MixedHarpers... a late-style slackening. Gone are the comic and inventive adjectival pairings of the past ... Instead Amis settles for something close to tautology ... you are reminded of his thirty-seven-year-old claim that \'a cliché or an approximation, wedged between inverted commas, is still a cliché or an approximation\' ... he’s voluble, there’s no getting around that—content to unfold his anecdotes and apothegms at virtually Victorian length. He’s somewhat insistent on age ... He’s capable of moving sincerity, as when writing about Saul Bellow’s dementia and Christopher Hitchens’s cancer ... And he’s funny, now and again, in a blunt, broad way (he’s still Martin Amis) ... But he’s also complacent, inaccurate, and behind the times, especially when it comes to literary topics ... Inside Story is at once his bulkiest book and his weirdest ... Again and again, you find yourself wondering (often aloud): What on earth is going on? ... his riffs are tortuous, pedantic, and irony-free ... Of course, Amis delivers great access, taking us into train carriages and holiday homes and sick bays and bedrooms—but no further, not inside himself, at least not in the way he intended.
Joyce Carol Oates
PositiveThe New YorkerIf Dostoyevsky was a specialist in the \'dialogical,\' Oates serves up something altogether more churning and (to borrow a term of praise, from a 1977 journal entry) \'agonizingly thorough\' ... the novel is so teeming with nuances and details and inklings that you barely have time to register the irony that Whitey died in the course of defending a victim of racial profiling, despite having been soft on police violence during his time as Hammond’s mayor—or that Thom’s two causes are inherently at odds, one pertaining to the fallout of a racially charged assault, the other incipiently racist. At times, there’s little to hold on to. But then, why should the reader be afforded the feeling of terra firma so persistently denied to the characters? ... Oates’s habits are designed to unsettle us and, though pleasure is never out of the equation, the novel avoids many traditional narrative strategies for ginning up tension ... And yet there is great joy to be derived from the novel’s submerged patterns, its mind-boggling fecundity, its gallimaufry of devices...its combination of intricacy and lucidity ... Although Oates rejects cohesion as a formal virtue, she has a coherent vision of what literature can deliver. She believes in the itching and the ornery and the oddly shaped, and has been trying to produce fiction that feels as irreducible to simple meanings, as resistant to paraphrase, as the subject matter it portrays.
Madison Smartt Bell
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Bell, in his role of biographer, proves as liable to presuppose his subject’s importance...as the writer himself was in pontifical exercises called things like \'What Fiction Is For,\' while the freshly canonized novels, never at the cutting edge, too often seem slickly platitudinous and baldly conventional ... Mr. Bell also wants to present Stone as an \'artist\'—the word and its cognates occur frequently in his account ... And yet [Stone\'s] prose never shows the slightest hint of strain or striving. We are confined to the realm of purely theoretical complexity, a land characterized by bland adjectives and banal syntax ... Mr. Bell’s desire to take Stone’s side on every matter...imputes dubious motives to Stone’s critics ... [Stone\'s] stories...feel raw and potent ... It’s an irony both regrettable and unmissable that the only services that Stone’s devoted friend and fan has neglected to render are those that might provide strongest support for the grand claims being made on his behalf.
J. M Coetzee
RaveThe New StatesmanIn recent years, the project that has consumed Coetzee’s attention is a trilogy of deadpan, present-tense, fable-like fantasies, at once overtly philosophical and utterly cryptic, that culminates in his extraordinary new novel The Death of Jesus ... The Death of Jesus, the best in the series, and the shortest, serves as a reply to the previous book’s extremities ... The novel’s last seven chapters dispel once and for all the suspicion that Coetzee has been simply, or only, playing some kind of game, or mounting a needlessly elaborate homage to a literary tradition powered by the riches of obsessive non-rational thought.
