Rumaan Alam is the author of the novels Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, 4Columns, and elsewhere.
Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. by Michael Hofmann
PositiveThe New Republic\"We might assume a contemporary novel will upend the convention: give voice to the younger woman, or reveal romance as exploitation—abuse, even. Erpenbeck is up to something less predictable … This is a book about a decisive moment in these small lives, but it’s also a novel about a moment in history … We assume age difference means power discrepancy, but in fact Hans and Katharina are well-matched. What is to come for these two bolsters Hans’s assertion that love and hate are closely related … Kairos does not condemn Hans for this violence; it does not posit Katharina’s submission to her lover as abuse. It’s a clear-eyed book, morally neutral and the more interesting for it ... I don’t know what a national process of political reconciliation might look like, in Germany or in the United States, where there’s plenty of atonement to be done. Erpenbeck, however, might already be working in pursuit of that. ‘Is it the case here,’ the author wonders, ‘that day after day, silently, people come to an understanding of their own lives by way of the understandings of others?’ To me, that sounds like the project of fiction itself.”
MixedNew York Review of BooksThe repetition of the book’s central event doesn’t make the death comical or farcical (because Serpell has the restraint to make the boy die only three times). But it does make it seem fictional. Wayne is less a person than a device. The novel uses him less as a character than as the catalyst for Cee’s grief ... Narrative requires momentum, and whether this moves forward or backward or coils back upon itself is a matter of strategy. But the reader can be forgiven for a bias toward a story that begins, proceeds, concludes ... There’s something fun about the first half of The Furrows, hardly the word I’d expect to use given the book’s subject ... The aim is to approximate feeling, but the truth is that big emotion (bereavement, passion, fury) can grow boring. By the book’s midpoint, we’ve heard the same tale three times. We understand, or think we do. Maybe we’d as soon keep this all at a distance ... If the book’s meditative first half is a requiem for a single child, its antic second half becomes an elegy for America’s black citizens ... Some novels comprise distinct parts to make a coherent whole ... Men doesn’t work quite like this, and it doesn’t entirely coalesce as a novel.
MixedNew York Review of BooksIt’s a sequel in which we’re right back where we left off: there’s the deadpan voice, the anthropological insight into American college life in the mid-1990s, the catalog of minor humiliations and grandiose thoughts ... Are ideas enough to make a novel? Either/Or is Batuman’s attempt to prove that they are. Forget \'metacomic,\' Either/Or is a novel that’s also an academic argument for itself as a novel ... The voice is intimate and idiosyncratic, the organizing principle diaristic ... At first each chapter covers a week, then things pick up and each contains a whole month. This lopsided treatment reflects how youth feels, in my memory anyway—an endless, formless waiting period ... Either/Or feels faithful to the experience of growing up; whether we want fiction to depict reality accurately is a separate matter ... Batuman is a very funny writer, and funny writing strikes me as the height of intelligence ... But the humor here is so insistent, it’s almost a tic. Is it born of a desire to demonstrate the narrator’s intelligence, or, worse, does it expose you as stupid if you start to get tired of it? ... The novel’s emotional impact relies on the reader’s distance from her own youth; we understand that time’s passage is inevitable and hope it will be kind to Selin ... I cannot deny that Batuman is a confident litigator. Her novels anticipate whatever criticism I might offer. And though I laughed a lot while reading, I worry even now that I’m missing part of the joke. Maybe I’m the idiot.
PositiveThe NationIt’s played straight, with nary a joke or postmodern gag in evidence. But that I read all 580 pages of it (too many; being presumed great means editors give you a wide berth) in three days is a testament to Franzen’s ability with the novel form. He’s a storyteller, a master at holding the reader’s attention, himself attentive to that reader’s pleasure. He’s surely among the great American novelists, but Crossroads also finds Franzen discharging his powers in a way that feels like a departure ... Nothing about the Hildebrandts’ middle-class, Midwestern anomie is new for a Franzen novel, even if it is well-done ... So much, maybe too much, of Crossroads is devoted to teenagers and their travails, but it is their parents’ stories, particularly Marion’s, that prove to be far more interesting. The complaint that Franzen is a throwback to the mid-century man of letters would be more credible were he not so adept at writing characters who happen to be women, and Marion is an example of the author at his most imaginative ... Franzen depicts Russ’s benighted and troubling view of the Navajo as an inscrutable other without reducing the Navajo themselves to such on the page ... I love books where language is the principal concern, narratives constructed from oblique fragments, and works of fiction that test the boundaries of how we define the novel. Crossroads is none of those things. Yet even readers like me cannot but succumb to the charms of plot and momentum, characters and conversation ... Knowing this is but the first installment in a larger work changed how I read it: The novel didn’t quite satisfy, but I never expected it to be more than a first course.
