Christian Lorentzen is a book critic for New York Magazine/Vulture and an Editor at Large for the London Review of Books. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Movieline, the Hartford Courant, the New York Journal-News, the RBS Gazette, the New York Sun, BlackBook, TimeOut New York, Tar, and the National. He can be found on Twitter @xlorentzen
John Le Carré
PositiveAir Mail... passes muster. The stitches don’t show, and the novel possesses several elements of classic le Carré ... another picture emerges in Silverview: that of a lifelong idealist whose commitments (said to be a liability in intelligence work) transcend institutions, nations, and ideologies. Edward is, in the end, a man whose conscience won’t be outwitted by history, and unlike le Carré’s other stories of traitors and double agents who meet grim fates, Silverview is no tragedy.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. Martin Aitken
PositiveAirMailAcross nearly 700 pages, Knausgaard mixes the cerebral, the mundane, and the downright scary in a horror thriller that’s the opposite of taut. Digressions into teenage drinking, drunken casual sex, and the nature of the eternal test the limits of suspense. Nothing cools the action like a 20-page disquisition on Kierkegaard’s notion of abandoning oneself to the divine. We hear as much from Jostein about his travails in finding just the right restroom where he can piss alone as we do about the scene of the black-metal murders ... Such is the Knausgaard way: love it or leave it. I loved it most of the time. What is it we want from our celebrated authors—something entirely different or more of the same? Without quite turning into Stephen King, Knausgaard has managed a page-turner that’s recognizably his own. The true sign of the master’s touch: he writes too much but always leaves you wanting more.
RaveBookforumThe Trees is a wild book: a gory pulp revenge fantasy and a detective narrative that alternates between deadpan and slapstick modes of satire. It has all the right beats for the big screen, except that it’s too profane and obscene to be greenlit in Hollywood, even for the likes of Quentin Tarantino. His retribution epics offer an obvious point of comparison: The Trees is just as blood-soaked and just as hilarious as Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, but it comes with more authentic historical weight for being set in a dreamlike counterpresent rather than a cartoonishly counterfactual past ... For all the absurdism, there is of course a serious strand to The Trees an elegiac strain enters the novel ... It’s tempting to call The Trees the ultimate novel of the Trump era. It is the rare book that sees the forty-fifth president less as a menace here than a nuisance, the Republicans as so many falling elderly dominoes, and their white-supremacist voters a decrepit network of armed bozos. In that way, it’s also tempting to read The Trees as a hopeful book, but such a reading might also be naive.
MixedHarpersLish’s sentences are carved out of granite ...But the book is an unstable hybrid, unbearably poignant until it turns improbably pulpy, pitting a set of intricate characters against a pair of villains who seem to have escaped from a caricature factory managed by Charles Dickens in Hell ... The real war in this book may be between genres: elegy and bildungsroman on the one hand and gothic thriller on the other. The clash is fascinating ... I’ve lived in Cambridge and my grandfather lived in Quincy when I was a child in the Eighties, and I’ve never seen them evoked in such brilliant detail and with such total control on the page ... Lish’s writing about Corey’s work and his cage fighting displays a virtuosic level of detail as the boy undergoes trials and humiliations and learns how to keep his jobs and win his matches. Similarly fine is the attention Lish pays to Gloria’s decline: her falls, her loss of language, and at last her loss of mobility. The portrait is heartbreaking.
PanLondon Review of Books (UK)Of all the novels responding to the Trump presidency, Richard Powers’s Bewilderment may come closest to pure propaganda ... most of its politics will be innocuous to any imagined audience. If you aren’t in favour of killing endangered animals, of invalidating visas, of throwing out properly cast votes and of denying helpful therapies to suffering children, you will find little in the novel to argue with ... It’s hard to find characters more in need of sympathy outside a Hallmark card ... you feel yourself getting stupider and meaner the wiser and more prophetic Robin becomes. Powers seems to want Robin’s indignation to appear as a form of righteous cuteness, but his benevolence is immediately insufferable ... lowest common denominator liberalism: a combination of self-pity, self-flattery, self-flagellation and baseline contempt for declared (Trump) and putative (unscienced) enemies ... Robin\'s...less a boy than an allegory: for the death of democracy, for the death of the Earth, for human self-destruction trumping life of all kinds, here and in outer space. Certainly, all of this is sad, and none of it is cool.
PanThe London Review of BooksNormality has totemic significance in Rooney’s writing: her characters either think of themselves as ‘special’ – that is, smart and sensitive but stranded among normal people – or they yearn to be normal rather than fucked up and damaged. There is a relentless keeping score on this account, not only of who is a ‘normal’ person but of who is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘nice’ or ‘evil’ person. Every action, every bit of behaviour, may reveal an essence. It’s a strange way of portraying characters who are basically innocent and not in the least weird ... That Felix is also kind to his dog completes the cornball Hollywood logic of his appeal, a redeeming quality in a dumbass bore ... How much you enjoy Rooney’s novels – enjoyment is the point, and there’s no denying her broad appeal – depends on your attitude towards her characters. I’m not talking about likeability, or the moral status these people are constantly calculating, or their relentlessly avowed leftist politics: that’s fine – plenty of people talk a radical talk and live their lives as complacent liberals. I mean simply: are they interesting? ... There is lots of sex. For a good span of the novel, every chapter that isn’t an email climaxes with a sex scene. These weren’t my thing. Relayed in a cold third person, they lack the emotional point of view of the sex in Rooney’s earlier books, which are sparer and less porny. They sound not unlike moving furniture, and have something in common with a couple of scenes of Felix sorting packages at the warehouse.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... a comedy of misrecognition ... Justine does not come into sharp relief—in her youth she is all potential—but she allows M to speak of motherhood, which she thinks of both as a burden and a form of power ... It is out of these clashes and the tensions they create—who will be humiliated next?—that the novel’s very potent comedy arises, a comedy much more satisfying than M’s own rather prolix reflections on what it means to be seen, parenthood, gender roles and the nature of being an artist ... One thing Cusk has done in Second Place is to restore some mystery to the idea of artistic genius in an era when we prefer to speak of \'craft\' and \'process\'. In her hands, art and artists are anything but banal. And so what if they’re monstrous?
MixedThe Financial Times (UK)A dark whimsy animates the short fiction in Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection...Its dozen stories tend to be light in tone, but many are haunted by the deaths of loved ones, impending mortality, or fatal accidents narrowly averted ... There is an economy in her telling, mostly done in a third-person narration that sticks to a single character or shifts between a pair of them ... Sometimes the intimacy is assumed too quickly ... A few of these stories end before convincing you they’ve really begun ... As with many of these stories, the accumulation of eccentric detail is out of balance with the weight of death.
PositiveBookforumIn the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth ... Roth had a persistent public-relations problem. Too often he was confused with his characters. Roth was never not a Jew, but his true creed was secular, his gods success and sex. He made his name writing about race traitors, class traitors, and perverts. He needed to spread the word that he was still a Nice Jewish Boy: responsible, successful, and normal. He was getting too much mail: hate mail from offended New Jersey rabbis and propositions from turned-on Midwestern nurses. He relished it all, but he knew as soon as he had anything that he had a lot to lose ... An exquisitely managed career, right down to this totemic and compulsively readable biography, which young writers are well advised to consult as a blueprint for enduring literary stardom. Its lessons include: never marry; have no children; lawyer up early; keep tight control of your cover designs; listen to the critics while scorning them publicly; when it comes to publishers, follow the money; never give a minute to a hostile interviewer; avoid unflattering photographers; figure out what you’re good at and keep doing it, book after book, with just enough variation to keep them guessing; sell out your friends, sell out your family, sell out your lovers, and sell out yourself; keep going until every younger writer can be called your imitator; don’t stop until all your enemies are dead.
