PositiveThe New Yorker... contemporary, personal, acutely focussed on a single family, and intensely felt, where [Gyasi\'s] début was wide and symphonic, its sympathies scored for many parts ... The two characters at the heart of the novel, Gifty and her mother, nicknamed by her daughter the Black Mamba, are at once blazingly interesting and, by authorial design, frustratingly opaque, for both are studies in repression ... The novel is full of brilliantly revealing moments, sometimes funny, often poignant ... One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is, in fact, that its narrator is not an especially sympathetic character. Gifty, whose repressions and cruelties eerily mirror her mother’s, isn’t by any means a systematically unreliable narrator, but she is unreliable enough to remain provokingly vital. That her rigid self-fashioning represents an escape from grief is something that she acknowledges; the subtle question the novel raises is what unacknowledged shame she is also fleeing ... Unfortunately, Transcendent Kingdom has a few shilling-size spots of its own—areas that the book refuses to see with clarity, and in ways that are not suggestive but bewildering. Most important, Nana’s downfall remains blurred and somewhat generic...Perhaps a fall into addiction is all too often a fall into formula, yet it seems important for the novelist to search for the nonformulaic, the brutally specific ... We are hardly surprised when Nana punches a hole in the wall and smashes the TV: a continuation of the familiar gestures. At those moments when Gyasi’s prose is summoned to intense specificity, it smears into cliché ... Cliché is our original sin, the thing we all try to escape, but the offense is not merely aesthetic or musical; it is epistemological—cliché blocks our apprehension of reality. In place of singularity, it substitutes commonality; in place of the private oddity, it offers the shared obviousness. What is striking is that words fail the novel at those moments when it is most critical that they succeed. Is it too speculative to suggest a failure of authorial nerve here, as if, for Gyasi, the most burning material cannot quite be stared at? One sometimes has the sense, here and in Homegoing, of the great pain of her chosen subject matter—slavery, addiction, suicide—being soothed into the generic ... This is not so much lazy writing as escapist writing; the prose seems to swerve away from direct confrontation and to settle, instead, for genre ... One of the strengths of the book is the way it follows Gifty’s difficulty in abandoning the vestiges of her Christian belief ... We don’t need this novel to be in the business of transcending problems when, in its wide fictional kingdom, it has been so acute in laying them bare.
RaveThe New YorkerIts characters are at the very front of the stage, and we can feel their breath ... [the] spare plot moves with arrowlike determination ... Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel Family Life. Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using \'sticky\' words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect ... It’s only at the end of this brief, brave novel that one becomes fully aware of how broad its judgments have been, how fierce and absolute its condemnations. Through the gaps that open up among and behind these three characters, a large Indian panoply emerges. The book’s surface realism—that great boon to writers—is abundant and busy and life-sown ... But the system that at once supports and undermines this diverse vitality is seen with an unrelentingly cold authorial eye, in all its small and large corruption, its frozen inequality, murderous racism, political opportunism, and unalleviated poverty. At the same time, because societies are complex, and because Megha Majumdar is a sophisticated student of that complexity, her novel gains flight as a tale of competing dynamism. Her three ambitious and intelligent characters are all moving up, out of the class they were born into; Jivan’s plight is that this ambition, forced by circumstance into a desperate resolve, involves a struggle that she seems fated to lose.
MixedThe New Yorker... a brave book, in both concept and execution. These days, few writers would venture a novel structured around an almost mute enigma. Caught in the sombre reductions of the tale, though, I sometimes missed the comedy and verve of Lacey’s earlier writing ... Lacey’s tendency to push the hypothetical up against the real, the ghostly up against the grounded, can become, in Pew, a kind of drift through genres ... At such moments, one has the sense of Lacey being a little unsure of where to take her book ... Perhaps my resistance suggests that I have failed the Pew test? Certainly, this difficult and discomfiting book throws down a challenge to our readerly hospitality: in truth, I didn’t always feel inclined to take in this smudged blank of a character, to give Lacey’s cipherlike creation lodgings in the house of empathy ... One shouldn’t be surprised, amid such a searching experiment, if the novel form struggles to accommodate a deliberate affront to what novels do uniquely well: the human.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
RaveThe New Yorker... a deeply imagined early-seventeenth-century world ... We are offered vivid descriptions ... Kehlmann, a confident magician himself, plays his bright pages like cards. But he has a deeper purpose, which is revealed only gradually, as the grand climacteric of his chosen war steadily justifies its presence in the novel ... A remote historical period, rollicking picaresque episodes, tricksters and magic, ancient foggy chronicles—all the dangers of the historical novel are here ... Kehlmann is a gifted and sensitive storyteller, who understands that stories originate within communities, and that such stories are convincingly dramatized when the novelist selflessly inhabits his characters’ perspectives ... The book’s narrative is daringly discontinuous ... Despite the grimness of the surroundings and the lancing interventions of history, the novel’s tone remains light, sprightly, enterprising. Kehlmann has an unusual combination of talents and ambitions—he is a playful realist, a rationalist drawn to magical games and tricky performances, a modern who likes to look backward ... is vivified by the remoteness of its setting and the mythical obscurity of its protagonist, which oblige Kehlmann to commit his formidable imaginative resources to wholesale invention, and to surrender himself to the curious world he both inhabits and makes. At once magister and magician, he practices the kind of novelistic modesty that can be found at the heart of classic storytelling.
Edward St Aubyn
RaveThe New YorkerSt. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories ... Although reviewers liken Edward St. Aubyn to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde (hard not to, when his characters have neon names like David Windfall), he is a colder, more savage writer than either ... Perhaps because he is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh...he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing. On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred; most of the posh English who people his novels are virulently repellent ... On every page of St. Aubyn’s work is a sentence or a paragraph that prompts a laugh, or a moment of enriched comprehension ... Patrick, with his cool wit, plays the adult role quite well; but he is really always the throbbing child, pulsing with pain. And in this way St. Aubyn’s novels seem to be not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds. The striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire and, on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest of contemporary novels.
