PositiveThe New YorkerFor all Nunez’s knowing humor and dispassionate tone, her narrator embodies the injustices of aging that estrange women from social life, from one another, and from themselves ... What Nunez requires of the novel is a formal commitment to impersonality—or as close as one can get to impersonality while still writing in the first person. The narrator reveals little of her life, and rarely betrays her emotions. Her voice is calm, direct, aphoristic; at moments, humorously affectionate...Through her thoughtful gaze, the novel begins to extend its imperfect grace to all who are aging gracelessly in this modern world—which is to say, everyone ... Each conversation the narrator has is an exercise in attention: an occasion for her to shed her sense of self and to wait to receive the being she is looking at, just as she is, in all her truth. The slackness of the novel’s plot and the simple, unmarked quality of Nunez’s sentences are part of the narrator’s self-effacement ... The first time I read “What Are You Going Through,” I was neither impressed nor moved. Nunez seemed to be writing herself into a lineage of writers who took the power of attention to be the ethical imperative of literature. The novel nods at Virginia Woolf, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Elizabeth Hardwick, writers whose techniques of attentiveness work, in their different ways, to dissolve interiority into exteriority, mind into world. But Nunez doesn’t have Woolf’s ecstatic sensuality or Bachmann’s philosophical rigor or Hardwick’s swashbuckling flair. The novel’s spiritual imagination certainly interested me—it sent me in search of Weil’s essay. But aligning the novel’s aesthetics with its ethics seemed to demand too great a sacrifice on the altar of style. Frequently, my mind wandered ... Then I read the novel again. Perhaps my distraction had been a defensive pose ... Perhaps writing about a novel cultivates a practice of attentiveness that replaces the subjectivity of one’s initial judgment with a more undesiring form of argument—and, through it, appreciation. Rereading What Are You Going Through, I was dazed by the novel’s grace: its creation of a narrative consciousness that, by emptying and extending itself to others, insured that its vitality would never dwindle, never dim. Nunez had captured what Woolf, in her exquisite story on aging, The Lady in the Looking Glass, describes as life’s \'profounder state of being,\' \'the state that is to the mind what breathing is to the body\' ... Nunez’s novel teaches an active concentration that intensifies as the reach of death grows; a concentration that becomes ever purer and deeper, up until the moment of death, when both attention and distraction cease. Language quiets itself, then departs, leaving us in silence
RaveThe Atlantic... exquisitely moody ... Life of Adults itself...invites us to evaluate lying not only as a moral problem, but also as an aesthetic challenge—to ask whether a lie can ever be elevated into an art form ... It is a novel of disillusionment, as the literary critic Georg Lukács once described the category: a novel that strips away its young protagonist’s major social relationships to elevate her interiority ... this marvelously disconcerting novel of disillusionment is a product of the grace extended to the liar by the writer. Only the writer’s truthful lies can mirror the liar’s petty ones with the clear sight needed to affirm the intensity of her past. Only the writer knows how to conjure desire; sympathize with misjudgment; rebuke carelessness; disappoint mercifully. Always, Ferrante’s fiction reminds us that sometimes you need someone else to help gather the scattered fragments of your existence.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books...aggrieved, heart-dragging short stories ... Language seems to slough off on Lutz’s narrators, and they collect that language like the underside of a fingernail collects the skin and blood from an episode of brief, violent scratching—in sentences so attentively worked over, so operatically constructed, that the words themselves yearn to hold the excess energy of their erotic despair; to convert it into a charge, a current that shocks the reader. Lutz is known for his sentences, and for good reason. They are extravagant, weird, and intensely diagrammatic, the kind of sentences that would have made Gertrude Stein cry ... Lutz’s stories bog down in their desperate attempts to please, their sweating, strenuous verbal gymnastics, their reluctance to let moments of rapture vibrate or expand, so anxiously does the next sentence intrude with its \'fuck off’ lunge,\' as Lutz describes his refusal to cushion the reader with \'pillowy transitions.\' His stories are exhausting. I find it impossible to read more than two in a single sitting. My mind cramps with strain more often than it tingles with pleasure. Frequent water and bathroom breaks are needed. The imagined presence of the reader is, if not irrelevant to his performance of virtuosity, then certainly an afterthought ... The effect isn’t onanistic; one doesn’t get the sense that Lutz is getting off on his sentences any more than you are. Rather, there’s a shared feeling of blundering misery. Everyone is working too hard, no one is having as much fun as they think they should be having, and someone—probably one of Lutz’s narrators—is going to end up soft and shriveled and sobbing in the bath.
