The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

In Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending (Penguin Random House, 2011), we meet a narrator in the long tradition of the sad-sack loser telling his story. Anthony (Tony) Webster, resident of London, now in his sixties, looks back on his life from present time. The novel begins as Tony recalls his days as a student, a time when his life appeared to have a good deal of promise. We meet him as a teenage schoolboy in a public boys school—“public” being the British for “private”—pondering, along with his best friends Alex and Colin, certain grand philosophical issues, such as What is history?
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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” (Roger Bevins III, p. 304)

Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.

George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them.

Some of the deceased, so we’re told, resist the matterlightblooming, preferring to hang around in a limbo, neither fish nor fowl. Saunders uses the term “bardo” (borrowed, apparently, from Tibetan religious tradition) for that liminal state, although a better title for this book might be something like Lincoln in Liminality. Why? Because the novel is eminently American, it is anchored in American history; therefore, it might be better not to bring in an obscure term from an alien tradition. Sometimes it seems, at any rate, as if we were looking at some standard purgatory, as in the passage where a former hunter is forced to sit before an enormous heap of the animals he had killed over a lifetime, “each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months.” Continue reading

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Idiot (Penguin Press, 423 pages) is a debut novel by a young writer who promises to do big things in the future. Apparently the title, borrowed from Dostoevsky, refers to the main character and narrator of the story, Selin Karadag (the g is silent), who is a young woman from New Jersey of Turkish background (like the author herself). Far from being an idiot, Selin—in this novel prominently featuring words and languages—is highly intelligent. At age eighteen, as she enters Harvard University, she already speaks English and Turkish fluently, has a passable knowledge of Spanish. Over the course of the book she studies, as well, Russian and Hungarian. Her quest for new words is insatiable. Continue reading

Worthy of This Great City by Mike Miller

This tale of the inner workings of city politics in Philadelphia, Worthy of This Great City (Jam Publishing, 249 pages), is what you might term an impressionistic novel. Meaning that it consists of a plethora of descriptions of people and scenes with very little progression of plot. The reader steps back from the many colored dots and contemplates the thing as a whole, and that’s when it begins to come into focus.

Teeming with characters who play minor roles, the book has essentially only two main characters. The first of these is Constantine Manos, an investigative journalist, who is doing a feature article on the second, Ruth Askew, a radio personality on a local station and the wife of Councilman Thom Askew. Continue reading

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Don’t bother reading all the blurbs that go with the paperback edition of this book (The Sympathizer, Grove Press, 382 pages). Just read the first page; already you know you are in the presence of a talented writer. Here’s how we begin:

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” Continue reading

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

bezmozgis-cover-the-free-worldAs a child on his way to a new home in Canada, David Bezmozgis himself went the way of the fictitious characters in this novel, The Free World (FSG, 356 pages). The book is set in 1978, and mention is frequently made of what is going on in the world at the time of the action. For example, “in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border.” Meanwhile, “Begin was in America meeting with Carter and the Egyptian Sadat.” Continue reading

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

tigerswifeLike many who have read this first novel, written by a young woman still in her twenties, I marvel at the very existence of the The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 338 pages). How could someone this young have written a narrative this complicated, this full of insights into human nature, this teeming with art—this GOOD? I have read several reviews of the book online and I marvel once again at the caviling, the failure to appreciate the book on the part of some reviewers. Have American readers become so inured to the genre of “domestic literary realism,” this dull, insipid stuff that dominates the publishing world these days—stories of ordinary Americans doing ordinary things, told, for the most part, in flat ordinary language—that they fail to appreciate something with genuine verve and brilliance? Continue reading