RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)Slim, stylish, occasionally self-indulgent ... The novel has an ambience of desultory glamour. Plot, insofar as it exists, isn’t really the point ... Privilege and numbness are familiar literary themes – particularly brilliantly examples include the mid-century novels of Alberto Moravia and Curzio Malaparte – but LaCava’s treatment is more interior and nuanced than most contemporary caricatures of the poor little rich girl ... The denouement is an act of violence captured on camera. For a novel so concerned with interiority and affect, anhedonia and nihilism, it is a dramatic departure: a moment of reality that shatters the frame – and fulfils the promise of the title.
Olga Ravn, Tr. Martin Aitkin
PositiveThe NationRavn is up to something different in The Employees, exchanging dystopian clichés for something closer to the emotional striving of a coming-of-age narrative: Imagine I, Robot meets Flowers for Algernon with a dash of the office novel. By doing so, Ravn aligns her compact novel with works like Spike Jonze’s Her, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, in which robots are on the other end of the sympathy spectrum, no longer merely reflections of the dangers of human hubris but characters in their own right. Self-aware enough to recognize their own limitations yet unable to overcome them, Ravn’s humanoids express humanity’s most fundamental desires while remaining forever at a remove from them ... There’s more than a touch of body horror to these descriptions, and the impressions they make linger in the background ... Much like listening to the black box recording from a plane crash, we know that by the time the book has reached us, something has gone terribly wrong ... with all the voices stripped of the exterior signs of individuality, each account is distinct, marked by idiosyncratic memories and rich sensory impressions. No unifying narrative emerges out of this collection of disparate accounts. The more we read, the more we recognize that the \'problem\' the committee is trying to solve is that of the individual: of workers whose desires and ambitions cannot be neatly assimilated into a corporate framework ... Ravn has chosen to place us as the silent observer, the extraterrestrial McKinsey consultant, in order to make us understand that the ship must be eliminated for the good of the mission ... The strange origins of the novella are not fully reconciled in its final version—for all the description of the objects at the beginning, they soon disappear almost entirely—but the book also develops an emotional resonance beyond its initial prompt. Picking up on the unsettling, intimate, and playful qualities of Hestelund’s work—which tends to reference bodies and alien life forms and makes use of idiosyncratic smells and soft organic shapes—Ravn creates a world that is complementary to our own and yet far more menacing.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... sharply observed and very funny ... a worthy addition to the growing canon of outsider writing ... Henkel has an exacting eye for subtle situational humour, and she excels at describing the sorts of characters one encounters in the German capital ... As the story unfolds into a coming-of-age murder mystery with a highbrow spin, Calla Henkel cleverly manipulates expectations to build tension until the very end. In so doing, she avoids a pitfall common to many first novelists (and indeed, many ex-pats in Berlin): forgetting to develop a plot until the story is half over.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... caustic, clever, occasionally exhausting and frequently funny ... While Ellmann’s arguments rarely deviate from left-wing feminist orthodoxy, what the collection lacks in surprise it makes up for in wit—she is the schoolyard ally you want on your side, always ready with the killer comment. These can occasionally seem cheap, particularly when a well-positioned zinger comes at the expense of fact...or when tenuous arguments are proffered for the sole purpose of wordplay ... As much of the world leaves the pandemic behind...our nostalgia for the past may well be tempered by the recognition of what our world was actually like before. Perhaps, with Lucy Ellmann’s book in hand, this jolt will be enough to make us reconsider how we go about our lives.
MixedThe Times Literary SupplementVuong’s prismatic style can be disorienting, but it enables him to layer history within his characters ... Vuong is a poet of exceptional talent, yet that’s not quite enough to sustain this novel, which reads like an extended prose poem, with its tone and pacing unchanging throughout. (Sections have previously been published as stand-alone poems.) From a writer with such a striking ability to convey readers into the eternal present of his world, the novel often feels porous and searching, forgetting its debt to narrative. Still, moments of urgency break through. Vuong has been heralded for his insights into \'otherness,\' but perhaps above all he is a keen anthropologist of the contemporary American experience.
PositiveThe Times Literary SupplementThe best way to convey the appeal of Chiang’s stories is simply to describe their premisses ... In his day job, Chiang is a technical writer, and the precision and expertise that undergirds such work is present in his stories, which adhere to the rules of whichever field he is exploring ... The tales in Exhalation aren’t as dynamic as those in his previous collection – the title story, about a cyborg performing surgery on his own brain, turns on lengthy descriptions of scientific theories, and several surf along without reaching the sharp revelations that characterize the best of Chiang’s work. The stories rely heavily on their premisses, but, while this can be a liability, it also frees the author to explore the radical implications of his ideas ... The main insight in Exhalation – and indeed, in all of Chiang’s stories – is not only that we don’t fully understand the universe or our role within it, but that we barely grasp our present; and that the future is already here, if we look carefully.
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead
PositiveThe NationMallo’s sketches are wry and voyeuristic, but there’s also a tenderness to them, an affection for his strange solitary figures ... At the same time, the novel depicts a world in which individuals and objects are discrete parts of more complex systems, overlapping networks in which everything is connected ... In their beauty and their desolation, Mallo’s postindustrial landscapes evoke filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s hallucinatory visions of contemporary China, in which modernity stands toe-to-toe with the future. Offsetting these bleak geographies, however, are quietly funny moments of speculative fiction ... Mallo’s achievement is to make readers care not just about characters, but also the larger networks in which they’re entangled.
Curzio Malaparte, Trans. by Jenny McPhee
Positive4ColumnsA Dantean account of a young Marxist visiting Stalinist Russia, it is, like his previous novels, surreal and quasi-journalistic ... Malaparte’s acerbic worldview, captured in his dark observations about the Soviet elite, make any claim to optimism seem suspect. There are Goncourt-style accounts of embassy balls and rides with grotesque dignitaries in decrepit carriages. When he is not documenting the anemic characters that populate this world, our hero walks the streets of the city ... There is certainly less shock value in The Kremlin Ball than in Malaparte’s other works (no cannibalism, pedophilia, or orgies). Instead, the novel invokes Dostoevsky in its attention to the fatalism at the heart of Russian society. In communism, Malaparte sees a system that obliges Russians to suffer for others while disempowering the people. This turns the populace into something like zombies, and makes Moscow society \'the mirror image of European society but dominated by fear.\'
PositiveThe New RepublicThe hipster-as-historian persona occasionally feels forced—Ohler characterizes Hitler as a junkie and his doctors as dealers a few too many times—but the book is an impressive work of scholarship, with more than two dozen pages of footnotes and the blessing of esteemed World War Two historians ... Ohler offers a compelling explanation for Hitler’s erratic behavior in the final years of the war, and how the biomedical landscape of the time affected the way history unfolded ... A number of books have covered the same material as Ohler, but none have focused as strongly on how pharmaceuticals ran in the blood of the Third Reich ... Ohler’s book makes a powerful case for the centrality of drugs to the Nazi war effort, and had he wanted to, he could have easily made it two or three times as long. He only briefly touches on drug experimentation in concentration camps.
PositiveThe New RepublicLaing has a gift for sifting through art and archival materials and finding sympathetic windows into her subjects, many of whom don’t typically benefit from such generous treatment. In her hands, close readings of works tend to illuminate biography, rather than the other way around.