Edward St Aubyn
PositiveThe London Review of BooksCan you always count on a bastard for a fancy prose style? It is hard to imagine the fiction of Edward St Aubyn stripped of the cool silver of its style. I am not accusing St Aubyn of being a bastard; I mean that he writes very well about bastards, and that both their contempt for the world and St Aubyn’s contempt for them find their best expression in a certain kind of intelligent, frozen stylishness. His upper-class snobs, perverts, tyrants, addicts and solipsists speak aphoristically, amusingly, cleverly, disdainfully; and the high polish of St Aubyn’s own prose is almost indistinguishable from theirs ... Each book is different in rhythm and tone. Never Mind, bloody with family suffering, has a claustral intensity (which Mother’s Milk returns to), while St Aubyn’s New York writing, in Bad News, is looser, jauntier, and registers the influence of Martin Amis’s Money ... What is best in Some Hope is what is always best in St Aubyn: the agony of the Melroses ... Mother’s Milk is better than anything St Aubyn has yet done. It wisely forgoes the larger social satire of the earlier books, and the Waugh-like bee-stings that accompany that aristocratic honeycomb, and focuses clingingly on the new Melrose family ... Every page carries spry, marvellously sprung sentences, and often the prose rises to a real power of ironic inversion and paradox...
RaveThe New YorkerAs a writer of nonfiction, Garner is scrupulous, painstaking, and detailed, with sharp eyes and ears. She is everywhere at once, watching and listening, a recording angel at life’s secular apocalypses .... Garner is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer: her honesty has less to do with what she sees in the world than with what she refuses to turn away from in herself ... This House of Grief makes its complexity out of an honest vulnerability ... Garner’s book is superbly alive to the narrative dynamics of the case ... Attracted and repelled, Garner circles around the unspeakable, abysmal horror. Can any story \'explain\' why a man might murder his children? She doesn’t pretend to possess the explosive answer, and frequently confesses appalled stupefaction, but her book walks us along an engrossing and plausible narrative fuse ... Her narrative is lit by lightning. Hideous, jagged details leap out at us ... Garner is a powerful and vivid presence in her nonfiction narratives: she intervenes; she weeps and laughs with the evidence; she is scornful, funny, impassioned, and gives honest expression to biases and prejudices ... She powerfully sympathizes with Farquharson’s thwarted opportunities and flattened will, but she cannot hide her distaste for his weakness, which she expresses in tellingly gendered jabs ...
John Jeremiah Sullivan
RaveThe New Yorker[Sullivan] seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity. Anecdotes fly off the wheels of his larger narratives ... No decent writer could go wrong with what we imagine to be the heady hideousness of a Christian rock festival, and these West Virginians on fire for Christ are juicy material: Just-So Stories from the unfathomable evangelical jungle, waiting to be written up by the compensated connoisseur once he has returned to civilization. But not only does Sullivan avoid condescension; he admires his new friends, listens to them, and quietly compacts an enormous amount of acquired information into his prose ... the gulf vanishes when Sullivan writes ... Unlike Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion, who bring their famous styles along with them like well-set, just-done hair, Sullivan lets his subjects muss and alter his prose; he works like a novelist ... On the Geoff Dyer-scale, he is a fairly old-fashioned essayist. And, anyway, his talent is beautifully for the real; or, rather, for the real fictions that people make of the real, and which they live by.
RaveThe New YorkerI began reading it, I’ll admit, in a parched spirit of competitive calculation: let it be good, but not so good that I must envy it. Yet Necessary Errors is a very good novel, an enviably good one, and to read it is to relive all the anxieties and illusions and grand projects of one’s own youth. To experience again those awkward, joyous ambitions in a fictional work so consummately the achievement of them was, for me, a complicated, rueful pleasure ... Like Jacob, Crain was living in Prague in 1990 and 1991, and he seems to have re-created, with extraordinary fidelity, the texture of everyday life in a society embarking on a long journey of transformation ... Necessary Errors is an achievement of detailed recollection, and as such has a dense, realistic heft. But its true spirit is closer to Henry James ...than to documenters like Balzac or Howells. If Crain is a patient painter of furniture and food and weather, he is a pointillist of human motive and interaction, systematically capturing elusive and fugitive feeling ... feelingly unemphatic, light on its moral feet. Unlike much contemporary American writing, the prose eschews glitter and exhibitionism in favor of a limpid evenness. But the clarity of this lucid prose is often lyrical, not just prosaic.
MixedThe New YorkerThe inadequacy of the response is a kind of contemporary confession, just as Heti intends her book to be a larger portrait of a generation that knows the right questions but struggles to find the right answers ... Heti’s book has a pleasingly (sometimes irritatingly) free, formless, and autobiographical atmosphere. Chunks of the novel are written in the style of a play; she includes e-mails, authorial thoughts, and essay-ettes, and there is a general absence of plot. The prose is what one might charitably call basic: simple, direct, sometimes ungainly ... Heti may include real e-mails and recordings of actual conversations, but, of course, her book is shaped and plotted (however lightly), and uses fiction as well as autobiography ... A fair amount of the conversation has that sloppy, pert formlessness characteristic of university days, so that one occasionally has to remind oneself that the book’s author is thirty-five and not twenty ... There is, too, a troubling knowingness, an uneasiness about how seriously the novel should press down on its seriously interrogative title. This sometimes presents itself, interestingly, as a failure of realism ... This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being. Yet it’s hard to say whether she is the analyst of this evasiveness or its victim.
