It’s a weird, wild, and wonderful review lineup this week, with books by a taboo-breaking director, a master of modern horror, a futurist debut novelist, a genius neuroscientist, and a surrealist Floridian all making it into our Fab Five.
In his New York Times review of beloved cult director and self-described “filth elder” John Waters’ book of essays, Mr. Know-It-All, the actor and author Alan Cumming writes “Waters manages to impart his wily wisdom like some giddy, gurgling, bratty child waiting to be caught and brought back home to clean up his soiled bedroom and do his homework.”
Across the water at the Irish Times, crime novelist John Connolly found himself disappointed by Cari Mora, Hannibal Lector-creator Thomas Harris’ gory new novel. “The grotesqueness of the novel’s imagery—a half-consumed torso here, a burning skull there—owes much to Victorian stage melodrama and the gothic,” contends Connolly, “but Cari Mora lacks what Flannery O’Connor termed the ‘inner coherence’ necessary for the successful appropriation of the latter.”
Meanwhile, over at the New York Review of Books, another British actor raved about another book of essays. This time it was thespian Simon Callow writing about the late, great Oliver Sacks’ final collection, Everything In Its Place, which left Callow with “an image of the author that is extraordinarily touching—not lacking in his habitual energy and driven curiosity, but somehow vulnerable, even fragile.”
We’ve also got Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel on Orange World, the latest collection of surreal wonders from Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell (“Russell’s particular gift lies in taking themes that are close to universal and presenting them in stories whose strangeness comes to seem entirely natural, even necessary”) and Katy Waldman’s New Yorker essay on Elvia Wilk’s cerebral work of futurism, Oval (“Wilk’s characters inhabit the end stage of something, whether it’s capitalism or humanity or the earth itself”).
“That John Waters is a national treasure is a surety. Period. Thank you and good night. The studies of American film history from the mid-60s onward, and of countercultural ideas and ideals from then up to the very present moment, are infused and imbued with and by his great, weirdo, contrary specter … this book—more than any of the author’s others I have read—shows a vulnerability and an honesty and an almost frantic desire to impart to us, before he can no longer, his manic mantras, his obsessive treatises and his biting and blisteringly honest bons mots that are actually really enlightening life lessons. Watersian palimpsests, if you will! … Mr. Know-It-All is not, by any means, Waters’s finest work, but it is perhaps his most revealing, his most authentic. A shadow of impending death hangs over this tome, like a recurring guest in a psycho sitcom. But unlike authors who in their later works allow a sober knell of perception to ring through their prose, Waters instead manages to impart his wily wisdom like some giddy, gurgling, bratty child waiting to be caught and brought back home to clean up his soiled bedroom and do his homework.”
“…a frustrating, inconsequential confection, one in which, like those half-heard [Bob] Dylan riffs, fragments of its creator’s earlier brilliance occasionally gleam, rendering the rest more disappointing by comparison. The middle-aged Dylan, struggling with visions of potential future selves, had some reason for being reckless with his legacy. Harris, at 78, has no such excuse … Harris has always been engaged by monsters, but ones with dramatic, emotional, and intellectual weight, such as the deformed Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, besotted with a blind woman, or the self-loathing Jame Gumb in Silence, seeking to transform himself using the skins of his victims. Theoretically, Schneider should be another in this line, but he is a caricature, and nothing more … The grotesqueness of the novel’s imagery—a half-consumed torso here, a burning skull there —owes much to Victorian stage melodrama and the gothic, but Cari Mora lacks what Flannery O’Connor termed the ‘inner coherence’ necessary for the successful appropriation of the latter … I desperately wanted this novel to be better and to applaud Harris as he exited on a high note. Cari Mora is rarely dull, because the sensibility of its creator is too atypical for that, but it is careless and underwritten. The shallowness of its characterization means that its violence comes across as simple sadism: bloodthirstiness for its own sake, a series of brutal, if comic, tableaux for the masses.”
“Green is a loaded cue. It stands for money and for sustainability; in Oval, set in the near future, it stands for the unaffordable housing that Berlin’s developers are erecting in sustainability’s name. The color eating across Berlin suggests hope and greed, nature and human nature. It conjures capitalism as a metastasizing dream … Wilk’s characters inhabit the end stage of something, whether it’s capitalism or humanity or the earth itself. The weather has gone haywire, and hipsters are inventing apps that allow other hipsters to trade social capital—your plus-one to get into a club for my cheap apartment hookup. This is both a twilight and a twilight zone; every virtue is a simulation of itself, a hollow or profaned image. When something real happens—the death of Louis’s mother, for instance—characters lack the tools to process it, just as they have no language to describe the larger decay around them … The book feints toward an Ottessa Moshfegh–style ennui, the kind of tragic vision that disguises itself as satire. But Oval has a warm center in Anja, who is friendlier, more approachable, less alienating and alienated than the typical Moshfegh heroine … If Oval hybridizes tragedy and satire, like some strange new mutation caused by the present age, the hero sinking ineluctably downward isn’t really Anja or Louis; it is the human species, undone by its own selfish delusions. Our protagonist functions as a one-woman Greek chorus: rather than the crowd observing the fateful actions of the individual, the individual is left to grieve the folly of the crowd … One particularly eerie fact about Oval is that you cannot read it literally. You cannot travel along a sentence and accept it at face value and decide whether the idea it expresses seems sound or admirable or foolish or reprehensible. You must work backward from who’s speaking to decode the meaning of the words.”
–Katy Waldman on Elvia Wilk’s Oval (The New Yorker)
“Striking a balance between realism and artifice is a difficult task for any fiction writer, but for those whose work bends toward the fantastical, the problem is particularly acute. While Russell’s talent has always been obvious, in her earlier books she occasionally slipped into a territory that felt perilously close to weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But one of the great pleasures of reading an author’s body of work lies in observing the progression of her skills and sensibilities, and in Orange World the strangeness is never forced, the surrealism always grounded in recognizable emotion and experience … Russell excels at a kind of creeping, low-level horror … Russell’s particular gift lies in taking themes that are close to universal and presenting them in stories whose strangeness comes to seem entirely natural, even necessary. Aside from their fantastical elements, these stories are united by Russell’s willingness to engage deeply with darkness and by her penchant for unexpected endings. This is no small thing … in Russell’s short stories nothing is inevitable. She has impeccable command of her form.”
“…consciously or unconsciously the editors have fashioned the book in such a way that we are left with an image of the author that is extraordinarily touching—not lacking in his habitual energy and driven curiosity, but somehow vulnerable, even fragile … There is a sense, throughout Everything in Its Place and throughout all his written work, that Sacks has been on that narrow ridge himself and sometimes slipped off—notably during the alarming years of his addiction to amphetamines. But even when he is sober, there is an underlying compulsiveness teetering on the brink of mania in almost any activity he pursues … Perhaps it was his driven nature that led him to write with such tenderness about mental asylums, as they were originally conceived: institutions where disturbed people could find sanctuary, protected against the menaces of their fellow citizens and relieved of the burden of having to pretend to be normal … In a sense, Sacks’s entire extensive output constitutes a giant self-portrait of the scientist as artist. As he wrote in ‘My Own Life,’ his public farewell in The New York Times, ‘Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.’ Everything in Its Place is a pendant to the bigger portrait.”