The year is 1937 and Leonora Calaway, a wealthy art collector, has gathered up the artists “the Führer decided were the most degenerate in Europe” and sailed to Costalegre in Mexico, where Surrealists and Dadaists, writers and painters, all live together to wait out the coming war. Continue reading…
Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski |
The Georgia Review, Spring 2019
I reviewed Lost Time for The Georgia Review’s Spring issue. Check it out here.
This rich, heartbreaking novel from the late Uruguayan writer Benedetti (1920–2009) (The Truce), first published in 1982, describes the devastating effects on one family of Uruguay’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s. Continue reading…
Delaume’s first novel to be translated into English is a sly and thorny work that loosely takes the form of a game of Clue, and even more loosely takes the form of a novel. The six murder suspects are psychiatric patients in Paris’s Saint-Anne’s Hospital, and each gets a few chapters providing their backgrounds, how they wound up institutionalized, and attributing to them a name from the board game. Continue reading…
Bosnian writer Bakic’s debut teems with the oddball narratives of George Saunders, the eerie atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe, and the feminist intellect of Marge Piercy. Her characters all, in one form or another, use language to survive, to manipulate, or to shine. Continue reading…
Poetry ought to be the preeminent form of this age — hell, every age. In a smattering of words, a poem can eulogize, satirize, criticize, proselytize. The greatest verse clues us into what Jane Hirshfield calls “poetry’s knowing,” its function of “clarification and magnification.” It’s the quintessential hybrid form: an amalgam of essay, lyric, story, polemic, and diary. Poets are penguins, to paraphrase E.E. Cummings. They use their wings to swim. Continue reading…
Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel. Continue reading…
A blistering and heartbreaking satire in which president Trump brings about a nuclear apocalypse, Doten’s second novel (after The Infernal) is by turns a dystopian nightmare, a cyber thriller, a spot-on treatise on memes, and a tragic tale of love and loss. Continue reading…
“Where were you when you first heard President Kennedy had been shot?” asks Bowman (1957–2012) in the opening of his big, bold, and brilliant posthumous novel, and for the next 600 pages, he investigates what occurred in the years leading up to that monumental event in American history. Through the lives of such iconic figures as Norman Mailer, Elvis, William de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Spock, Ngô Dihn Diem, the Kennedys themselves, and dozens of others, Bowman conjures an enormous narrative out of the troubled years from 1950 to 1963. Continue reading…
“Autobiographical” feels like the right description for Rachel Khong’s “Goodbye, Vitamin.” But because I don’t know whether her debut novel is based on her real life (and because it doesn’t matter if it is or not), I’ll say her novel feels “lived in.”
Khong has crafted a believably human protagonist in Ruth, a 30-year-old woman who’s back in her childhood home to help take care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. “Goodbye, Vitamin” follows Ruth’s adventures in her old stomping ground for one year, during which she also tends to her own problems, including a broken heart and a lack of purpose. Continue reading…
“People are bad at giving up,” a man tells the title character late in “Stephen Florida,” Gabe Habash’s debut novel. “A lot of the time they don’t do it early enough.” He’s commenting on life in the oil fields of North Dakota, where Stephen is considering a job after college, but he might as well be describing Stephen’s current situation: He’s a wrestler at Oregsburg College in the late 1970s, and it’s his senior year, which means it’s his last chance to win a collegiate championship. Habash’s novel follows Stephen through his event-filled final season and traces his complex inner turmoil as he pursues his unbending ambition to dominate the competition. By the time the above statement is made to Stephen, he’s veered far away from mere determination and ended up near monomania, and his will to win has become enmeshed in bitter jealousy, calculated malice and philosophical scrutiny. The sport itself, in other words, is beside the point, as are the actual benefits of succeeding. Stephen’s drive has brought him to the brink, but is it too late for him to give up? Continue reading...