PositiveVulture... resists the shallow gestures of Hollywood biopics, reaching for something mainstream film couldn’t get at, or wouldn’t bother with. How does an artist create, and can a true artist live as the rest of us do? ... Tóibín, the author of nine previous novels himself knows he can’t say anything definitive about James or Mann. He mostly seems to be saying thank you to his heroes. It’s hard to imagine a reader for these novels who didn’t share the author’s affection for their protagonists ... has an often maddening pace, the book speeding through the decades...There were moments I wish he’d lingered in ... Tóibín writes about Mann, but when he takes his time, he also writes like Mann — braiding together the intimate stuff of family and the life of the nation — a tidy trick ... The novel is frank about Mann’s desires, and renders them with thoughtful complexity ... There’s no condemnation in The Magician, nor is there pity. Instead there’s the understanding that a great artist might be, after all, only a human.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksThe Sympathizer could conceivably be enjoyed by an aficionado of the spy novel. Its sequel is more ironic about the conventions of crime fiction. Yes, there’s the big boss, banally evil in his polo shirts, and the rival gangs from the former colonies at war in the seedier of Paris’s arrondissements. But Nguyen seems more comfortable, now, with the artifice of his project ... The Committed does not ask for our credulity, but our attention. The book is so intellectually rigorous I wanted a syllabus (in truth, as above, the author provides one). The plot whirrs and clicks like a Rube Goldberg contraption ... The motif of sexual or bodily violation as the ultimate expression of the colonial project—the point of no return—is maybe repetitive, or perhaps that is Nguyen’s point ... In a decade whose fiction is dominated by autofiction, there’s something démodé about Nguyen’s novels, which I think can fairly be considered a single artistic endeavor ... The Sympathizer and The Committed are, to borrow James Wood’s phrase for such novels, perpetual-motion machines, their exuberance perhaps a suitable method given how vast a subject he aims to tackle ... manic language and impossible story suit the strange truth of colonialism ... The Committed has some of a sequel’s inherent inelegance—the book’s repetitions and reminders of what’s come before will be useful to most readers ... These are novels about a specific people—the colonized, the war-scarred, the immigrant—that also transcend those \'petty circumstances\' of identity. The choice between being Vietnamese and being human turns out to be a false one after all.
RaveThe New Republic\"It’s an account of a life so rigorously dedicated to art and family that fame seems beside the point ... As a writer, she’s possessed of a heightened sensibility, a particular vantage on to the world ... Self-Portrait illuminates what Freud’s long shadow obscured: Celia Paul herself, and an altogether different way of being an artist ... Paul speaks of Freud not as a teacher, but a lover, a man who both delighted and frustrated her. She does not engage in the question of what effect his style might have had on her artistic development, nor does she answer whether her youthful experience modeling for Freud informed her own practice of painting ... Celia Paul is a more gifted writer than she has any business being; it’s almost unfair ... Self-Portrait reads like a novel. Paul alights on a topic, offers asides and digressions, circles back to her main point. The work is written with intention but wears it lightly. ... Her painting is not an act of close observation—she’s seen these people before—but some deeper communion with the person she’s aiming to fix on canvas. It’s impressive that she’s able to render them in words, too, on the page: Freud, her parents, and, of course, herself.
Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong'o
PositiveThe Washington PostThough it bills itself as a novel, that very term is a product of a European sensibility. The subtitle — \'The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi\' — is more useful ... a work of myth, rendered in verse; you can hear the voice of the person relaying the story ... Is there a fundamental human desire for story, a way to explain the world around us? The Perfect Nine seems to answer that desire ... The Perfect Nine has the hallmarks of myth: exaggeration, adventure, magic, humor. It made me think of my first exposure to classical narratives .... while Zeus and his associates were forever raping women, The Perfect Nine feels comparatively feminist.
MixedThe New Republic\"... Red Pill wanders, rather like a prestige television show after a bravura first season ... in a well-intentioned but absurd turn, [the narrator] tries to intervene in the life of a refugee he spies on the streets of Berlin ... A chunk of the novel is given over to Monika’s memories of life in the former East Berlin, where she was a punk and radical, then a collaborator with the national security services. It’s a digression and feels too pointed—the state brutalizing its citizens for no particular reason—and too long, like a multi-episode arc on a television show focused entirely on some guest star. The novel abandons logic to reveal the illogic of Anton’s worldview. The pace quickens, and the narrator bounces around Europe, but this action feels more like fever dream than story: overly constructed, too deliberate, occasionally silly ... Kunzru is an able storyteller; outlandish plot or not, I did not read so much as binge ... The only possible conclusion to this fable about the emptiness of right-wing blather is the election of Donald Trump ... it’s dissatisfying. Kunzru can’t accomplish a rebuke of Anton’s worldview not because he’s not a gifted novelist but because it’s already evident that the Steve Bannon mythos is a hodgepodge of prejudices, fears, and misinformation. Nor can the novelist answer why liberals have granted this claptrap such power. Kunzru posits this crisis as illness, as mental break. It’s a valiant attempt to literalize the troubles with the liberal left, but we’re not the crazy ones. Yes, it’s true that Anton, and Trump, and so many I could name, care only about \'the cynical operation of power.\' But we knew that in 2016.