PanThe AtlanticMoser’s monumental and stylish biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, fails its subject—a woman whose beauty, and the sex appeal and celebrity that went along with it, Moser insists upon to the point of occluding what makes her so deeply interesting ... Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation. Moser’s analysis of Sontag’s life as an unwinnable battle between her public self and her private self traffics in the crudest of oppositions: appearance versus character, mind versus body, intellectualism versus eroticism, persona versus private self. Erecting these dichotomies is the biography’s narrative mode, its method of building intrigue and suspense ... Moser’s interpretations often fall back on armchair psychology, pathologizing Sontag’s relationships by making everything symptomatic of something else ... The more clinically Moser tries to pin down Sontag’s inner life, the more it wriggles away from him.
Ingeborg Bachmann, Trans. by Philip Boehm
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksBachmann must have known that \'murder\' would strike many readers as an imprecise or exaggerated accusation. But it was only imprecise because the language of criminality was too literal-minded, too blunt an instrument to detect the increasingly affable guises that cruelty had assumed now that murder had emerged as an international spectacle, an evil far easier to identify and denounce than when she had been a child ... Malina...exposed tthe \'interior settings\' of these murders with uncanny precision ... Her characters’ masochism, and, at moments, the reader’s sadism, is elicited by the recognition that there is rarely another way of holding men accountable. They must pull the trigger, must strangle us with their bare hands, simply and precisely ... Women are made to crave victimhood, to court it. In its absence, they must resign themselves to less spectacular ways of dying.
Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksNone of Drndić’s five translated novels resembles anything that passes for political fiction today, at least not among English-language novels. To place her, we must look backward ... Part of the novel’s umbilical form lies in how Drndić imports entire episodes from her earlier novels into EEG, creating, within it, memories that are capable of simultaneously standing on their own and nesting into a larger literary space, like a set of Russian dolls ... EEG continues to refuse any form that absorbs the novel’s assorted parts—the long digressions into the history of chess in Nazi Germany, the files of psychiatric patients, the biographies of Latvian SS collaborators—into a complete and self-contained whole.
MixedThe Atlantic... shifts awkwardly between S.H.’s present-day narration and a clutter of found texts ... A relentlessly self-aware writer, Hustvedt must know that she is stacking the deck against S.H. and herself. The novel amasses all the tired tropes of urban intellectual fiction ... As she has done in all her novels, Hustvedt indulges in lengthy metafictional meditations on art, time, and truth ... The novel is not exactly good. Then again, a writer’s juvenilia are not supposed to be good. They are supposed to be tentative, aspirational, incomplete—imitative and unrestrained ... Hustvedt’s novel asks us to forgive its ragged edges, its aggressive mediocrity. It invites us to sift through the disordered sheaf of papers to find sentences, pages, fragments that testify to the author’s future greatness ... ultimately catalyzed by a generically female experience of psychic trauma ... what does it mean that sexual assault operates as the narrative hinge between immature and mature writing, allowing S.H. to speak the truth about misogyny clearly and directly?
RaveThe New York Review of Books\"More than any other writer today, Diane Williams understands the essentially tragicomic nature of the penis, human or otherwise ... [Williams\'s] stories court laughter first, then, and only in retrospect, long-accumulated tears: tears of regret for opportunities lost, for people mislaid; tears of despair for the strangeness, the separateness that intimacy reveals and fails to overcome. You don’t have to read all three hundred and five stories to get the point. (Though you should. Williams can do more with two sentences than most writers can do with two hundred pages.) ... Language is as strange and wonderful a material as any, and Williams demands that you slow down to appreciate it, that you luxuriate in every letter, every word, the spaces and silences between them.\
PanThe Atlantic\"The novel seems to know that we exist in a state of desperate inequality and looming environmental catastrophe from which there is no obvious escape. Yet, also like a Sunday-morning talk show, Unsheltered is so busy flaunting its timeliness that it misses the underlying political and economic strains that have brought the country to this pass ... [Kingsolver\'s] novels specialize in self-congratulatory gestures of empathy: the clumsy representation of characters whom she finds obviously distasteful but wants to redeem, modeling the respect and understanding that she believes can open our hearts and minds and subdue our partisan acrimony. The result is not a bad novel—it is perfectly competent at the level of the sentence—but a novel that fails so dramatically to capture the corrosive realities of liberal capitalism that it just might deflate, once and for all, the middlebrow fantasy that stories can help us get through these dark times.\
MixedThe NationSince the imaginary order of motherhood is essentially an elaborate fiction, Rose routes her argument about the perversions of maternal love through representations of abject or homicidal mothers in fiction. The archive she draws from is rich and varied ... For Rose, the failures of mothers become legible as the failures of society at large, placing motherhood at the heart of contemporary debates over immigration policy and ethno-nationalism, racism and police brutality, and the future of the welfare state in the United States and United Kingdom ... Yet ... Rose at times seems so absorbed by her psychoanalytic approach that she ignores many of the structures of power that regulate how individual mothers move through the world ... Rose’s solution to the overtly political problems faced by mothers begins and ends with self-perception ... It is perhaps unfair to expect Mothers to provide a blueprint for the future, but then again, what else is a mother but a kind of soothsayer—someone whose sense of time is always forward-facing?
