Alexandra SchwartzAlexandra Schwartz is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for 2014. She can be found on Twitter @Alex_Lily
Andrew Sean Greer
PositiveThe New YorkerFreddy manages to douse his skepticism in the name of love, but this reader had a harder time. San Francisco is among the most expensive rental markets in the country; the man needs a MacArthur grant, not a magazine assignment ... typical of Greer’s best comic writing, with its exquisite attention to rhythm, repetition, and timing, the bright sentences tossed up like juggling balls to be caught in dazzling rotation ... Where Greer runs into trouble is in his attempt to use Less’s trip to gesture at the state of the Union writ large ... Critiquing the American experiment has become something of a trope in the current political climate, but, though Greer’s novel is set in the approximate present, his America is a land curiously devoid of politics. Less manages to drive three thousand miles without coming across so much as a single MAGA hat; there seems to have been no major public-health crisis since AIDS ... Greer, though, has a gentler sensibility. He wants to see the best in people, and that rare instinct puts him in a bind. How to confront the madness, let alone the viciousness, the violence, the cruelty, of the moment while maintaining the kind of comic equipoise that he prizes? ... These appliqué indictments have the awkward feel of authorial preëmption; it’s as if Greer felt the need to make a show of taking his character to task for being categorically \'problematic.\' Perhaps to compensate, he saddles Less with emotional baggage (a dead mother, a long-absent father) that hints at painful depths without really creating them. These are \'Swift\'-ian touches, and they work no better in Greer’s novel than they evidently did in Less’s ... That rawer, truer vein of feeling gives the novel back its heart. If Less Is Lost is, well, a lesser work than “Less,” there’s something sincerely winning in Greer’s undogmatic brand of small-c conservatism ... No one’s private world is shielded from national storms, but often enough the sun does shine there. We need some novels to remind us of that, and this is one.
PositiveThe New YorkerIt’s a remarkable tale, and Butler, a writer and podcaster for Slate who also teaches theatre history, is well cast as narrator ... It is quite possible to read all three hundred and sixty-three pages of Butler’s book and still be unable to define exactly what the Method is. That’s not a dig. Just when you think you have the thing pinned down, it changes. A technique becomes an attitude; the attitude becomes an aura—or an affect.
PositiveThe New YorkerSrinivasan is clear about the need to do something about our desires but not about what, exactly, we should do ... Srinivasan’s essential counsel—to embrace ambivalence—might seem unlikely to cause offense. But it did. The disgruntled responses to the publication of \'Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?\' are the subject of a subsequent essay in Srinivasan’s book, \'Coda: The Politics of Desire.\' Reading these two pieces together is like chasing a glass of rosé with a shot of fire. In \'The Right to Sex,\' Srinivasan is temperate and scholarly, treading lightly as she builds her argument. In \'Coda,\' she is writing with the clarity of anger ... For each of her points...she can find a counterpoint. This must be what it means to \'dwell in ambivalence.\' Clearly, it’s not a comfortable place to be. But why should it be comfortable? ... Srinivasan is after liberation.
RaveThe New Yorker[A] wonderful new book ... Levy, whose prose is at once declarative and concrete and touched with an almost oracular pithiness, has a gift for imbuing ordinary observations with the magic of metaphor ... The new volume, which follows the death of one version of the self, describes the uncertain birth of another ... She herself is not always a purely likable, or reliable, narrator of her own experience, and her book is the richer for it.
RaveNew Yorker[A] a comic, vital new novel ... Sam’s unprincipled pursuit of her confused principles gives the novel a loopy energy ... When a wife, not her husband, is the one to indulge a midlife crisis and abandon her family, her behavior is either derided as selfish or championed as subversive. A good novel shouldn’t ask us to choose between those readings, and Spiotta has written a very good novel ... If Wayward has competition in the category of best American novel devoted to the subject of perimenopause, I am not aware of it.
PositiveThe New YorkerAngel writes witheringly of \'confidence feminists,\' who object to female hesitance and uncertainty ... Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is most exciting at the start and at the end, where Angel is boldest in her own ideas. In the middle chapters, she walks us through a lot of other people’s, mainly in the interest of throwing cold water on studies that purport to prove some objective truth about women and desire ... It’s good to see Angel pay attention to heterosexual men, to \'welcome them to vulnerability.\' They may be the group of people most in need of hearing what she has to say.