MixedThe NationSmith is asking us to do more than suspend disbelief; you’re either with her or you’re not. Far-fetched domestic arrangements, a grappling with the world we’ve made...the not altogether illuminating wordplay (the book lingers over the difference between \'heroine\' and \'heroin\') ... Smith seems awed by the strange world she has created, and a kind of whimsical smugness occasionally creeps into her writing ... It’s possible that Smith is executing something she’d planned from the start, but these connections, once revealed, feel improvisatory, unlikely, and most of all unimportant. Summer does solve some of the riddles posed by the earlier volumes—for example, the mystery of Winter’s disembodied head. But where a whodunit must conclude with the murderer unmasked, Smith is more respectful of the literary novel’s own conventions: opacity and, instead of revelation, a slow crescendo toward meaning ... Summer and its companion novels contain so much of interest that they defy easy summary ... Smith is doing what her characters do: thinking aloud. Her desire was to write a novel (or four) that was of the moment, and to do so in what we’ve all come to think of as real time. It can be done; the book in our hands is proof ... Sometimes Smith’s rush to follow the news trips her up, laying bare the truth that the larger endeavor to make a meaningful novel out of this moment might not yet be possible.
PositiveThe New RepublicThere’s nothing here to quibble with. I understand why editors at our leading magazines would turn to our most gifted artists to weigh in on everything that’s happening. But clarity or fresh insight on a still-unfolding catastrophe is a tall order. It’s a relief that punchy turns of phrase and scathing oversimplification—the dominant modes of most contemporary chatter—are not of interest to Smith. But Intimations doesn’t argue much. It’s an echo of the reader’s internal monologue, the stuff you probably already think bouncing back at you, improved by Smith’s prose. Smith is a good student of people ... mith is a writer with style: staccato sentences and occasional outbursts, with wry exclamation marks. There’s passion in the lines, but she’s a circumspect thinker. This is a good combination, something all writers should aim for, but I wanted more: a surprise, a revelation, a gasp ... we’re all so lonely and could do worse for company than Zadie Smith.
Yu Miri, Trans. by Morgan Giles
RaveThe Washington PostDon’t misunderstand this magical flourish; though often discomfitingly dreamlike, the book is a critique of damnably real power ... Despite the book’s surreal pitch, it’s capable of eliciting real feeling ... Why do some live for decades and others perish in their youth? Why are some born to inherit a throne, others destined to inhabit a shack? Miri’s novel is too fleet and elusive to offer an explanation, or maybe it’s just clever enough to understand there’s no real answer ... Though locked into the specific geography of one Tokyo park, the novel telescopes from the 17th century to the modern day. This will mean more to the reader with some grasp of that country’s history, but nevertheless the novel yields to those of us less versed in those particulars. Tokyo Ueno Station eloquently indicts the myth of Japan as an awesome power of cultural and economic might ... Though set in Japan, Tokyo Ueno Station is a novel of the world we all share — not what we expect from a ghost story but frightening all the same.
PanBookforum\"... not much in the way of plot. That the narrator is pregnant might prime readers for a motherhood novel—which it is, in a fashion—but the book is not especially interested in that. Instead, the text is more concerned with recounting its own birth ... This hand-wringing exhausts the goodwill of the reader; the fact of the book we are reading belies the text’s hesitations and apologies. To make something \'paper-thin\' (a nice phrase) is not an unworthy end. But Zambreno’s self-consciousness about this desire feels at first absurd—why write in this manner if it occasions such doubt?—and then, more pages having passed, nearer a provocation ... this is a novel about means, not ends; process, not payoff. This was, for me, its principal frustration. Art about the creation of art can charm and surprise, but Drifts too often reiterates its vaunted aspiration and laments its inability to achieve it. Artistic creation has its drama, but it’s expressed here as self-doubt, inaction, excuses. The stakes are far higher for the writer than they ever are for the reader ... Perhaps Drifts’ lack of success can be attributed to the fact that the author intends not to capture the energy of thought but to transcribe her own thoughts. There’s no attempt to construct character or scene to provide the reader that sense of immersion into another reality; it’s nearer a catalogue of the writer’s fancies ... It mostly withholds the surprise of language. It wants to engage us by laying bare the writer’s consciousness, but I felt my attention drift.
Nicolas Mathieu, Trans. by William Rodarmor
Rave4ColumnsIt’s all easier to keep track of than it sounds in summary, maybe because Mathieu is an adept writer, or maybe because it formally resembles a television drama, cutting from one storyline to the next ... Like many a prestige television show, the novel is enjoyable, sometimes addictive, occasionally ridiculous ... Hacine’s trajectory from local hoodlum to worse (spoiler averted) is not imaginative, but perhaps that is the intention, to conjure the few options for first-generation immigrants in France. I should note that by the book’s end, Hacine is given the most surprising and lovely near-redemption ... Like many a prestige television show, the novel is at its best at the outset—idiosyncratic, irresistible, atmospheric ... By its third section, though, the text’s desire to say something important becomes too urgent. The author chooses a device that challenges credulity to make a statement not about his players but the place ... Unlike so many of our journalists, Mathieu does not shy from the difficult stuff ... Mathieu is better at creating people than making political points. The former is much harder, and what we want of our novelists anyway ... As the novel draws down, the writer strains to deliver a moral...A little silly, sure, but sometimes it’s a comfort to let go, to let art transport us.
