MixedThe New RepublicThe record has spoken now, but what it tells us is perhaps more equivocal than Gordon wants to admit. There’s now no question that Hale was a crucial figure in Eliot’s life, and the work that Gordon and other scholars have done to reassert her importance to literary history is invaluable. But to enshrine her as a \'hidden muse\' perhaps grants too much power to that ultimately regressive concept—which, after all, is part of how Eliot kept Hale on the hook for all those years. If at times Eliot felt that he needed a muse, a Beatrice to inspire him and (just as importantly) to appreciate his poetry, at other times he seems to have needed only companionship, on his own perverse terms, and he leveraged his increasing fame in order to secure it ... Though he did sometimes address Hale as if she were his muse, Eliot’s own model of poetic creation, as detailed outside of his love letters, was far less sentimental. What was distinctive about poetry, for Eliot, is precisely that it doesn’t emanate from a single source, that it can never be traced back to one origin ... If it is important (and not simply interesting) to know that Eliot fell in love, and then out of it, with Hale, it’s not, pace Gordon, because it explains everything about his poetry, nor because he intended his impersonality to one day give way to a grand confession. It is because Eliot’s mind, equipped for its work, amalgamated this experience among many others. Being in love was grist for the mill, as were world war and Anglo-Catholicism: All were instrumental in producing the poetry Eliot was ultimately able to write.
MixedThe New Republic... a very long book—727 pages, plus notes—though not a dense or difficult one. Menand’s style is reliably crisp and lively, and he has a great eye for the incongruous anecdote ... The book’s imposingness is also offset by the fact that it relies quite heavily on reworked or republished material...and it sometimes feels more like a gargantuan collection of articles on related topics than a true narrative history ... this self-satisfied nostalgia has permeated the culture industry for decades, and the highlights are now so burnished and familiar that a mere enumeration of events can feel like pandering. There were moments reading The Free World when I tried very hard not to break out into Billy Joel’s \'We Didn’t Start the Fire\' ... Menand is a boomer (born 1952), but he’s not Billy Joel. He doesn’t pander to nostalgia. The temperature of his prose is low...In small doses, this blasé sensibility can be a tonic, an antidote to the hyperbole the material usually attracts. Sustained over 700 pages, though, it feels like an overcorrection: At times, Menand’s tone is so disenchanted that we wonder why we’re supposed to care about the events, ideas, and figures he chronicles at all ... The right, by the way, barely features in The Free World, despite its spanning the rise of the modern conservative and libertarian movements: a curious lacuna.
MixedThe New Republic... provocative and engrossing ... Toward the end of The Saddest Words, Gorra quotes W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous declaration that \'the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line\' and contends that \'no white writer in our literature thought longer and harder about that problem\' than Faulkner. Yet in his zeal to show us that he thought about it, Gorra sometimes overrates what he thought about it ... While Gorra is keen to separate Faulkner from more racist and revanchist Southern writers, he does not argue that he was a progressive, exactly. His thesis is both subtler and more tendentious ... Gorra seems to want to give Faulkner credit for consistently acknowledging a problem that he did virtually nothing about ... There was no better chronicler of white guilt than William Faulkner. His territory was the wrong side of history, and he knew every inch of it. But while Gorra wants to congratulate Faulkner for exposing Southern racism, Baldwin suggests that he in fact mystified it, aestheticized it, thus making it even harder to overcome than it needed to be. There is a kind of tragic sublimity, in Faulkner’s work, to the white South’s wrongness, to the magnitude of the guilt, and the extent of the attempt to deny or forget it. But a tragedy only ever ends one way; or perhaps, as Faulkner thought, it never ends at all. If we want things to change—if we want justice—guilt is not enough.