Rave4ColumnsWith Ishiguro we are often moving from a state of innocence to dark knowledge. His narrators come to their stories from the margins ... These are characters whose vision of the world is occluded. Ishiguro is a hoarder of secrets, which can make his books difficult for a reviewer to discuss without doing a bit of spoiling ... Gradually details of the world these characters inhabit are revealed, but our knowledge of this world is as partial as Klara’s. Her vision itself isn’t like ours: she takes in new landscapes through a series of boxes or rectangles—a further defamiliarizing aspect of her narration ... It is perhaps a credit to Ishiguro that I closed his book not sure to whom it belonged—to Josie or Klara or the Sun itself and therefore the larger forces of nature. Klara and the Sun is a study in frailty and impermanence, the endings none of us can escape.
PositiveBookforum\'Senescence\' isn\'t quite the word for the stage the writers of the Baby Boom have reached. Sure, they may be collecting social security, the eldest of them in their mid-seventies, but the wonders of modern science may allow some another couple of decades of productivity. When the Reaper starts to come for the writer’s instrument, the first thing to go is flow, but that may not matter: fragments are in ... Inside Story, [Amis\'s] new novel, resets the equation. Amis will again retell his life story. He will mix fact and fiction, with the balance in favor of the former. Real names will be used for many of the characters, most of them famous writers. He will digress on politics, history, and literature at will. There will be writing instructions, the book itself framed as an encounter with a young writer who’s come to his door ... The opening passages of Inside Story are unpromising ... Yet there is, especially for the longtime reader of Amis, an irresistible charm at work ... The reader who submits to this charm will be rewarded ... Inside Story is unified by the force of Amis’s personality, which lives in his prose style. That was always where his redemption would be found.
PositiveBookforum... 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.
MixedFinancial TimesIn Sorry for Your Trouble, the emotional balance tilts towards the characters’ pasts, allowing a weightlessness to pervade the present ... There’s a sense of aftermath and nostalgia to these stories that’s variously wistful or mournful ... Ford’s people live, vacation, have roots and experience epiphanies. Too many of these are of the ho-hum variety ... Narrative thrust is missing from all but one of these tales ... His realism is still best served dirty.
MixedFinancial Times (UK)Shriver has written a satire on fitness zealotry with a side serving of culture-war intrigue ... broad comedy ... On the culture-war front, Shriver’s tone tends towards the didactic ... it takes aim at liberal hypocrisy...but the hyperbole it trades in, however amusing, is unlikely to win converts to [Shriver\'s] side of the debate. Far more of the novel is devoted to Remington’s quixotic quest to become a machine capable of massive feats of endurance. It’s hard not to share Serenata’s dim view of this project, since Shriver has stacked the deck in her favour, and by the novel’s final third what began as a nimble romp becomes a dutiful slog to a predictable resolution. Along the way, Shriver’s finest writing addresses abstract questions such as the relation of the self and body across time ... poignant insights about ageing are delivered inside a novel that goes down like a sour pill. Shriver’s bitterness is reminiscent of VS Naipaul’s, but his great subjects were postcolonial revolution and the agonies of decolonisation. The stakes of Shriver’s drive-by declinist aphorisms are rather less world-historical than she makes them out to be ... Shriver’s rage against the dying of various lights makes for a diverting spectacle, if not always a coherent novel.
PositiveBookforum[Mantel\'s] answer to the problem of history and its uncertainties tends to be both more history and more uncertainty. Instead of taking recourse to the surreal as a way to garland history’s inadequacies, her books propose a version of history only to rewrite it again and again without ever veering out of the zone of the plausible. The reception of Mantel’s trilogy hasn’t captured just how little these books feel like conventional novels. You might call them hyperconventional. Though there are few deviations from the real...the texture of Mantel’s style isn’t that of contemporary realism. Often you feel as if you’re reading not a novel but a vast and unstageable play ... the books have an immersive quality. Once you enter them, you are thoroughly within Cromwell’s world ...The Mirror & the Light is longer and looser, more digressive, and more comic than its predecessors. At moments we see Cromwell not merely as an operator but as a connoisseur of poetry and art, reading the verse of Thomas Wyatt and commissioning Hans Holbein to paint him portraits of the kings of England. Was the real Cromwell as contemplative as Mantel’s Cromwell? The question is moot: For her purposes he has to be as she makes him; otherwise he would be unworthy of such a monumental and monomaniacal treatment in fiction ... For another writer to imitate Mantel’s undertaking would be folly. In giving new life to the historical novel, she may also have killed it. Who will come along to reattach the head?
MixedBookforumThe book is descriptive and diagnostic ... Douthat knows that his prognosis retains plenty of vagueness. It relies, too often, on feelings ... Too often he conflates science fiction with expert projections we’ve somehow failed to fulfill. These failures and cherry-picked examples of diminished imaginative visions—from the utopian to the dystopian—compound to confirm his thesis. But they also require him to downplay the technological innovations we have been experiencing, as if computers, smartphones, and the internet weren’t more revolutionary in more people’s daily lives than the moon landing ... The least convincing of Douthat’s diagnostic arguments is the one about culture. It hinges on the idea that our cultural production has become repetitious in a few respects. He’s right that with the rather large exceptions of gay and trans rights, what we call culture war has largely been in a state of stalemate since the 1970s. But that’s to mistake culture war for actual culture, next to which culture war is but a sideshow ... For all its blind spots (some of them willful), as a description of our moment, The Decadent Society is as convincing, if not quite as entertaining, as Adam Curtis’s film HyperNormalisation. When futility and the absurd prevail, agitation and narcissism follow.
PanThe London Review of Books (UK)... typical of Cummins’s tendency to increase the emotional pressure at the expense of meaning ... The characters are vessels for Cummins’s incoherent ideas about trauma and her superficial research on Mexico ... Cummins doesn’t so much mix metaphors as pile them on top of one another: the more there are, the less it matters if they make sense ... superficially construed as a damsel-on-the-run thriller in the mode of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train but with topical relevance ... the ‘character development’ is crude; the suspense nothing more than the heaping on of unfortunate events ... The trouble with Cummins’s writing isn’t that she gets Spanish wrong, which she does (she also misuses it – why call a soccer ball a balon de futbal in a book that converts pesos to dollars?), or that she borrows bits from other writers, such as Luis Alberto Urrea, and deploys their material clumsily; it’s that her simplistic worldview, split between the cutesy and the cruel, can’t handle subject matter of any seriousness, whatever the colour of her characters’ skin ... But it’s a worldview that sells.
MixedThe London Review of Books (UK)Much of the story is excruciating ... The story is unrelenting...The writing, however, is often exquisite; its mode realism with gothic touches ... There is much that’s lovely about this writing, with its control and precision, and the child’s-eye images ... early in the novel, it’s difficult to tell whether the book has a darkly comic heart. The answer is: not really ... Moments of levity tend to lapse into something awful ... When Shuggie’s older siblings talk about their aspirations...they sound a bit like characters in a Bruce Springsteen song or a young adult novel. It wouldn’t be right to describe Shuggie Bain as a book for children, as the critic Jessa Crispin recently said of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. But like those books it has a didactic fairy-tale quality. To the extent that it engages in adult psychology, the mentality portrayed is either vicious and predatory (Shug) or victimised (Agnes) ... All this pathos tips into bathos ... the scope of the book never really widens beyond Agnes’s drinking. The city is glimpsed, as are Shuggie’s emerging artistic sensibilities and sense of his own sexuality, but only just ... In the final third of the novel, the gothic elements of Stuart’s realism fall away – though there is more molestation and sexual assault to come – and the book begins to feel like a therapeutic memoir informed by the coping techniques of survivors.