PanThe New RepublicAllen is surprisingly forthright on the various accusations against him ... Allen is not exactly blasé about it all, but it’s close ... Is this text the same as the one Grand Central had intended to publish? The authorial voice is loose by design, but there are lapses that I’d imagine would bother most editors (like a forgetful relative, Allen clumsily repeats an anecdote, about a statue of him erected in a Spanish town). I do not know whether the more salacious disclosures—such as that Ronan \'had his legs broken a few times and reconstructed to lengthen them\' to gain the advantage of height that might serve him in a future political career—have been subjected to legal review ... Apropos of Nothing is a reminder that Woody Allen has been playing himself for a long time ... I was mostly unmoved by his whiz-bang voice; though I’m a sucker for gossip, I was mostly uninterested in his prodigious name-dropping. Leave aside, if you can, the question of whether Woody Allen ought to be canceled and consider, instead, whether he’s simply gone stale.
MixedThe New RepublicEverything that happens in Death feels portentous ... It’s tantalizing for the reader who imagines this might coalesce: that Magda is real, that the camouflage bodysuit will have something to do with finding her body, that Moshfegh might obey some of those tips for mystery writers ... I don’t think Moshfegh’s aim is to explore the falsity of storytelling, and anyway it would be a tall order, given her strategy of detachment, irony, and disgust that keeps the reader at arm’s length. Moshfegh is working in one of the most seductive genres, but without any real conviction. Once you sense that Vesta is not going to solve the mystery, the herrings look a lot less red, and your attention wanders. The text doesn’t hold together as a novel or even as a system for making some point about novels. This isn’t a book about one specific death, but death more generally ... Moshfegh’s dark perspective makes crime fiction and its attendant moods a natural territory for her ... reference to the Holocaust in the text...[is] more glib than anything, an assertion by the author that nothing is off limits, anything can be made a metaphor or, indeed, a joke ... Moshfegh tantalizes with literary mystery, then invokes something more exalted. But what happened to Magda—or what people are named, or why they suffer, or why the world is so grotesque—is not God’s creation; it’s Moshfegh’s. Perhaps there’s a reader who will find epiphany in this. I remain an unbeliever.
Deb Olin Unferth
RaveThe New RepublicThe novel feels researched but not pedantic ... Unferth doesn’t intend to gross us out, but her book doesn’t look away from commercial agriculture’s attempts to adapt nature for the market ... it’s when the heist plot kicks in, and we meet a whole parade of well-intentioned kooks, that Barn 8 comes alive. Counterintuitive, maybe, but the caper reveals how serious a book this is ... That is not to suggest the novel is a catalog of horrors or a sanctimonious lecture. There’s a joy here, in no small part because of Unferth’s sentences, which are muscular and musical and confident. Beyond Barn 8’s political concerns is an interest in life itself ... For those who believe in animal liberation, the question is not political, but moral; my own wavering about the consumption of meat may be unimaginable to them. I was expecting (fine, dreading) a novel that simply gave voice to that conviction, that yelled at a wall. But Unferth is writing in good faith, and she’s also talking about something bigger. She’s a capable guide to the unsettling feeling that governs modern life, a feeling that is very much tied to the billions of animals we eat every year ... Humans have just about finished the hard work of destroying ourselves, and we’re seeing more and more art that mourns that fact. This novel does that, with a sly grin. We might be sad about the end of humanity, but the chickens are probably relieved.
MixedThe New RepublicThis Brilliant Darkness is a project of empathy. We are meant to look at a masseuse who dispenses happy endings in Ireland or a gay hustler in Russia or a shirtless addict on the streets of L.A. and feel we understand them. We are to see them as human. If it all sounds a bit like \'Humans of New York\' ... it should. It’s virtually the same endeavor: to show us that other people exist ... But is transforming a person into an anecdote truly a way of seeing them? ... Do these pictures honor or misrepresent? Do they titillate, as pornography, or valorize, as propaganda? Do they accomplish something as art, or, leaving that aside, as journalism? Every reader will have their own answers. This Brilliant Darkness reminded me more than anything of the episode of The Simpsons in which Bart hosts a news broadcast for children, delivering human interest segments that turn out to be a huge hit. As his co-anchor, Lisa, says: \'Boy, that phony schmaltz of yours sure is powerful stuff.\'
MixedThe New RepublicIf McCullers provided salvation, helping Shapland emerge once and for all from the closet, now the younger writer has an opportunity to return the favor. But she is wary ... This circumspection is unnecessary and dulls the work’s effect. Authorial hesitation is fine—probably commendable!—but its recurrence feels less like an intellectual complication and more like nervous tic. To be queer—different in whatever fashion you are—is superb preparation for the task of criticism. You meet Harriet the Spy with that frisson of recognition. You read A Separate Peace waiting for the teen protagonists to kiss (fraternal love, give me a break). This is a survival strategy (You are not alone in the world) and we learn to deploy it on the page and in reality ... Shapland’s is a quest for the self ... My Autobiography might have dwelt even longer than it does on the resonances between the lives of author and subject: Shapland cuts herself off, as though she’s using McCullers cheaply. But we all read selfishly. This text is more than mere fan letter, and if the author had allowed herself to go further, I wonder what she might have found? ... This book might have been broader, a more robust hybrid of memoir and criticism. I will say, though, that it made me return to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; I sense that Shapland would consider that mission accomplished.
