RaveThe AtlanticThis is the experience—snort-laughter mixed with bewilderment at the absolute strangeness of the world in which I participate—that I tend to have when reading Patricia Lockwood, the poet turned memoirist and London Review of Books essayist who has now published her first novel ... The novel follows a protagonist who is \'extremely online,\' a genius of the \'portal,\' as the internet is called here, and naturally adept at the cleverness and absurdity of social-media exchange. She has become famous for it. Recently, she has gained worldwide recognition for a post that says, in its entirety, \'Can a dog be twins?\' Her cat’s name is Dr. Butthole. She travels the world, invited to speak about the portal—both as an interpreter of its patterns and as a performer of its bizarre and hilarious argot ... What happens to a mind that has enthusiastically joined a worldwide Mind, yet can still occasionally see—if only in flashes—the perversity of the exercise? ... This kind of weird, slyly sophisticated humor, and a deep commitment to the profane as a tool for revelation and critique, are hallmarks of Lockwood’s style ... Lockwood’s affinity for the surreal, for baroque wit, for the sexually weird, for the inane and shocking has made her one of the most interesting writers of the past 10 years. It has also made her a master of Twitter ... it’s largely made up of brief, one-to-four-sentence increments, approximately tweet-length, rendered in super-close third person. These seem to have little relation to one another chronologically, and they don’t proceed logically. Instead, they are sporadic and self-contained: a joke, a story, a note, a question, a pithy comment. They pass the way social-media feeds pass ... The second half of the book, in which the narrator is newly deranged by the immovable reality of loving what must die—in addition to being deranged by the portal, which feels, by contrast, both eternal and editable—is electric with tenderness. Lockwood’s genius for irony is matched by the radiance of her reverence, when she lets it show ... Unusually for me, I wept through parts of this book, but in the best, beautiful-sad-music way—a grand success, the aliens would say.
MixedThe Atlantic[Jack] lives in a mostly miserable haze, which in turn gives the book a hazy quality, ungrounded and restless ... That Jack doesn’t fall in with the prevailing white-supremacist worldview is another of his inexplicable \'deviances\'—one of the only redeeming ones—and it’s difficult to read Robinson’s intentions regarding this plot point. Jack is hardly an anti-racist visionary or a noble political dissenter, though in the previous novels he has prodded family members to reevaluate their own prejudices. He doesn’t examine with any acuity the bigotry of the world he lives in, or his failure to subscribe to it. Like so many of his personality traits, this, too, seems innate and immovable rather than learned or chosen. Yet why does the Blackness of his beloved, whose life has been marked by white supremacy, come up in his mind and in their conversations only insofar as it’s a material obstacle to their shared happiness? Why does our sensitive protagonist fail to imagine that this difference between them may be spiritually substantial and worthy of his curiosity, not because their souls are racialized but because their lived experiences have been? Is it his failure to see complexly, or Robinson’s? One begins to sympathize with Della’s relatives in their frantic attempts to shield her from him. Their refusal to see Jack’s love for her as at all moral or redemptive furthers the uneasy sense that if one is to root for these two characters, one would root for them to part, or for them to find, as Della says on one of their long nighttime walks, a world where only the two of them made the rules ... Robinson here enters Jack into the tradition of tragic heroes. To render his often-sordid path in this way dignifies a character who is routinely deprived of his dignity, which feels like a kind of authorial grace. It also makes him archetypal, his existence a parable ... Because large portions of this book occur in dialogues between Della and Jack—their voices drifting toward each other in the dark—and because Jack’s senses are often dulled or confused by misery or alcohol, Jack lacks some of the lush materiality of Robinson’s past novels. Here, as Robinson predicted, Jack proves an imperfect vehicle. Robinson’s signature is her suffusion of love and poetry into the everyday business of human beings...Each of her novels has celebrated the fact that the ineffable is inseparable from the quotidian, and rendered the ineffable, quotidian world back to us, peculiar, luminous, and precise. If Jack feels somehow less like a world and more like a morality tale or thought experiment than her other novels, that is perhaps because its central character is so ill-tethered to the world ... Still, there are passages when Jack’s eye glimmers so clearly on the moment, when his dream logic feels so apt, that the whole world Robinson has illuminated with such care and attention reappears, and we are returned to the prophetic everyday.