MixedNew Statesman (UK)Anne Enright’s puzzling new novel is a counterblast against reductive thinking that struggles to offer a satisfying rival vision ... What kind of account emerges from this tangled sensibility? For the most part, a plodding, traditional one, the product of Norah’s Virgoan instincts and with a strong emphasis on the equivalents, in her mother’s life, of Yalta and the gulags. Enright is an exceptionally gifted novelist, capable of leaping comedy...as well as unblinking depictions of Irish family life...and she has been justly praised for her precise and idiosyncratic phrasing. But Actress is written for long stretches in straight biographese...as it moves from legacy to cradle to grave and back to legacy via the thrill of making it and the toils of mid-career. After you finish Actress, the title seems to signal not an archetype—ambiguous, multiple—but a stereotype ... The novel only comes alive as a daughter’s ambivalent first-hand account, streaming with intimate detail-memories ... Enright might have been better served by a mode like that used by Janet Malcolm in her episodic profile of the painter David Salle (“Forty-One False Starts), or by adopting the philosophy of how to grasp an elusive subject espoused by Fitzgerald’s Cecilia Brady—\'dimly and in flashes.\'
PositiveThe New Statesman...earns a place in the Barnes pantheon...and I’m not sure it doesn’t perch – to borrow a parrotic metaphor – a little higher than all of them. It is certainly a return to form – or, rather, to freedom from formal constraint, resembling a non-fiction Flaubert’s Parrot in its unanxious fealty to what might be interesting or tickling ... The Man in the Red Coat isn’t free of its author’s bad habits...But for the most part the sheer amount of material that Barnes wants to get through – the weight of anecdote – limits the opportunities for snideness and show-boating ... the book appears to proffer no overarching thesis or connective thread, no chapter divisions, not even any order. And yet it’s never dull ... Though I have never been convinced by the idea that Julian Barnes is an essayist trapped inside a novelist, The Man in the Red Coat suggests that he always had somewhere in him the author of gently rambling, lightly polemical book-length non-fiction ... [a] lovable mongrel of a book.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
MixedNew Statesman (UK)Kehlmann’s emphasis on forms of language goes beyond idle wordplay and informs the novel’s engagement with language as a tool of power ... Kehlmann is guilty of the occasional groan-provoking in-joke ... If there’s a larger problem, it’s that Kehlmann’s nimble way with concepts never pervades the novel’s tone or texture. The set-pieces are solidly done. (There’s a lot of fear and awe from onlookers.) This may be a product of the self-consciousness that he brings to a subject surely better-suited to the impish and on-the-hoof ... one is left with the sense that being mechanically playful is as flat a contradiction as you would expect, and that literature may be on easier terms with its own magical essence when authors are not nudging us persistently to notice it.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Lars Iyer’s follow-up to the celebrated Wittgenstein Jr is another attempt to treat his erstwhile academic specialism, European philosophy, as the basis for deadpan observational comedy ... The result is certainly creditable—vivid, tickling and spry. It’s also remarkably unkempt ... Iyer is eager to exploit the rich opportunities for comic juxtaposition ... But Iyer also sees past putative incongruities to something continuous or mutually illuminating ... a strange process occurs whereby something that looks like shorthand—a bit of thumbnail scene-setting—soon gives way to obsessive completism. The threat of prose-poetry often hovers and doesn’t always dissipate ... What’s frustrating about these local tendencies is that the novel is also distinguished by genuine conceptual compactness. Iyer makes light work of exploring the ways in which a 19th-century German philosopher, or his present-day descendant and doppelganger, would and wouldn’t feel right at home in the home counties. But his tendency to make the reader live that reality, in all its blog-friendly and italics-worthy drabness, seems less like a crucial part of the project—intentional immersiveness, perhaps, or self-conscious garrulity— than a straightforward failure of craft.