RaveThe New YorkerThat’s the DeWitt tone—tart, brisk, snobbish, antic. She can take a recognizable social situation or fact and steadily twist it into a surrealist skein ... Repressed pain is the engine of The Last Samurai. It is a wonderfully funny book, but comedy dances near the abyss ... It would be a mistake to force this strange and brave book into a sentimentality it deliberately disrupts. It won’t be made into a conventionally humane domestic novel about a frustrated single mother and a brilliant, questing son. Still, it is not only about being inefficiently intelligent and trying to raise a genius, not only about the inanities of the school system.
Jokha Alharthi, trans. by Marilyn Booth
RaveThe New YorkerThe [novel] form’s remarkable adaptability is on brilliant display in Celestial Bodies (Catapult), a searching work of fiction ... one of the book’s signal triumphs is that Alharthi has constructed her own novelistic form to suit her specific mimetic requirements ... She gives each chapter, in loose rotation, to the voice of a single character, and so makes contemporary female interiority crucial to her book while accommodating a variety of very different world views ... the third-person narration devoted to the female characters is so flexible and sensitively alert that you often forget it’s not in the first person ... The novel moves back and forth between the generations very flexibly, often in the course of a single page or even paragraph, owing to Alharthi’s deft management of time shifts ... Celestial Bodies...seems to break free of narration as it is commonly understood in Western fictional literature. The leaps and swerves seem closer to poetry or fable or song than to the novel as such ... One effect of devoting so much space to intensely realized female interiority is to render the women vividly dynamic and mobile—restless, yearning, ambitious—even when reactionary or just maternally sedentary.
The form speaks eloquently. Indeed, the great pleasure of reading Celestial Bodies is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct.
PositiveThe New YorkerHägglund’s book involves deep and demanding readings of St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (with some Theodor Adorno, Charles Taylor, Thomas Piketty, and Naomi Klein thrown in), but it is always lucid, and is at its heart remarkably simple. You could extract its essence and offer it to thirsty young atheists ... Hägglund examines writing by C. S. Lewis, Augustine, and Kierkegaard with a generous captiousness, fair but firmly forensic ... One could say that, in moving from theory to praxis, Hägglund’s secularity gets a touch religious, burning with correction. And what gets sacrificed, at least on the page, is freedom: in these sections, the reader feels less able to move about within his argumentation and test his propositions, and is instead hemmed in by an atmosphere of political certainty and utopian fervor ... And yet Hägglund’s very vulnerability increases my regard for his project. I admire his boldness, perhaps even his recklessness. And his fundamental secular cry seems right: since time is all we have, we must measure its preciousness in units of freedom. Nothing else will do. Once this glorious idea has taken hold, it is very hard to dislodge.
RaveThe New Yorker\"Hempel works carefully, sparingly, glancingly. Perhaps, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, she learned from her teacher Gordon Lish how to abolish the nonessential, but then she got to work on the essential. Her stories assemble extraordinary sentences. And each purified sentence is itself a story, a kind of suspended enigma ... And [Hempel\'s] characters often speak as sparklingly and strangely as their creator writes ... Hempel, like some practical genius of the forest, can make living structures out of what look like mere bric-a-brac, leavings, residue. It’s astonishing how little she needs to get something up and going on the page ... Like Paley, who has clearly been an influence, [Hempel] is easy to read and sometimes harder to comprehend. Her sentences are not complex, but the speed of their connection to one another is a little breathtaking. You need to slow down in order to go as quickly as Hempel is travelling. Like Paley, she is a natural storyteller who is also very interested in the artifice of storytelling—in the ways that stories deform or hide the truth, in what can and can’t be disclosed on the page. She is a self-reflexive writer who, miraculously, doesn’t seem self-conscious.\
Roberto Bolaño, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe novel is wildly enjoyable (as well as, finally, full of lament), in part because Bolaño, despite all the game-playing, has a worldly, literal sensibility. His atmospheres are solidly imagined, but the tone is breezy and colloquial and amazingly unliterary ... It is as if the novelist has taken a tape recorder and journeyed around the world, from Mexico City to San Diego to Barcelona to Tel Aviv, desperate to find out what became of the young, optimistic, but perhaps now doomed poets ... Again, it should be stressed that this is not just a postmodern game about the fictionality of novelistic characters (though it is that, too). Movingly, no one seems quite able to get the two young poets in focus ... Curiously, The Savage Detectives is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth. Bolaño beautifully manages to keep his comedy and his pathos in the same family.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Readers of contemporary autofiction will recognize the form: plot is relaxed into essay, with room for authorial digression, political and theoretical commentary, and reports on what the author has been reading, along with just enough storytelling to keep the novel moving forward ... So the novel, like Emmet Gowin’s photographs, takes its time rather than quickly imposing a point of view... it inhabits its material naturally rather than performing it too strenuously. The results are often engrossing ... The book offers a beautiful and patiently loving portrait of children and of the task of looking after them ... And just as pleasurable is the access we gain to the narrator’s mind—a comprehensive literary intelligence sorting through a lot of data ... The book’s weaknesses in traditional evocation more generally revolve around the husband, a dimly realized creature who alternates between lecturing the children on the destiny of the Apaches and quarrelling, for no apparent reason, with his very appealing wife ... It is impossible not to admire the novel’s surging ambition. But this is also an oddly symptomatic book, characteristic of our age’s self-doubts, divided between the quotidian realism of diaristic autofiction and the magical privileges of unfettered fiction-making ... brilliantly intricate and constantly surprising...\
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Even as this book turns tragic, it remains utterly alive, even joyous, in its newfound language ... An ordinary writer can, in truth, sometimes camouflage his banality in colloquial color: pure voice can do a fair amount of the novelist’s work. And In Our Mad and Furious City does begin shakily, in fact, but for the opposite reason. A prologue, written in the grand style of a chorus, leaves the streets for Parnassus ... every page, by dint of sheer linguistic exuberance, carries its own adventure ... Gunaratne even uses standard or literary language in exciting ways. His verbs, in particular, spring with energy ... But the choral form of the novel imperfectly serves that novelistic project [of confronting different views of extremism] ... If the contents of the story are under tremendous pressure, so are the book’s political themes. This is supposed to be a mad and furious book about a mad and furious city, and I suspect that Gunaratne wants his writing to borrow some of the freedoms of song lyrics and engaged journalism—to deliver political commentary, ardent instruction, and harsh intervention, to praise and to rage. But I also want to hear the characters sing the song of themselves. Gunaratne’s powers of observation are so acute and extractive that he can trust his material to generate its own human significance.\
RaveThe New YorkerIndecently unconventional ... begins like a recognizable combination of bildungsroman and adventure tale, becomes much stranger and more original...discovering within itself a profound understanding of the demands of religious practice. It is not only Wray’s heroine but also his novel that comes of age, steadily deepening and astounding as it develops ... a command of detail, context, and pace reminiscent of a reality-brined adventurer like Graham Greene or Robert Stone. (Hardly a negligible achievement, by the way.) ... develops enough hospitality toward the religious submission it describes that it begins to take on the properties of its material: it becomes a kind of devout inhabiting ... a literary endeavor suggestively and boldly out of step with most contemporary literary impulses, and certainly with mainstream political ones.