MixedThe Atlantic... beautifully, exasperatingly, transcendently wordy ... trains the reader’s eye on the dramas and dangers of being a person—or a nation—enthralled, bombarded, and imprisoned by rhetoric ... [women] exist here as men’s linguistic and emotional foils. The working class, too, seems mostly tangential ... Race goes largely unexplored ... Lerner seems interested in reiterating via the details of his own biography the now-evident political reality that these alienated men are powerful and dangerous precisely when they feel they are not ... In America, Lerner reminds us, you can sound like an idiot all you want, but if you master the spread, you rule.
RaveThe Atlantic...a pilgrimage to a kind of western Zion, fraught with peril, undertaken because it is the only solution to an existential threat. But the migration in Lost Children Archive is constructed as an inversion of the American frontier fable—its anti-myth, its interrogator ... the book itself is attempting to solve a heady problem: how to account for the past and the present at once, how to hear the people who remain undocumented, how to rescue what is lost and also make sense of what and who are still here. By combining archivist protagonists interested in border politics and indigenous people’s history, Luiselli invites a closer look at the word undocumented. Being undocumented also means having no proof of self to carry forward into the future ... One of Lost Children Archive’s pleasures is its resemblance to the kind of collection that emerges when a dedicated mind is at work on the same problem over the course of years. Luiselli gives us the text and the metatext, and instead of being a contrived poststructuralist irritation, the approach feels elegant and generous. She has left us the paper trail. Luiselli has created an extraordinary allegory of this country’s current crisis of self-concept...
RaveThe AtlanticWelcome Home ... reveal[s] how powerfully Berlin’s literary imagination was shaped by the twin beliefs...that stories can keep you company—keep you sane—during periods of deep loneliness, and that stories improve when they’re fractured and opened up for intervention ... Her stories contain the observations and concerns of impermissible experience: what heroin dealers looked and spoke like in Juárez in the ’60s; how a woman of that era might change husbands as nimbly as changing cabs; what the cleaning lady thinks about as she gets blood off a bedroom wall after a murder ... These are dangerous subjects for women, even now. It’s no accident that many critics looking for Berlin’s peers compare her primarily to male authors (Hemingway, Raymond Carver), though the comparisons rarely do justice to her humor or her quirky, lavish prose style. Welcome Home also gives a sense of the joyousness of her personality, which is as urgently expressed in all her writing as loneliness and desperation are. Her writing loves the world, lingers over details of touch and smell ... precision is characteristic of Berlin, whose descriptions are usually both peculiar and funny.
RaveThe AtlanticIt’s no accident that many critics looking for Berlin’s peers compare her primarily to male authors (Hemingway, Raymond Carver), though the comparisons rarely do justice to her humor or her quirky, lavish prose style ... Evening in Paradise is even more fragmented than its predecessor [A Manual for Cleaning Women]: Several of the pieces—including the title story—might most truthfully be described as sketches for stories, or brilliantly drawn scenes from a larger, coherent work that doesn’t exist. Others have the sweep and inner architecture of perfect stand-alones ... These stories have the austerity of a steely mental exercise, Berlin scrutinizing herself through the kind or not-so-kind eyes of others, but they also offer reassurance. The character may feel alone, but the story refutes her fear: Someone is seeing her. More often than not, the narration expresses what its isolated female protagonist cannot ... Much of the world that Berlin describes is harrowing for women, and yet her stories...cheerfully refuse to erase either the women or the brutality that deranges them ... Berlin’s writing has the advantage of approaching these themes from a time less exhausting than the present, and she also has a gaze tender and precise enough to make her characters feel like people and not archetypes or sermons in disguise.