MixedBookforumJen writes electric, entertaining sentences. I can hear the author having fun here and throughout the book. It’s baseball that gives The Resisters its shape, and this is effective even if you, as I, hate baseball. In sport, Jen finds a metaphor for what it is to be human ... Works that posit an alternate world have to expend some energy on establishing that reality’s texture. Jen relishes world building maybe too much ... Authors possess authority, and Jen squanders hers on set dressing when she might simply establish the world’s contours and let the reader do the rest ... The unnamed narrator is tasked with all this authorial explaining, and it makes him a tiresome companion. He is our Sherpa, but ends up feeling like a know-it-all. And while maybe it makes sense that the introductory pages would need to tell us how to read the book, the third of the book’s four sections lays bare the flaw in the overall design ... The Resisters’ final section shows that Jen is a canny architect, the story more carefully crafted than it might seem. Details from the novel’s early pages become newly resonant in this last inning—perhaps my fault, but I had trouble recalling them, and never felt the epiphany the author was reaching for.
Positive4ColumnsThere is something familiar but somehow off-kilter about Writers & Lovers...like a beloved sitcom dubbed into another tongue ... the author is so adept at conjuring the machinations of restaurant life it might also be thought of as a workplace novel. But at heart, it is another, rarer sort of book ... Gen X readers will thrill to Writers & Lovers’ depiction of postgraduate ennui in the 1990s; younger readers will appreciate how the book inverts the strategy of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. ... I wish the book had probed more deeply the fact that Casey has a profoundly broken relationship with her father ... This is a book unabashedly full of feeling—a daughter’s grief for her mother, a woman’s yearning to love someone worth it, an artist’s worry that her faith might be delusion ... Writers & Lovers has an almost deliriously happy ending. The story’s conclusion is recompense not only for what Casey endures—it’s a salve for us, the reader, the follies of our own younger selves. It’s a reminder that happiness, love, and artistic fulfillment are not too much to ask, that if having it all is a myth, you can still demand a whole hell of a lot. Yes, this is only a story, but you must admit, that is not a bad moral.
PositiveThe New RepublicIt is, in some fashion, an act of archeology, an attempt to comprehend a recent history that nevertheless feels as distant as the Iron Age ... Yoon writes with precision and understatement, maybe the only way you can render a world in which bombs loom overhead and lurk underfoot ... isn’t trying to educate or do the work of scholars and teachers; it has its own agenda. Art cannot supplant history, but it can amplify it.
PositiveThe New RepublicWhen the relationship between the two men begins to fray, you wonder if this won’t turn into a thriller—it’s so easy to imagine masculine feeling sublimated into violence! Wayne doesn’t give us crime, but the passion beneath it; that’s far more surprising, and makes for a much more difficult book ... I’m dancing around the specifics because there’s a pleasure to Apartment that it would be unfair to spoil. It’s an enjoyable read (a taut story that the author bravely sees through to its inevitable end) with some insight into the strange condition of manhood.
PositiveThe New RepublicSklenicka’s book traces the lines between the author and her art, though the close reader of Adams’s fiction could deduce much of what her biographer illuminates: an upbringing in the South; a stormy father and a mother with frustrated artistic ambition, dead too young; an unhappy marriage; a host of affairs. If occasionally the biographer seems to reach, well, that’s her job: to use facts and the historical record to help us understand both the life and the art.
It’s hard to imagine any but the true devotee wading in: I think Adams was a superb writer, but I’m not sure I need 500 pages on her. But if you’re the sort who delights in the account of the midcentury artistic life—living on pennies in postwar Paris, selling a short story for enough money to buy a car, palling around with Norman Mailer (perhaps sleeping with him) and Saul Bellow (almost definitely sleeping with him) and Irving Howe (possibly being raped by him)—Portrait of a Writer does deliver.
Ariana Harwicz, Trans. by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff
PositiveThe New YorkerIt’s a welcome addition to the very particular subgenre of motherhood horror; I thought of Helen Phillips’s most recent book, The Need, and of Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin (by coincidence, another Argentine writer living in Europe). All three of these writers have arrived at the insight that conveying fright and confusion is a most effective way to capture what it is to be a mother ... The depiction of motherhood as a trap—of having one’s self subsumed by another human’s needs—is a well-established trope, and the reader might wonder if the narrator suffers from a postpartum disorder. But psychiatric pathology is not exactly Harwicz’s gambit. The author’s accomplishment here is conjuring not a mother struggling to be good but a woman struggling not to be bad ... I found each...perspective shifts confusing, which I suspect would please the author. Die, My Love meanders, intentionally it seems. Though most scenes are short and the chapters are disjointed, somehow the over-all effect is exacting ... It’s fitting that Die, My Love concludes with the narrator throwing a party ... It all looks like a happy ending, but somehow it’s the most horrific turn in the book.
