This week’s Fab Five includes Ruth Franklin on Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, Jeremy O. Harris on Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, David L. Ulin on Anna Kavan’s Machines in the Head, Jen McDonald on William T. Vollmann’s The Lucky Star, and Alexandra Harris on Anne Enright’s Actress.
“If Station Eleven is a mosaic—we see the outlines of the picture nearly at once, but precisely how the pieces fit together appears later—The Glass Hotel is a jigsaw puzzle missing its box. At the book’s start, what exactly it is about or even who the major figures are is unclear … in contrast to the elegiac mood of Station Eleven, with its longing for a never-to-be-recovered past, The Glass Hotel moves forward propulsively, its characters continually on the run. Still, the harder they try to escape their histories, the more persistently they are pulled back, often by visions of the people they’ve wronged. These ghosts are not emissaries come to do malice or wreak vengeance, as we usually imagine them to be; they are physical manifestations of guilty consciences … If anything can happen in life, if anything is possible, then the novel form—which takes those possibilities and multiplies them on a metaphysical scale—becomes the ultimate way to express those variations. That’s precisely why Mandel has brought back characters from her previous novel and spun them in a new direction: to demonstrate the infinite possibilities available to a writer of fiction … In our own fractured times, omniscient narrators have come to be viewed with suspicion, and an experimental minimalism often seems to be the only way to describe our lives now. Mandel’s affirmation that a somewhat old-fashioned fictional model is not only relevant to our alarming new world but also deeply appropriate for it manages, remarkably, to feel both consoling and revolutionary.”
“In Taylor’s stunning debut, Real Life, quiet diligence toward one’s goals mutates into a spiral that leaves the mind and body bruised as if survivors of a psychic war zone … a novel that probes—painstakingly, with the same microscopic precision its protagonist uses in the lab—the ways that an anxious queer black brain is mutated by the legacies of growing up in a society…where the body that houses it is not welcome. It is a curious novel to describe, for much of the plot involves excavating the profound from the mundane … Taylor proves himself to be a keen observer of the psychology of not just trauma, but its repercussions: how private suffering can ricochet from one person to injure those caught in his path … The novel’s at times stunted and awkward dialogue…can clash with its often tight, beatific prose. Yet much like the tropes of queer literary lust that populate the final half of the novel…even this halting dialogue never feels wholly out of step with Wallace’s psyche, which itself functions in discordant, sometimes off-putting, thrillingly contradictory ways. Add to all this Taylor’s deeply rooted understandings of the rarefied worlds of both provincial grad school life and biochemistry in particular, which should inspire envy in every writer striving for specificity. There is a delicacy in the details of working in a lab full of microbes and pipettes that dances across the pages like the feet of a Cunningham dancer: pure, precise poetry … Taylor subjugates us with the deft hand of a dom to the airless vertigo that rests at the heart of the spiral.”
“In a very real sense, then, Kavan was a creation, not a stand-in or alter ego so much as a character dreamt into being. Beginning in 1940, she published ten books of fiction using her adopted identity; several others have been issued posthumously … a remarkable collection, composed of narratives so relentlessly self-eviscerating that to read them feels like peeling off your skin. That’s because Kavan is not especially compelled by the banalities of conventional fiction … As in the stories of Kafka, whom she admired, such ambiguities are intentional, woven into the fabric of not only the narrative but also the universe; we have the sense that what she is creating is less fiction than a set of field notes, case studies, reports back from the edge of an emotional breach. Certainly, that’s consistent with her biography, which includes a history of heroin addiction and institutionalization. (It’s no coincidence that the first book she published as Kavan was called Asylum Piece.) In that regard, it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that taking on the persona of one of her characters allowed Kavan a certain freedom, the breadth not to hide but to reveal herself more fully from the perspective of a persona, or a shadow, brought to life … Here we see the conundrum of Kavan’s fiction: living is unbearable, but so too is its alternative. The only consolation must come from the inside—the dreamlife, as it were. And yet, what happens when the dreamlife is defined by nightmare, as it is in Kavan’s work? ‘So many dreams are crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false,’ she writes in a passage that echoes the title of the collection: ‘dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.’ What she, like Kafka, is describing is the experience of having nowhere to turn.
“…what’s driving this train? Vollmann writes in an afterword of his aspiration to give hope to ‘anyone who suffers the shame and isolation associated with nonconforming sexual identity,’ and says that with this novel, he’s tried to portray the ‘beautiful female strength’ exhibited by the ‘trannies, lesbians, showgirls’ who provided so much of his source material. Noble goals, for sure. But his narrative strategy threatens to derail them … is gilded with the signature Vollmann brew of erudition, irony, mysticism and banality … Yet in this novel pain is omnipresent, and only orgasmic pleasure (sometimes in the form of more pain) can turn things, fleetingly, right-side up. So we are also given a torrent of sex—sex that is often deadeningly unsexy, an exercise in desensitization through repetition … Vollmann’s prose can be evocative and deliciously incisive. But it is just as often clunky, flat, absurdly ornate or plain bad … With each passing page, I was more likely to groan not from pleasure but from boredom. This applied to the climaxing, but also to the chatter: the gossip, the confessions, the barside bromides, the characters’ ceaseless whining and rehearsals of anxieties and slights … Vollmann seems to want to restore balance, assign dignity, to those hobbled by a toxic standard. Maybe he would argue he has empowered his feminine characters by giving them voice, by rendering them in all their magnificent pathos. But this is a difficult idea to swallow in a novel where femininity is inextricably, exuberantly linked with miserable yearning and sexual objectification … If Vollmann’s vérité portraits are meant to stand alone as critique he has drowned himself out in an avalanche of piteousness and porn.”
“After the superbly expansive major chord of The Green Road, with its large Irish family pulled back by centripetal force to the Lear-like matriarch’s kitchen kingdom, Actress feels a more meditative, elusive, exploratory book. It is a study of sexual power and hurt in the glamorous, oppressive worlds of Hollywood and Irish theatre in the 1960s and 70s, told from the perspective of the 2010s. Norah, the daughter and narrator, is writing just before #MeToo, but she is thinking with acute intelligence about unspoken exploitations, about buried rage, its legacies and the possibility of change … the novel works by circling and revisiting certain encounters, weighing them for meaning, taking account of numbness and aberrant feeling. Rather than the strong arcs of loss and resolution in a Hollywood plot, Actress makes room for siftings and digressions … The atmosphere of extraordinary pressure and imperilled emotion that Enright evokes in this novel reaches beyond the mother-daughter pair, beyond the power struggles of actors and movie studios, out into the general Dublin night. And in trying to tell her story, Norah seems to shift that atmosphere a little. ‘Just my own hopefulness,’ she offers in parting.”