PositiveThe New Republic... jeweled with lyricism but freighted with history ... It is to the credit of the historical persona of Joe Sanderson that he did not remain oblivious to this one-way trade, but it isn’t immediately obvious why Tobar chose fictional form to capture his journey into greater involvement ... does not initially offer much in the way of significant novelistic pleasures—interiority, nuance, shifts in pacing. The new novel lacks the striving for self-awareness that Antonio, Elena, and Araceli display in the early fiction. There are extensive descriptions of places, but few scenes and little dialogue. Other characters—especially the women Joe is involved with—drift by as vignettes, although Tobar occasionally deploys free indirect discourse to jump into multiple points of view, offering brief glimpses of emotions and thoughts, or even intellectual complexity one suspects would not have come naturally to Sanderso ... The accelerating narrative is impeded only occasionally by the footnotes where Joe, speaking from the great beyond, offers his thoughts on Tobar’s fictionalization of his life. These footnotes aren’t always convincing as a device. They seem to replicate the goofy persona Joe affects in his letters home, which Tobar excerpts occasionally in the main narrative. Masculine, white, North American, always ready with a joke or a moniker that reduces the unknown world to familiar cultural markers—these are traits likely to come across as especially grating after close to a century of U.S. hegemony. But Joe’s voice sells himself short as much as it reduces others, because beneath the sunshine, there is complexity ... at the heart of his story is the conjoined failure of art and revolution that perhaps gives the book its greatest emotional charge as well as a basis for Tobar’s decision to pursue it as a novel rather than as nonfiction ... Culture is often just another weapon to go with military training in U.S. bases. Against such deception, Tobar’s flawed and human hero stands out with surprising clarity.
J. M Coetzee
MixedThe Nation... a perplexing climax ... Throughout, we look for the clues that might give us insight into the trilogy’s titles, the signs that might be portents. And yet steadily, almost every element of the novels’ interpretive schema crumbles, before it completely falls apart ... We begin to realize that Coetzee has led us into—rather than an allegory of our contemporary world or a representation of Jesus’s—an in-between nowhere place, a mildly oppressive utopia or a relatively humane dystopia, a paradoxical realm where human beings arrive, no matter their age, as if they had just been born ... The question of faith and its absence...returns but in even more contradictory fashion, leaving us with almost nothing beyond the fact of the labor that has produced this puzzling trilogy ... the Jesus novels also suggest that the estrangement felt by their characters—and by us as readers—while disquieting and profound, occupies an uneasy relationship to our alienation from the contemporary.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Shaun Whiteside
PanThe New RepublicThe writing is first-person, breezy, Florent as an individual character inevitably meant to function as a type, his depression and impotence a metaphor for European bourgeois masculinity in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Houellebecq is deft in his rendition of bureaucratic acronyms and brand names ... To this, Houellebecq adds his trademark reactionary characterizations, marginalized groups always reduced to offensive stereotypes, women invariably reduced to body parts and types ... None of this, in itself, is particularly impressive or imaginative, even if the pages turn smoothly and the occasional passing insight is on offer. Neither offensiveness nor high culture references can disguise the lurking suspicion that the writer is as shallow and limited in his understanding of the world as his protagonist. Therefore, even though much of the first half of the novel is given over to Florent recalling various past romantic and sexual encounters, his understanding of relationships is so limited as to be tiresome ... even this account of an uprising reveals the limitations of Houellebecq’s craft. There is the language, of course, an easily digestible mash that seems to channel self-help books, thrillers, and the overwrought style of the early-twentieth-century American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft ... In spite of the desire to provide social commentary on current conditions in France, Houellebecq does so only in sporadic fashion ... His interest is not in groups or collectives or even in social breakdown, except when refracted through the bourgeois male ... Houellebecq’s penchant is for the sentimental and the melodramatic rather than the subtle ... suggests that we need to be very sick indeed to match the spirit in which Houellebecq wrote the book.
Nabarun Bhattacharya, Trans. by Sunandini Banerjee
RaveThe Paris ReviewIt wasn’t a book so much as a bomb, assembled with precision and intent. It was as if Bhattacharya had meticulously gathered fragments from a broken, fractured world, wiring the parts together with language and soldering the terminals with humor, compassion, and rage—and then set the story on a timer ... Harbart demolishes...established pieties right from the start ... The skeleton of synopsis and plot...can indicate only haltingly the exceptional achievement of Harbart, the kind of artistic and political breakthrough it exemplifies. It is not operating, in spite of its astutely observed details of social milieu, character, and cityscape, within the frame of conventional realism ... it moves rapidly in time, compressing entire centuries of violent history (colonialism, the Communist and Naxalite movements, the corruption of the postcolonial state, the counterrevolution of the market) into the brief life of its protagonist while also inserting a kind of magic realism ... The work...lives on, its aesthetics and politics showing a new way for fiction in an India drowning under the onslaught of corporations and right-wing politics, weakly oscillating between globalization’s fading sun and fascism’s stormy promise.
PanThe New RepublicIn these scenes, in spite of the coffee beans Mokhtar has rather painstakingly collected, Yemen seems to push itself out of the pages with a certain determination, asserting itself as a place and a people that cannot be reduced either to a single commodity or to a mere backdrop for some kind of American finding-of-the-self project ... as Eggers returns with Mokhtar to California, it becomes clear that these complexities do not interest him—that his interest in Yemen does not go beyond what Chinua Achebe, in his withering comment on Joseph Conrad, called the Eurocentric tendency to reduce Africans to 'the role of props' for the self-involved drama of the Western mind ... Eggers ends up seeing only what he wants to see and showing only what he wants to show. Those choices have far less to do with Mokhtar or coffee or Yemen than with Eggers’s own approach to his story—his attempt to show a world of daring and enterprise, in which Americans rise from rags to riches through sheer chutzpah.
PositiveThe New York Times Sunday Book Review[Davis] wants us to engage in a minute scrutiny of language, to pay attention to the valence of words and the logic of syntax for what they reveal of character, interiority and story. Sprinkling her present collection with aphorisms, anecdotes and internal monologues, she ensures that we will read very carefully indeed … Against all expectations, Davis coaxes idiosyncrasies of personality and society from a dry subject, but ultimately the writer’s intelligence and expertise are more memorable than the character studies conducted through laboratory samples of language. Still, when Davis sets her fiction fully loose to ponder questions of language and being, the results can be remarkable … Her belief that language is both the subject and the medium of fiction has not led her, as we might expect, into solipsistic echo chambers, but into new worlds.
PanThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewThe personal is political, the countercultural upheavals of the ’60s claimed, but in Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, which takes its inspiration from an Indian variant of that upheaval, it is the political that is always personal … Lahiri’s work has always seemed much more assured within the tighter confines of the short story than the novel...If some of those strengths are present in the new novel, they seem adrift in its larger swaths of time and space, diluted by waves of politics and history that Lahiri herself has chosen to bring in … all four generations of the family appear strangely bereft, not so much upwardly mobile immigrants making it into the promised land as much as characters flailing at the boundaries of life.