RaveHarper\'s\"To read Outline, Transit, and Kudos in succession is to wander through a gallery of metamorphosed characters (the old have been made young, the young old; humans have become animals, animals human), never lingering on one long enough to feel attachment or sympathy, revulsion or contempt, only a disinterested appreciation for how they look. This is beauty in the purest and the cruelest sense of the word ... More explicitly than Outline or Transit, Kudos shows Cusk surveying the contemporary literary field and assigning its players—writers, agents, editors, critics—to their proper places ... an object lesson in rigor, elegance, and fury delivered by a narrative voice that is alternately humble and boastful, cajoling and bullying ... Sometimes Cusk’s cleverness feels strained. Sometimes it feels claustrophobic, as if in her final act Cusk has decided to seal up her fictional world, securing it from outside interference by making the agents of literary judgment her ventriloquist dummies. Yet in spite of these weaknesses, the trilogy stands as an extraordinarily successful exercise in mythopoesis, creating an autonomous universe that operates according to Cusk’s rules, her voice a cosmological constant throughout.\
RaveBookforumEach of the stories in Landslide is a defiant and gleeful riposte to those who would dare treat narrative as a 'process': the humorless autobiographers and analysts who link sad memory to sad memory in what sometimes feels like a competitive bid for pathos without comprehension. Proctor prefers to laugh rather than cry at the wreckage of life—the dissolution of her marriage, the death of her mother—but hers is not the cruel laughter of the nihilist. Rather, it is filled with wonder, with love and patience, and, above all, with faith that one can still find something beautiful among the ruins ... Landslide offers us what Proctor calls 'non-stories': exquisite constellations of memories that cluster around a single, potentially transformative event—an illness, a death, a disastrous friendship, a failed marriage—but never settle into the classic dramatic arc of complication and unraveling, beginning and end. Lacking any apparent chronology, rife with misunderstanding and irresolution, Proctor’s nonstories collapse past and present, present and future. In its entirety, then, Landslide reads like an act of divination: a way of seeing, and thus accepting, the events one cannot change.
RaveHarper\'sCusk is not \'objective\' or \'modest\' or \'passive\' or any of the other humble words reviewers have used to describe her prose...The writer who notices is after a different kind of intimacy with her reader, an intimacy born not of confession—this is my husband, these are my children, this is my confused, unhappy life—but of sensibility and taste. She is not a realist in the impersonal, Flaubertian sense. She commandeers reality, bending colors, sounds, incidents, and people to her subjective truth, seeking the strange beauty in ordinary, even ugly, things. Cusk can often be gentle, but she can also be merciless, and that is where things get interesting ... at once unkind and beautiful. Like Amanda’s and Marielle’s made-up faces, Cusk’s language is layered thick. It is decadent, exaggerated, repetitive ... To read Outline, Transit, and Kudos in succession is to wander through a gallery of metamorphosed characters, never lingering on one long enough to feel attachment or sympathy, revulsion or contempt, only a disinterested appreciation for how they look. This is beauty in the purest and the cruelest sense of the word.
PositiveThe New RepublicSearls places the Rorschach test and its creator in the crosshairs of art and science, impressionism and empiricism, objectivity and subjectivity ... In Searls’s preoccupation with the Rorschach’s aesthetic valences, a second-order truth emerges. Writing about the Rorschach test is itself a projective exercise; one that often reveals as much about the writer as it does about the test. Searls seems to have no interest in either confirming or disproving the test’s validity as a diagnostic tool. He is not a cynic; The Inkblots is not an exposé. He is an aesthete, and to him the greatest value of the blots is as art objects ... Intended or not, the history of the Rorschach test that emerges from Searls’s account is, ultimately, a Rorschach test.