MixedThe New Statesman...McCarthy\'s new novel is full of familiar delights and familiar tedium ... The novel explores the dizzy emergence of technology at the beginning of the 20th century rather than its depressing development in the 21st century, and does most of this exploring in the country, a setting generally ignored in favour of the city as a more obvious centre of metallic modernity ... Protracted descriptions of a pageant and a seance drain the reader’s will to live. The use of the present tense does not ease matters. Nor does the recurrence of images - more than 50 of them - mixing organic processes with each other, or with mechanical processes ... Initially thrilling, the novel’s tone and vocabulary begin to pall after 100 pages ... Although McCarthy favours the emphasis on facts and visual description encouraged by Robbe-Grillet and achieves something of Kafka’s chill, C remains disappointingly approachable. It neither confounds nor excites; for better or worse, it is not a new direction.
MixedThe Telegraph (UK)The dirty realists – Carver’s school – were spare because spareness suited their purposes. Lish, writing about people a rung or two even further down the social ladder, wants to scrutinise the dirt, particle by particle. He isn’t catching a mood but building a world ... If Lish’s aim is to immerse the reader, then he succeeds. If his aim is to involve the reader, then he falters virtually every time he turns his gaze outwards from Zou Lei and Skinner to their environment. When the environment is an aspect of the characters, the result is vivid ... But too often, the approach is static and listy... And when Lish wants to remind the reader that this is the New York of modern history, we are visited by a more authorial, placidly informative voice ... It isn’t a smooth ride. But then we look to long novels for richness, not perfection, for power, not precision, so we should savour Lish’s audacity and open heart, his refusal to coddle or console, and forgive him the sin of excess.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Shaun Whiteside
PanNew StatesmanAt times, Serotonin can seem like a purely rhetorical exercise, a sort of homage to the varieties of comic juxtaposition ... Grand statements peter out with acts of deflation ... while cynical bathos becomes a kind of tic ... the book also comes pitted with dinky riffs, though most of these efforts land in the realm of pseudo-nuance – the almost-but-not-quite-clever ... in this century Houellebecq’s fiction has become less interested in how people become exhausted than in exhaustion as a world-view in itself. And though you can hardly blame a novelist for following an impulse, you can no more blame his readership for a feeling of decreasing excitement about where he may head next.
PositiveThe New StatesmanThough intended as a jeu d’esprit – if an exercise in hand-wringing can truly lay claim to that status – The Cockroach offers a more commanding display of its author’s strengths than Salman Rushdie’s similarly peeved though more outwardly hard-working Cervantes update, Quichotte. It even ends up generating one or two potent ideas, though admittedly not about populism or Europe ... The latest instalment in [McEwan\'s] imaginative scrambling of English social history and of reality itself ... The Cockroach seems to belong more squarely in the realm of fantasy or magic realism. But McEwan still finds room, amid all the Hansard send-ups and diplomatic silliness, to allude to more troubling physical-philosophical quandaries, while positing an alternative history of economic thought that culminates in a wayward version of our present ... If the book cannot be considered any kind of addition to the oeuvre, it is at the very least a coda to more substantive ventures, and another clue in the ongoing quest to understand what really matters to McEwan.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...a lovingly executed piece of work, the product of an implacable mind, deserving of sustained and repeated attention. If one feels any resistance to calling it a \'novel\', it comes not from the presence of graphics...but from the piecemeal narrative method. Even the moments of overlap between the book’s four sections convey the spirit of an in-joke or nudge. The overall result feels closer to a linked collection of stories, a treasure trove of insight and invention, rather than an organic whole ... Ware’s literary project has been to move comics away from superhero mythology to the realm of the heroic everyday, on the model of Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts, but with a more self-conscious sense of artistry and ambition ... Every one of his frames...is used to bring us closer to his people and their world. There’s nothing that he isn’t interested in trying to render at least once, from genitalia of various hues to snowflakes to every kind of living space. It’s as if he sees the essential challenge of graphic novels as being to invest the page with as much meaning and detail as humanly possible ... Ware’s sensibility is gloriously mixed ... he is thinking all the time about impact and effect and comprehension, and it’s difficult for his reader to avoid doing the same, stopping at frequent intervals to register, with gratitude verging on awe, just how much one has been subliminally noting – the store of visual information in every frame ... Rusty Brown is a human document of rare richness – infinitely sad, intimately attuned to desolation and disappointment, but never closed to the possibility of a breakthrough, of someone transcending a dead-end, sad-sack fate. Though pain is germinal, love and hope exist ... [an] impassioned and ineffable piece of work...
PositiveNew StatesmanBenjamin Moser is forgivably reluctant, while offering up his 800-plus pages, to dispute Sontag’s claims to our attention. He praises her work whenever he feels conscientiously able to ... he claims that her aphoristic talent was \'hardly inferior\' to that of Walter Benjamin. But he cannot conceal a sense of exasperation about the four films she made from the late 1960s onwards – a side career he calls \'abortive\' – and the opacity and laboured earnestness and torturous evasions he identifies in much of the non-fiction ... Moser doesn’t lavish too much attention on his subject’s hairstyle and bone structure, but he is keen to present her career as largely a matter of appearance or image-projection – of wanting to be seen a certain way. In one of many withering but persuasive assessments, he argues that Sontag’s cultural centrality was a product of a kind of dishonesty ... Though he never stints the reader on historical detail, the book is at its best as an exercise in psychoanalytic criticism: the story of a woman who developed a persona, in the world and on the page, to defend herself against uncomfortable truths ... he presents a reading of her work as a product of her character ... Moser is tougher still on Sontag’s 1989 coda, Aids and its Metaphors ... Sontag’s preference for linguistic analysis and the passive voice allowed her to avoid using \'I,\' so she never says what the Aids crisis means to her nor, crucially for Moser, does she address her own status as a gay woman ... The last few hundred pages of Moser’s book are relentless, at times harrowing ... While there can be no doubting the brilliance – the sheer explanatory vigour – of Moser’s biography, it makes for a disillusioning experience. Does Sontag: Her Life constitute any kind of tribute? Though Moser is generally sympathetic, the answer is no.
RaveThe Newstatesman (UK)...[a] brave, terse, dense, plangent, unsettling novel ... The Man Who Saw Everything, though not obviously avant-garde, takes an unorthodox approach to plot, setting, the portrayal of consciousness and the wielding of ideas ... Levy’s project as a writer is itself about effacing borders – between the novel of ideas and the novel of sentiment, be-tween the schematic and the fluent, the inevitable and the accidental, the cerebral and immersive, the sensuous (or somatic) and cerebral, the parochial and otherworldly, metaphor and literalism. If this sounds vague, it should ... In The Man Who Saw Everything, the sense of things being mixed \'all up\', or occurring \'at the same time\', of clashing symbols and conflicting emotions, isn’t simply asserted or described. It is enacted – manifested in the novel’s form, embodied by its structure. And yet by refusing ever to make the significance of the story neat or wholly legible, Levy has succeeded in evoking our ways of engaging as they are experienced, as a kind of groping, with patterns only appearing to form, a final sense touched but never grasped. You would call her example inspiring if it weren’t clearly impossible to emulate.
PanNew StatesmanRushdie’s decision to frame his Cervantes homage as a fiction by no means resolves the problems established in the early chapters. The Brother passages do not afford, as they might, a richly illuminating and paradoxical vision of the creative temperament. It’s more a case of like for like—and, for the reader, of two defective novels in one—ith almost every detail in the manuscript having a counterpart in Brother’s experience ... Creative freedom translates simply as a lack of rigor—a refusal to select or choose. If Rushdie wishes to promote the novelistic spirit as the last outpost of Enlightenment sanity and clarity, and to do for \'our time\' what Cervantes did for the late 16th century—which is how Brother phrases his own ambition—he needs to do considerably better than this.
