Our quintet of quality criticism this week includes Katy Waldman on Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence, Daniel Mendelsohn on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, Merve Emre on The Complete Gary Lutz, Kaitlin Phillips on Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves, and Hannah Giorgis on Maisy Card’s These Ghosts Are Family.
“To read Solnit is to brush up against emotions and intuitions you almost don’t recognize, because language is so seldom considered the best way to approach them … Solnit has a deep feel for placeness—a mirror is a body of water; a woman’s body is ‘territory’ to annex or defend—and she imbues even literal sites with symbolic meaning … She begins to feel as though she’s living through a war that no one will acknowledge. Self-negation becomes not a thrill but a truce, a promise of safety. At ‘its most brutally conventional,’ Solnit writes, femininity is ‘a perpetual disappearing act, an erasure and a silencing to make more room for men.’ She develops an obsession with armor, which stifles one’s ‘tender depths’ and obscures ‘how much of life that matters takes place there.’ Killing yourself in order to spare men the trouble, Solnit decides, is characteristically female … Writing, then, becomes how Solnit declares her identity over the next several decades. Perhaps more important, it becomes how she creates her identity, because one cannot transform into an author without first transforming into a person with beliefs, values, and desires—in short, a person with something to say.”
“…the tightly symmetrical trajectories that organized the first two volumes and generated their morals and meanings have gone. This book has to embrace a concatenation of major events, any one of which could be the matter of an entire novel … Unfortunately, it’s beyond even her skill to hold these disparate happenings together, and the result is a bloated and only occasionally captivating work … To be sure, this huge canvas, expertly painted as always, offers many of the pleasures you’ve come to expect of Mantel and her Cromwell books. These include stretches of sumptuous prose; something about the Tudor milieu has brought greater amplitude and gorgeousness to Mantel’s style. Throughout, there are swoony passages that—like certain Dutch paintings of the century after Cromwell’s—exult in cataloguing the material richness of a society newly confident in itself: the food and the fabrics, the jewels and the spices, the meats, the tapestries, the wines … The hubris theme is too intermittent, too submerged beneath the exhausting accumulation of events and details, to make things cohere. Other tactics fall short, too … By the time you get to Cromwell’s execution—a brilliantly imagined moment, and perhaps the best single scene here—the incidents and details, all no doubt with some basis in history, have overwhelmed any discernible pattern … for all the additional events it relates, nothing in The Mirror and the Light is really new—or, I should say, really ‘novel.’ The great quantity of matter here will no doubt satisfy fans of both the Tudors and Mantel; but since when was that the point? If an author has told a tale well, given it a firm shape and delineated its themes, brought its hero sufficiently to life to leave an indelible impression, she’s done her job. Everything else is just words, words, words.”
“Language seems to slough off on Lutz’s narrators, and they collect that language like the underside of a fingernail collects the skin and blood from an episode of brief, violent scratching—in sentences so attentively worked over, so operatically constructed, that the words themselves yearn to hold the excess energy of their erotic despair; to convert it into a charge, a current that shocks the reader. Lutz is known for his sentences, and for good reason. They are extravagant, weird, and intensely diagrammatic, the kind of sentences that would have made Gertrude Stein cry … Lutz’s stories bog down in their desperate attempts to please, their sweating, strenuous verbal gymnastics, their reluctance to let moments of rapture vibrate or expand, so anxiously does the next sentence intrude with its ‘fuck off’ lunge,’ as Lutz describes his refusal to cushion the reader with ‘pillowy transitions.’ His stories are exhausting. I find it impossible to read more than two in a single sitting. My mind cramps with strain more often than it tingles with pleasure. Frequent water and bathroom breaks are needed. The imagined presence of the reader is, if not irrelevant to his performance of virtuosity, then certainly an afterthought … The effect isn’t onanistic; one doesn’t get the sense that Lutz is getting off on his sentences any more than you are. Rather, there’s a shared feeling of blundering misery. Everyone is working too hard, no one is having as much fun as they think they should be having, and someone—probably one of Lutz’s narrators—is going to end up soft and shriveled and sobbing in the bath.”
“It can be thrilling, in a novel, to encounter a cautious, observant narrator in proximity to a supporting character who is everything he’s not: charismatic, reckless, alluring, loose with the truth, suspiciously worldly … Though it doesn’t quite stick the landing, New Waves…cleverly conjures a modern Gatsby-and-Nick-Carraway dynamic between the narrator, Lucas, and his co-worker Margo … As with any novel featuring a distant object of idolatry, this one succeeds only to the extent that Margo is worth getting to know. The pitfalls of this paradigm are written into the design; it’s tricky to make your main character a prodigy, because then she has to talk and think like one. But at times Nguyen pulls it off … It’s exciting to see the workplace novel making a literary comeback, with more daring examples including Hilary Leichter’s Temporary and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods treating drudgery with a life-giving drollness. Nguyen’s own attempts to infuse New Waves with politics, heart and reality are admirable. He captures beautifully the subtle strains of being disenfranchised, poor and lonely in New York. At a key moment in the book, he thinks: ‘It felt strange to take the subway home. Couldn’t I, just for once, be entitled to a quiet, clean space, alone?’ A question people are asking all over the world.”
“Zeroing in on how Abel’s original sin affected each of the women, These Ghosts Are Family joins other recent novels that track troubled families over generations. But while books such as Yaa Gyasi’s transatlantic opus, Homegoing, and Namwali Serpell’s Zambian epic, The Old Drift, home in on the experiences of their living characters, Card’s novel stretches beyond the earthly realm … Like other works of Caribbean literature, These Ghosts Are Family takes a wide-ranging approach to its depiction of undead spirits. The titular beings aren’t just malevolent boogeymen who show up to frighten the living, as a Halloween tale. Rather, they drift in and out of the humans’ perception, shifting people’s relationship to the world around them by compelling overdue reckonings … Card’s book joins a literary tradition that challenges imperial records of history by imbuing the present with voices from the past. Not all of Card’s ghosts were once enslaved, but they still unearth the institutional evils that shaped modern Jamaica—namely, the transatlantic slave trade and British colonialism … a tale of the most monstrous acts: intimate betrayals with unthinkable consequences.”