Dag Solstad, Trans. by Tiina Nunnally
PositiveThe New Yorker\"... at once intense and restrained ... And tedium, in Solstad’s work, achieves a kind of hallucinatory power. Long stretches of T. Singer, perhaps Solstad’s most challenging work, revolve around the \'astonishingly monotonous inland route\' of Singer’s train journey from Oslo to Notodden, the internal workings of the Norwegian hydroelectricity company Norsk Hydro, and how the sport of hammer throwing has become unexpectedly popular in Notodden. As ever, Solstad is at once demanding and funny.\
Dag Solstad, Trans. by Steven T. Murray
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Solstad’s inventive approach allows him to reflect on the freedom and obligations of the novelist who is tasked with telling someone else’s life story. It also inscribes, in the novel’s very form, Solstad’s way of writing about people who are not quite the protagonists of their own lives ... We think that we know, reading a novel, what a \'digression\' is—a swerve from the main action—because we think we know what the main action is. But what if an entire life were merely a collection of digressions, a slalom of such swerves? What if a life—even an apparently consequential one, like an ambassador’s—had no discernible narrative, no coherent main action? Actual lives look nothing much like conventional novels. That is the challenge Solstad accepts and rigorously joins.\
PositiveThe New YorkerAlong with the uncanny determinism of her surname, Helen DeWitt has several assets, inherited or acquired, useful to the comic writer...her style is brilliantly heartless, and cork-dry; original herself, she is a witty examiner of human and cultural eccentricity ... What grounds all DeWitt’s brilliance and game-playing is the way that she dramatizes a certain kind of hyperintelligent rationalism and probes its irregular distribution of blindness and insight ... The stories in Some Trick return often to this artistic drama; in them, painters, writers, and musicians attempt to preserve their genius in the face of a hostile world run by vulgar businessmen, mercantile agents, and idiot fashion designers. An aesthetic category clearly of interest to DeWitt...is the ugly work of art, the difficult artifact that cannot be easily assimilated ... When DeWitt’s passionate struggle for aesthetic expression...is reified in these tales as scenes of repetitively rigged business with imbecile agents and mindless art dealers, the comedy suffers, hardens a bit, and narrows its scope. Maybe that’s why \'Famous Last Words,\' the best piece in the collection, and the funniest, has nothing to do with art worlds and the bitter toil of the genius.
Walter Kempowski, Trans. by Anthea Bell
RaveThe New Yorker\"Kempowski gives us a hundred pages of this steady pressure-building—delicately achieved, with a constantly flickering humor—until the barometer breaks ... Kempowski’s handling of this episode displays all his deep talents as a novelist—his impartial hospitality to many different perspectives, his shrewd comprehension of his characters’ solipsism, the impurity of their heroism ... Kempowski’s ironic control braces the novel against melodrama. And it gives the author a slight distance from his characters, so that he is not aligned too sympathetically with them. Most of them, with the exception of the brave and kindly Peter (the novelist’s self-portrait), are morally mottled, not entirely heroic but not wholly wicked, either ... A little less than a decade later, but too late for poor Sebald, Walter Kempowski beautifully proved him wrong.\
Olga Tokarczuk, Trans. by Jennifer Croft
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Flights, by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (Riverhead), is exciting in the way that unclassifiable things are exciting—that is to say, at times confoundingly so. It is intermittently a work of fiction, but it is also an exercise in theory, cultural anthropology, and memoir ... Those sections saturated in the author’s Polishness are the most poignant and meaningful in the book. The cabinet of curiosities, glittering with all kinds of marvels, is just to be browsed; the travelling reader moves through it and past it. But, like the author, we snag on that Polish word, and its suggestion of cold oilcloth, garden tomatoes, and stove fumes. Such episodes deliberately complicate the book’s exaltation of mobility and its freedoms.\
PositiveThe New Yorker\"...for all the sense of bitter urgency, her work remains essentially sunny (pun-drenched, pun-kissed). Autumn and Winter, novels full of political foreboding, are also brief and almost breezy—topical, sweet-natured, something fun to be inside ... Smith’s capacious art warmly embraces variety, and creates eccentric stylistic families out of disparate inheritances ... Winter lacks the cohesion of Autumn. It’s an antic collage, with a daub or two that might usefully have been suppressed. Like a number of Smith’s novels, it doesn’t know when to end—usually an element of her joyful profligacy—and trundles along into silliness ... This sort of bonhomous playfulness won’t delight everyone. It’s not always to my taste. The cost of inhabiting a world of postmodern Shakespearean comedy is precisely that life is seen buoyantly but not very tragically. The neatness of the pun, its capacity to make things rhyme, exists at the expense, perhaps, of mess, despair, and sheer human intractability. Yet there is also something beautiful about art as play, about witnessing jokes and figures of speech and clichés and stray words shimmer into reality—seeing them become things, become central to a book’s machinery—and then slip away again into gauzy abstraction.\
PositiveThe New Yorker...a book that is commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places, and, alas, utterly conventional. Here the machinery of traditional, mainstream storytelling threshes efficiently ... Many of these scenes are piercingly evoked, and the novel is so spacious in design and reach, so sensitive to historical catastrophe, that it seems churlish to bridle. Yet in the aggregate this slabbed magnificence seems, if not melodramatic, then certainly stagy, even bookish, a livid libretto, something made for the novel rather than made by it ...passage is typical both of the novel’s brilliance of prose and of its violent disclosures: Lee’s relentless, cruel calm is sometimes reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s accounts of combat in Vietnam.