RaveThe New RepublicThe book’s raison d’etre is not to preserve these individual pieces—though some of what’s in here is quite worth saving—it’s to elevate Davis to the office of a Great American ... well, again, it’s hard to know what word to use. Let’s just agree that Davis, now 72, is an elder stateswoman of American letters ... when you read [Davis] at length—these essays run to more than 500 pages—you realize just how chewy and complicated she is ... It’s a pleasant surprise that Lydia Davis is so engaging on the subject of Lydia Davis. Few writers have anything useful to add to contextualize their art. Then again, few writers make the kind of work that really needs some explication...It’s refreshing to hear her explain herself...Or, most of the time anyway ... Anyone weighing going into debt for an MFA should know that they can instead buy this book ... She’s so deeply cerebral it’s perhaps counterintuitive that Davis is a companionable presence. She’s erudite, with catholic interests, and earnest but not humorless. This is the kind of book you could read alone in a restaurant and feel you’re lost in a stimulating conversation ... As a critic, she is perceptive, yes, but also truly engaged ... we can’t all be Lydia Davis, but thank god we have her.
PositiveThe New RepublicAs the title suggests, Barry’s book is an instruction manual, but while Making Comics aims to teach you how to, well, make comics, it may surprise even the reader who has no intention of doing that (me). Barry is so thoughtful—philosophical, even—about art and its purpose that it’s hard not to be moved ... I do not draw (I want to start now!) but I found in this book a lot of smart advice that’s broadly applicable ... what’s most delightful about Making Comics is its emphasis on action, on exercise, on practice—on actual making ... Barry works within the academy and won a MacArthur this year; she’s as establishment a figure as it’s possible to be. She’s clearly brilliant but uninterested in showing that off. Just as critics might misunderstand her style as naïve, they might misunderstand her pedagogy as self-help.
RaveThe New RepublicEvaristo has written a formally slippery book. I suppose you must call it verse instead of prose. Line breaks supplant punctuation, so phrases pile up rather than congealing into paragraphs. Occasionally, they function more as we see them do in poetry, bringing the reader’s attention to a word or a phrase or an idea ... I was skeptical at first; the approach seemed like a gimmick that would inevitably feel tiresome. I soon stopped noticing the conceit. Despite appearances, the author is writing prose more than anything else, and the book taught me—quite quickly—how to read it. The lines flow into one another, creating a sense of urgency ... Each of [the] characters...feels specific, and vibrant, and not quite complete, insofar as the best fictional characters remain as elusive and surprising as real people are. This is a feat; the whole book is. If, ultimately, Girl, Woman, Other is a little too long, I still never tired of its voice. Evaristo is a gifted portraitist, and you marvel at both the people she conjures and the unexpected way she reveals them to you.
Hiroko Oyamada, Trans. by David Boyd
RaveThe New RepublicHiroko Oyamada’s The Factory gives the lie to the idea that the Americans and the Japanese are so different when it comes to our relationship with our jobs. It’s a workplace satire that will make a lot of sense to American readers ... [The]t tension between fantasy and reality is present throughout the book...Perhaps the book isn’t satire, really; even in its most over-the-top moments it is telling it straight. And like all workplace novels, The Factory underscores the folly of how so many of us spend our days. Work life’s odd rituals and petty grievances are rich fodder, and Oyamada has a number of details...that will make you chuckle with recognition ... The text feels as disorienting as the place it describes. Exchanges of dialogue are rendered in a single chunky paragraph; a chapter might move back and forth in time with no cue that it’s doing so; the reader might be offered the end of an anecdote, then have to read on to find its beginning. These are clever tactics, a match of form and subject all the more impressive given this is a first novel ... I so respect Oyamada’s book that I can’t ruin it for the reader. I’ll say only that at its conclusion, The Factory climbs into a register probably best described as magical ... There are readers who will hate this: I think it’s clear throughout that this turn is inevitable—not its specifics, which are surprising, but its tone. It’s horrific and scary, while at the same time affirming and beautiful.
MixedBookforumAciman is skillful at cataloguing the sensual pleasures of a bourgeois existence: artistically inclined people moving through flawlessly appointed villas ... You’ll be forgiven if this bit of dialogue makes you lose your puntarelle ... Michel is older than Elio; Sami is older than Miranda. Aciman clearly wants us to make something of this, but what, I have no idea. Call Me by Your Name has a kind of infectious horniness its sequel lacks. By the time Miranda’s confessed her incestuous desire for her brother, I was ready to take a lifelong vow of chastity ... A work of art remains static. We’re the ones who change. I can understand why an artist might return to his most successful work, but you can’t go home again—even if that home happens to be a flawlessly appointed villa.
MixedThe NationI read Grand Union, but I doubt I’ll ever read it again ... [several stories] feel more like feints than stories. If you read them without authorial attribution, I’m not sure you’d guess they were hers. And without her name attached, I’m not sure they’d find their way into print ... Given that a quarter of Grand Union consists of these oddities and false starts, it makes sense to conclude that the book doesn’t cohere the way the finest collections of stories can. If one reads only these pieces, the book can feel like a particular kind of disappointment from a writer who has rarely let her fans down; it’s a miscellany. But Grand Union does have more traditional stories as well, and of them, \'The Lazy River\' stands in contrast to Smith’s handful of experiments, showing what this author is capable of doing with a few thousand words ... When Smith is good, she’s superb ... Too many of the stories here just don’t yield or seem to require the reader at all. Sometimes, Smith is still willing to make herself vulnerable through pure sincerity ... It’s fine to see her falter; I do not question her talent. Lamenting her turn toward the arch or the experimental is as fruitless as regretting Joni Mitchell’s dalliance with synth-pop or jazz. Still, I find myself hoping that Smith’s next song will be a little sweeter.
