We’re zeroing in on both the humorous and the harrowing this week, folks.
First up, it’s Parul Sehgal’s New York Times review of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to his all-conquering 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad. “Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here,” writes Sehgal, “Its starkness and irresolution recalls the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s point that the opposite of forgetting is not merely remembrance. It is justice.”
Over at TIME, Nicholas Mancusi was intrigued by Raised in Captivity, Chuck Klosterman’s first collection of (very) short stories, observing that “Klosterman’s work is motivated by his interest in ideas or, rather, his interest in society’s interest in ideas: how we come to them, experience them and abandon them.”
Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, Sana Krasikov considers the “chilling, enchanted naturalism” of Nobel Prize-winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses. Krasikov observes that Alexievich’s oral history of the children of WWII “offers a war narrative that hues closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Homer.”
We’ve also got Katy Waldman’s New Yorker review of The Gifted School (“the reader feels as though she is watching an enthralling, faintly distasteful sporting event, like a hot-dog-eating contest”) and Julian Lucas’ Harper’s take on Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (“the novel’s guise of country farce belies a masterpiece of deeper spiritual conflicts).
“The Nickel Boys—a tense, nervy performance—is even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. Even if your prose taste runs to curlicue and adornment (mine does), the restraint feels significant. Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves … while Whitehead is frank about the barbarity his characters endure, there are few scenes of explicit violence—most of it happens offstage. And none of the violence is exaggerated. A reverence for the victims can be detected in this refusal to sensationalize their suffering … Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here, of a cinder-block building that still stands, a school that was closed only eight years ago. Its starkness and irresolution recalls the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s point that the opposite of forgetting is not merely remembrance. It is justice.”
“Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction, Klosterman’s first collection of short stories, extends his trademark curiosity and whirring intelligence to the realm of fiction. The short stories here, 34 in total, are truly short, fewer than 10 pages on average. But what they may lack in development or structure, they make up for in originality and humor … Klosterman’s work is motivated by his interest in ideas or, rather, his interest in society’s interest in ideas: how we come to them, experience them and abandon them. In these short pieces, he uses largely faceless characters to test accepted realities, such as time, technology, death and football, to an extent well beyond the reach of nonfiction. The effect of these almost scrollable-length stories is at once familiar and uncanny. It feels like a replication of the fractured way we are forced, in the age of technology, to mediate reality and attempt to understand the world around us.”
“Holsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror … Intriguingly, Holsinger tends to filter the story through his least sympathetic characters while placing the more reasonable or gentle souls just out of reach … the reader feels as though she is watching an enthralling, faintly distasteful sporting event, like a hot-dog-eating contest. There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas … And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading….Most readers will naturally sympathize with an outsider with whom they can forge a wink-wink rapport. What The Gifted School attempts is more difficult: it helps us to inhabit the élites themselves, not in order to vindicate them but so that we can know, viscerally, how they tick and what logic governs their actions. The book exposes how easily a mix of good intentions, self-delusions, and minor sins can escalate into the kind of skullduggery that might prompt an F.B.I. sting … Holsinger leaves the political implications…largely unexplored. What he does show is…these parents committing, in Rose’s rueful words, a ‘collective crime against childhood.’ While the adults of Crystal dream of meritocracy, their kids bear the burden.”
“A chilling, enchanted naturalism fills the book’s pages … offers a war narrative that hues closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Homer. The book’s gift is to allow the child’s malleable perception to flash alongside the adult’s somber recollections … How adroitly Alexievich sticks her landings should warn readers against treating these interviews as journalistic records of raw testimony. In form and spirit they are closer to prose poems, sometimes even songs, built around repeating refrains. Alexievich is a master at employing the withheld detail to undercut the unfiltered sentimentalism of a narrator, or adding a poetic sting to an otherwise prosaic entry. Often her technique serves to show how children’s boundless affection and their naïve egoism are both born of an instinct for self-preservation … These mini-turns function like the tuning of an aperture, opening the lens wide to allow for a deluge of suffering, then narrowing again to show us the human capacity to absorb such loss.”
–Sana Krasikov on Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II (The New York Times Book Review)
“In the lofty Polish hamlet of Luftzug, the skies are low, the winters harsh, and the cell signal perpetually uncertain of its nationality. The highlight of the social calendar is a mushroom-picker’s ball, and the favorite sport of every man from the local playboy to the parish priest is hunting. They do it legally and illegally, alone and in recreational associations, with shotguns and trip-wire snares, and from cross-shaped wooden platforms called pulpits. Until, that is, they start dying … Beautifully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a riveting whodunit with a black-ice surface of fairy-tale charm and a white-hot core of moral fury. The Polish writer is best known for her roving novel Flights, which interleaves the disparate lives of invented travelers with essayistic meditations on airport terminals and the strange migrations of Chopin’s embalmed heart. Compared with Flights—which Tokarczuk has described as a ‘constellation’ novel for its consonant but non-intersecting storylines—Drive Your Plow’s scope can feel almost picayune. But the novel’s guise of country farce belies a masterpiece of deeper spiritual conflicts. Luftzug’s denizens are every bit as eccentric as the landowners in Gogol’s Dead Souls.”