PositiveThe New YorkerThis busy campaign for allies does a disfavor to Teju Cole’s beautiful, subtle, and, finally, original novel. Open City is indeed largely set in a multiracial New York (the open city of the title) ... the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While Open City has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language ...Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition ... More than anything, Open City seems a beautifully modulated description of a certain kind of solitary liberalism common to thousands, if not millions, of bookish types.
RaveThe New YorkerMcGregor delicately labors to show with what terrifying ease the quick pulse of life displaces the lost signal of death. Life grows over death, quite literally; the dead are at our mercy...nature has its own ceaseless life rhythms, and it is in McGregor’s incantatory, lingering account of the annual rise and fall that his book achieves a visionary power ... All this risks making McGregor seem a more ethereal novelist than he is. He understands that the novel is fed by fact and social detail, by human beings and their foolish motives—the mulch of the actual. His work is significant, and often surprising, because he wants to mix the mundane and the visionary, and because his books don’t settle down into conventional forms ... The word 'collage' implies something static and finally fixed, but the beauty of Reservoir 13 is in fact rhythmic, musical, ceaselessly contrapuntal.
PanThe New YorkerUnfortunately, Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, does not generate the kind of pressure that might wring shadows from the bemusing transparency of its narration ... He has written not a novel about historical amnesia but an allegory of historical amnesia, set in a sixth- or seventh-century Britain, amok with dragons, ogres, and Arthurian knights. The problem is not fantasy but allegory, which exists to literalize and simplify. The giant is not buried deeply enough ...has far too much dialogue like this, more Monty Python than William Golding...points everywhere but at us, because its fictional setting is feeble, mythically remote, generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague—a magic rare but unwelcome.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky
RaveThe New Yorker\"Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent novel Go, Went, Gone is about \'the central moral question of our time,\' and among its many virtues is that it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling \'moving\' stories about people who are very different from us ... Her task is comprehension rather than replication, and she uses a measured, lyrically austere prose, whose even tread barely betrays the considerable passion that drives it onward. (Susan Bernofsky deserves immense credit for bringing this prose to us in English.) Among contemporary Anglophone writers, this classical restraint calls to mind J. M. Coetzee, the V. S. Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival, and Teju Cole’s Naipaul-influenced Open City ... Erpenbeck’s novel is usefully prosaic, written in a slightly uninviting, almost managerial present tense, which keeps overt emotion at bay. Just as Erpenbeck does not really examine the causes of Richard’s change of heart, so she is wary of bestowing anything like easy \'redemption\' on her protagonist (and hence on her novel).\
PositiveSlateThe book is so professionally archaeological, so competently dug, that one can mistake its surfaces for depth. But it's like a cemetery with no bodies in it ... Cold Mountain is utterly convincing in an unreal way ... Inman is silent, good, and strong — one must imagine a Confederate Clint Eastwood ... He is a Homeric foot soldier — Frazier has said he had Odysseus in mind — and quite unreal. The novel's unreality flows from Inman's unreality ... Frazier is a good writer: calm, for the most part unsentimental, often rich. But the novel is a refined exercise ...Frazier sacrifices aesthetic life to historical life. The result is that while one continues to believe Cold Mountain on the surface, one stops believing it at any deeper level. There is a false consciousness to a late 20th-century writer's efforts to evoke a 19th-century man in a language that belongs to neither.
RaveThe New YorkerParrot & Olivier in America is a delicious, sprockety contraption, a comic historical picaresque that takes as its creative origin Tocqueville and Beaumont’s 1831 journey … Carey’s story is in what eighteenth-century novelists called the ‘Cervantick’ tradition, which means that this Quixote and Panza must first be at loggerheads, then at ease, and finally in love with each other, and that the master must finally need the servant’s help. In the course of this transformation, the two men have many American adventures, some of them loyal to the narrative of Tocqueville and Beaumont’s journey...but Carey’s departures from the Tocqueville biography are as interesting as his loyalties. Olivier is prissier and more snobbish than Tocqueville was. Though he warms to the American experiment—he, too, is moved by the Fourth of July event—the warmth is intermittent, banked with superiority. Carey makes much of Olivier’s myopia, and it seems obvious enough that America, and thus the future, belongs to Parrot, not to Olivier.