Vladimir Nabokov, Ed. by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy
MixedThe Financial TimesThere are reviews from the Russian émigré newspapers and from The New Republic, for which he became an occasional contributor after moving to the US in 1940. With a few exceptions (for example Ivan Bunin) his subjects are too long forgotten for the reviews to retain much interest today, but Nabokov’s bee stings are a primer in the critic’s art of netting and pinning a subject in the space of a sentence ... The book we have is not like any other I’ve read. Not quite diaristic, at times resembling an untrimmed book of aphorisms, hammering on pet themes, Think, Write, Speak is a twisting and bumpy road for the reader who attempts to read it front to back. Sinuosity, the quality Nabokov prized in his own sentences, isn’t the word for this journey ... Every interview Nabokov granted was a defence, not only of himself against charges of scandal and obscenity, but also of art, the imagination, and literature itself. He devoted his life to the shiver in the spine that passes from writer to reader, and it’s there that he lives on.
John Le Carre
PositiveAir MailIt would be a stretch to say that a few of the characters in Agent Running in the Field could have walked into it from the pages of a Sally Rooney novel, but le Carré does seem interested in and sympathetic to the millennial generation ... Le Carré has been a master chronicler of espionage for three generations because of his political negative capability: though he’s hardly a both-sider, he can inhabit opposing political stances and sensibilities, even within the same character. It remains to be seen whether Ed Shannon’s generation will produce a chronicler of the new world of espionage via bulk-collection practices and the human vacuum of metadata as sly and resourceful as the reigning master.
PanThe London Review of BooksSome of the reviewers’ hyperbole is no doubt a symptom of a general longing for a good book about 9/11, but it is strange that critics feel the obligation to pay compliments to a writer’s prose when it’s more likely that what appeals to them about this plodding, schematic, unfunny novel is its forgiving version of recent history ... Reading The Submission, I often had the feeling that the novel was written by the New York Times itself; that Waldman has so thoroughly internalised the paper’s worldview that she can’t see things any other way.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Shaun Whiteside
MixedBookforumIt is engrossing; it is cartoonishly violent; it is profane; it is perverse; it is now and then very funny. It is cloaked in a garment of melancholy that puts one in mind of walking for hours in a drenched hoodie after an autumn downpour. It is also frequently repulsive—more so than his previous novels, which haven’t exactly attracted the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval ... cannot be read without reference to white male despair, the specter of homicidal incels, and Trumpism ... Houellebecq’s portrait is particularly acidic and will be, for some, unpalatably extreme ... the sort of contemporary moral fable the culture seems to have wanted (and feared) Joker to be. Houellebecq has delivered it, and there’s no need to station armed guards in the bookstores ... What is missing from this novel is any element of grace.
PositiveLondon Review of Books (UK)... seems to have been written reluctantly: a memoir by a celebrity dissident dedicated to the cause of digital privacy. There were surely market incentives for the book to take the form it has: publishers prefer personal revelations to manifestos. But for all the storytelling it is a manifesto all the same. The innocent boy grows up in a digital paradise that becomes a fallen world when government and capital learn how to control it ... In revealing everything he did, including his own identity, to the probable detriment of his health, wealth and sanity, Snowden was also violating his own privacy. Permanent Record takes that self-violation as far as it can go. About the other characters in his life, there is just enough to provide the narrative with colour.
PositiveBookforumIt’s striking how far many novelists of Smith’s generation have veered away from the dizzying, wide-canvas, broadly satirical, knowing fictions of their youth ... [Smith\'s] recent writings have a melancholy register. Despite its title—note the imperative mood of Feel Free—her last essay collection was pervaded by an aura of dutifulness. There’s a greater sense of liberation in the stories that make up Grand Union. Without having to generate the narrative thrust to sustain a novel or to make an argument she’ll have to attach her name to, Smith tinkers with ideas, adopts disparate modes of story-telling, and pursues various larks ... The best of these stories have a loose, diaristic quality, mixing the personal and political. Since the politics of Smith’s two homes—London and Manhattan—haven’t exactly been inspiring of late, there’s a general tone of comic resignation ... Grand Union is Smith’s best book since NW, but there are a few misfires, stories that never transcend their premises ... \'Now More Than Ever,\' with the distance of its narrator, its playful tone, and its allegorical games, heralds the sort of fiction we’re likely to be seeing more of in an age that doesn’t particularly cherish realist treatments of ambiguity. It’s time for hysterical realism to return from beyond the pale.
RaveVultureSo a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius ... DeWitt’s stroke of comic brilliance is to combine the pathetic and parodic in Sibylla’s efforts at survival as Ludo diligently ploughs through the epics of world literature ... The Last Samurai is, in a few ways, an instruction manual. It contains an ethics of living and learning, but it also attempts to tell its readers how to learn and to show them that they can learn things that they might have thought beyond their grasp ... It drinks deeply in the canon while at the same time renewing it.
MixedFinancial Times (UK)...an uneven but diverting and occasionally brilliant novel ... The maudlin, tragicomic cast of Quichotte, which is longlisted for this year’s Booker, works in [Rushdie\'s] favour ... Stylistically, Quichotteputs both Rushdie’s vices and virtues on display, with the balance tilted toward the latter. There are majestic paragraphs composed of cascading sentences with not a beat off. Rushdie’s prose still has a flow to match his friends Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens in their prime. Yet often as not, because he saturates his stories with pop culture ephemera, those sentences are full of trivia; the sort of trivia you probably already know ... there’s a strange contradiction at work when a book whose declared metafictional mission is to combat \'junk culture\' is also overloaded with cultural detritus ...Quichotte is also the story of Muslim migrants passing through hostile territory, a tale of rescue and escape. In this case, Rushdie’s maximalist mode is a perfect fit for a moment of transcontinental derangement.
PositiveBookforumThere’s a breeziness to the book’s tone that suits the first half of Algren’s life, even as he passes through phases of stoicism, penury, and suicidal depression. As Algren’s career reaches its peak, Asher commits a few acts of unforced corniness ... Asher is an insightful literary critic, a charming hagiographer, and, occasionally, a reluctant scold. He blames Algren for distorting his own public image over the last two decades of his life. It’s hard to escape the implication that if Algren had died in his forties—instead of from a heart attack at seventy-two—he might be remembered today as a legend, like Agee. As his title suggests, Asher is attracted to the sentimental streak in Algren’s work...Asher’s disappointment in his subject’s bitter turn comes through in the second half of Never a Lovely So Real, but he also shows that Algren had plenty of reasons for his disillusionment and increasingly erratic behavior ... To his credit, Asher never entirely gives up on him, and his book succeeds in filling the reader with the desire to read Algren’s books.