RaveThe New YorkerLockwood gets it right, mimicking the medium while shrewdly parodying its ethos ... The rampant political anxiety and grandstanding; the fear of judgment and social embarrassment (and the keen pleasure of doing the judging); above all, the unstable, seductive \'we\' with its exquisite promise of togetherness: Lockwood has it all down, and she is funny about it, too. God, is she funny! ... Lockwood’s conceit is smart, her prose original, hugely entertaining and witty ... Lockwood’s writing grows radiant, as if the depiction of this little creature gives her the profoundest joy. What is especially moving is that this is not some parable about a mother’s mystical devotion; it is a story, simply, about love, selfless and delighted ... it isn’t, either, a story with an easy moral for us to take home, How I Quit the Internet for Good. The same portal will be waiting for the protagonist when she’s ready to return to it; the difference will be private, internal, burrowed in the secret place where only novels go.
PositiveThe New YorkerWhen Chang-rae Lee was young, he was drawn to old souls ... Now Lee is fifty-five, and his sixth novel, My Year Abroad, brims with youth ... now, in My Year Abroad, Lee writes like a man released from a cage. His prose unfurls like a scarf pulled from a magician’s mouth, one bright, brash clause after another ... Lee is revelling in his return to freedom. He is having fun ... The trouble is that Lee will not modulate his antic music. The novel starts loud and only gets louder, its language soon cracking under the strain of supporting so much insistent vitality. The goofy jargon that’s meant to telegraph Tiller’s youth comes to seem old, outdated ... It’s not hard to indulge Lee in some of this awkward, enthusiastic grasping ... It’s the literary equivalent of a dad who chaperones his kid to a punk show and winds up happily thrashing in the mosh pit ... The more I read of My Year Abroad, the more I came to feel that I was trapped in a novelistic Netflix, one stuffed episode blurring into the next ... What it cannot usurp is the unsettled private domain, the interior—the very space that Lee has explored, in the past, with such sympathetic, acute intelligence, and that he now seems willing to chuck for the sake of making the pages turn faster. Alas, they don’t.
PositiveThe New Yorker[Leilani] loves catching her reader off guard by tweaking a sentence midway through, switching up speeds, like a pitcher, so that a passage that begins modestly suddenly gathers momentum, shooting forward in long, arcing phrases that stay improbably in flight ... There’s a \'look what I can do\' joy in Leilani’s prose that delights in the rapture it describes, capped, in that surrender to \'yes,\' by a nod to Molly Bloom, who knows a thing or two herself about the erotics of a breathless run-on ... It’s daring of Leilani to launch such a hilarious salvo on the publishing industry from within, and her timing turns out to be spot on ... a highly pleasurable interrogation of pleasure ... Leilani thrives in this hyperconscious register; this is the sincere comedy of a powerfully observant mind spinning its gears as thought rushes far ahead of action ... Leilani, a commendably patient novelist, comfortably dwells in such inscrutability. She sometimes falters when she tries to be overly legible, or pushes her vivid sensibility a measure too far ... Although people do work at morgues, and clowns must come from somewhere, these garish touches, in a novel already highly attuned to the everyday surreal, lack the subtle weight that makes invented things seem true. Rebecca’s job, in particular, functions as unneeded shorthand for parsing her character, and Leilani does something similar with Edie’s penchant for pain ... too clear a tethering line is drawn from Edie’s sorrowful childhood to the masochistic streak that emerges in her relationship with Eric ... In a sense, such stumbles are the flip side of the novel’s successes; both stem from Leilani’s hunger to pack so much of what she knows about the world into one deceptively narrow drama.
RaveThe New Yorker...one of the great American novels of the past decade ... Veronica has a surfeit of experience and feeling, and, if she seems pathetic in the way that she grasps for connection with the person least likely to offer it, that hint of sentimentality is offset by the fierce majesty of her refusal to suppress it—though it takes a certain keenness of perception to see it that way.
Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
RaveThe New Yorker... remarkable ... There’s no way to know, of course, if all this happened as Gilot says it did. (Lake said that she had \'total recall,\' a claim that tends to raise rather than allay suspicions.) She has the memoirist’s prerogative—this is how I remember it—and Picasso’s tyranny and brilliance are hardly in dispute. The bigger mystery is Gilot; the self in her self-portrait can be hard to see behind the lacquered irony and reserve ... Her dissent is withering and sarcastic rather than furious; like other women of her generation who pointedly overlooked the bad behavior of their husbands, she is concerned with preserving her own dignity ... Gilot’s memoir shines, now, as a proto-feminist classic, the tale of a young woman who found herself in the thrall of a dazzling master and ended up breaking free. But it is also a love story, and a traditional one. The contradiction is right there in the book.
