refuse, and excess psychosis and sending it all back up through the crap-hole at the center of civilization, refashioned as elegant origami crustaceans … Barthelme was an in-betweener. He dwelt in the fissures of the conscious mind and made work that was neither one thing nor the other because it was both and neither. Anansi, Loki, Mercury, Coyote, Kokopelli—a trickster spirit. But one who took nonsense so seriously it congealed into wisdom, the effect of staring so deeply into the void that not only does it stare back, it becomes cross-eyed … Barthelme wasn’t content to accept the cards that reality dealt him and wisely reshuffled the deck. If his work reads today as both prescient and relatable in spite of its outwardly experimental ethos, it’s because nothing really goes away for good. It just becomes garbage, and that stink rises to high heaven.”
“… this exquisite miniature of a novel somehow defies the gravitational pull of its grim subject to hover in a quotidian, luminous present. Details materialize with preternatural clarity. The milky light of a winter afternoon, mist on a river, a woman opening an oven door, a child taking her father’s hand: We see these things and feel their lingering presence as we are drawn into the life of an unassuming man in an unremarkable place … Ms. Keegan is a master of the seemingly casual brushstroke that on this small canvas illuminates a character or a history with piercing accuracy … Ms. Keegan’s control never falters … Rich in sly humor and wry compassion, the world encompassed by Small Things Like These is one traversed by generations of Irish writers, from Frank O’Connor and Mary Lavin, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien, to contemporary novelists such as Donal Ryan, Sebastian Barry and Colm Tóibín … Ms. Keegan is leading us, then, down a well-worn path, yet one that we see, through Bill Furlong’s eyes, as though for the first time.”
“Sometimes Vargas Llosa resorts to what has become a signature technique, interleaving conversations that take place at different times, so that we see Trujillo, for example, simultaneously receiving Castillo Armas in his office and complaining about the Guatemalan’s ingratitude to Abbes Garcia. The effect is prismatic; the reader is caught up in the swirl of history, privy to secrets but also unbalanced, buffeted around … The gravitational pull of Trujillo and his gang of monsters on the narrative is so great that the Guatemalan presidents, the well-meaning Árbenz and preening Castillo Armas, often recede into the distance as the author becomes consumed once again with the grotesque Dominicans … a book with few heroes and many villains, pulled on by a pervasive undercurrent of despair … Vargas Llosa has constructed a compelling and propulsive literary thriller, deeply informed by his experience as a public intellectual and a practicing politician. The Latin American novelist and the caudillo will always be mortal enemies, each one attempting to invent or dream into being a future that excludes or suppresses the other. In Harsh Times, Vargas Llosa has pulled back the curtain on a terrifying world of cynical realpolitik, and in a certain sense, has had the last word, demonstrating that no matter how powerful a dictator may be, ultimately his legacy will be shaped by writers.”
“Groff presents Marie’s instinct for politics as a form of art. Much of Matrix takes place inside Marie’s mind, watching as she expands the abbey’s holdings, consolidates power, and outmaneuvers those who would stand in her way. Groff’s prose has the formality and cadence associated with historical fiction, but she inserts playfulness and color into her narrative, showing charming, occasionally silly vignettes of daily life that give the abbey a distinctive realism … In Marie’s world, as in ours, religion is both a way to find sincere spiritual nourishment and an ideological arena through which to filter propaganda and jostle for power. And then, as now, the celibacy vows of Catholic clergy are more of a pretext or aspiration than a practiced reality … Everything Marie builds at the abbey, she builds in part to glorify and vindicate her queen. Godly devotion, personal glory, impressing a girl—these motives mix in Marie’s mind, making her ambition simultaneously holy and vulgar. Something about the setting of Groff’s novel makes its themes more palatable. It’s hard to say whether a story about a woman’s search for power could successfully depict a figure so committed to her own intellect as Marie if she inhabited the modern day … In interviews, Groff has said that she began writing Matrix in part because she ‘wanted to get as far away from Trump’s America as possible.’ But in Marie’s virtuosity and cunning, in her lies and brilliance and scheming struggle against a hostile world, it is hard not to see the traces of some of the powerful women whom the Trump era defeated. This sublimation of politics into art is part of what gives Matrix its power. The modern girlboss is often presented as a monster of entitlement and egoism. But Groff’s Marie offers a more human and complicated vision of an intelligent woman, one who is driven by both a spiritual quest for god and an earthly quest for love. Female talent, female ambition—these things are easy to praise in theory, easy to valorize in fiction. But they are much harder to cope with in life.”