Bret Easton Ellis
MixedFinancial Times\"Ellis is excellent as a practitioner-critic analysing the films that inspired him in his youth (such as Paul Schrader’s \'American Gigolo\') or those that have failed to inspire him lately (such as \'Moonlight,\' which he sees as a straight man’s vision of gay sexuality) or the career of David Foster Wallace and the posthumous cult that was determined to make a saint of him (until it wasn’t) ... Ellis’s critique of millennial fragility is weakened by his use of the stock phrases of reactionaries (\'social justice warriors\') as well as one of his own coining — \'Generation Wuss\'. This is name-calling, and it underestimates the power of a cohort that has used technology to begin reshaping society in ways Gen X hardly attempted.\
PanFinancial Times\"... Eggers’s vision of the world has taken on a greater seriousness. Whether that seriousness has yielded insight is another matter ... Reading about the paving of a long straight road is about as interesting as waiting for asphalt to dry. So the question of the novel is whether their road trip will prove to be an education for Four and Nine. Will it allow them to advance beyond their initial clichéd characterisations? Will they emerge as something other than ugly Americans? ... In the case of Nine, the answer is: not really ... Eggers settles into a dry idiom for the length of the novel. This spareness suggests an autobiographical reading ... For all his excesses, the younger Eggers was the more fascinating writer. You wouldn’t confuse those early books with a TED Talk.\
RaveBookforumThe implication is that a linear mode of telling would be insufficient, that such a telling would not only be banal but would risk missing the point. So, in a typical Means story, scrambling narrative time and shifting point of view—basic techniques for any writer—are elevated to higher principles ... A strange thing about Means’s fiction is the way it stimulates skepticism in the reader. I often found myself resisting the stories in Instructions for a Funeral ... Elaborate syntax leaves the end of a sentence, half a page or even a page distant from its start, in a state of queasy grammatical limbo that sends you back picking through stacked clauses (and nested parentheses) looking for verbs, marveling at how he got you from here to there, or shaking your head that he would even try ... The untidiness of his compulsive narrative layering has made him one of the most fascinating and confounding American fiction writers of the past few decades ... The best of them have a mythic quality, the kind achieved by rearranging elements worn to the point of cliché and making them strange once again ... his mastery of tone in each mode is the same.
PositiveLondon Review of BooksThere’s class conflict ... There are funny throwaway jokes ... There are also tossed-off subplots that could serve as the premises of other novels entirely ... Hark is of a piece with Lipsyte’s earlier books, and page by page as funny and inventive as any of them. But ... the hopscotching between characters makes it a diffuse affair: some of the cast and their subplots are more captivating than others, and a few receive attention that’s scant to the point of vanishing. As with Pynchon, these culs-de-sac and dwindling eddies are welcome if disposable features in the comic landscape but only so long as they amuse and provoke—which they do, mostly. The narrative frame is more perplexing ... As a plot device, Harkism clears more ground than it fills. The novel succeeds in spite of it, growing weirder as it goes on ... An apocalyptic Christ allegory bursts out of what at first seemed to be a character-driven comedy about mindfulness and its co-option. Along the way, there are riffs on Trump-era America, all the funnier in a book whose alternative history erases the Trump presidency.
PositiveThe London Review of BooksThe disjuncture between American reality – particularly the Manhattan dinner party circuit of careerists and bohemians – and the atrocities America commits abroad has featured in Eisenberg’s short stories since her second collection ... Eisenberg isn’t a rapid response fiction writer, and the political threads in the six stories in her new collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, reflect her perennial concerns rather than indignations specific to the Trump era, though the president does furnish an epigraph to the book’s longest and trickiest story, ‘Merge’ ... For all its pessimism about human nature, the story is whimsical and its three character portraits affectionate to a fault ... Another story, ‘The Third Tower’, approaches the concept of language in a more bluntly allegorical way ... There are a few good jokes...but the story is slight. The confined clinical setting, meant to deprive Therese of sensory stimulation, drains Eisenberg’s fiction of its usual observational precision ... The most satisfying piece in Your Duck Is My Duck is the title story.
RaveVulture\"...the rare work of literary fiction by a young American that carries with it nothing of the scent of an MFA program. Instead, Walker’s prose style has the sound of mid-20th-century American writing ... Cherry provides a meticulous narrative of opioid addiction, one of the most detailed account I’ve seen in American lit ... The only humor in Cherry is black, and there are no silver linings, no false rays of hope. It’s a bleak novel, and the bleakness only occasionally relents around the love story between the narrator and his ex-wife ... deficiencies of characterization don’t mar this novel. Instead, they’re intrinsic to its dark vision of the warping effects of the Iraq War and the opioid epidemic. The word for it is dehumanization. It was probably inevitable that a book like this would emerge from these twin scourges on American life abroad and at home, but it wasn’t necessary that it be a novel of such searing beauty as Cherry.\
PositiveBookforumOn the campaign trail with Fountain, you don’t feel, as you do with [George] Saunders, that you’ve been delivered to a parallel America, one even more paranoid and violent than the one you know from television, or, as with David Foster Wallace on the bus with John McCain in 2000, to a David Lynch movie version of politics. Going on the road tends to send Fountain’s mind spinning back into the past ... The question, however, is whether we really are undergoing a revolution on the scale of the Civil War or the Depression and its aftermath ... These are the twin notes of Fountain’s book: an openhearted patriotic spirit of fellowship with his countrymen and a mounting sense of distress that Americans have always been but are now especially vulnerable to fraudulent appeals to their ugliest instincts. Most of his excursions on the road and through the past yield a tableau mixing the venal and the humane. But understanding requires an index of national villains ... Sketching the history of racial politics since World War II and the GOP’s Southern Strategy, Fountain paints Trump as the second coming of Barry Goldwater ... The strongest and most damning section of Beautiful Country Burn Again is the part that’s been most heavily revised in the election’s aftermath: a history of Hillary Clinton’s career ... painting her as the tool of \'a morally bankrupt system that she’d played a large and active role in creating ... Nihilism’s a blast for people who’ve been lied to all their lives.\'
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken
MixedThe Times Literary SupplementMuch of it is about the hell of parenting, accompanying his children to three-legged races and so on ... The parenting stuff is less fresh than it was in the earlier volumes. It now feels dutiful, like parenting itself. The legal threats lose much of their force because we’ve been told about them in numerous profiles of Knausgaard and we know he’s emerged relatively unscathed ... Among his father’s possessions, Karl Ove and his brother had found a Nazi pin, and later, when his grandmother died, a Norwegian edition of Mein Kampf. Exploring these \'unexplained mysteries\' had been part of his plan from the beginning. The result is engaging but this section rarely rises above the level of a highly prolix book review ... he concludes that Hitler’s failure to master artistic form led him to divert his talents into an oratory of cliché that led to Nazism and the reduction of \'the other\' (i.e. Jews) into nameless numbers and thus to the Holocaust. Like all attempts to isolate a single psychological explanation for the Holocaust, this is laughably insufficient, but watching Knausgaard grope his way to it is enthralling. He also expresses notable empathy for the alienated young man’s yearning to be part of the grand \'we\' that Nazism offered ... Does this declaration of identification offer the key to Knausgaard’s autobiographical project? One of the signal qualities of My Struggle is the severely limited perspective of the narrator, the trouble he has grasping the personalities of the other \'characters,\' let alone empathizing with them ... his wife Linda has entered a state of manic depression, a condition worse than Karl Ove has ever witnessed ... The final passages of My Struggle are guilt-ridden and heartbreaking. For the first time in the saga, Karl Ove Knausgaard sees someone else whole.
RaveVultureLydia Millet’s new book Fight No More is a curious thing: a collection of linked stories with the genuine thrust of a novel that doesn\'t decalre itself as such ... The impression the book leaves is that Millet began with the notion of a panorama, a menagerie, or a hub with several spokes, until a set of characters took over her imagination ... In Fight No More the mix of bone and tissue makes for a living thing ... You have the sense that Millet could easily bury us in her smartness but has instead cleaved to the characters she’s created and made her humor generously broad. These are accessible fictions.
