Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Americans have always had, in addition to wide-spread arrogance in imagining that their current literature is the best, the inferiority complex for not producing the Great Novel, nothing that could be compared with War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov or David Copperfield and Vanity Fair or Remembrance of the Things Past and Lost Illusions or The Magic Mountain and Tin Drum, or Don Quixote, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Of course, it could be argued that Moby Dick, Invisible Man, Grapes of Wrath, The American Pastoral (Roth addresses terrorism before it became the central American problem) or Continental Drift by Russell Banks are great American novels, but somehow the critics and reviewers are still dreaming of The Great American Novel. And this novel has been anointed as such by many. Continue reading

The Vanishing Moon by Joseph Coulson

Whereas we in the west speak of, and see, a “man” on the moon, the Chinese tell stories of and see a rabbit on the moon. Poet, playwright, and editor Joseph Coulson’s great first novel The Vanishing Moon (Archipelago Books, 330 pages) is hardly focused on the moon and yet it is, one might say, focused on the vanishing of beautiful things for which the elusive moon is a most, perhaps the most, romantic emblem: a unique book of pressed wildflowers; the innocence of children playing in the woods before they become conscious of a humiliating poverty; and the exceptional beauty of the unconsummated (preserving the sublime) over the requited (wallowing in the mire) Continue reading

Salvation and Other Disasters by Josip Novakovich

[Review adapted from an author introduction read at Dactyl Foundation October 2002 ] Despite the fact that Novakovich may write about what he knows — immigrant life or life in Croatia —  these stories not the  so-called “slice of life fiction” that is considered the epitome of realism these days. They are concerned with an artfulness in a way that much of contemporary fiction is not. They may remind you of myths. I want to make a comparison to one myth in particular, Oedipus Rex, not in terms of content but in terms of plot structure.

It has to do with the way he uses chance and coincidence. It’s something he does in many stories in his new collection, Salvation and Other Disasters, (Graywolf Press, 204 pages), Continue reading

Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

Black Dogs: A Novel (Nan A. Talese, 149 pages) is a skillfully written novel on an interesting and profound topic. McEwan does a wonderful job describing June, an eccentric old woman, the narrator’s mother-in-law. He also handles what could be a very artificial story device in a reasonably natural way. The idea of the book is to explore the conflicts between mystical thinking and rationality, and the narrator is interviewing and writing a memoir on his mother-in-law and father-in-law who represent those views respectively. This passage exemplifies well McEwan’s sensitivity and talent as a writer; Continue reading

The Sea by John Banville

The Sea (Knopf, 208 pages) Spoiler alert. I don’t care for surprise endings, so I’m going to give this one away. If you’re at all like me, you may find it preferable to know more than what the jacket cover reveals about the story, that there was a death in the narrator’s childhood that he revisits in memory as an old man. It isn’t until the end of the book that we finally learn who dies, twin children with whom he had shared a memorable summer. They intentionally drown themselves. And although all suicides may seem shocking and unnecessary, these two especially so. The narrator also conceals Continue reading