Rave4Columns... the author’s pacing is nearer the movement of thought than a received idea of the structure of a novel. Levy sometimes dispenses with scene setting or context (one chapter is simply three sentences). She breaks rules (the book is told in the third person, but opens with a paragraph in the first person). She’s sometimes plainspoken, but in other moments indulges in linguistic flights of fancy. Levy is confident, both in her abilities and her reader’s intelligence. It’s bracing, almost shocking ... For me, metafictional ploys usually grate. But Levy is such a good writer, such a weird writer, that she more than pulls off what would feel, in lesser hands, like a gimmick. It’s never clear how to reconcile the book’s first half with its latter, and this ends up being what makes the book so charming ... Levy repeats phrases or images or motifs often enough that the reader wants them to mean something. And perhaps they do! You’re so busy trying to make meaning of the small stuff—isn’t that what reading is?—that you’re less concerned whether the book fits together tidily, as most of us expect novels to ... It’s a strange book, and Levy concludes it on a note that’s downright baffling—yet somehow quite apt. Many novels fray or indeed unravel altogether at their ends. Levy gleefully tugs at hers, pulling it apart, but somehow it still holds.
PositiveThe Washington PostGhosh is mindful of his task as a novelist—to entertain. The confidence with which he shapes a good, old-fashioned diversion around these particular poles is instructive. Escapism has its virtues, but a book unafraid of ideas can be bracing ... Ghosh is not exactly subtle about stating his intention here, but sometimes a little clarity is nice ... The feat of Ghosh’s book is in showing us that 2019 is as bizarre and incomprehensible as the 17th-century world ... Ghosh is a practiced and capable writer; by the seventh page, we’re deep into Bengali folklore, and willing to accept this as a novelistic subject. That Ghosh is able to sustain the book’s momentum when its primary inquiry is so cerebral is no mean feat. The novel made me think of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, or Tom Stoppard’s best plays, texts that treat academic pursuit as something thrilling ... Subtlety has its virtues, but the authorial heavy hand does not grate. Of course, this is what the headlines are like these days. The truth is stranger than fiction, and Gun Island is a novel for our times.
PositiveThe Washington PostWith a story of sex and intrigue set amid rich people in a beautiful house with a picturesque swimming pool, it is, indeed, a good book to pack for your vacation. But maybe it’s more than that ... It’s to the author’s credit that this mother-daughter love triangle is considerably less icky than it sounds ... The plot is nominally about whether Zahid and Becca will become lovers and how this will affect Rachel. But Very Nice contains many story lines and a whole cast of characters, almost like a stage farce ... Each chapter moves the central story forward but is also a digression ... the brisk pacing and economical style are seductive and keep the reader’s attention ... What will happen at this house in Connecticut, and the attendant themes of family, sex and marriage, are conveyed in a distant, affectless way. This isn’t minimalism, not really; the narrative has the sound and feel of anecdote, or maybe more appropriately, fairy tale ... Dermansky manages to resolve what ultimately becomes a pretty crazy plot, while keeping the novel’s aims opaque. It’s only on the final page that those become somewhat clearer. And yet, Very Nice is not a text that reveals itself at the last minute as metafiction or parable ... It’s not a trick, with the reader as its patsy, and though very funny, it’s not a joke at the reader’s expense.
MixedThe New RepublicAs a title, Trust Exercise is a feint, seeming to refer to Mr. Kingsley’s vaguely nefarious classroom sessions, until we realize that it describes the novel itself. If to read a book is to fall backward, here Choi decides not to catch you ... Trust Exercise sees the author rethink form and shape. This is a novel, broken apart. It’s a strategy for reminding the reader that stories are always more complex, more contested, than they seem ... In its shape, Trust Exercise reminded me of two recent novels that have been much celebrated for, among other things, their formal audacity: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, from 2018, and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, from 2016 ... Trust Exercise is a more deliberate violation of the reader’s faith. Choi gives us one story, then another contradictory one. In the book’s first act, Choi renders the teen drama well—she’s a great writer—but it still feels somehow lacking, vague and hard to care about, like an amateur production of a great play ... Choi’s saying something about reliability and narrative, but she overlooks the fact that the novel as a form doesn’t work if you don’t feel something for the people inside of it ... I do not mind a book that toys with its reader, but I wish Susan Choi had trusted herself more.
Positive4ColumnsIt’s less rewarding than Rooney’s first book—if you told me she’d written this before Conversations, I’d believe you—but she shouldn’t be faulted for being a tough act to follow ... Teenagers think they’re fascinating, but they’re wrong, and let’s face it: most love stories are a bore. What’s seductive about Rooney’s work is the specificity of her people ... They’re real in a way that’s unsettling. The characters enact the authorial interests without feeling like mere devices ... The book relies on a sitcom trope (Rachel and Ross: Will they or won’t they?) but you keep turning the pages ... These are normal people, and Sally Rooney is good at seeing people as they are. The novel’s conclusion is rather silly, but even that doesn’t exactly break the spell the author casts.