Teju Cole’s newest work, “Blind Spot,” a collection of the author’s photos with accompanying textual commentary, is an eclectically brilliant distillation of what photography can do, and why it remains an important art form. Known for his novels “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief,” Cole also is the photography critic for New York Times Magazine, and a hell of a nonfiction writer to boot (his recent essay collection “Known and Strange Things” unambiguously demonstrates this). “Blind Spot” proves that Cole’s singular talents extend into picture-making, yes, but more than that, it shows what an extraordinarily gifted writer he is. Continue reading…
Kristen Radtke’s meditative graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This ruminates on ruin and decay—of an abandoned city, of a genetically faulty heart, of love and relationships, and, in the long run, of all things. Through black-and-white images with stark juxtapositions, Radtke braids together the death of her favorite uncle, Dan, the end of her engagement to her college boyfriend, her travels to various ruins around the world, and her own struggle to find a home somewhere that isn’t in the process of deteriorating. Continue reading…
For the New York Times Book Review, I reviewed essays collections by poetry critic David Orr, novelist and essayist Stanley Elkin, and food writer Betty Fussell! Check it out here!
In 1960, the writer Raymond Queneau and the engineer François Le Lionnais founded Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), which came to be known by the shorthand Oulipo. It was a literary movement principally focused on restraints—e.g., member Georges Perec’s 1969 novel A Void is a lipogram, a work that deliberately excludes a letter or letters, in Perec’s case the letter “e.” Other members of the distinguished group—which also included many mathematicians and engineers—were Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and the cartoonist Étienne Lécroart. Thus it was not something one could simply join.
“And then, one day,” the mathematician and writer Michèle Audin wrote recently, “the Oulipo becomes a reality for me: ‘it’ invites me to a meeting.” So Audin became one Oulipo’s few female members, and with the publication of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, she becomes only the second female member to publish a book in English (the first was Anne F. Garréta, author of Sphinx). She does not disappoint Oulipo’s legacy: One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a remarkable novel, a brilliant pastiche of varying styles and forms, elegantly crafted and intricately structured, but also one that never neglects the humane emotions and drama of which great novels are made. Continue reading…
This is my favorite epigraph attribution from all my published essays:
“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
—Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird…Continue reading…
ABSOLUTELY THRILLED TO REVIEW FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AGAIN!
In the early chapters of his second novel, “Ark,” Julian Tepper introduces three generations of the once-wealthy Arkin family through a series of phone calls that shift perspective from one speaker to another to another. It’s an efficient and notably cinematic technique: One may recall the introduction of the grown-up children in Wes Anderson’s film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which also uses correspondence to usher each character onscreen. (This could explain why the book jacket explicitly aligns “Ark” with Anderson’s work.) But in a novel, cinematic methods and the omniscient narration necessary to pull them off can lead to little hiccups of confusion, as when we first meet Rebecca Arkin, the nearest thing the book has to a protagonist: “Rebecca was in the middle of lunch. The man keeping her company was Randy Nobel, her colleague at the firm.” If this were a movie, the audience, having seen “the man keeping her company,” would of course implicitly understand to whom the narrator is referring — but a novel has no such visual cue, so when “the man” is mentioned here, I went back just to make sure he hadn’t been brought up previously. Continue reading…
Last summer, I wrote a piece about a number of books that were themselves about books, a category that happens to be my very favorite. Though I maybe should have anticipated it (it was, after all, a decidedly literary essay on a decidedly literary website), “The Best Books About Books” attracted a lot of attention—more so, I’m sure, because of the titles collected than for the quality of my writing. But nonetheless I was pleased to see those works receiving due promotion, which is mainly the only joy a critic experiences.
I reviewed A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass in the latest issue of The Scofield. Artist Chris Ames drew portraits of all the contributors, and <– here’s mine! Go to thescofield.com to download the Spring issue, also featuring Sven Birkerts, Idra Novey, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mira Jacob, D. Foy, Simon Critchley, and Sarah Gerard!
