Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker, formerly the deputy editor at Jezebel and contributing editor at the Hairpin. Her first book, Trick Mirror, will be published by Random House in August 2019.
RaveThe New YorkerConsider Dorothy, the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s jewel of a début novel ... Like many of the people who will love this novel, Dorothy is either tremendously depressed and dysfunctional or completely ordinary and doing pretty well ... Smallwood generates a bounty of humor from the chasm between the kind of things Dorothy thinks...and the kinds of things she does ... Smallwood begins a sentence by writing, \'I am not saying that the scholarly critical endeavor is a futile one, necessarily.\' This sentiment, extremely funny in [the] context [of Smallwood\'s dissertation], is applied to even sharper effect in the novel, where scholarly critical endeavor is both Dorothy’s primary approach to understanding the world and the process by which she constantly dissociates from it ... Smallwood’s casually agonized and abundantly satisfying novel...provides the exact sort of thrill that can be found only through obsessive overthinking. Why live in the moment when you can dissect it like this?
PositiveThe New Yorker...a new book by the journalist and critic Kyle Chayka, arrives not as an addition to the minimalist canon but as a corrective to it ... Along the way, he offers sharp critiques of thing-oriented minimalism. The sleek, simple devices produced by Apple, which encourage us to seamlessly glide through the day by tapping and swiping on pocket-size screens, rely on a hidden \'maximalist assemblage\' ... His dual response to the all-white apartment is one of the only moments in The Longing for Less when Chayka acknowledges his attraction to superficial minimalism, but that attraction pulses throughout the book. The writing has a careful tastefulness ... In a way, Chayka’s book replicates the conflict he’s attempting to uncover—between the security and cleanliness of a frictionless affect and the necessity of friction for uncovering truth. He does have moments of productive discomfort ... Chayka best conveys the unnerving existential confrontation that minimalism can create in his capsule biographies ... This is, in the end, the most convincing argument for minimalism: with less noise in our heads, we might hear the emergency sirens more clearly.
Cathy Park Hong
PositiveThe New YorkerHong’s metaphors are crafted with stinging care. To be Asian-American, she suggests, is to be tasked with making an injury inaccessible to the body that has been injured ... I read Minor Feelings in a fugue of enveloping recognition and distancing flinch ... The question of lovability, and desirability, is freighted for Asian men and Asian women in very different ways—and Minor Feelings serves as a case study in how a feminist point of view can both deepen an inquiry and widen its resonances to something like universality ... Hong reframes the quandary of negotiating dominance and submission—of desiring dominance, of hating the terms of that dominance, of submitting in the hopes of achieving some facsimile of dominance anyway—as a capitalist dilemma ... Hong is writing in agonized pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white—a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness—and the result feels like what she was waiting for. Her book is a reminder that we can be, and maybe have to be, what others are waiting for, too.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe book may surprise readers who wondered, when the sequel was announced, whether Atwood was making a mistake in returning to her earlier work ... it seems to have another aim as well: to help us see more clearly the kinds of complicity required for constructing a world like the one she had already imagined, and the world we fear our own might become ... The Testaments addresses these and other questions in sidelong mentions, which help to make more concrete a world that, in the first novel—partly because of Offred’s fiercely enforced ignorance—felt abstract, like a landscape obscured by fog ... Precisely who is being addressed is a crucial and carefully considered matter in the novel ... We were all so busy imagining ourselves as Handmaids that we failed to see that we might be Aunts—that we, too, might feel, at the culmination of a disaster we created through our own pragmatic indifference, that we had no real choice.