RaveVulture\"The cycle constitutes an artistic breakthrough and a triumph within this decade’s international turn to autofiction ... The evenness of Cusk’s cool, detached style is a wonder. The prose of the Outline Trilogy is like a wide and placid lake. The reader is like a water-skier gliding along exhilarated by the combination of verbal tranquility and emotional intensity ... these books make no effort to persuade. They simply conjure beauty out of the least likely materials. Even after the details of the stories told in these novels fade from the mind (and they fade quickly, seemingly by design) the sense of their beauty lingers. The memoir of divorce Cusk published before Outline was called Aftermath. These books have an afterglow. Their catalogue of family and romantic miseries suggests, inadvertently, that it when it comes to love, if not literature, forgetting is the best of all things.\
PositiveThe London Review of BooksI’ve heard Murnane called an outsider artist, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Plenty of writers emerge as if out of nowhere (after steeping themselves in canonical authors), then proceed to become more and more their eccentric selves. It might be said, however, that Murnane qualifies as an outsider literary theorist, taking a concept or two from Booth and elaborating an increasingly complex theory of fiction over several books ... Border Districts and the three fictions that precede it are letters from this austere yet infinitely fertile paradise.
PositiveVulture\"Upstate is resolutely a novel of character, and the intelligence that animates it is recognizably Wood’s ... its dramatic moments are dealt in little nudges, never jolts. The novel can seem quiet and a game of low stakes in part because, in their evasive English way, the characters aren’t quite facing the fact that one of them may be on the verge of collapse and that for each of them things could soon fall apart ... Family reconfiguration is Upstate’s overt theme, and that is treated with great subtlety and comic grace ... If James Wood the novelist will ever outstrip Wood the critic, Upstate is a promising new start, but just a start.\
PositiveVulture...the novel overwhelms the scandal with the minor dramas of closely observed lives, rendered in a prose of consistently astonishing refinement. We’re left with a sensational hole at the center of a deviously anti-sensational nove ... Hollinghurst manages a time-lapse impressionist portrait of London bohemian life. The way life opens up to Johnny in a way that it never could for his father — who remains owner of his own firm after scandal and prison wrecks his marriage to Connie and he marries his dour secretary — is the novel’s real subject, though Hollinghurst has decided to look at it every which way but head-on.
PositiveVultureIn her first novel Lisa Halliday adopts a conceptual strategy declared in the book’s title, Asymmetry. It’s a title with multiple valences, but it signals that Halliday won’t be imposing coherence on her protagonists and their two very different stories ... In terms of tone and style, Halliday stacks the deck in favor of the latter: Amar’s first-person narration is more lushly furnished on the prose level than the fragmentary scenes between Ezra and Alice, which are told in the third person and largely through dialogue, with enough peeks into her head to convey the familiar ups and downs of the young side of asymmetric love ... It’s hard to deny, by the novel’s end, that Alice/Halliday has pulled off this stunt of transcendence.
MixedVulture\"The tone in these essays varies. Sometimes Smith sounds like an activist, sometimes just another beleaguered liberal. Her \'aw, shucks, I’m just a novelist\' line makes for a useful refrain: Please don’t take me, a nonexpert, too seriously. But she occasionally adopts the tone of a seasoned pundit, a centrist punching lef ... the most moving character in Feel Free is Smith’s late father Harvey, who is glimpsed across several essays: a World War II veteran present at the liberation of Belsen; an unhappy husband twice over; and a frustrated photographer. Elsewhere, Smith is too protective of her own and her family’s privacy to bring much juice to her personal essays ... Smith’s essays — about cinema, television, music, visual art, dance — are frequently brilliant, but they fall short of inducing in the reader a conversion experience ... There’s nothing timid about the literary criticism collected in Feel Free, especially her columns for Harper’s, written over six months in 2011 and breathtakingly good.\
RaveNew York Magazine\"Now there is a 20th and last book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,which Johnson finished just before his death. It collects five short stories, all of them death-haunted … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is only Johnson’s second collection of stories, but it’s further proof that the form was his natural mode … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden splits neatly into halves, of young men and older men and their reckonings with death: the addict’s brushes with death, murders intentional and accidental committed by convicts, deaths of friends, stillborns, the ashes of 9/11.\
RaveVultureThese four stories rank with Johnson’s best work, but the title story, a catalogue of singular moments related by a man who tells us he’s passing through life as if it were a masquerade, ranks with the best fiction published by any American writer during this short century ... Stability, striving, homeownership, prosperity — when these things enter Johnson’s work (they hardly ever do), it’s as if by accident or as part of a charade. His characters live and die on the lonely fringes, on highways and in hospitals, in bars or behind bars, scavengers and hermits in the swirl outside the zone of American normalcy ... Like Marilynne Robinson, Johnson is a thoroughly Christian writer, but while Robinson’s novels are explicitly religious, it might be news to many of Johnson’s characters if you told them what they were experiencing was a crisis of faith or a conversion ... The rest of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden splits neatly into halves, of young men and older men and their reckonings with death.
Ismail Kadare, Trans. by John Hodgson
MixedVulture\"What begins like a conventional thriller devolves into a muddled ghost story about the way the persecution of the few can infect a whole society. There are engaging riffs on Orpheus, flashbacks to the partisan struggle, a cameo by Hoxha himself, and a subplot about aluminum exports, but the novel never gains the tragic force of Kadare’s major works ...
PositiveVultureThe Vanishing Princess gives a picture of a singular intelligence still harnessed to more or less conventional forms and starting to push against them. Later, instead of telling stories straight, she would spiral around them, like a virtuoso skater ... Critics typically point out her wryness, her immunity to cant, her inability to flinch. But she could also be enchanting ... There are two more stories as superb as 'Strictempo' and 'Bath Time' in The Vanishing Princess. 'Housewife' is about a woman in Kent’s affair with a professor with whom she trades daily erotic correspondence and who comes around once a week for an afternoon of love-making...'Leaper' is a story about suicide and chance-encounter sex...These are quiet stories with high-voltage wiring about the concealment and disclosure of secrets ... It’s hard for me to imagine a reader exposed to Jenny Diski’s writing who wouldn’t be hooked. However difficult her life may have been, she isn’t a difficult writer. And though her example is likely to inspire or mortify other writers, neither is she a writer’s writer. Her prose conveys the illusion of a spontaneous monologue, a mind mainlined onto the page. Such vivid illusions are always hard-won, the result of hours of solitary toil.
PanThe London Review of BooksHe portrays characters from a narrow ethnic spectrum that most Anglophone readers never see from the inside, and he does so from the perspective of the sympathetic and nostalgic apostate. If anxiety about identity too often stands in for actual drama in his fiction, for some it may be a preferable substitute. Dressing all this up in Raymond Carver’s clothes offers the prospect of an accessible synthesis … Englander’s reaching for Carver exposes his own shortcomings as a storyteller. He has no ear for actual speech; his characters talk either in essay fragments or hammy bits of overdone dialect. He can’t portray something like drunkenness without having his characters constantly state that they are drunk. And his stories are all too often choreographed towards a schematic finish … When he isn’t shrink-wrapping history, Englander’s crude literary appropriations tend to spotlight the flimsiness of his plotting and the cautious plodding of his prose.