PanThe New YorkerPure storytelling seems to have triumphed here; the human case has disappeared. The novel keeps producing iterations of itself, in different places and times—England in the nineteen-eighties, Iraq in 2004, America in 2025, post-apocalyptic Ireland in 2043—but instead of formal capability there is a sense of empty capacity. It hardly helps that threaded through the book is a science-fiction plot about warring bands of immortals, named the Horologists and the Anchorites. Weightless realism is here at slack odds with weightless fantasy … Mitchell has written a theological novel of sorts, and just as certain kinds of theology threaten to rob human life of intrinsic significance—since theology exists to convert worldly meaning into transcendent meaning—so Mitchell’s peculiar cosmology turns his characters into time-travelling groundlings, Horology’s dwarves.
MixedThe New YorkerOne is impressed, once again, by the evidence of Mitchell’s immense natural gifts: a vast range of characters, each touched with difference; fabulously fluent and intelligent dialogue; scenes that are dramatically shaped but lack obtrusive manipulation; above all, an apparently effortless inhabiting of the Japanese context … By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel, and it would be perverse to hold Mitchell’s natural facility against him. Yet the book is still a conventional historical novel, and drags with it some of the fake heirlooms of the genre … The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is indeed a representative late-postmodern document...Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.
RaveThe New YorkerWhere much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science … Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485-1540) is one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction—brutal, worldly, reticent, practical, unsentimental but not without tenderness of a kind, Biblically literate but theologically uncommitted, freakishly self-confident but perilously low on friends … He emerges from these novels if not quite a hero, then at least someone whose torments have been chosen for comprehension, like the sinful protagonist of a Graham Greene novel. This is brave of Mantel, even bravely peculiar, given the reputation of the actual Thomas Cromwell, who acted as a brutal fixer for both Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII.
MixedThe London Review of BooksOne of Pierre’s targets...is false storytelling, and how communities hysterically provide it. Alas this is by now a familiar subject, anointed by cultural studies, and it is not clear that the novel has any real insights into the matter, except to say that ‘television made me do it’ … For all the verbal skidding, D.B.C. Pierre is a conventionally good driver, and wants merely a chance to show off how well he can steer a straight course. He almost always strains belief in his narrator when he is most properly ‘literary’ as a writer; when he is being, unlike his narrator, a nice boy...For every false note, though, there is a sentence perfectly plucked and placed, when the obviously literary is checked by a weirdness, a tilted originality, that leads it back not to the author but plausibly enough to Vernon.
PanThe New YorkerJulian Treslove’s ‘sense of loss,’ it turns out, is that he has really wanted, all along, to be a Jew. The dopey, goyish wannabe Jew is not necessarily a bad comic premise. But the catalyst for this self-realization is as incredible as the girlfriend setting fire to the sheets, or Max’s father storming out of the house because his little son seemed to be saying, ‘Jew Jew’ … There is a secondhand quality to Jacobson’s portraiture: the outlines are garish rather than vivid; one feels that Bellow or Malamud might achieve in one paragraph what Jacobson struggles toward in an entire scene. And Treslove’s admiring stupidity constantly pushes the representation of Jews and Jewishness toward caricature … Needless to say, this is a decisively male and modern version of Jewishness, much influenced by the histrionic pugilism of Philip Roth’s weaker novels. As far as I can tell, it is also Howard Jacobson’s preferred version of both Jewishness and Jewish comic fiction.
RaveThe New YorkerHemon’s cunningly ambitious new novel, The Lazarus Project, is a further installment in his autobiographical fictionalizing ... The fragility of the immigrant’s status takes on a metaphysical cast in Hemon’s work ... It alternates chapters describing Brik’s travels with chapters imagining Lazarus Averbuch’s existence in the early twentieth century. It is both a historical fiction and an inquiry into the limits of historical fictionalizing ... Hemon wants us to see the connection between the treatment of anarchists and immigrants in 1908 and the treatment of vulnerable groups now, even at the cost of making this parallel very . . . parallel ... Lost, homeless on two continents, Brik is poignant, and the novel is never more moving than when its narrator seems a little unhinged because a little unhoused.
PositiveThe New YorkerMoving Kings struggles with form, but this may represent a conscious effort on the author’s part at self-contraception. It is relatively brief, accessible, and more or less conventionally structured; it is highly intelligent but not a novel of ideas, and though its prose does plenty of swaggering, the swagger belongs to the characters—which is to say, most of the novel is written in close third-person or free indirect style, the grammar of everyday contemporary realism. It’s the right style for this novel’s world, which is burly with particularities and vibrant with voice. The atmosphere at times resembles a Jewish Sopranos, minus the violence—men, family, moneymaking, muscle ... The labor might be similar, but the job certainly isn’t. The reader feels this frailty inscribed into the very form of the novel. The urgency of the descriptions of Israeli combat repeatedly calls out to the weaker urgency of the descriptions of American 'combat'—overshadowing them with their higher stakes, and repeatedly summoning the novelist back to Israel and away from more mundane New York ... This is a book of brilliant sentences, brilliant paragraphs, brilliant chapters. Here things flare singly, a succession of lighted matches, and do not cast a more general illumination.
RaveThe New YorkerDespite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel Netherland a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read ...cricket in this novel is much more than these associations... Most poignantly, for one of the characters in the novel cricket is an American dream, or perhaps a dream of America... This is attentive, rich prose about New York in crisis that, refreshingly, is not also prose in crisis: it’s not overwrought or solipsistic or puerile or sentimental, or otherwise straining to be noticed ...if Netherland pays homage to The Great Gatsby, it is also in some kind of knowing relationship with A House for Mr. Biswas. These are large interlocutors, but Netherland has an ideological intricacy, a deep human wisdom, and prose grand enough to dare the comparison.
