This week’s Fab Five includes raves of Téa Obreht’s long-awaited second novel, Jia Tolentino’s debut book of essays, and Maryse Meijer’s visceral new short story collection, as well as an intriguing analysis of Jess Row’s White Flights and a look back at Margaret Atwood’s 1987 review of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus.
“If you want to understand what it’s like to live your life on the internet right now, there are few writers better equipped to help you than Jia Tolentino … a collection of essays on trying to survive the 21st century that are so incisive and elegantly constructed that as I read, I found myself wanting to underline particularly beautiful sentences again and again, until every page was black with ink … Most of what defines this collection is a feeling of profound horror at a terrible realization: Tolentino is smart enough to see the problems with what’s happening in the world, the way those problems warp our minds and souls; she can diagnose them for us. But she doesn’t have any prescriptions or solutions. You can’t think your way out of capitalism … What Trick Mirror has to offer doesn’t feel like a solution. But it does feel like a map. And maybe that’s enough for now.”
“To say that Téa Obreht’s long-anticipated follow-up to The Tiger’s Wife is worth the wait is like saying the Grand Canyon is worth the visit. It’s not wrong—it’s just insufficient … This conjuring of trouble from thin air is an old-fashioned but spellbinding narrative sleight-of-hand, one a number of contemporary writers might benefit from studying … Novels sung in a duet, like Nora and Lurie’s, hinge upon the expectation that its heroes meet eventually, despite and because of this unlikelihood at the outset. Nora’s story spans a day, Lurie’s decades; these different rhythms harmonize like a bass line and melody. By the time Obreht sings her aria—you’ll know it when you see it—I was so overwhelmed by this opus of a novel that I suddenly began to weep … ‘The sublime lives here,’ one of her characters says of the West. The same could be said of Inland. In a moment where the book world fetishizes self-examination and minute, sentence-level showiness, it is not only a relief but a privilege to see Obreht shoot the moon with this sprawlingly ambitious and fully imagined tale. Great literature is to the spirit what water is to the body. Read Inland, and drink deeply.”
“If, as Row puts it, American fiction most often addresses race through silences and omissions, he wants to force these silences to speak, to reveal themselves as self-serving—meant to protect white supremacy. It’s a project that owes a debt to Toni Morrison’s 1992 book Playing in the Dark. Morrison wrote of an ‘Africanist’ presence in American literature that amounted to no authentic black presence at all, only static figures representing ‘notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy or routine dread.’ Row extends that analysis by turning his attention to the giants of postwar American literature, in whose work new forms of marginalization take root … The effect of literary white flight is to regulate the American imagination and reproduce racialized power. Flight allows whiteness to function as if it were universal, a stand-in for ‘human,’ rather than a particular racial category that relies on blackness for its expression. What Row desires is fiction that acknowledges the ways in which Americans are entwined with one another physically, psychically and socially … For all of these inventive and insightful readings, however, it’s unfortunate that Row does not suggest concrete strategies for intervening in the stalled conversation he picks apart … Despite, or perhaps because of, these flaws and the discomfort they inspire, we should accompany Row through this important inquiry.”
–Ismail Muhammad on Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination (The New York Times Book Review)
“Coming to prominence as a fiction writer contemporaneously with the #MeToo Movement, Meijer often gets tied to the most overarching interpretations of her political moment. Critics understand her work as not only blanketly condemnatory of masculinity, but also as a simple binary in which women are victims and men are the culprits of their pain. Condemnatory, sure—yet the culprits Meijer targets with her hypercontrolled voice shift back and forth between characters, her unsettled depictions complicating any sense of a polemic … Rag is more claustrophobic than Meijer’s previous books, by far her most brutal, and also her most sophisticated and technically self-conscious. In multiple stories, Meijer tricks her readers into believing male narrators are females. Admirably, she wields her mastery of conventional craft for repetitive, blunt effect, an approach that intentionally suffocates the reader with horrific reality … In this collection, as in her previous books, love radiates from Meijer’s writing. A complicated consciousness floats over the text like a brain her characters are not using, marking them as people, rather than the objects they believe themselves to be.”
“Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, and another triumph. Indeed, Ms. Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest … Through the different voices and memories of the book, including that of Sethe’s mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange … Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised. The slaves are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their kin. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy … Beloved is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.”
–Margaret Atwood’s 1987 New York Times review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved