Nathan Goldman is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism and a blog editor for Full Stop. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, and other publications. He lives in Minneapolis.
PositiveNew YorkerThe solitary self is neither as trapped as it is in Castro’s novel nor as transcendent as it is in The Mezzanine ... The Guest Lecture situates the mind in relation to the world using a clever and surprisingly effective conceit ... The novel itself is governed by a finely orchestrated sense of instability. Riker punctuates the chatty narration with abrupt bursts of self-castigation as Abby struggles to seize the reins of her runaway mind ... Moments are believable but didactic, disrupting the vividly peripatetic flow of thought with the clumsiness of cliché. The Guest Lecture is far more compelling when it addresses the chaos of the outside world through the more intimate texture of Abby’s anxiety ... A strange little novel of cosmopolitan solipsism.
MixedNew York Times Book ReviewA grim fable ... While the novel is stirring in its almost mythological simplicity, compelling in its portrait of deranged rapture, intelligently attuned to the seductions and self-delusions of false transcendence, it is also structurally clumsy, hindered by a climactic twist and mechanically staged stock characters ... These same flaws afflict...the short fiction collected in A Ballet of Lepers. But unlike the early novel, many of these stories are built around striking images of frailty and desire ... In his lyrics, Cohen took the melodrama and solipsism that plagued his prose and alchemized them into something more moving and mysterious. Once he turned to songwriting, Cohen set fiction aside. Perhaps it was a purely strategic decision, or maybe he ultimately understood that it was not his form. If the pieces gathered in A Ballet of Lepers testify to this, they nonetheless offer nascent glimmers of his inimitable artistic vision: intimate yet aloof, trembling with weakness even as it aches toward wisdom.
Nastassja Martin, tr. Sophie R. Lewis
RaveThe Baffler[A] slim, stirring book ... Despite the harrowing experience at its core, In the Eye of the Wild couldn’t be further from a conventional survival memoir. Less intrepid and life-affirming than frank and brooding, it neither revels in the sensational violence of the bear attack nor offers a palatable narrative of recovery and redemption. Instead, Martin sets out to transcend familiar modes in order to let the terrible strangeness of her experience speak ... In the Eye of the Wild thus takes its place within the tradition of philosophical attempts to destabilize the human/animal binary and rethink the relation.
PanJewish CurrentsRepurposing the familiar tropes of this canon is essential to Cohen’s literary project ... The homage to the Jewish American canon dictates the novel’s entire form, turning The Netanyahus into a midcentury pastiche—a Jewish campus novel animated by Rothian hijinks and brief bursts of Bellowish lyricism ... If Jewish narrative, up to and including the Bible itself, has served its function, what then to make of the Jewish novel? By staging the conflict between American and Israeli Jewishness on these terms, Cohen implicitly sets himself the task of demonstrating the form’s enduring value. Diasporic fiction, he suggests, can contest the Zionist monopoly on the meaning of Jewishness. The project is admirable for its attempt to reckon earnestly with both the legacy of American Jewish literature and the material meaning of Jewishness today, but it’s also too beholden to fixed archetypes to respond imaginatively to the experience of contemporary Jewish life. Rather than bringing forth a new brightness from a broken tradition, his attempt to render the 20th-century Jewish American novel newly relevant through an ironic repurposing of exhausted tropes only carries us back into that lineage’s most familiar features. The result is a novel that understands itself as live and potent, but is really anemic, even undead ... the success of the project requires a real demonstration of the continued vitality of the exilic Jewish imagination. Instead, The Netanyahus shows how, even with a glaze of self-consciousness and a thoroughgoing sense of irony, the exploitation of a sapped form can cut off avenues of new thinking, returning us to tired modes ... The Netanyahus\' provocative premise sets it up to be such a novel, but its hubristic conclusion makes clear why Cohen was never up to the task ... The self-parodying prose nearly defies credulity—and in fact, the postscript’s veracity is suspect ... If Cohen has so far given us only variously interesting failures, it may be because he finds himself continually compelled to try to build a new Temple, rather than dwell in the ruins.
Franz Kafka, tr. Michael Hoffman
RaveThe BafflerWe might divide the pieces collected in The Lost Writings into gems and shards—the former seemingly conceptually complete, the latter obviously broken-off—each with their own particular kinds of obscurity ... the pieces making up The Lost Writings do not offer a new or more richly understood Kafka so much as a concentrated expression of the same dynamics, motifs, and obsessions that occupy his longer and more familiar works. Compressed and largely stripped of the intricacy that distinguishes the latter, these fragments help us appreciate how much of what makes a piece of writing Kafka’s lives at the level of the voice, the situation, the posture, the incident, the line. They also illuminate the fragmentary features of the less fragmented writings ... The journey through The Lost Writings unsettles this confidence not only by introducing us to new or less recognizable expressions of his project, but also by putting us into repeated, immediate contact with Kafka’s own self-doubt, which gleams in every bracketed ellipsis ...
