Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Caleb Crain on Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, Daisy Hildyard on Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun, Jess Bergman on Beth Morgan’s A Touch of Jen, Jennifer Szalai on Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror, and Deborah Eisenberg on Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties.
“Submissive impulses, homemade Christianity, and an ethos of mutual care return in her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You … Chasing her ideas about love, Rooney hasn’t sufficiently incarnated them. Unlike the wayward human beings of her earlier novels, the foursome in Beautiful World seems carefully planned and a little static, like figures in an allegory … I suspect that many readers will miss the ruthless speed and economy that Rooney displayed in her first two books, but she remains a great talent. Among the considerable pleasures here are her bold variations in perspective … A powerful intellect beats beneath her underdressed prose … Rooney hasn’t quite found the right vessel for her vision, any more than her characters have found the ideal sociopolitical structure for channeling human connectedness. Rooney could have taken the safer route of repeating herself, but she seems to have an Enlightenment idea of the artist’s calling: She experiments.”
“Kleeman creates tensions between the intimate human stories that are the mainstay of literary fiction and the non-human worlds in which these stories happen. She is a playful rather than a lecturing writer, mining the different ways in which the personal is snarled up in the environmental, and vice versa … Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was distinctive in its attention to minute detail. Oranges were described in segments; human skin seen pore by pore, as though the prose looked more closely than the human eye. Something New Under the Sun develops this intense focus in brief passages that digress into largely unseen worlds: sewage pipes, the heart of a wildfire, a prehistoric seascape. When a fictional setting is given a great deal of attention, it’s become a cliche to describe it as a character in the story. That cliche requires an assumption that forests or weather fronts don’t habitually make anything happen. In Kleeman’s novel, as in real life, this assumption looks wishful: scenery and infrastructure threaten to murder the protagonists … Something New Under the Sun is sun-drenched, sharply observed and swift-moving; the sentences are beautiful. What makes it strange and new is the way the narrative disrupts itself. With concentrated attention on each flame in a wildfire, prehistoric marine life forms, or the plastic taste of soft furnishings in a carpet beetle’s mouth, it takes notice of much that is outside the brief of the story of Patrick and Cassidy, Alison and Nora. The book encompasses extra reality, but the experience of reading it is oddly surreal—it exposes unsettling truths about this ‘world as a whole, trembling with life and violence,’ hiding in plain sight.”
“Many dramatizations of the internet contain a moralizing element, even if their intent is to satirize rather than instruct. At the very least, they tend to evince an obvious anxiety about the mass fraudulence that social media has enabled—a fraudulence that erodes the borders of the self the more we try to shore it up through digital performance, making us vulnerable to influencers as well as ideology, and impeding our ability to form authentic human connections, if those even really exist. A Touch of Jen concerns itself with the same morass but concludes with a smirk rather than a shiver. Ultimately, Morgan suggests that authenticity can be just as hideous as its opposite. The book may date itself with perishable references to Instagram captions and New Age fads, but it succeeds where similar works have faltered by deflating the fantasy of the real. The fear of living dishonestly, it appears, has made it easier than ever to justify sacrificing others on the altar of our own self-actualization.”
“Ackerman contends that the American response to 9/11 made President Trump possible. The evidence for this blunt-force thesis is presented in Reign of Terror with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, deploying Ackerman’s deep stores of knowledge as a national security journalist to full effect. The result is a narrative of the last 20 years that is upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued … Ackerman guides us through the next two decades, showing how any prospect of national unity in response to 9/11 buckled under the incoherence of the wars that followed, which he says were ‘conceptually doomed’ from the start. Their endlessness was a source of profound instability, as one conflict (with Iraq) begat another (with ISIS). Ackerman shows how euphemisms became so far removed from the reality they tried to obscure that they were rhetorically useless … President Bush may have been a conservative Republican, but Ackerman reminds us that liberal Democrats were complicit in starting and sustaining the forever wars. A growing popular disgust with both parties reflected how nativists on one side and progressives on the other understood a truth that centrists elided. The fringes on the right and the left could see how the War on Terror was an extension of the country’s history, Ackerman says, with its settler colonialism and fantasies of a race war; the difference was that the nativist right insisted that settler colonialism was part of what made America great, while the progressive left found it morally despicable. By 2016, nativists were rejoicing at the prospect of Trump pursuing (nonwhite) terrorists without any restraints; progressives wanted the War on Terror abolished.”
–Jennifer Szalai on Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (The New York Times)
“The presence of the author is so vivid in Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So’s collection of stories, he seems to be at your elbow as you read … The personality that animates Afterparties is unmistakably youthful, and the stories themselves are mainly built around conditions of youth—vexed and tender relationships with parents, awkward romances, nebulous worries about the future. But from his vantage on the evanescent bridge to maturity, So is puzzling out some big questions, ones that might be exigent from different vantages at any age. The stories are great fun to read—brimming over with life and energy and comic insight and deep feeling … My generation lived in the poisonous vapor that succeeded the murders, and we were profoundly influenced by the experiences of our grandparents, whether we had been told about those experiences or not. And I have always speculated that the diffuse unease created by the sense of something hidden, something that had a bearing on our lives and that necessitated certain kinds of behavior from us, was at least as hard to bear as the truth would have been. In light of this particular difference between So’s portrait of Cambodian refugees in America and my experience of Jewish refugees in America, it occurred to me that one thing that goes conspicuously unaired in Afterparties is the role that the United States has had in Cambodia … One has to wonder whether, if So had continued to focus on the community that inhabits Afterparties, he would have had more to tell us, from a greater distance, about its relationship to its new home. But who can guess where his considerable talent might have taken him … there are things that can be fished out of the silent dark and made manifest to us by only one writer or another, and—I think I’m speaking for other readers as well—losing a writer as promising as he was is no small thing for us at all.”