MixedThe Washington PostA kind of California neo-neo-noir, rebooting the genre’s saturated nightmares for the 21st century ... Madievsky’s narrator unfortunately spends more time poeticizing than proving Debbie’s charm ... For this reason, the grit in this novel sometimes feels unearned ... It feels as if Madievsky hurtles past...figures in a determination to reach the climactic peaks of her novel.
R. F. Kuang
PanThe Washington PostKuang’s narrative palpates the nuances of cultural performance and writerly ethics, finally concluding that all authors steal for material anyway ... By making Athena into an avatar of literary ruthlessness, Kuang transforms what could have been a character with foibles and compulsions into a universal, and thus somewhat boring, archetype: the writer who wrecks her relationships and transgresses every boundary for the sake of her work ... This figure is that perfect romantic compound of bad person and good artist, but it is only an ideal, and thus tedious to encounter in a novel ... June’s background is composed of heavy-handed mentions of family strife and a description of college-era sexual trauma, but her personality remains mostly undelineated, clunking into gear only when the plot needs it to ... June’s stupidity is so obvious that it feels scheduled ... None of this is helped by the novel’s treatment of its publishing industry milieu. Even as June is saved at every turn by oblivious and insensitive publishing professionals, the book neglects to describe the shared mannerisms, rituals or lodestars that give an industry its texture. The literary agents in “Yellowface” are so lacking in specificity as to be interchangeable, but not in a redemptively parodic way. Elsewhere, the novel lurches into colorless, explanatory asides about publishing that are so functional, it’s as if an old TV has been wheeled out ... Perhaps Yellowface has demonstrated that our world is simply not load-bearing enough to support a traditional literary satire.
Corinne Hoex, tr. Caitlin O’Neil
PositiveThe Atlantic... offers not so much a contribution to this problem as a path of diversion—a refreshing shortcut through the thickety discourses of sex, power, and consent. The destination, the clearing in the forest, is pleasure. Hoex’s book, which unfolds as a series of presumed dreams about the unnamed narrator’s entanglements with different men, flaunts an obsession with heterosexual romance, that wellspring of so much contemporary anxiety. Yet these uncanny erotic couplings aren’t plagued by the neuroticism of modern-day encounters; they take place in a humid atmosphere of surrealism and sensory profusion, sometimes even going beyond the realm of the human. Through these encounters, Hoex’s narrator seems able to perceive the lucid image of her own pleasure, which in real life—surveilled and structured as it is by the male gaze—women rarely get to do ... Hoex substitutes feeling for overthinking—the writing foregrounds material texture and taste, modeling a sort of Epicureanism of stimulation ... The men in Gentlemen Callers change, but Hoex pursues this commitment to the sensory with a religious seriousness ... Hoex’s verbs are fevered and dramatic, but unlike the prose of smut, also otherworldly ... Far from the brute literality of bodice-rippers, Hoex’s writing deploys the abstraction of poetry, as bodily pleasure folds into the pleasure of the surprisingly well-placed word ... Hoex, however, makes these two options feel like flipping, on and off, the same tired light switch. Can’t we imagine the outer limits of sex without anxiety? Can’t we believe in a pleasure that is new, perhaps disquieting—but not at risk of moral failure? The answer may be no. But in its love for a preposterous and ever-changing desire, Gentlemen Callers is less a switch than a floodlight cranked to full power; it shines, into the corners of ordinary life, a diffusive and even humorous erotics. And if Hoex ultimately tables necessary questions about consent and violence, she does offer us an imaginative alternative whose urgency and fidelity to naive pleasure is, in its own way, political.
Olga Ravn, Tr. Martin Aitkin
PositiveBookforumFor the reader...time functions like a loose knob, to be rolled and fiddled with desultorily; you can read The Employees according to pagination or statement number, but the ending never changes, a narrative deadlock that Ravn pulls off with grace. Readers can only guess which character is behind which statement, a situation further complicated by the fact that some members of the crew are humanoids rather than \'born\' humans ... The Employees feels close to Greek mythology. Like the figures of an epic, the workers seem composed of equal parts fate and randomness, automation and rebellion. The actual business of the Six Thousand Ship is nevertheless wholly modern: resource extraction, as employees make occasional excursions to harvest commodities known only as \'objects.\' These soon come to derail—delightfully—both the ship’s functioning and its crew’s philosophizing ... In Ravn’s telling, humanity is sometimes as mute and yielding as objecthood, especially when steered between the trammels of a workday. Objecthood, meanwhile, can be the animating force behind everything.