PositiveThe New YorkerLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen is a strange hybrid of art history and art appreciation, a personal narrative that reads like a novel ... the author’s obsession is, if not contagious, at least fascinating ... While Laurens is captivated by Marie [the dancer], there’s simply more known about Degas. It’s only a biography in the most roundabout way ... Laurens wants to treat Marie, transformed by Degas into an object, as this book’s subject. It’s quixotic, but also magical. I thought of Patrick Modiano, the Nobel Laureate whose novels often use the conventions of crime stories but offer little resolution or satisfaction. In Laurens’s work, as in so many of Modiano’s stories, the thread unravels into maddening loose ends ... She has not solved a mystery (even if she turns up some interesting tidbits from various archives), but Laurens has done something more challenging: she’s captured what it feels like to think. Her enthusiasm, the million little connections that she makes between the dancer, the artist, and her own life, subsume the reader ... Unanswered are the questions of what art is for, who Marie was, and even whether or not Laurens likes Degas. I take this as a measure of her success as a critic. Some questions can’t be answered, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewHer fiction favors the quotidian over the spectacular, the small moments of violence or disappointment common to all ... The book is slender, containing only eight stories, but it might also be considered capacious, hard to reduce to a single theme or preoccupation. Chai’s style, the sole element that holds these distinct works together, is unaffected. It’s as if the author is getting out of her own way, giving herself space to focus on the mechanics of one individual narrative at a time. Yet in each there’s a sense of many other narratives just off the page, the lives and back stories we aren’t seeing. Short stories are by definition brief, but they needn’t be small ... Chai’s skill gleams ... You may call it conventional, even, with its attention to plot and character, but Chai’s adherence to those conventions just underscores how perfect a literary form the short story can be.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewIts most magical moments...could’ve felt like false attempts at metaphor over meaning, but Felicelli plays them confidently ... What Felicelli can conceive of is impressive ... The strongest story in the collection is perhaps the one that attempts the least ... There is a kind of magic in everyday life, after all. Love Songs for a Lost Continent gathers work that doesn’t quite cohere as a book; the effect is more mixtape than album.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe register is dramatic and the language poetic, but the novel (like the play, I think) tries the patience. By the fourth act, you’re fidgeting, waiting for the characters to start dying ... The book shouldn’t be evaluated on its fidelity to the source material, but Taneja’s attentiveness deserves credit ... It’s sometimes more Bret Easton Ellis than the Bard. But Taneja also has fun toying with the exuberance of Indian English ... The author has a point to make, but Shakespeare’s tragedies have inevitable conclusions. The novel has flaws. It is far too long, often repetitive and discursive, with a pitch that sometimes approaches the manic ... Still, it’s marvelous to watch Taneja, a woman, play with a text in which the women are atrocious. She’s no easier on these characters than Shakespeare was, redeeming none, so the last laugh is hers.
Rave4 ColumnsThere is something so old-fashioned about Alan Hollinghurst’s novels they feel almost transgressive. All those characters, all that plot; the passage of time and the weight of history—Hollinghurst is so far from the contemporary ideal of cool that to witness the excitement that attends the publication of his novels is reassuring ... The Sparsholt Affair is more than an ingenious contraption, and it spoils nothing to talk about it as a work that looks at its themes—time, art, beauty, family, joy—through the lens of sex...Hollinghurst has always been interested in sex as an essential aspect of homosexuality, but Sparsholt is more gleefully erotic than his previous work, which is maybe the novel’s very point. Sex, pleasure, and beauty are fundamental to human life, or Hollinghurst is uninterested in an existence that doesn’t celebrate the three.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIweala is still interested in style, this time the kind of clarity we sometimes associate with Hemingway and mistakenly term simple ... Niru’s homosexuality is very much the book’s subject, and the text is interested in dualities — Americans and Africans, white and black, gay and straight, devout and skeptic, the black immigrant and the black American — while always returning to the question of what his gayness says about who Niru is. Iweala writes with such ease about adolescents and adolescence that Speak No Evil could well be a young adult novel. At the same time he toys with other well-defined forms: the immigrant novel, the gay coming-of-age novel, the novel of being black in America. The resulting book is a hybrid of all these ... In his smart exploration of generational conflict, of what it is to be a gay man, of the crisis of existence as a black man, Iweala is very much a realist. Perhaps the trouble is my own wish that reality itself were different.
PositiveThe New RepublicSatyal doesn’t shy from more: names, backstory, detail. This exuberance is charming instead of exhausting because somehow the book remains engaging. Name is like a Bollywood film—in its joyous embrace of excess, in how it takes the long way round to old-fashioned narrative closure—but it’s equally akin to a well-made sitcom, veering into B and C plots I could have done without, though always cutting back to the main action just in time ... In its last 90 or so pages, this jaunty, madcap book tilts toward metafiction; a book about Indians that decides to interrogate what books about Indians are supposed to be ... I don’t mean to reduce this vibrant book, which is more than a text on the Indian-American novel. But I can’t help read Ranjana’s ambition (and, spoiler alert, considerable success) as the author’s real project, and I’m with them: I suspect that often we deem literary what we are reluctant to admit is merely boring; creating stories that people enjoy is a more than worthwhile endeavor.