RaveThe New YorkerVuong uses language to conjure wholeness from a situation that language has already broken, and will continue to break; loss and survival are always twinned ... The structural hallmarks of Vuong’s poetry—his skill with elision, juxtaposition, and sequencing—shape the novel ... Success as a writer is the mostly unspoken end point of Little Dog’s story: readers who know Vuong’s biography will assume it, and those who don’t will infer it from the strength of the book’s language ... Reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can feel like watching an act of endurance art, or a slow, strange piece of magic in which bones become sonatas, to borrow one of Vuong’s metaphors ... Like the Beijing-born novelist Yiyun Li, Vuong has a fondness for the sort of wordplay that involves noticing odd accidents in the language that he had to consciously learn ... Lines like these risk preciousness, but Vuong’s earnestness is overpowering ... In the context of those conferences, Vuong’s story seems extraordinary. But, while Vuong himself is exceptional, much of his experience is not unusual.
RaveThe New Yorker\"The New Me feels like a definitive work of millennial literature, a cross between “Seasonal Associate”—Heike Geissler’s autobiographical novel about working in an Amazon warehouse—and the sort of Tumblr account that would go viral before getting its author fired ... Butler is most acute in her descriptions of how this late-capitalist nightmare affects the lives of women who occupy a certain stratum in American life ... It’s the ordinariness—the familiarity—that makes Butler’s work so wretchedly riveting. As I read The New Me, I started to feel like one of her characters, a woman who could spend a whole day saying nothing but \'Thanks!\' in public and \'Fuck you!\' in private, perhaps in the shower, perhaps to everyone she’s ever met. I was on edge, alive to the possibility that I was useless and despicable. There’s pleasure in her work, but it’s the sick, obsessive pleasure of looking under a bandage at a wound.\
RaveThe New Yorker\"Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible. She has a freaky and pure way of accessing existential alienation, as if her mind were tapped directly into the sap of some gnarled, secret tree ... Watching Moshfegh turn her withering attention to the gleaming absurdities of pre-9/11 New York City, an environment where everyone except the narrator seems beset with delusional optimism, horrifically carefree, feels like eating bright, slick candy—candy that might also poison you ... There is something in this liberatory solipsism that feels akin to what is commonly peddled today as wellness. It also resembles a form of cognitive interaction induced by social media, which positions the user as the center of the universe and everything else—current events, other people’s feelings—as ephemeral, increasingly meaningless stimuli.\
RaveThe New Yorker\"Broder has a way of writing about shame that recalls a Zamboni, methodically circling and recircling a surface until it looks clean. But So Sad Today was also, as Broder put it, \'pickled by the Internet,\' steeped in the ethos of relatability, of broad-denominator personal identification. In The Pisces, Broder takes her obsessions and gives them a perverted mythological structure, and corrals them within the arbitrary limits of fiction. \'Who was I if I wasn’t trying to make someone love me?\' Lucy asks. The question is more interesting—funnier, sadder—when asked in a novel by a person who’s about to put on a skirt so that a merman can perform oral sex on her than it is when asked on Twitter, a platform which takes that question as its fundamental premise ... With [Theo], Broder makes the abject itself into a love interest. Lucy is drawn, in Kristeva’s terms, \'toward the place where meaning collapses.\' The Pisces convincingly romances the void.\
RaveThe New YorkerAfterglow is a wry, gorgeous, psychedelic effort to plumb the subject of dog-human partnership —which, in its generic form, is the subject of many cheesy movies and bumper stickers ('Who Rescued Who?') but which, with Myles and Rosie, appears as an exceptional power struggle, a thought experiment about the limits of consciousness, creativity, and love ... There is a destabilizing, unrelenting directness in Myles’s writing, and Afterglow is like the Just Kids of dog books: a punk devotional, shot through with a sort of divine attention to material reality and a poet’s associative leaps ... Here, through Myles’s keen and rough-edged sensibility, all the dog-owner clichés seem revivified and almost occult. How strange it is that one consciousness can do the work of two—that a human can heap words around the wordless soul of an animal and in doing so give it life after death.