PositiveThe NationThe Topeka School is, if not his best, certainly his most novelistic novel yet. Unlike its predecessors, which were essentially interior monologues delivered by characters with voices all but indistinguishable from Lerner’s ... Unlike his first two fiction works, which both seemed to be trying to evade the history of the bourgeois novel, The Topeka School flirts with a half-dozen traditional novelistic genres at once. The Topeka School is a family saga, and it’s a historical novel, scrupulous about the surface details of the summer of 1996 ... It\'s a regional novel ... It\'s a bildungsroman ... It is even, in its own way, a tale of suspense, suffused with dramatic tension and the threat of violence. At this juncture in Lerner’s career, the traditionalism of The Topeka School is far more surprising than its avant-gardism. The book finds Lerner at a crossroads, tempted by the conventions of the novel even as he continues to insist on the priority of the poetic ... Lerner tell[s] us a larger story about human life in the age of late capitalism, an era defined by a mode of production that standardizes experience ... As elsewhere in Lerner’s work, an anticapitalist rhetoric indebted to critical theory is wedded to a lyricism that finds an eerie beauty in what it negates, like a black light ... As a prose performance, The Topeka School is an unqualified success. It proves that Lerner, without sacrificing the idiosyncratic charms of his earlier books, can do more things with the novel form than we thought he could and perhaps more than he thought he wanted to. As a piece of urgent social critique—which The Topeka School, his most overtly political novel, also aspires to be—the results are more mixed ... The sections of The Topeka School chronicling Adam’s debate career...are rich in realistic detail, but they’re also the novel’s most tendentious. It’s the one area where Lerner consistently overreaches, attempting to transform his own extracurricular activities into an improbable allegory for the decline of American public discourse ... By embedding a utopian faith in poetry within the bourgeois compromise of the novel, Lerner makes his most compelling case yet for poetry. Which is perhaps why it’s a good thing that he keeps on deciding to write fiction, whatever his poet friends may think.
MixedThe New RepublicOne of the virtues of Dery’s book is its reminder that Gorey’s art was far more subtle, diverse, formally inventive, and just plain weird than his reputation for sinister whimsy suggests ... He was also, more than we tend to think, an artist of his time. While the popular conception of Gorey is of a man born 50 years too late...he saw himself as working in the tradition of the twentieth-century avant-garde ... At over 500 pages, Born to Be Posthumous is a baggier, less discerning biography than Gorey deserves ... despite its length, it often feels factually thin. Although Dery’s research into Gorey’s life brings to light some fascinating details, there are so many lacunae that he frequently resorts to speculation ... Dery struggles to produce queer readings of Gorey’s work that significantly enrich our understanding of it. When he tries, the results are clumsy, alternately unconvincing and obvious ... I’m fully convinced that there’s a great book to be written about Edward Gorey as a queer artist. Born to Be Posthumous, unfortunately,
is not it.
PositiveThe New Republic...by far the most thorough and reliable account of a formative period in the biography of one of our greatest and most mysterious writers ... Roffman argues, plausibly, that Ashbery’s practical need to disguise his homosexuality led him to cultivate his taste for ambiguity and indirection, and she analyzes many of his early poems along these lines ... The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever before, how the poet’s mind works, and how it developed. Still, you can’t help remaining a little nostalgic for the mystery.
PositiveThe NationHowever such detailed realism was achieved—mining old diaries? wolfing down packs of madeleines from Harvard vending machines?—the effectiveness of the evocation is undeniable: We have arrived back in college in the mid-1990s ... This [Hungarian section] is Batuman in her element—writing about Batuman (sorry, Selin) out of her element—but though the setting and subject matter play to her strengths as a humorist, there is a noticeable slackening of narrative focus. A sense of futility starts to take over the novel, which gradually becomes a kind of depressive picaresque ... But if The Idiot is a defiantly imperfect novel, its imperfection feels both true to Selin’s teenage confusion and true to Batuman’s long-standing critique of fictional 'craft.' There is certainly a great deal of writerly skill on display in The Idiot—as a maker of sentences and scenes, Batuman is masterful—but she is committed to retaining a certain randomness that evokes the mess of real life.
PositiveThe NationBaker’s latest nonfiction book, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids, is his longest by some distance—running to over 700 pages—and it does not skimp on detail ...has brought the intensity of attention displayed in his novels to the particulars of substitute teaching... Baker is such a wonderful prose stylist that he could probably get away with publishing his diary—which, for epic stretches, is what Substitute feels like ... He fills the space usually occupied by plot and tension — by what the teacher who drew up the lesson plan calls 'conflict' — with observation, lyricism, imagination, humor, and occasional fits of pique ... Finding pleasure in the details is ultimately what’s at the center of Substitute.
RaveThe New RepublicJoe Gould’s Teeth is far from a dreadful book—it’s a rather wonderful one, in fact—but it is, like Joe Gould’s Secret before it, full of dread. Joe Gould haunts journalists and historians alike as he raises unwelcome questions about the limitations of what they do. At times Lepore’s book feels like an exorcism, an attempt to banish Gould’s unquiet spirit from the archives, to undermine the power he wields. At other times, it falls under that uncanny power itself.