MixedThe New RepublicThe Fortress of Solitude begins where it best belongs, in the summer and on the street. The first part of this book, almost three hundred pages, represents a remarkable, often ravishing conjuration of the perpetual summer of childhood … Practically orphaned, and apparently intellectually orphaned too, Dylan gets progressively less interesting to us as he gets older, because as he gets older he becomes less the voyeuristic street kid of Brooklyn and more a mind of Manhattan—or ought to become such a mind, except that we are not informed of its existence … It is as if the delicate balance of the novel’s earlier style has been turned inside out. What was an allowable, even cherishable vernacular—the knowingness of boys who don’t know very much— becomes irritating when it is a man’s undemanding knowingness (or worse still, Lethem’s).
RaveThe New YorkerHome begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury—its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of Gilead. Home is not a sequel to that novel but more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings … What propels the book, and makes it ultimately so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the soft-spoken sage that John Ames is in Gilead. He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and cannot.
RaveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewRobinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details. Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it's hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer's prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in Gilead … When Robinson reduces her language, it's because secular meaning has exhausted itself and is being renovated by religious meaning … Robinson's book ends in characteristic fashion, with its feet planted firmly on the Iowa soil and its eyes fixed imploringly on heaven, as a dying man daily pictures Paradise but also learns how to prolong every day – to extend time, even on earth, into a serene imitation of eternity.
RaveThe New YorkerMcBride’s novel is written in a dense, interrupted, shattered language, blooming with neologisms, compounds, stretched senses, old words put to new uses … When McBride’s prose is most difficult, it is because it is doubly difficult: hard to follow and hard to bear … McBride’s language also justifies its strangeness on every page. Her prose is a visceral throb, and the sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words, freed from the tedious march of sequence, seem to want to merge with one another, as paint and musical notes can. The results are thrilling, and also thrillingly efficient.
MixedThe New RepublicThe Road is not a science fiction, not an allegory, and not a critique of the way we live now, or of the-way-we-might-live-if-we-keep-on-living-the-way-we-live-now. It poses a simpler question, more taxing for the imagination and far closer to the primary business of fiction-making: what would this world without people look like, feel like? From this, everything else flows … There is nothing easy about the machinery of this book—the mise-en-scene, the often breathtaking writing, the terrifying concentration of the evocation—but there is something perhaps a little showy, a little glib, about the way that questions of belief are raised and dropped … The question of endings in an apocalypse must be philosophical as well as merely emotional, even in a novel.
RaveThe New YorkerIt’s a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman, apparently the first of a trilogy. Its narrator, Elena Greco, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and adolescence, in the late nineteen-fifties...The city of Elena’s childhood is a poor, violent place. But deprivation gives details a snatched richness … But My Brilliant Friend is a bildungsroman in mono, not stereo; we sense early on that Lila will stay trapped in her world, and that Elena, the writer, will get out … In this beautiful and delicate tale of confluence and reversal, it is hard to identify the moments when a current changes course … A final irony is coiled in the novel’s title, the biggest reversal, a shift in perspective that has taken a whole novel to effect.
RaveThe New YorkerThis novella is indeed simpler and sparer than anything else Johnson has written … The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson’s deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured … I started reading Train Dreams with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story’s unaffected tact and honesty … [Grainier’s] life has been, in some ways, an obscure anomaly, spent, in the heart of the twentieth century, pretty much as it might have been a hundred years earlier. Johnson’s novella has an elegiac tinge.
RaveThe New YorkerThe Flamethrowers is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story … It catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading … Kushner employs a similarly eerie confidence throughout her novel, which constantly entwines the invented with the real, and she often uses the power of invention to give her fiction the authenticity of the reportorial, the solidity of the historical … Kushner watches the New York art world of the late seventies with sardonic precision and lancing humor, using Reno’s reportorial hospitality to fill her pages with lively portraits and outrageous cameos.
MixedThe New YorkerMcCarthy is continent here, which is in keeping with the spirit of the novel. Everything is tight, reduced, simple, and very violent … The book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar … The problem with a novel like No Country for Old Men is that it cannot give violence any depth, context, or even reality. The artificial theatre of the writing makes the violence routine and showy. And McCarthy’s idea—his novelistic picture—of life’s evil is limited, and literal: it is only ever of physical violence … His myth of eternal violence asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.
RaveThe New YorkerAdam—at once ideological and post-ideological, vaguely engaged and profoundly spectatorial, charming and loathsome—is a convincing representative of twenty-first-century American Homo literatus … The book’s persistent question is: If Adam Gordon were able to summon himself into authenticity, would there be anything to see? Are we in fact constituted by our inauthenticities? … But, if Adam stopped pretending that he was only pretending to be a poet, he would have to write some poems, and confront questions of talent and of vocation … Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict,’ fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life.
RaveThe New RepublicIt is certainly his finest and most complex novel. It represents a new era in McEwan’s work, and this revolution is achieved in two interesting ways. First, McEwan has loosened the golden ropes that have made his fiction feel so impressively imprisoned...and second, McEwan uses his new novel to comment on precisely the kind of fiction that he himself has tended to produce in the past … I doubt that any English writer has conveyed quite as powerfully the bewilderments and the humiliations of this episode in World War II. After more than twenty years of writing with care and control, McEwan’s anxious, disciplined richness of style finally expands to meet its subject … Atonement ends with a devastating twist, a piece of information that changes our sense of everything we have just read….This twist, this revelation, further emphasizes the novel’s already explicit ambivalence about being a novel, and makes the book a proper postmodern artifact, wearing its doubts on its sleeve, on the outside, as the Pompidou does its escalators.