Susan Sontag, Ed. by Benjamin Taylor
PositiveVultureHer four novels split into two phases: a pair of experimental works of the ’60s (The Benefactor and Death Kit) more concerned with portraying consciousness than storytelling; and a couple of relatively conventional historical novels from the ’90s. The stories in Debriefing fit between these phases, and while I hesitate to call them essential, they are full of optional delights ... In Debriefing, the form proves supremely flexible: memoir, diary, allegory, documentary, and even science fiction are all present ... Several stories in Debriefing partake of the currents of experimental fiction that were going strong in the 1960s and ’70s...Any of these stories could fit neatly in anthology of the period. Without bylines, you wouldn’t necessarily peg them to Susan Sontag, but you can hear their echoes all around today, in the fiction of Lydia Davis and Lynne Tillman and Deb Olin Unferth, and they’ll keep ringing as long there are those for whom received forms and straitened ways of being a writer are never enough.
RaveVulture\"Hagan’s biography is a colossal achievement of reporting and synthesis, fast-paced, compulsively readable, and consistently insightful in its understanding of how and why Wenner was able to turn a modest fanboy tabloid into an iconic cultural force and, after its golden years were behind it, to convert its waning and increasingly nostalgic cultural cachet into a media fiefdom that nearly made him a billionaire.\
PanVultureEgan has a reputation as an authentic chronicler of the present...But veering into the past, she applies a surfeit of artifice in Manhattan Beach that erases the authenticity effects she intends ... It soon grows difficult to think of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter as characters so much as bundles of good intentions subject to vaguely Dickensian plot twists and vectors springing from Egan’s historical preoccupations. Manhattan Beach is a novel that grabs the reader by the lapels forcefully and says, 'It’s 1942, and don’t you forget it!' ... Egan is constantly trying to write her way out of the tediousness of her subject matter, whether through heightened language or by lathering on the melodrama ... The word for what Egan is up to in Manhattan Beach — the heaping on of history, metaphor, and melodrama — is craft, and it’s surely in recognition of her technical efforts that Manhattan Beach has been long-listed for the National Book Award.
PositiveThe London Review of Books...a frequently riveting book ... Ben Blum’s account of the way basic training and—especially—the subsequent Ranger Indoctrination Program (since renamed) broke down his cousin’s good-natured personality and turned him into an obedient potential killer is more than a little terrifying. Alex and his fellow trainees are subjected to sleep deprivation, days of wet, near freezing conditions and constant ritual humiliation at the hands of drill sergeants ... Readers who take a dimmer view of human nature than Ben Blum does won’t be surprised. But Blum tells such a good story you can’t begrudge him his redemptive therapeutic ending. It’s his family. You sense that his underlying mission is to save his cousin from the fate of their grandfather—who, it’s revealed, wasn’t much of a saint or hero in the war—and of their uncle Kurt, both of whom committed suicide.
PanVultureForest Dark draws conspicuously on the works of Philip Roth — confession, writerly self-dramatization, metafictional communion with dead writers — but Krauss eschews Roth’s slapstick humor, self-lacerating irony, and libidinal impulses for a therapeutic model of redemption. It’s odd to see Roth marshaled to shore up a novel that reads like self-help ... The Epstein sections deliver some comic relief (not that they’re funny), a succession of dizzy epiphanies, and didactic digressions on art and Jewish tradition. But mostly they serve as a counterpoint to the Nicole sections ... This is the first time I’ve come across a work of autofiction that’s at heart an elaborate project of self-flattery ... Forest Dark suffers from the imbalance between the grandiosity of its conceits and the smallness of Nicole’s personal problems, at least in the way she discloses them.
John Le Carré
PositiveVultureThe truth and reconciliation structure is a clever conceit on le Carré’s part, a plausible gambit for resurrecting dead characters and examining them with enlightened eyes ... It would be an exaggeration to say the Tulip story ranks with classic le Carré, in part because its suspense is mitigated by the reader’s knowledge that her story is only a lengthy footnote here. Tulip is a vivid character, torn up by her bitterness toward the men who mistreat her, her love of her son, her lingering loyalty to the communist cause, and her hatred of America. Spying for and defecting to Britain is a compromise she makes out of desperation. The adventure allows Leamas to flaunt his tradecraft through a series of cock-ups; Guillam to indulge in a memorable romantic dalliance; and Smiley to display his skill in cleaning up a mess and turning the tables on the enemy. There follow new details about Leamas’s mission and the machinations of Control and Smiley to enlist Liz Gold unwittingly in their double-double-cross plot to protect their own mole in East Germany. These bits are superfluous, since the issue of Smiley’s culpability in their deaths lingers unrevised. Reconciliation may be too much to ask anyway. As Jim Prideaux once told Smiley: 'They told me to forget it … and that’s what I’ve been doing. Obeying orders, and forgetting.'”
RaveVultureDear Cyborgs is a novel of ideas, small, elegant ideas about art and protest, and one of the most striking literary works to emerge from the Occupy movement ... The possible futility, complicity, and co-optation of protest are the ideas Dear Cyborgs circles around without ever giving up on the idea that resistance is essential ... I had expected the decade’s wave of protests to yield a raft of conventional social novels — some earnest, some satirical, perhaps not a few reactionary — but in Dear Cyborgs Lim has delivered something far more idiosyncratic, intricate, and useful: a novel that resists and subverts conventions at every turn.
RaveVulture\"Rooney has the gift of imbuing everyday life with a sense of high stakes, and it’s hard to imagine Conversations With Friends appearing without Elena Ferrante’s \'Neapolitan Tetralogy\' and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series as immediate antecedents ... Somehow the entire novel manages to remain within the neutral territory of its title. Rooney can make the stakes seem high even when they’re obviously low, and she does so without resorting to Ferrante’s melodramatic swoops or Knausgaard’s existential freakouts. Partly this is a by-product of Rooney’s control of tone and her disciplined use of plain language even when she’s getting off her most charming lines ... A larger reason for the novel’s appeal is simply Frances’s youth and naïveté, her natural role as an object of sympathy, as well as the sense that we’re witnessing exactly what it feels like to be naïve in 2017. But a few times the spell is broken, and it’s usually because Rooney’s characters’ extreme politeness and eminent reasonability leap off the page, as glaring as a typo ... a novel of delicious frictions delivered at a low heat.\
MixedThe London Review of BooksThe new stories give the impression of imagined worlds pared back until they’re not too different from our own, just a little uncanny. Most of the mayhem transpires within families or between neighbours, and class conflict is often the animating force. The settings are only glimpsed, and language does the job of making the goings-on strange … The rescues and escapes in a few of these stories run along clear moral lines: the trapped should be set free; the drowning should be pulled out from under. All that’s needed is for a hero to come forward from the cast of sad sacks … There’s no shortage of brutality in Tenth of December. To hold a few happy endings against Saunders or to suggest he makes his characters too sympathetic, as I’m inclined to do, is churlish: a comic writer can kill off only so many of his characters.
RaveVulture\"There are echoes in So Much Blue of Don DeLillo’s The Names, with the shadowy doings mingling with the story of a failed marriage, and of Alberto Moravia’s Boredom and its jaded painter-narrator. Americans dabbling in politics, drugs, bloodsport south of the border; an American indulging in faithless love in Paris; class posturing among Americans in Rhode Island — Everett has blended these disparate strands of an imagined life into a quietly beguiling novel. That he’s constructed it on an edifice of clichés, sanded down and transformed into combustive elements, is a sign of his mastery of the form.\
PositiveThe London Review of BooksA bit wobbly and lopsided by design, NW is a hotchpotch in five parts … This is less a plot than a set of hooks on which Smith can hang her portrait of North-West London and sketches of characters from various points on the class spectrum. She’s interested in the way people become estranged from their homes even when they stay put … Why have I been such a conventional writer? Smith seems to have been asking herself in the process of writing the novel. Her first move is to dip into the modernist toolkit … This is Smith’s grimmest novel, and may be her best.