MixedThe BafflerThe Topeka School seems to hold up Darren and Adam as two different models of masculinity, one abased and the other exemplary, rather than sustain a more nuanced and generous critique of both...This is not to say that Lerner fails to depict or consider Adam’s own outbursts of masculine rage, but when they do erupt, the broader moral structure of the scenes can be taken to partially justify them .... Adam struggles with his masculinity, yes—but ultimately, he means well, and mostly, behaves well. He’s a good man. Darren, meanwhile—even with the compassion the novel affords him—embodies misogyny’s ugliness come to its full fruition. The novel is a meditation on and critique of masculinity, yet its central male psyche emerges relatively unscathed. ... Does this really constitute a reckoning? The Topeka Schoolis, like the novels that preceded it, an intelligent, unsettling inquiry that doubles as a self-referential aesthetic edifice. It’s also a true linguistic adventure, especially in the moments when Lerner allows his precise, circumspect prose to collapse into the lyricism of intermingled vocabularies—a mode he has mostly set aside since he turned from poetry to novel-writing. Yet the novel falls short of the task it sets itself. Here Lerner finds a form that generatively complicates his essayistic style of autofiction—expanding its capacity to speak politically and historically—but which also allows him to let the self at the novel’s center off the hook, tempering the achievement. Ambition outpaces courage.
Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth
PositiveThe NationThroughout EEG...petty concerns sit alongside metaphysical ones ... [protagonist] Ban shifts seamlessly from meditating on the subject of time...to griping about a waiter’s refusal to put ice in his drink. These juxtapositions are endearingly jarring, and his displays of everyday crankiness provide an appropriately sour humor to cut the novel’s otherwise unrelenting seriousness ... EEG stutters between personal reflection and historical intermission, with neither mode nor any single narrative thread predominating. She maneuvers from Ban’s recollections of his family to his meditations on memory to historical catalogs of tragedy. This last element, the most direct expression of her aesthetic interest in archives, will be familiar to readers of her previous books ... For Drndić, aesthetic neatness is an affront to reality, while fragmentation reflects the truth. Accosting the reader on this subject becomes a powerful and sly way of asking: Do you like being lied to? If the messiness of my book doesn’t suit your sensibilities, what of the messiness of the world? ... her prose is for the most part gnarled, knotty, tangled—ugly in a manner appropriate to her assessment of history’s structure and the world’s bleakness. But moments of beauty do break through.
RaveThe MillionsI count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive ... Each [essay] is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.
Han Kang, Trans. by Deborah Smith
PositiveBookforumThe White Book—which, like all monochromatic meditations, is both about its color and about other matters entirely—is a novel of birth and death in quick succession, circumscribed by another’s life ... The White Book, which is resolutely plotless, follows the narrator’s reckoning with this consuming grief ... whiteness is not simply purity, but something else—something inflected with the inextricability of the living from the dead, the reconstruction from the ruin. Like the color itself, it’s not something that can be accessed directly.
PositiveThe Baffler\"In Normal People, the romance that drives the novel is also shaped by intellectual and political concerns ... Normal People is narrated in close third person, alternating between Connell’s and Marianne’s perspective. This delightfully claustrophobic structure creates the sense that the novel’s central character is neither individual, but the interdependent (or perhaps codependent) couple ... Normal People, it seems, aspires to contest the individualism of the novel form through its own affective resources. This is a subtle goal, and at moments it gets lost among the book’s more conventional pleasures. But it’s also an ambitious one, and Normal People advances the project of Conversations with Friends in a compelling direction ... Rooney may ultimately find a more confrontational vehicle for her politics. But it’s refreshing to see a novelist so earnestly uncertain about the value of her task—and a complex pleasure to read the novels animated by such ambivalence.\
Amos Oz, Trans. by Jessica Cohen
PanThe BafflerOriginally published in Hebrew in 2017 and appearing now in Jessica Cohen’s English translation, Dear Zealots is a rallying cry to liberal Zionists who are growing worried that their vision of Israel’s future has not come to pass. The book attempts its best impression of clarity, directness, and level-headed optimism. It’s a narcotic cocktail of reassurance and shallow philosophizing for those moderates waiting for the age of extremism to pass so they can reclaim control of Israel and bring matters to their reasonable conclusion.