MixedThe New StatesmanAt times, Barry’s book feels like a mixture of Waiting for Godot, the classic theatrical portrait of stasis and circularity, and Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, the poem that begins \'That is no country for old men\' and expresses the need to use language and travel to ward off bodily decay ... At other times the novel feels like an attempt to forge a new type of mystic miserabilism – a collaboration between Don DeLillo and Philip Larkin, with a desolate landscape providing the stage for long, gnomic conversations about time ... A possible advantage of using literary types and tropes is the avoidance of heavy lifting. A dash of Godot might have worked as shorthand, sparing Barry and his reader pages of nonsense blather, but it doesn’t. And though his duo’s dynamic is quickly established, Barry seems keen to go on asserting their characteristics ... A problem with the book’s construction is that Barry must wring a great deal of interest from a scenario before he can divulge its basic facts. By reeling back and then moving forwards, he is obliged to deal last of all with the most pertinent details. The majority of the past events precede, without directly illuminating, the present moment ... [Barry\'s] novel’s scheme is ill-suited to its needs.
PositiveNew StatesmanIt’s possibly ungrateful to note that the barely 300 pages of Harris’s new novel contain a fair bit of blank space, and that agonized perfectionism isn’t greatly in evidence ... his...prose [is] characterized by odd lapses in grammar and sense ... But Cari Mora, for its brevity and blemishes, is a tense heist thriller, plausibly grounded in coastal Florida and urban Colombia, and ... is a welcome departure from his narrow and numbing obsession with Lecter that still manages to provide some of the thrills and types desired from this long-awaited return. And it’s a novel that deserves a higher accolade—praise less inaudibly faint—than \'Harris’s best since The Silence of the Lambs\' ... The character of Hans-Peter Schneider is crucial to the book’s nihilist undertone and its appeal to existing fans ... But this \'new monster\' is really the old monster with a few tweaks, and the same dynamic characterizes his new heroine as well ... But perhaps Schneider’s comparative mediocrity is intentional, and Cari Mora isn’t a retread, however partial, of Harris’s greatest hits but a recantation of his worst excesses ... Other things that may have tired or repelled Harris readers have also been scaled back. The highfalutin literary stuff is gone. (He somehow gets by without a single epigraph.) ... Brimstone is jostled by jasmine, melodrama by pastoral, and the \'dark angels\' of Hans-Peter Schneider’s nature offset by the coming of \'daylight\' with which the novel ends.
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
PanThe Guardian\"Énard is keen to alert the reader when things cannot be known or, when they are known, to give a source (\'Ascavio Condivi, his biographer, tells us\'). Unfortunately, when history is able to help, it helps mostly with items and objects ... The clash of the novel’s identities (essayistic critique of historical fiction? Conventional historical novel?) is most obvious in the scene when we are told that Michelangelo \'will not talk about this night in the quiet of the bedchamber\' with \'the few lovers he is known to have had\'. Unverifiable speculation about an event that may well not have taken place swiftly gives way to the rigours of the record ... Énard’s taste for paradox – everything we call \'eastern\' is partly western, and vice versa – pre-empts and even cancels the larger argument about points of east-west contact that his novel exists in order to reveal. A palimpsest has no use for a bridge.\
PositiveNew StatesmanThe essays on writing that constitute the bulk of the collection include plausible acts of tribute to Jane Austen, Christopher Hitchens, and Iris Murdoch. Now and again, you scratch your head as Amis tries to fit his taste to his criteria ... Mellifluous elegance is an odd desideratum – Beckett possibly wasn’t going for that – but as Amis exhibits, it’s not the worst thing to have around. The Rub of Time confirms that it’s possible to be foolish and brilliant at the same time ... Here we find not only elegant variation (\'period\' for \'sentence\'), but a vulgar contraction (\'quotes\'), a creaky metonym (\'pen\') and a pair of slack adjectives that – horribile scriptu! – contribute to an internal rhyme (\'painful,\' \'paper,\' \'major\') ... And in the areas that readers do care about, Amis delivers exceptional service. The Rub of Time is a riot of immaculately delivered punchlines and improbably sustained set-pieces (a longish footnote on Trump’s use of \'bigly\'), of bons mots and mots justes.