RaveThe New YorkerJenny Zhang’s astounding short-story collection, Sour Heart, combines ingenious and tightly controlled technical artistry with an unfettered emotional directness that frequently moves, within single sentences, from overwhelming beauty to abject pain ... The collection’s organizing theme is familial love that warps a person beyond all recognition: specifically, a type of immigrant devotion with a power that is both creative and entropic, and which affects its recipients in idiosyncratic ways ... Until now, Zhang has been better known for poetry and essays, but she has a background in fiction and she has a knack for deploying and combining common literary devices for mischievous, unexpected ends.
RaveThe New YorkerThe Dark Dark wields such a subtle and alien power that I couldn’t read more than a couple of pieces in a sitting without feeling like some witchy substance was working its way through my blood ... With this strange, elemental quality running through them, the people of The Dark Dark are not altogether different from the animals of The Dark Dark, who are wonderfully spooky—the dog that dies and then comes back to life, or the horse that walks calmly onto frozen, cracking ice.
RaveThe New Yorker...a gem within the canon of infidelity literature ... One of the nicest and saddest things about Who Is Rich? is the way that Klam goes all in on the pathos of feeling completely unwanted—a state that has become native to Fischer both professionally and in bed ... In the world of Who Is Rich? everything is embarrassing and beautiful. A chain of unexpected events at the conference leads to Fischer and Amy consummating their queasy first anniversary while on an excess of OxyContin...It’s such a turgid, sunlit, immensely particular encounter that it quietly proves the project shared by Klam and his protagonist—this affair is unique, it is special, it is one for the books. It’s also one of the only moments when Fischer is able to really accept and take pleasure in his diminished ambitions.
RaveThe New YorkerOn the page, Babitz is pure pleasure—a perpetual-motion machine of no-stakes elation and champagne fizz ... Sex and Rage isn’t as sharp as the books Babitz made her name on—she’s really a memoirist—but it’s nonetheless a mesmerizing account of a young woman trying to decide what to do about her own premonitions. The barely audible beat of an unlucky future may have been part of what made Babitz immortalize herself with passages like this one, in which Jacaranda imagines how Max sees her: 'a rare enough thing—a native-born Angeleno grown up at the edge of America with her feet in the ocean and her head in the breaking waves.'”
RaveThe New Yorker\"These days, in certain corners, it’s something akin to a truism that every woman is a warrior, a badass, a queen. It is, for that reason, a profound relief to meet Hazel, the passive, hapless, magnificently abject protagonist of Alissa Nutting’s deranged new comic novel...I loved Hazel immediately, the way I love drunk women who instigate alarmingly personal conversations in bar bathrooms. She is the rare literary heroine in whose company it would be a pleasure to absolutely wreck my life ... Nutting gets enormous mileage out of the labyrinthine ways in which her characters redirect their romantic impulses. And she has a knack for placing moments of tender horror where straightforward affection might otherwise live ... There is no redemptive thesis in Made for Love whatsoever: when Hazel begins to gradually emerge from her chrysalis of pathos and male entrapment, she’s much the worse for what she’s gone through. Even so, the book is a total joyride, dizzying and surprising, like a state-fair roller coaster that makes you queasy for a moment but leaves you euphoric in the end.\
PanThe New YorkerThis is an ill-advised endeavor, in theory. In practice, it is an even worse idea than it seems ... Women Who Work is mostly composed of artless jargon and inspirational quotes you might find by Googling 'inspirational quotes.' Her exhortations feel even emptier than usual in light of Trump’s stated policy goals ... The book ultimately doesn’t try very hard to obscure the fact that the Women Who Work initiative was created, as the Times recently reported, as a way to make Ivanka products more marketable ... Women Who Work is written for an audience whose greatest obstacles are internal, and Ivanka’s advice is, once again, Ivanka-specific.
RaveThe New YorkerHamid draws enchantment from abstraction, in the style of a fairy tale, and his narrative vantage point shifts through time and space with a godlike equanimity ... Hamid, through this roaming narration, gently diminishes Saeed and Nadia, freeing them from the burden of speaking for the millions who share their condition. They seem like the focal point of Exit West, rather than its center, even though they’re the only characters who are given names ... Hamid rewrites the world as a place thoroughly, gorgeously, and permanently overrun by refugees and migrants, its boundaries reconfigured so that 'the only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage.; He doesn’t flinch from the mess and anger that come from redistribution and accommodation—but, still, he depicts the world as resolutely beautiful and, at its core, unchanged. The novel feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions.