PositiveVultureIn her ruthless self-liberation and her willful ignorance of the world she’s entered, Mary blends cynicism and innocence, the rival spirits that govern The Answers, managed by Lacey to woozy and disquieting effect ... Kurt is a hodgepodge of Hollywood clichés dipped in a batter of solipsism. As such, he’s perfectly designed for the elegantly executed plot that drives The Answers, but he’s a drag on the novel when it enters his head ... Lacey pulls off a diverting and provocative satire, studded with episodes of real gravity, without engaging in slapstick. The ironies are buried deep in the novel’s symmetrical structure and never played for laughs, though there are enough deadpan comic revelations to qualify Lacey, as some critics have already suggested, as an heir to Don DeLillo in White Noise mode. (A nearer precursor is Tom McCarthy’s recursive simulation novel Remainder.) But The Answers spends a lot of time in each character’s head pondering the nature of love and gets clogged up with trite false epiphanies.
RaveBookforumThe Flamethrowers is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art) … The story of the Valera family is told in discrete, occasional flashbacks—patches of what might have been an epic, if a novelist today could write an epic of capitalist triumph and keep a straight face … The social codes of Kushner’s ’70s Manhattan aren’t too far removed from those of today, except without the cell phones and with a bit more gun fetishizing than you find lately on Broome Street … [Kushner’s] most charming quality is a willingness to digress and to stage long set pieces, at parties and in bars, in which her more eccentric characters are allowed to talk, and talk, and talk.
RaveBookforumHow seriously should we take this novel-about-my-book-deal metafiction? Ben is the sort of person intellectually curious about the systems of commerce but not much interested in (or capable of) writing commercial fiction … 10:04 is a novel of intensities, an unfolding present. Some of this present is personal … The way he writes about drug experience isn’t much different from the way he writes about art … This is a beautiful and original novel…10:04’s prime theme is regeneration, biological and artistic, and it signals a new direction in American fiction, perhaps a fertile one.
PanVulturePut a one-dimensional jerk at the center of a story and it dies on the page. The Dinner Party is a parade of such jerks who march by one by one, usually onto a punishment neatly arranged to show just how bad their author knows them to be. Occasionally he spares them, a testament to the mercies of their virtuous and similarly one-dimensional wives ... The stories in The Dinner Party that don’t take a preposterous turn tend instead to pile on the clichés. This might work if the clichés were ironized or if the characters had inner lives, but the stock scenarios are deployed in earnest, and inside the characters’ heads we find bundles of pat insecurities ... In short, they’re charmless, Which is the worst way to be an asshole. John Cheever is rolling in his grave.
RaveVulture...full of American contradictions and dense with brilliant sentences ... [her father] emerges with a vividity that will be familiar to the lapsed children of religious men given to reactionary grunting and voting for Donald Trump ... Lockwood’s chronicle of her homecoming at times lacks dramatic tension, but it’s consistently charming ... Moving from a place of light into darkness and then returning to light is something very rare indeed. It has the shape of salvation.
RaveVultureBoth pieces are raw and clearly unfinished, but both are fascinating documents spiked with virtuosic turns ... Didion’s portrait of New Orleans is a vivid exercise in modern gothic ... Casting the South as a foil for the West, Didion is seeking out a counter-America unleveled by defense contractors, agribusiness, and corporate media ... It’s not uncommon for writers to publish work from the drawer when they reach Didion’s age — she’s now 82 — and these fragments would be of interest even if Didion’s sojourn in the South didn’t resonate with our moment of political reaction. They cast light backward and forward on her work, illuminating her reportorial process and the themes she would develop in later novels and nonfiction works ... South and West is a marvelous time capsule, and a reminder that sometimes even the great ones let themselves down. Didion wasn’t one to make a show of failure in her prime, but five decades on South and West is an act of generosity.
J. M. Coetzee
RaveVulture…it’s likely that his move to Australia — where he emigrated from South Africa in 2002 — informs his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, and now its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus. These books follow set of refugees, settling in a strange land … austere narratives, elemental in their treatment of daily life, with the barest tissue of realistic detail … Many scenes have the qualities of miniature Socratic dialogues … The novel’s action centers on David’s enrollment as a boarder in the Academy of Dance and the murder of his teacher…novel’s intellectual poles are passion and rationality … Simon’s growing apathy and sense of his own uselessness turns out to be a source of the novel’s power. It makes him a neutral interlocutor in the dialogic framework, and a perfect foil for the volatile elements in play …there’s a stark beauty to these novels of ideas and the haunting images that infuse them.
MixedVultureIt’s a premise loaded with pathos but thin on dramatic tension. Of course, there’s the noise of history just outside the frame, the war raging beyond the Potomac. But what provides the novel with its action, with most of its characters, with its moral weight, is the bardo itself. There are rules that govern this spiritual interzone, but in effect it’s a free range for Saunders’s imagination ... Whether Willie Lincoln will leave the bardo is something of a MacGuffin, however. What, then, is this novel about? In whole, it’s Saunders’s Old American Book of the Dead. The novel belongs less to the Lincolns than to the ghosts who tell the story ... The effects of this polyphonic approach can be dizzying. It’s also disappointing. Saunders is one of the most thrilling prose writers alive. Across several collections he’s reinvented his style many times, but many of his classic stories we hear the voice of a good-hearted and fucked-up American loser...I can’t be alone in having hoped to hear some version of that voice blown out and sustained over the course of a novel ... [a] visionary and suspenseful but also sentimental and cartoonish novel.
PanVulture\"His thematic grammar remains intact, but he’s invented a new prose style. Gone is the short, Hammett-like line, and in its place are long twisty sentences that pile clause upon clause on joints of sinces, becauses, whens, whiles, whos, thats and whiches. There’s an ambition here that has a whiff of both \'Proust\' and \'Nobel\' ... The concept and its resulting structure is intriguing, but Auster has stacked the deck against himself. There’s a reason why long, encyclopedic novels have multiple sets of characters who may or may not know each other, multiple settings and disparate time frames: Variation helps hold the reader’s attention, the more drastic the better. The variations in 4321 are decidedly minor key ... These B-movie twists are entertaining to a point, less so is the lavish attention paid to the various Fergusons’ childhoods. (The book never truly achieves escape velocity into adulthood.)...Many passages sound like prolix outtakes of the voice-over to The Wonder Years ... what really defeats Auster in 4321 is his decision to write against his strengths. His B-movie plots and narrative sleights of hand thrive on elision, and this book is overstuffed. The one thing he always seemed to know was the power of brevity.\
MixedVulture...the novel’s faux-memoir style is so thoroughly executed that it often lacks the shape of realism as Chabon goes for the shapelessness of the real ... for much of the time I was reading Moonglow, Chabon had me convinced I was reading a lightly embellished memoir. The rigor of his mimicking memoir is impressive but the metafiction is misbegotten. Part of the trouble has to do with the stiflingly nostalgic tone Chabon strikes by referring to his two main characters as 'my grandfather' and 'my grandmother' ... The paradoxical result of all this is an intermittently brilliant work of fiction buried under what reads like a bloated and often turgidly written memoir. Moonglow has pushed Chabon’s project of fusion to a breaking point. He invented a rocket of a story, but the book he put it in never achieves escape velocity.