MixedThe New RepublicIt says much for Franzen's charm as a writer that his book should seem warm while it is in fact dark … The theme of family corrections has a fine suggestiveness about it, and Franzen shows himself an intelligent manipulator of suggestive patterns; indeed, at such times an artist … Franzen errs when he leaves this path and noses along the trail of his old documentary impulse, his old love of the social novel. Whenever he does so, his tone begins to crack, and Franzen the clever journalist, the pocket theorist, peers through...In general, his prose loves nothing so much as a chance to show off a little technical know-how … The Corrections is a big book, and the prose, in its long course, is likely to cross a few plains and flats. But as soon as one compares this language of smart commentary with the language of truth that also runs throughout this book, one is struck by the superfluousness of the former.
MixedThe London Review of BooksLife of Pi is proud to be a delegate for magic realism, and wears a big badge so that we don’t forget it … Martel proves, by skilful example, that realism is narrative’s great master, that it schools even its own truants. He reminds us in fact that realism is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting … Survivor yarns, like prison stories, gain their narrative power from the fetishising of the minimal...Notwithstanding the presence of a tiger, or rather because of the presence of a tiger, Martel labours to reproduce for us the daily struggle of Pi’s existence … [Life of Pi] is a novel about our capacity to believe, the jacket promises – only to bury this notion in the softer and more cosily recessed questions of storytelling and credulity.
PanThe New YorkerThe Goldfinch is a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys. Its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature … To be fair, Tartt has considerable talents in the field of magical misdirection...but misdirection is practiced evasion, and narrative secrets are tested by the value of their revelations: we will need, as bounty, more than the prestidigitator’s ace of spades … Through all this thrashing, twisting, gulping, choking, gasping, coughing, cursing, plunging, sputtering, and floundering, I kept on trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’être and its childish sweets.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe effect is something like emergency writing for our times: intense, direct, daring, and also somewhat limited and repetitive. The men’s slightly different crises are united in being crises ... Despite Szalay’s wariness about conventional fiction-making, he has an admirable fearlessness for swiftly entering invented fictional worlds ... His book is also bracingly unsentimental about male desire and male failure. Because he writes mostly from inside his characters’ heads, in jagged bursts of free indirect style, he can present his reduced and impaired men without judgment or commentary ... Put aside the absence of female leads; it would be a welcome gift if the male ones just achieved joined-up thoughts. Their limitations set limits on the complexity of the book.
PositiveThe New YorkerWilliams’s sense of comedy tends to undercut obvious 'seriousness.' Her fables start like fables but end, a few lines later, in abrupt self-mockery; they seem to bite their own tails ... Ninety-nine Stories of God is a slight book, provocatively so; the pieces vary in quality, and can seem like pressed keepsakes from a commonplace book. Still, they miniaturize the qualities found in Joy Williams’s celebrated short stories: concision, jumped connections, singular details, brutal humor.
PositiveThe New YorkerFinely intelligent, often superbly written, with flashingly brilliant sentences, The Girls is also a symptomatic product not of the sixties but of our own age: a nicely paced literary-commercial début whose brilliant style, in the end, seems to restrict its reach and depth...The form of a novel is the accumulation of its sentences; in this case, the tempo of the sentence becomes the stammering tempo of the form. The Girls draws much power from this style, aided by the immediacy of its first-person narration; but development and argument tend to leak away. It is a style supremely adept at plunging us into the helter-skelter world of 1969, but less so at justifying our belated presence, as contemporary readers, in that world.
MixedThe New YorkerThis is writing of a high order, and Berlinski demonstrates a continuous awareness of those heights—his conventionalities are superior to many writers’ originalities. Still, Peacekeeping like Berlinski’s first novel, is a very traditional book, in conception and form, and it unwittingly advertises the exploratory limits of a certain kind of conventional realism.
RaveThe New YorkerO’Brien is eighty-five years old, and praising this novel for its ambition, its daring vitality, its curiosity about the present age and about the lives of those displaced by its turbulence shouldn’t be mistaken for the backhanded compliment that all this is remarkable given the author’s advanced age. It’s simply a remarkable novel.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe Berlin part of Jed’s story can seem shapeless, even incoherent in places, though it is never without charm. Sometimes one has the sense of a stream of consciousness without a stream ... Despite the gravity of Jed’s burdens and dilemmas (race, success, sanity, America, Germany), the book’s tone is comic, pleasingly spry, and the prose breaks naturally into witty one-liners.
RaveThe New Yorker“What Belongs to You is fairly explicitly about shame, punishment, and disgust, among other things. What is unusual is not the presence of these themes but the book’s complicated embrace of 'foulness,' and a barely suppressed longing for punishment, a longing embodied in the narrator’s relationship with Mitko. Greenwell’s novel impresses for many reasons, not least of which is how perfectly it fulfills its intentions.
Yehuda Amichai, ed. Robert Alter
PositiveThe New YorkerTo read The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, an ample new selection edited by Robert Alter, is to leaf through the calendar of a sensibility: in this bright book of life, he writes about war and love, about his mother and father, about his children and his neighbors, about loving the Jews and despairing of the Jews, about shopping for groceries in Jerusalem and the politics of Jerusalem, about sex and about God...the prevailing tone—more than a tone, it is a way of being in the world—is direct, open, simple, hospitable, sensuous, witty.
PanThe New YorkerThe prose is not only beautiful and vigorously alert; it insists on its own heroic registration, and lifts this story of a modern marriage out of the mundane...So it is an enormous shame that the novel’s second half squanders in quick moments what was slowly accumulated in the first half’s careful pages....The 'revelation' of [this] second half, far from binding the form in meaning, is the thread that fatally unravels it. Narrative secrets are not the same as human mysteries, a lesson that novelists seem fated to forget, again and again; the former quickly confess themselves, and fall silent, while the true mysteries go on speaking.