PositiveThe Nation\"This premise proves to be fertile ground for Lipsyte’s masterful satirical style ... With short chapters that shift abruptly in time and perspective, Hark barrels forward in what is less a plot’s steady progression than a series of digressive, accumulating riffs. The form works, not least because it mirrors the activity of Hark himself, whose whole routine began as a comedy act performed at company retreats ... At his best, Lipsyte’s jokes can be side-splitting—but not every joke lands ... At worst, [the book\'s jokes] extend Hark’s satirical viciousness to undeserving targets, which neutralizes its political force ... These missteps aside, the increasingly madcap absurdities of Hark... are in service of a moral vision ... [Hark] sculpts the shittiness into something both transporting and exacting, if not unerring. Of course, this won’t save us. But it’s a start.\
RaveJewish CurrentsBalint brings voluminous knowledge to bear on the trials and modulates gracefully between reportage, biography, and literary criticism. He successfully balances the tasks of bringing to life the narrative’s dramatis personae—principally Kafka and Brod in the past, and Eva Hoffe in the present—with teasing out the literary, political, and philosophical stakes of the conflict ... As Balint illustrates, Kafka has never been a major literary figure in Israel the way he has been in other parts of the world ... It’s strange, then, to think about the Jewish state claiming ownership of a writer on the basis of his Jewishness when his work productively engaged with that Jewishness in a way that is utterly irreconcilable with the self-assured, militantly nationalist Jewishness the state embodies and advances ... any national archive, though it may have some interest in literature as literature, is at least equally concerned with literature as a source of national stature and power. Balint is particularly poetic and poignant on this subject. \'A national literary archive, whether in Marbach or Jerusalem or anywhere else, is neither a neutral repository nor an arbitrary accumulation; it is a shrine to national memory and to the continuity of that memory. Like a church consecrated by its relics, or a temple by its Holy Ark, the archive as reliquary participates in the effort of a nation to distinguish itself from other nations ... They decide what material to archive, how to order it, and who may access it.\'
Clarice Lispector, Trans. by Benjamin Moser & Magdalena Edwards
RaveThe Nation\"The Chandelier rivals The Passion According to G.H. and Água Viva for sheer meditative intensity, but it differs from them in its narrative scope. More than any of these other works, The Chandelier unites Lispector’s narrative and anti-narrative impulses: It traces the path of Virgínia’s life, yet the seductive flow of its prose takes primacy over the articulation of a conventional story line ... The reader comes to feel as if the moments of narrative action are themselves interruptions of the real drama: the flow of the world’s hidden vital force ... What The Chandelier lacks in the narrative complexity and self-questioning that characterize Lispector’s later work, it makes up for in sincerity, ambition, and utter devotion to language’s possibilities.\
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe Millions\"Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, brilliantly continues Carter’s and Link’s tradition of literary fabulism. In line with the relationship Link proposes between the inherent intertextuality of fantastical literature, it’s also a Pandora’s box of bold re-thinkings of the short story form … Her Body and Other Parties also addresses the ways women’s lives have been and continue to be constrained by narratives that consign disobedient or unmanageable women to categories of madness or monstrosity … Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.\
Yoko Tawada, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky
RaveFull Stop\"...[a] whimsical and wise novel ... The novel’s premise — three generations of famous polar bears who come into intimate contact with humans — is inherently playful, and Tawada nurtures this quality by putting the reality of the events of the first chapter into question in the second by describing the first chapter’s as legendary ... Tawada evokes the boundlessness and richness of possibility associated less with magical realism than with children’s fairy tales ... Memoirs of a Polar Bear puts its playfulness to serious use. With varying degrees of levity, Tawada draws parallels between species divisions and categories of human difference ... The novel’s imaginative acrobatics and philosophical depth are buoyed and energized by Tawada’s prose ... Tawada masterfully transports the reader to this place approaching transcendence, where language — so distinctly human, we suppose — brings us into imaginative intimacy with another kind of being.\
RaveFull StopNtshanga does more than merely illustrate the way this illness, like all things, plays a role in human symbology. Rather, the novel creates a space in which the reader can experience this metaphorization as well as critique it; it thus allows us to engage in the tension between metaphorization’s necessity and its damage. Ntshanga accomplishes this and his many other artistic feats by elegantly intertwining the personal with the political ... a beautiful novel, as fierce and formally innovative as it is lyrical and moving.