MixedVultureIt's the first novel she’s written with a single first-person narrator, and that narrator’s sullen personality has a lot to do with the novel’s melancholic cast ... Could this celebrity intervention go any way but wrong? Of course it goes wrong, and in tedious detail ... Parts of Swing Time, particularly the narrator’s account of her brief phase as a high-school goth, reach this level [of her best writing], but long stretches are marked by a joylessness previously alien to her work.
PositiveVultureKleeman’s scary stories have a gentle comic edge. She has a gothic imagination and a wit keen to the absurdities of American culture — particularly its dietary vices and media horror shows. She can do realism, but not without a few screws coming loose ... There’s some stunning imagery, but the logic at work can be hard to detect ... The final sequence of stories is as eclectic as the first but more successful...and Kleeman strikes the perfect combination of comic and macabre.
PanVultureThe emphasis in Nutshell is all on the stunt narrator. The murder story is thin to the point of parody — John is fed smoothie laced with sweet-tasting antifreeze, with props planted to make it look like a suicide — and the authorities unravel it in a matter of hours. The fetal narrator is the sign of a writer overcompensating for his own perceived conventionality ... In Nutshell McEwan hasn’t failed by risking formal originality but by stuffing his book with his own shopworn chauvinisms and not a few pervy bits ... McEwan’s prose is always smooth — you can almost see the sentences arcing like sine waves — yet there’s also something drab about it.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PanVulture...can you hang a novel of nearly 600 pages on a no-fault divorce that doesn’t involve adultery, remarriage, or acrimonious rupture? Here I Am suggests not ... The novel’s crippling flaw is that Jacob's thoughts, as they come through in the narration, take the form of platitudinous psychobabble ... The result is something like a Philip Roth novel in the style of a Hallmark card.
PositiveVultureBright, Precious Days recapitulates the strongest and weakest aspects of Brightness Falls and The Good Life. Russell’s editorial activities are again a prompt for satire of familiar literary lore...Subplots about the infidelities and drug habits of those in the Calloways’ circle proliferate, and a couple of flashbacks to Corrine’s tryst with Jeff Pierce in the ’80s inject a needed bit of youthful juice ... willingness to dive toward the cliché as if it were Gatsby’s green light is a strange form of daring. History sometimes favors the least common denominator, and in this respect it may be on his side.
PositiveVultureEach of Homegoing’s chapters centers on one character from either line in the successive generations and bears the burden of conveying the lived feel of a mini-epoch of history. They have the feel less of linked stories than of compressed miniature novels. This is a lot to ask of passages of around 20 pages, but there are some payoffs. Each chapter is tightly plotted, and there are suspenseful, even spectacular climaxes. Their echoes ring throughout the book when formerly central characters reappear as diminished or resilient parents or grandparents of new protagonists...From a distance of three centuries, this can have an overdetermined ring, even a taste of contemporary liberal projection, but Homegoing repeatedly enacts one of the the novel’s classic missions: to dramatize the struggle of the individual soul, with its local yearnings and heartbreaks, against the unjust social forces of the modern world.
RaveVultureA 27-year-old graduate of the Columbia MFA program, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Tin House, she’s shrewdly reasoned that we’ve heard enough about Charlie. In the cult dynamic, she’s seen something universal — emotions, appetites, and regular human needs warped way out of proportion — and in her novel she’s converted a quintessentially ’60s story into something timeless...The Girls isn’t a Wikipedia novel, it’s not one of those historical novels that congratulates the present on its improvements over the past, and it doesn’t impose today’s ideas on the old days. As the smartphone-era frame around Evie’s story implies, Cline is interested in the Manson chapter for the way it amplifies the novel’s traditional concerns. Pastoral, marriage plot, crime story — the novel of the cult has it all. You wonder why more people don’t write them.
PanSalon\"Excess seems to be the point. Yanagihara has said that she sees Jude as a survivor for whom recovery from abuse is impossible. As for sensationalism, it’s true that there’s a sterile quality to her descriptions of Jude’s abuse ... the only character in A Little Life who seems possessed of anything like “emotional truths” or a sense of irony, the only supporting player in this elaborately ethnically diverse cast who doesn’t seem like a stereotypical middle-class striver plucked out of 1950s cinema, is JB.\
RaveVultureMaggie Nelson’s new memoir, The Argonauts, is diaristic, but its effect is that of a diary reconstructed in retrospect, its timeline jumbled. The book proceeds in fragments that veer from Nelson’s life, in particular her love and family life, into theoretical terrain that’s home turf for many educated in the ’80s and ’90s — the lit-crit equivalent of a well-curated post-punk jukebox ... There’s a stirring climax that alternates Nelson’s account of childbirth with Harry’s messages from her mother’s deathbed. 'All happy families are alike,' a straight man once said, and the Argonauts are a happy family, hyperintellectual, fun-loving, given to dancing. But that isn’t to say The Argonauts isn’t a singular book.
PositiveVultureFox’s book is an elegant and convincing defense of this idea, and I understand the loyalty he feels to the adolescent pretentious enough to grow up to be the author of this book. I think he’s right in that what we tend to call 'authentic' can usually be revealed to be a perfected form of pretentiousness, and that a pretentious creative individual is at worst an endearingly innocent, 'tragicomic' fool who might someday turn into what he or she aspires to be. But in trying to reclaim pretentiousness from its pejorative uses, Fox weights the scales too heavily on the side of pretentiousness as the larval mode of creativity.
PositiveVultureInnocents and Others is an asymmetrical novel told in fragments, and frustrating readerly expectations is part of Spiotta’s intentions (in this she’s like her heroine)...That it ends with an artist all but renouncing her art — a new self founded on notionally altruistic self-negation — is puzzling, but the lives of artists don’t tend to be neat. Innocents and Others is Spiotta’s strangest, darkest, and most mature work.
MixedVultureOyeyemi’s talent is evident on every page — a talent so obvious that it invites critics to throw both hands up and say 'Flawless!' — but it can also seem as if every page introduces three new characters, and a lot of them are disposable. Of course, that very disposable quality is certainly part of the point, and the pleasure, of Oyeyemi’s fiction...Oyeyemi is a prodigious and idiosyncratic talent finding her form in public, and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is something more interesting than a flawless or coherent book.
PositiveVultureTulathimutte is a slapstick curmudgeon who goes hard on his characters, setting in store for them sufferings that run to extremes of physical disfigurement. The novel is as funny as it is dark, and things get very dark, indeed ... We know millennials as bogeychildren of alarmist trend pieces and the catchall hand-wringing of an aging commentariat. Tulathimutte is on the front line of writers showing that they’re also worthy heroes and heroines of the American novel.
RaveVultureThough Williams eschews psychologizing and we only see her characters in flashes and hear their voices in a handful of sentences at most, there is a cumulative power across the book; a unifying spirit that’s desperate at times but never despairing, and once in a while joyous, even exuberant, like a veil lifted up to reveal an exclamation point.
RaveVultureWhat Belongs to You is a humorless novel, and I’ve rarely come upon a book, like this one, about which it can be said that humorlessness is not a defect but an aesthetic necessity.
PanVultureStrout has been praised for her restraint and called 'a writer bracingly unafraid of silences.' But although she does a lot of withholding — to the point of tedium — My Name Is Lucy Barton is an entirely unsubtle book.