Jay Caspian Kang
MixedJewish CurrentsThe Loneliest Americans tells a melancholic story about political knowledge’s emotional rub. Though Kang doesn’t say so explicitly, his book brings together tales of Asians who feel the knowledge they have is useless, corrosive, or impossible to act upon ... Through its blend of memoir and polemic, The Loneliest Americans chronicles the disjuncture between theoretical and felt identity, producing in the process an interpretation of Asian America that is as much a disquisition on knowledge as on race ... Kang’s book is generative and important because it asks the questions that Asian identity politics has until now ignored: What happens when our feelings split off from our well-trammelled intellectual principles, or when we try to cultivate knowledge that we can’t manage, emotionally, to endorse? ... Kang deftly embarks on a kind of truthful naysaying, poking necessary holes in elite Asians’ strained \'racework\' ... The result, however, is that Kang’s writing is sometimes burdened by an anxiety over authenticity ... Kang’s book could have benefited from more real-world context around the processes by which a racialized political subjectivity is formed.
Anthony Veasna So
RaveThe Atlantic... has almost no white people in it but plenty of humor ... a world dappled in patterns of light and dark humor; readers trespass, knowing that the jokes are funny but not always made for their benefit. So’s humor is free from hand-wringing over appropriateness or respectability politics. There’s only the snarky aside, which gives the reader a feeling of being privileged, in the sense of being specially chosen as a confidant ... Irreverent lines like these suggest that So trusted his reader as much as he loved his subjects. Rather than stage his characters in easily comprehensible postures, gathering them around the mythic American dream at self-serious angles, he shows them to us as they loll about in the dream’s afterparty. Here the lights are dimmer, the truths blurrier, the hangover incoming. There are no easy answers on how characters might digest communal trauma or shrug off the past, yet they continue to ask themselves the same question that closes The Shop: \'But what,\' wonders the narrator, \'will we do after?\'
MixedThe New RepublicPeople who read and write literature like to invoke the myth that storytelling is an emancipatory, even life-sustaining, exercise, but in Topics its potential feels suspect ... The book knows that an ability to monologue articulately about destabilizing life events represents the culmination of a longer emotional process by which trauma calcifies into anecdote, the thing one can stash away and bring out at will. Every woman in Popkey’s book is allowed to tell her story in full ... The book deftly reflects this sense of depletion and stasis; it is forthright about its own clichés, leaning hard into their sordid edges ... Other times, playing to type can feel like a betrayal of principle ... the task becomes more complex on the level of individual narrative, where Popkey must simultaneously valorize the self-expression of her female characters, show how their feelings may have been conditioned by misogyny, and also maintain that this conditioning does not disqualify them as autonomous, free-thinking people ... The book’s final chapter daringly undercuts Topics’ structural conceit, which is that every story possesses inherent, equal value and is deserving of receptive attention.
PositiveThe New Republic...malaise is Sleeveless’s specialty. Whether it’s a Chanel-suited fundraiser or the after-party for an \'underwear exhibition,\' Stagg relates her observations and arguments in the same flat affect, making it difficult to distinguish the fictional segments of Sleeveless from the non-fictional. The blurring feels appropriate at a time when confessional Instagram captions often double as ad copy. If this is the Age of Content, Stagg is interested in finding its literary boundaries ... Even as Sleeveless perfectly inhabits the disorienting feel of our digital times, Stagg also seems self-consciously frustrated with the book’s limits ... If the traditional bildungsroman metes out knowledge in slow and painful bursts, Stagg seems to possess, at the outset, a perfect understanding of our turbo-connected era. Sleeveless resonates with recent books by Sally Rooney, Halle Butler, and Ottessa Moshfegh, in which young women come of age but never quite feel a loss of innocence, often because they started out already familiar with the world’s limits and hypocrisies ... hese writers inhabit a sense of exhausted stagnation—the quality of being young and suddenly finding, in your hand, the frayed end of some narrative rope. The impression that reality is limited and predictable means that validation or hope, if they’re to be found, exist in the smaller but no less significant enclosure of the personal.
Olga Tokarczuk, Trans. by Jennifer Croft
RaveBookforumTokarczuk’s approach is precise: every detail, from flight times to the labels on travel toiletries, is accounted for ... Each narrative is preserved in the separate bell-jar of an individual journey, and yet the book’s toggling between centuries never feels jarring. Tokarczuk’s dry prose works to bind these fragments together, pervading the book like a quiet, unobtrusive hum ... Travel writing usually presents a linear narrative—asdepartures and returns easily correspond with beginnings and endings. But Tokarczuk complicates this. Her characters, like the book’s episodic structure, resist neat demarcations ... The book is like a map: including disparate parts not because they cause or connect to each other, but because their contours help clarify a wider, impersonal whole. In this way, Tokarczuk shows that even the loneliest traveler fits into a bigger scheme.