Our batch of brilliant reviews this week includes Reginald Dwane Betts on Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, Jill Bialosky on suicide and Moby-Dick, Daphne Merkin on Jenny Diski’s Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?, Lara Feigel on Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew, and Eowyn Ivey on Leone Ross’ Popisho.
“Sometimes it’s impossible to escape the belief that the America Wright chronicled in his writing did the kind of damage to his heart that leads to an early death … Today, 80 years after Wright worked on it…the restored novel feels wearily descriptive of far too many moments in contemporary America … More than any other Black writer, Richard Wright recognized that understanding Black folks’ relationship to the police is central to understanding racism … The underground strips the markers of his identity just as any prison sentence does. And so, while the book is no longer concerned with the police and arrests and beatdowns, Wright forces readers to ask what the cost of this freedom is … shows us that even when we survive those interactions, ducking the immediate dangers of incarceration or death, we can find ourselves bewilderingly stuck reliving the moment, struggling to find our freedom.”
“Moby-Dick is many things—a tale about whaling, race, and history; a philosophical treatise; a psychological investigation; a Shakespearean tragedy; and an adventure story, at once terrifying and profound. But it is also a novel about self-destruction and the quixotic nature of the human mind … While I read, I thought often about the darkness and desperation of Ahab’s quest, but also about Melville’s own tormented mind and the unsettling, erratic voyage he took toward the novel’s completion … what gives the novel its force and raging undercurrent—its ‘howling infinite,’ as he described the sea—is the rhapsodic, manic pulse of his narration. One cannot compose an urgent novel of retribution and monomania, formally risky (for its time), enigmatic, penetrating, rich with history and etymology, metaphysical, mesmerizing in its lyric density, without living life to its very precipice … Ishmael and Ahab represent two sides of Melville’s self at war with each other: Ishmael, a believer and survivor, and Ahab, who has lost all belief and is lured toward destruction.”
“[Diski’s] reputation as an original, witty and cant-free thinker on the way we live now should be given a significant boost. Her prose is elegant and amused, as if to counter her native melancholia and includes frequent dips into memorable images … Like the ideal artist Henry James conjured up, on whom nothing is lost, Diski notices everything that comes her way … She is discerning about serious topics (madness and death) as well as less fraught material, such as fashion … in truth Diski’s first-person voice is like no other, selectively intimate but not overbearingly egotistic, like, say, Norman Mailer’s. It bears some resemblance to Joan Didion’s, if Didion were less skittish and insistently stylish and generated more warmth. What they have in common is their innate skepticism and the way they ask questions that wouldn’t occur to anyone else … Suffice it to say that our culture, enmeshed as it is in carefully arranged snapshots of real life, needs Jenny Diski, who, by her own admission, ‘never owned a camera, never taken one on holiday.’ It is all but impossible not to warm up to a writer who observes herself so keenly … I, in turn, wish there were more people around who thought like Diski. The world would be a more generous, less shallow and infinitely more intriguing place.”
“There’s a dazzling panning shot at the start where she introduces us to almost all the major characters without pausing for breath … Like Dickens or Balzac, Mozley is interested in breathing life into cliches, using two-dimensionality to gain breadth and social reach. Mozley has a background as a medievalist academic and her ease with typologies, with tavern life, and indeed with bawdy good-heartedness, may owe something to that period … Mozley’s achievement is to create room for ambivalence and nuance, even when the book’s world is drawn with such cartoonish vigour. Are the police right to want to crack down so vehemently on sex trafficking that they end up destroying the lives of prostitutes? Are the prostitutes right to mock the feminists who urge them to protect their bodies from men? … In an age when so many novelists of Mozley’s generation take refuge in the dystopian, she has reinvigorated large-scale social realism for our times.”
“No one will persuade me that this bold, iridescent butterfly of a story could have landed on anyone’s shoulder but Ross’s … ubiquitous throughout the novel is sex, in all of its beautiful and frightening forms … The book is often bawdy and unexpectedly funny … In such a way, Ross works her own magic, transforming humanity’s worn-out suffering into something new and astonishing. Addiction becomes a dusty, thrumming moth that we can hold in the palm of our hand. With it separated from ourselves, we are able to observe its fragility, its strangeness and terrible power. Women’s complicated relationship with their own sexuality is similarly detached, set free, seen anew … Even as Ross is dazzling and shocking us, she’s also steadily questioning who holds the power and whether they are worthy of it … Ross’s lyrical, rhythmic writing is something to be savored … Critics have spotted the influence of Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez and Junot Díaz in Ross’s work. In interviews, Ross has added Stephen King, Anaïs Nin, Sherwood Anderson and Roald Dahl, among others. I saw all of those influences swirling in the deep waters of this book. I was also reminded of the fairy tale realism of Helen Oyeyemi and the ecological surrealism of Jeff VanderMeer … Despite this eclectic chorus backing her up, Ross’s voice sings out loud and pure throughout the entire novel. And while she is not afraid to call out humanity’s failings and wrongdoings, something else reigns over the story: joy. Joy in the senses, in food and love and kinship, in music, uproarious laughter and late-night parties … At times Popisho gets a little rowdy, but Ross is like a thoughtful hostess — she’s always at your side, pointing out the best dishes, explaining the customs, introducing you to friends and enemies even as she whispers a few juicy bits of gossip about each of them. Much of it will be extraordinary and overwhelming to the senses, but you’ll find your way, and when everyone gets up to dance, you might end up tapping your foot along with the beat.”