Now, six years on, Ward Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things — sometimes the only means of apt description — or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”
Anyway, so I spent my Superbowl Sunday organizing the most important section of any critic’s collection: literary criticism and biography. Not only is this my favorite shit to read, but I also refer to them so often that they’re also the most practically necessary. After I finished, I posted a photo of the beautifully and temporarily full shelves (I’ve already pulled like six books off that I’m using for current pieces) on Twitter, and someone asked me if I had any particular favorites. I wasn’t at home when I got the tweet, so to even consider responding at the time was unthinkable. I pondered for a few seconds before immediately becoming overwhelmed. When I returned later and stared at the shelves, it occurred to me that I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Perhaps this is because as a self-identifying literary critic there isn’t much else for people to ask me—this field doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting party talk. But whatever the reason, I thought I’d put together a list of the criticism that I most admire and to which I repeatedly refer. This is, of course, an extremely limited list, taken exclusively from books I own. Also for the sake of my sanity, I excluded all single-subject biographies and criticism on film or music; only fiction, poetry, and drama. Memoirs counted only if they directly involve other writers and/or the literary landscape of the era. It is in no way meant to be a list of the world’s indispensible literary criticism, only my own, and only so far.
The Door by Magda Szabó | Northwest Review of Books
Emerence is a housekeeper for a writer named Magda, and the two women couldn’t be any more different. That sentence, in all its ordinariness, could legitimately stand as a plot description for Magda Szabó’s subtle and fascinating novel The Door. The events that take place are dramatic at times, to be sure, but they function more as isolated incidents rather than a narrative whole. Emerence is the through-line; she is the connective tissue that brings together the disparate parts to make a body. She is—like Gatsby, Ahab, or Daisy Miller—what I call a study character, an important figure that a narrator is unable to fully understand but who is also unalterably enmeshed in their psyche. Emerence, in all her extremely fine details, her many contra-dictions, her utter singularity as a character, is one of the most compelling people I’ve met in recent fiction. She is a classic; she is a magical, mysterious presence that makes The Door a masterpiece.
Infinite Jest 20th Anniversary Edition!
I’m quoted and named on the back cover! What an honor! David Foster Wallace is one of my biggest heroes and Infinite Jest was especially influential to me. This is one of the great thrills of my life.
I’M IN THE FUCKING NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE MY LIFE!!
“For the last 20 years, Helle Helle’s novels and short stories have made her a star in her native Denmark, where she regularly receives awards and acclaim. Denmark is also where, according to her biography, Helle “lives in a forest.” What a fittingly magical dwelling for Helle, who — judging from her first novel to be translated into English, “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense” — has enchanting gifts as a storyteller.” (More.)
As I write this, I can spot on my shelves the following books: On Writing, Zen in the Art of the Writing, The Art of Fiction, The Art of the Novel, Aspects of the Novel, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, This Year You Write Your Novel, Reading Like a Writer, and How Fiction Works. And I’ve read every damn one of them. Though some were revelatory—especially the first, by Stephen King, and the last, by James Wood—most of them failed to improve my writing, though they sure as hell improved my reading, and some left me discouraged and overwhelmed. Novelists and critics wrote these books, practitioners of the art, who, it mostly turns out, are terrifically adept at elucidating narrative strategies but less skilled at demonstrating how to put those techniques into practice. And often you’re left not with literary ability but a sense of awe at just how great the great writers are.
O Muse, Where is Wisława Szymborska’s Teeming Crowd? | Literary Hub
Last year saw the publication of Map: Collected and Last Poems, an extraordinary and vital summation of Szymborska’s decidedly modest output, and although critics positively and even sometimes excitedly reviewed it, the book didn’t sell tremendously well (and of course nothing like the 120,000 first edition of View with a Grain of Sand) and wasn’t noted in all those Best of 2015 lists. What a shame. Not only is Szymborska a major poet of the last half century but Map, as a reading experience, is wonderful, illuminating and enriching, a reminder that poetry can be direct, unadorned and still deeply moving. I cannot complain, of course, that Szymborska’s work is hopelessly obscure (because it isn’t) but I can be a tad disappointed that such a rare poet and such a brilliant, warm, and lovely book didn’t find more readers in 2015.