Lena Andersson Trans. by Saskia Vogel
PositiveThe New YorkerWhat makes these simple stories of unrequited passion so unusual and gripping is Ester ... she is Andersson’s lab rat, infected with ardor and left to wander through the novels’ maze, bashing blindly into its obstacles. Those obstacles can be delightfully basic ... Her style is blunt, pragmatic, dogged ... Andersson’s critique of the modern order is particularly sharp when it touches on ghosting, that torture by technology ... Like most sequels, Acts of Infidelity isn’t flattered by a comparison with its predecessor. Its rhythms are already familiar; it seems baggy, overlong. (The translation, by Saskia Vogel, is stodgier, too.) ... You can sometimes feel like tearing your hair out watching Ester repeat her painful errors ... Her honesty, usually disconcerting, is also brave; she refuses to suffer with quiet propriety. Yet what’s most touching is that uncharacteristic ellipsis, marking a place that not even words can reach.
RaveThe New YorkerThere is a delightfully comic, head-in-the-sand logic at work here ... Processing reality through fiction is part of what good art helps us do, and Laing’s novel does it more explicitly than most ... That exuberance shows in the novel’s sentences, which rush by, fleet and frenetic, nearly tripping over the speed bumps of their own commas ... Laing has not entirely given up her biographer’s taste for burrowing inside other people’s skins, however. If Kathy is Laing’s alter ego, she is also an homage to Kathy Acker ... Acker herself was a first-rate stealer of other people’s writing, and Laing’s theft pays tribute in kind ... The risk of prose that tries to capture the sentiments of the immediate present is that it tends to take on the rubbery chew of an op-ed. Fortunately, Laing’s novel is too headlong for that. There is no sense of slowing the mad dash of the present to make it more comprehensible to some hypothetical future reader. For that reason, Crudo could turn out to be a novel that we pick up years from now to remind ourselves how these times felt ... Love may not be original, but this funny, fervent novel is.
MixedThe New Yorker\"Motherhood is a novel, or so its publisher claims, though even that loose and accommodating category doesn’t convey the weird originality of this sometimes exasperating, sometimes illuminating work ... Heti isn’t an orphan in any literal sense—both her parents are still alive—and there is something bratty about publicly stamping her foot and declaring her need for attention. But she feels like a neglected baby, and so she acts like one. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that her mother friends, stuck at home, overextended and underslept, may feel neglected by her, too.\
MixedThe New YorkerRefreshing though it is to encounter a literary model of genuine female mentorship and encouragement, her tale of a millennial woman’s feminist awakening comes to seem blinkered and strangely incurious ... The risk for a novel that tries to capture the Zeitgeist is that the Zeitgeist is liable to shift at any moment. Indeed, the timeliness of Wolitzer’s subject, initially such a boon to the novel, ultimately deals it a major blow. The events of the past few months, and the fierce discussions about feminism that they have engendered, have proved to be far more electrifying and complex than anything that Wolitzer depicts here. Surpassed by the present that it aims to depict, the novel feels amiable and mild by comparison, already quaintly out of date.
MixedThe New YorkerHollinghurst wonderfully conveys the subtle, charged atmosphere of ordinary life rumbling along under extraordinary circumstances ... we don’t really find out what David Sparsholt has to say about his gay son, or what the son has to say about his father. It is almost as if Hollinghurst, sympathetic to Johnny’s introverted awkwardness and wanting him to flourish on his own terms, believes the question to be impolite. As David and his cohort recede from view, Johnny becomes the novel’s protagonist, though he has the provisional feel of a secondary character nudged from the wings into the spotlight ... Hollinghurst has further handicapped himself by limiting Johnny’s ability with words. He is dyslexic, and not much of a talker, though in place of verbal gifts he has visual ones ... considering the effects of the past is not just the responsibility of a novel about eight decades of gay history; it is the responsibility of a novel about family, and the disappointment of The Sparsholt Affair is that Hollinghurst lets Johnny slip the knot of his father’s life with barely a second thought, escaping easily into the safety of his own.