MixedThe New YorkerThe point of Why I Am Not a Feminist isn’t really that Crispin is not a feminist; it’s that she has no interest in being a part of a club that has opened its doors and lost sight of its politics ... Crispin’s argument is bracing, and a rare counterbalance; where feminism is concerned, broad acceptability is almost always framed as an unquestioned good ... in some places where Crispin’s argument requires her to take a precise measure of contemporary feminism, she—or this book’s production schedule—can’t quite account for the complexity of the times...Much of what she denounces—'outrage culture,' empowerment marketing, the stranglehold that white women have on the public conversation—has already been critiqued at length by the young feminist mainstream ... The most vital strain of thought in Why I Am Not a Feminist is Crispin’s unforgiving indictment of individualism and capitalism, value systems that she argues have severely warped feminism, encouraging women to think of the movement only insofar as it leads to individual gains ... her book arrives at a useful and perhaps unexpected cultural inflection point: a time when political accommodation appears fruitless, and when many middle-class white women have marched in closer proximity to far-left ideas than perhaps they ever would have guessed ... Of course, this being a polemic, there’s not much space given to how, exactly, the total disengagement with our individualist and capitalist society might be achieved.
Samanta Schweblin, Trans. by Megan McDowell
RaveThe New Yorker\"No previous book, at least, has filled me with unease the way Fever Dream did ... Schweblin sustains both conversations while narrowing them toward a single question: the mysterious horror of the worms. Intertwined, these two dialogues form a shadow of an explanation—one that runs on nightmare logic, inexorable but elusive, and always just barely out of reach ... In Fever Dream, every body is a shell for another voice, another presence. The reader begins to feel as if she is Amanda, tethered to a conversation that thrums with malevolence but which provides the only alternative to the void. Eventually, I began to mistrust every word—not because of the potential dishonesty of the characters, and not because the artifice in Schweblin’s conceit was becoming unwieldy. Rather, I sensed that something terrible was happening just out of sight ... the genius of Fever Dream is less in what it says than in how Schweblin says it, with a design at once so enigmatic and so disciplined that the book feels as if it belongs to a new literary genre altogether.\
J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
PositiveThe New YorkerIt’s ambitious, studded with predictable and consequently satisfying twists that reach a critical mass in the finale. This feels very much like Rowling ... Even in the relatively fixed future where most of Cursed Child takes place, the characters are the right degree of surprising. Harry Potter himself has been so thoroughly, faithfully imagined since 1997 that it’s satisfying to see him as a crappy father and an awkward bureaucrat ... Without set decoration, it cleanly shows the moral imagination of the Harry Potter universe, in which goodness is circumstantial and endings are never guaranteed.
RaveThe New Yorker Page-Turner\"Three-quarters of the way through Claire-Louise Bennett’s début collection, Pond, there’s a story called \'Morning, 1908\' that altered my state of consciousness like a drug...Pond, which was first published, last year, by a small press in Ireland, is not organized around a narrative, and few of its twenty stories are, either. What moves the reader forward is the sense the stories convey of a real-time psychological fabric: the reader experiences the narrator’s world at the same pace she does, a thing chopped up into irregular units organized by vague questions and obscurely colored moods. Like Lydia Davis, Bennett, who is from the southwest of England, takes a state of mind closely associated with madness and places it in settings that are utterly domestic, mundane. The result is fervid and fearful; at times, Pond recalls works by Knut Hamsun and Samuel Beckett, in which characters are more obviously forced into states of isolation. At other points, the book evokes the cottage hymns of Katharine Tynan, the pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson, and the dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W. B. Yeats. It is also funny.\