Writers at Work | Literary Hub
On 12 books and 4,500 pages of essay collections from Jessica Hopper, Richard Hell, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Lillian Ross, John Lahr, Joni Tevis, Greil Marcus, Helen Vendler, Jeff Nunokawa, Stanley Fish, and Edward Mendelson.
This year has given us essay collections by a wide variety of writers from different points in their careers—some life-spanning tomes, some brazen debuts, some posthumous celebrations, and one novelist working, as William Gass phrased it, “off duty.” And here I wish to discuss 12 of these books, in praise not just of the journalistic/critical essay as art but in general to all its eclectic practitioners—those often unknown and usually underpaid freelancers, those occasional contributors struggling to get by, those staff writers churning out 2,000-word pieces like a court stenographer, whose volume seems to reduce their artistry but who are merely practicing a different kind of art, one that necessarily responds and reacts to the world and its daily shifts, and so instead represents not a finished product but a process of continual creation—here’s to writers at work.
In Praise of the New Modernists |
More recently—say, in the last 20 years or so—numerous so-called postmodern novels have contained this distinctly non-postmodern quality—not that the characters feel so much as the reader. The cumulative effect isn’t necessarily a fully fleshed-out character but a fully emotional experience. Think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s strong sentiments in the face of the Holocaust and 9/11; think of the alligator-wrestling family at the heart of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; think of the way Ali Smith works her linguistic magic in order to convey the complexities of love and relationships; or the heart-breaking wallop of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary; think of Reif Larsen’s I am Radar, of Zadie Smith’s NW, of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Can these books truly be considered postmodern when the most prevalent aspect is emotion rather than thought?
Genoa (1965) by Paul Metcalf | Northwest Review
We as a nation would do well to follow the lead of Paul Metcalf, an experimental writer who died in 1999. His 1965 novel Genoa, reissued by Coffee House Press to celebrate its 50th anniversary, contends with exactly these kinds of forces. The present action of the novel is pretty bare bones: Michael Mills, a man with a medical degree but who can’t bring himself to practice, sifts through the detritus of his attic while his children watch television downstairs. That’s really it. Throughout, Michael quotes Melville and Christopher Columbus for various reasons and in various ways; a good chunk of the book is made up of quotations. But the novel is really about the convergence of three threads: 1. Paul Metcalf’s relation to Herman Melville (he was Metcalf’s great-grandfather), 2. Columbus’s relation to America, and 3. the character Michael’s relation to his brother Carl, who was executed for murder. These three notions intertwine and correspond in complex ways throughout the novel.
In Praise of Unlinked Story Collections | Literary Hub
But what I want to praise are collections in which the stories are unrelated, in which the characters are distinct, and the whole of the book isn’t a perfectly cohesive unit but is instead a messy depiction of numerous lives. Of course we assume that writers and publishers spend a lot of time organizing each story of a collection; we believe they try to create a thematic arc, a rhythm to the order, which hopefully makes the reading experience more consistent and enjoyable. But here’s the thing: this matters to me not at all. I do not need a collection to feel “cohesive,” nor do I spend too much time considering the order. Rather, what I adore is precisely the opposite: a rattling journey from plot to plot, from character to character, from idea to idea.
Just Who is This Oscar Wilde Person, Anyway? | The Georgia Review, Summer ’15
My essay review of three books on Oscar Wilde––David M. Friedman’s Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity; Roy Morris Jr.’s Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America; and Antony Edmonds’ Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath––appears in the Summer 2015 of The Georgia Review. Buy a copy here.
