Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Darnell L. Moore on Brian Broome’s Punch Me Up to the Gods, Noah Kulwin on Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia, Joan Acocella on Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s Francis Bacon: Revelations, Dustin Illingworth on Sam Riviere’s Dead Souls, and Katy Waldman on Olivia Laing’s Everybody.
“…continues that Black, queer, writerly work of self-creation … Broome refuses to pare down his interrogation of manhood, and he offers up his own life as a window, writing with lyricism, vividness and unflinching honesty as he ushers readers through the stages of his becoming … his writing is as lucid, heart-rending and, on occasion, hilarious, as it is necessary … Broome exposes with elegiac detail the malaise that eats away at Black boys because of the pressures they face to become the ideal image of manhood — even if the consequence of that refashioning is the annihilation of Black boys’ spirits … feels like a gift. There will come a day when some Black child like Tuan will have read Broome’s masterwork and possibly commit to staying alive because of Broome’s words. They will tell him that Punch Me Up to the Gods is a testament to the insurgent and ineradicable power of Black queer being. That it reveals that Black queer men are our own best creations.”
“…by taking up military history, Gladwell’s half-witted didacticism threatens to convince millions of people that the only solution to American butchery is to continue shelling out for sharper and larger knives … The stakes of The Bomber Mafia are no less than World War II and life or death, and yet Gladwell’s narrative is transmitted as seamlessly as the Wall Street or Silicon Valley koans that appear atop LinkedIn profiles, Clubhouse accounts, and Substack missives. Even his statements of objective fact are written to look like something an HSBC junior analyst might tell himself after a bad quarterly review … The flap jacket of The Bomber Mafia, which will undoubtedly grace the fingers of thousands of customers at Hudson News kiosks and Barnes and Nobles around the country, claims that it is ‘a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.’ How can someone bother calculating that which he doesn’t even count?”
“Such exhaustiveness can be deadening, but here, for the most part, it isn’t. Swan and Stevens are very good storytellers. Also, the book is warmed by the writers’ clear affection for Bacon. They enjoy his boozy nights with him, they laugh at his jokes, and they admire his bloody-mindedness. They do not believe everything he said, and they let us know this, but they are always in his corner, and they stress virtues of his that we wouldn’t have known to look for … national trends can’t fully explain Bacon. For all his intelligence, he was an instinctual artist, and he couldn’t really operate without the human figure. It was always before his eyes…The human body—the face, the joints, the armpits, the angles of the spine—spoke to him, told him the story he wanted to hear, and make us hear…Bacon wanted to make us bleed, and in order to do so he had to show us the thing that bleeds, the body … He himself spoke of the ‘exhilarated despair’ that underlay his paintings, accurate words to describe the sheer vigor—you could even call it delight—with which he produced his grim visions. The Pope might be screaming, but, oh, that purple and gold, and even the wit, or at least surprise, of the painting. You’re not the only one screaming about life; so is the Pope.”
“Somewhere between confession and deranged apologia, the novel reimagines excommunication as an epic of self-invention. As in the works of W. G. Sebald, the narrator, an editor of ‘a mid-circulation literary magazine,’ is largely transparent, a screen on which to project the complex mental states of an enigmatic interlocutor. The story of Wiese’s rise and fall is episodic, presented in a series of misadventures with poets, lovers, techno-activists, lunatics and ex-servicemen whose names are listed at the front of the book like a table of contents or Baroque song cycle … Wiese’s obsessions are captured in spiraling sentences that unfurl with the comma-spliced cadence of consciousness. The reading is both manic and thrillingly musical … Riviere, himself an accomplished poet, writes like one accustomed to the threat of obsolescence. Dead Souls buzzes with networks and media platforms that are as likely to manipulate as they are to empower. In this ambitious fantasy of marginalization, you either die unread or live long enough to see your work in someone else’s portfolio.”
“Everybody is, per the title, an interrogation of bodies, but not in the sense that bodies are usually interrogated…The book proceeds, via an almost dreamlike, permutative logic, from the body asprison to the body inprison to masses of bodies in prison to masses of bodies in protest. At the end, we are released on a note that is either utopian or dryly ironic. ‘The free body,’ Laing writes. ‘What a beautiful idea’ … Even as she glides between subjects and themes, Laing remains anchored by the bond between the body and personhood. In a standout chapter, she claims that the harm of violence is not the work it does to transform subjects into objects, but the incompletion of that work: the soul becomes a ‘ruin with a human face’ … Everybodyis densely textured with such threads—detours, you could say, although they also comprise the route—and I’ve plucked a few for this review almost at random..In the end, I found myself wishing not for less but for more. Laing engages so richly with the body’s confinement that the ‘freedom’ part of her book feels under-theorized.”