This week’s five alarm fire of fascinating reviews includes Christian Lorentzen on Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, Parul Sehgal on Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, Gabrielle Bellot on The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, Ruth Franklin on Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel, and Richard Russo on Sue Miller’s Monogamy.
“The Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel is the weary (and unzany) successor to Hysterical Realism, and its foil is the rising Millennial Bildungsroman (see the novels of Sally Rooney or Raven Leilani’s Luster), in which virtuous young idealists enter a morally tainted adult world not of their making … Hari Kunzru’s new book Red Pill is the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel in its purest form … a funny and suspenseful novel, dense with ideas, deliciously plotted, and generous with its satirical acid. Of the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novels, it has the sharpest cultural comedy … In White Tears the schism between successive styles—from realism to magic realism—had a clear moral force. It’s hard to say the same about the conclusion of Red Pill, which dissipates some of the tension the book has gathered along the way, though in a manner that remains true to the nature of its shiftless critic narrator’s flimsy personality … we know that the narrator’s interpretations of the world aren’t entirely reliable. Yet there is an undeniable logic to the unsatisfying ending of this otherwise very satisfying novel. The narrator’s red-pilling, his recognition of the world’s previously hidden fascist dark side, has allowed him to shed his vestigial Gen X cynicism and become a good neoliberal.”
“This is Rijneveld in short: an earthy and irreverent new voice, thrillingly uninhibited in style and subject matter … The novel teems—I say this admiringly—with all the filth of life … The novel didn’t give me nightmares only because sleep became a faint possibility. Rijneveld will play to all your phobias and nurture new ones. Even now, my blood jumps to remember certain images … It’s not the violence that feels so shocking—it’s the innocence. The violence in the book is visited on small bodies, mute bodies, by those who are themselves small, young, lacking in language … However strong your readerly constitution, it might feel like a peculiar time to pick up a book so mournful and gory. And yet, I went to it every day without dread, with, in fact, a gratitude that surprised me. It was the gratitude of not being condescended to … The spaciousness of Rijneveld’s imagination comes as terror and solace. That lack of squeamishness, that frightening extremity, which, in Hutchison’s clean, calm translation, never feels showy or manipulative, gives full voice to the enormity of the children’s grief, their obscene deprivation.”
“To read Lorde is to encounter a flame that is unashamed to be one, even in a world that fears fire. To read Lorde is to begin the work of unmanacling and decolonizing one’s mind, to begin the urgent work of learning how all things—identities, prejudices, systems, histories, desires—are linked. To read Lorde is to learn as much as to unlearn, to embrace the oft-maligned characteristic of being blunt, to feel a woman’s uncensored rage about the many Clifford Glovers that are being killed in America by white officers who desire little more than to dominate and destroy a Black body. To read Lorde is to encounter a writer whose vision of a murderous, ravenous America is, at its red core, all too similar to our own, its hunger for Black bodies and blood still just as chillingly insatiable now as it was then.”
“…a miniature firecracker of a novel as tightly wound as its predecessor was exuberant. McBride seems to be testing how much can be communicated within a radically restricted structure. A woman visits, alone, a series of nondescript hotel rooms in cities around the world: Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland, Austin. In all but the first, she picks up a man and goes through the motions of a one-night stand, with considerable shame and humiliation. As it turns out, she’s forcing herself to execute an unusual project, the exact nature of which we don’t learn until the final encounter … To say that McBride writes experimental novels in stream-of-consciousness style does not capture the wreckage her sentences inflict on the English language. Lines break off mid-phrase, punctuation is percussive, shorthand locutions substitute for exposition … The narrator of The Lesser Bohemians and her lover metaphorically restore each other to life: the novel does not use their names until they declare their love, as if love itself were naming them. The situation in Strange Hotel is the heartbreaking reverse: a woman who has put sex into a box and shut the lid, opening it only in accordance with carefully set rules, because she exists—it cannot be called ‘living’—in fear of its power to devastate her. It’s a pathology for which she earns the reader’s pity … In Ulysses, Bloom says that love—’the opposite of hatred’—is ‘really life.’ McBride riffs on this in The Lesser Bohemians during one of those lovers’ quarrels: ‘The other side of love we’ve arrived at. Not hate. I see it now, and so clearly tonight, that the opposite of love is despair.’ In Strange Hotel, in which writing about sex becomes a way of expressing both intimacy and its absence, the opposite of love might be grief, despair’s close cousin, and the novel’s true story is the journey from the bottom of that grief back to love.”
“It’s a rich, complex book—but in the end it’s the story of a marriage, a remarkably good one considering how mismatched this fictional husband and wife appear to be … what a village Miller offers us here! Her great gift is how clearly she sees these all-important people of hers, even in the smallest of moments … Without exception Miller’s minor characters spring to life with Dickensian vividness…In this way the novel builds by accretion, each character existing to shed light on the others … But as fully peopled as the novel is, it’s Annie and Graham’s marriage that centers things, a feat all the more remarkable given that Graham dies in the first act … may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re looking for spare, show-don’t-tell narration, brisk pacing and snappy dialogue spoken by easily comprehended characters, look elsewhere. There’s a lot of very good TV that operates on these principles. Miller operates differently, and the result is an old-fashioned, slow burn of a novel that allows readers to dream deeply. But be forewarned: Miller’s generosity requires a corresponding generosity on the part of readers. Unlike her protagonist, Miller knows exactly who she is and what she wants to take pictures of. As a result those pictures are full of depth and contrast and lush detail. They need to be studied, not glanced at. They belong in an art gallery, not on Instagram.”