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith | Northwest Review
Tracy K. Smith’s exquisite memoir Ordinary Light primarily traces three narrative threads—her relationships with her mother, with religion, and with herself—which are all tied together by Smith’s discovery of poetry. Raised in a Baptist family, Smith struggled through much of her life to resolve the ever-growing conflict between the certainty of her mother’s beliefs and the ambiguity of the real world. She found a kind of happy medium with poetry and went on to publish three volumes of it, the latest of which, 2012’s Life on Mars, won a Pulitzer Prize.
A Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man | The Millions
Here is James Wood’s newest work, The Nearest Thing to Life, taken from a series of lectures given at Brandies and the British Museum. This book, which manages to be even slimmer than How Fiction Works, also manages to be even better. The Nearest Thing to Life is as close as we’ll ever get to a manifesto from the British-born New Yorker critic. Contained in the book’s 134 pages is a passionate defense of criticism, a memoir of Wood’s early life and influences, and an insightful study of the meaning of fiction.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy | The Rumpus
On the cover of Tom McCarthy’s new novel, a number of words appear crossed out. “A manifesto,” “an essay,” “a report,” “a confession,” and “a treatise” are all struck through, leaving only the words “a novel” un-slashed. But none of these terms quite captures what Satin Island really is: a polemic.
Saint Friend by Carl Adamshick | Tupelo Quarterly
If someone had the gumption to go around and ask everyday Americans to name a poem, nearly all of them would certainly supply an answer. One might hear, as a reply, Poe’s “The Raven” or Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred” or Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” But if this same pollster were to ask these citizens to name a single volume of poetry, a collection, how many would be able to come up with a title?
Late Lights by Kara Weiss | PANK
Late Lights is a book of stories so connected, they basically make up a novel. But at 123 pages, it’s more like a novella in stories, a combination of two types of fiction that don’t ordinarily sell well. Story collections, the popular publishing wisdom goes, only interest MFA students, while novellas, apparently, interest no one. That Weiss not only published the book but also won two Next Generation Indie Book Awards makes the rarity of her achievement all the more atypical.
All the Dumb Young Literary Stand-ins | The Millions
I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way.
Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession by Andrew Brininstool | Necessary Fiction
Sometimes Brininstool’s stories recall Tom Perrotta, the master of suburban ennui, while at other times there is the undeniable influence of George Saunders. You get the feeling of a novice (though very talented) writer finding his voice. The book works better in individual stories than it does as a whole. The two best pieces here are worth the cover price, and it seems no coincidence that they do not feature callow, equivocating men.
The David Foster Wallace Reader | The Millions
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith | The Rumpus
How To Be Both is, after The Accidental, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, and Artful, Smith’s fifth masterpiece in a row. Her inimitable writing sneaks into you with its deceptive readability, but it’s her radiating intelligence that stays with you. Her mind works wonders on a theme, able to find lovely and profound connections in seemingly anything. She’s a passionately caring writer whose emotional generosity spills out into her pages, trickling out of her books like an overflowing champagne flute.
Twenty Poems That Could Save America by Tony Hoagland | The Rumpus
These essays form a slowly accumulating argument for the Hoagland’s vision of poetic efficacy. He is itemizing the major components of successful (and enlightening and potentially useful) poems in order to establish the premises for his larger argument. Like many essay collections, Twenty Poems can be viewed as a subtle manifesto, a whisper to action. If that’s so, then what is his argument? What action does he want us to take?
If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train by Ryan Werner | PANK
Leyner in My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist relished in pointing to the fabricated nature of fiction. Werner, though, has a different intention: his stories portray a particular group of young people in a particular part of the Midwest in a particular age. These stories are about the moment, and ultimately, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Fortress by Kristina Marie Darling | Tarpaulin Sky
Fortress is an intensely effective work that demonstrates the emotional power of literary subversion. It shows how postmodern techniques can work in concert with sincerity and truth. The pages in the book are mostly blank; only the notes survive. And, often—in life and in love—that’s all we get, when all is said and done.