MixedThe New StatesmanNocturnes is not an improvement on Never Let Me Go, however. Indeed it is the kind of book one might expect from a writer recovering from a masterpiece – a diffident, even bashful collection of stories that frequently seems to be apologising for itself ...the stories have the same pallor and self-cancelling pointlessness as those in Borges’s late collection Dr Brodie’s Report – the difference being that whereas Borges offered his book as a conscious exercise in predictable plainness from an author known for trickery and surprise, Ishiguro is resisting his strengths to no obvious purpose ...They are more strongly connected by the subject of marital discord... It is sadly typical of Ishiguro’s tendencies in this book, and an indication of how far it is from his best work.
MixedThe GuardianHe drops us right into Paris in the last days of the ancien regime, a place of contagion and contamination where Miller's young hero, engineer Jean-Baptiste Barratte, has come to lose his illusions and find his fortune … It is disappointing, given the vitality of the novel's setting and set-up, that Miller fails to achieve corresponding dynamism in the development of plot and character. The destruction of Les Innocents consumes the novel, from first line to last, but the consequences of the project are never made to matter to the reader as much as they matter to the engineer; the dark results are not dark enough … Success in this effort requires a capacity for immersion and a degree of imagination, and whatever his shortcomings as a prose writer and a storyteller, Andrew Miller is endowed with both.
MixedNew StatesmanThe Noise of Time portrays the conflict between Shostakovich’s desire for integrity as a composer and his instinct for survival in a society that derides formal experimentation as 'decadence' and treats old-style Russian 'pessimism' as a betrayal of Soviet 'optimism' ... Barnes’s preferred manner of rummaging through Shostakovich’s mind aims for paradox but ends up feeling circular, with a movement less symphonic than sing-songy ...Barnes has constructed the novel as a series of snapshots and vignettes, roughly 230 in all. Besides killing off momentum, this approach puts a great strain on Barnes’s rhetorical powers, which while strong are not equal to conjuring up so many mini-endings and partial pay-offs without a certain deadening ... The overall effect is of Shostakovich being chopped up and hemmed in. At times it can be hard to tell between the Soviet version of culture that Barnes is condemning and his own brusque pronouncements.
RaveThe Financial TimesInstead of treating 1924 as a simple or sequestered age, a prelude to our present, [Swift] uses it as a vantage-point to reveal how much had already changed. In the world of the novel, 1924 is the modern age ... At the narrative level, Mothering Sunday has a lot in common with earlier works of historical fiction — Ian McEwan’s pair of novels about a moment that resonates across the decades, Atonement and On Chesil Beach...But Swift is even more self-conscious than those writers, and Mothering Sunday is borne along by a rigorous approach to nostalgia and mythologising that borders at times on the obsessive ... The novel is at once a historical portrait and a kind of essay about historical portraiture; at once an elegy and a warning against elegy ... By abandoning the thriller mechanics he treasured for so long, Swift has written a book that is not just his most moving and intricate but his most engrossing too.
PositiveThe AtlanticLee’s novel could have done without the long interlude that fills in a backstory for Moose, a cuckolded middle-aged everyman who turns out to be that very un-English type, the faded jock-god...If only Lee had seen, with his otherwise astute eye, that they would be mere distractions from all the inventive things that he does with Margaret Thatcher and that Margaret Thatcher does for him.
PanThe New YorkerJay Parini, in his authorized biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (Doubleday), wants to give us the real Gore, but he keeps on falling for the pose...When it comes to telling the story of the life, Parini proves content to deliver the strapping, self-assured, untouchable Vidal, the builder and overseer of a well-protected, many-colonied 'empire of self'—a phrase repeated throughout the book, in a dizzying range of connections.