RaveThe New Yorker\"Rooney turns out to be as intelligent and agile a novelist as she apparently was a debater, and for many of the same reasons. As its title promises, Rooney’s book glitters with talk ... Capitalism is to Rooney’s young women what Catholicism was to Joyce’s young men, a rotten national faith to contend with, though how exactly to resist capitalism, when it has sunk its teeth so deep into the human condition, remains an open question ... one wonderful aspect of Rooney’s consistently wonderful novel is the fierce clarity with which she examines the self-delusion that so often festers alongside presumed self-knowledge ... She writes with a rare, thrilling confidence, in a lucid and exacting style uncluttered with the sort of steroidal imagery and strobe flashes of figurative language that so many dutifully literary novelists employ ... But Rooney’s natural power is as a psychological portraitist. She is acute and sophisticated about the workings of innocence; the protagonist of this novel about growing up has no idea just how much of it she has left to do.\
MixedThe NationIn style, voice and the interplay of influences, NW is a perplexing creation. Long before the book’s larger structure becomes apparent, the story has an ominous tone. The texture of the prose is still distinctly Smith’s, but its color has changed, a familiar, bright picture seen through smudged and darkened glass. Sentences are curt and clipped, meted out in stingy servings of nouns and verbs denied the luxury of richer grammar … [Smith’s] control over the proceedings has slipped. Her hasty solution is worse than hollow; it’s without sense, a sacrifice of character to some principle of structure whose purpose remains obscure.
PositiveThe New YorkerKitamura is a writer with a visionary, visual imagination—she’s an art critic, too—and a bold symbolist streak. The mood she likes best is menace ... In A Separation, Kitamura has made consciousness her territory. The book is all mind, and an observant, taut, astringent mind it is, though there is something almost unhinged about so much rationality in the face of such duress ... As is so often the case in adultery-themed novels, there is a strong echo here of Anna Karenina, but, unusually, it is Alexei Karenin, not Anna, whom our narrator resembles ... The equation of emotionality with female weakness pervades Kitamura’s novel. It is the narrator’s obsession, a fate to avoid above all else ... Absence is the novel’s great motif, the subject of its ruminative investigation. The word is used so often that it becomes a kind of totem. On page after page, we hear that Christopher was all surface, no substance, a vain, vanished man ... These are stirring questions, pointing toward a deep, buried sorrow and regret, and yet the novel itself seems as repulsed by such emotions as its narrator is.
PositiveThe New YorkerSmith’s most affecting novel in a decade, one that brings a piercing focus to her favorite theme: the struggle to weave disparate threads of experience into a coherent story of a self ... As the book progresses, she interleaves chapters set in the present with ones that deal with memories of college, of home, of Tracey. It is a graceful technique, this metronomic swinging back and forth in time...The novel’s structure feels true to the effect of memory, the way we use the past as ballast for the present.
PositiveThe New Yorker...[a] gutsy ... Witt’s account of the [BDSM] scene is terrifically done, an oddly sweet exercise in descriptive economy and dry comic timing ... itt is a sharp observer of the behavior and the motivations of others, a wry, affectionate portraitist of idealistic people and the increasingly surreal place they belong to. Among other things, Future Sex offers a superb account of the absurdities of San Francisco in the first half of this decade.
PositiveThe New YorkerDonoghue has developed something of a specialty in putting children in situations of harrowing confinement ... She enjoys doing her research, and it shows. The difficulty, as with any work of historical fiction, is in getting the facts to hum and resonate in our contemporary minds, to illuminate our own mysteries. Perhaps that’s why the explanation for Anna’s fast, when it finally comes, is given in terms of trauma at last dredged up...It’s a revelation that accounts for everything and, for that reason, feels unsatisfying, minimizing of the unfathomable nature of Anna’s feat. History’s anomalies are clipped to fit our own diagnostic sense of the world.
PositiveThe New YorkerHistorical and sociological and political explanations, necessary as they are to making sense of terror, don’t capture the tiny, intimate urgencies that power the life of a person caught in their web. Mahajan can’t explain the grand structures of violence any better than the rest of us can. But he brings us close enough to feel the blast.
PositiveThe New Yorker[Gaitskill] keeps clear of the self-justifying temptations of fiction embedded with memoir by structuring The Mare as a series of short chapters delivered in the first person, slicing deftly among her characters’ various points of view. Paul and Silvia have a say, but the leading roles are Ginger’s and Velvet’s—a risky strategy, since it requires a kid’s voice that can match an adult’s in lifelike tone and psychological depth. Velvet, fortunately, is that most wonderful of fictional creations: a convincing child who manages to be a captivating and perceptive narrator.