My initial response when I started to read Helen Mundler’s Three Days by the Sea (Holland House Books, 300 pages) was “Yes, we need more of this.” In addition to the interest of the story, the book serves as a reminder of the strengths of literary realism, at a time when for many readers, journalism and nonfiction have replaced the novel as a chronicle of lived experience.
This situation is the product of a changing culture but it’s also, I think, the fault of many novelists, who too often settle for what I’ve come to think of as “weather report realism.” In these novels, Plot X or Y occurs against a backdrop of dutiful descriptions of everyday life, a supposedly reliable accounting of facial expressions, brand names and what the weather was like that day.
Of course life is full of facial expressions and brand names and weather, but verisimilitude is not an end in itself. Saying as much is nothing new. Surely it’s what Willa Cather had in mind when she defended the novel démeublé. As a masterful realistic writer, she knew the risks of her chosen mode. An artist can faithfully render how life appears while neglecting how it feels. “How wonderful,” Cather observed, “it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.” Continue reading →
What made Orwell’s 1984 a classic? The language of this high-school required reading isn’t particularly memorable, with the obvious exception of phrases like, “war is peace,” and “ignorance is strength.” The plot swings rustily on an ill-fated romance in the first part. The lovers, Winston and Julia, are unlikable, one-dimensional, selfish anybodies. In the second part, Winston’s torturer O’Brien, like Milton’s Satan, steals the literary stage for a bit, but, even so, his evil nature lacks style, compared to, say, Medea or the Judge. Remarkably, however, I will say, that, as tragedies go, 1984 pulls its hero down lower than any Greek drama or Cormac McCarthy novel that I can think of. Winston Smith ends in total dehumanization when he accepts Big Brother into his heart as his savior.
It may be the bleakest book.
What made the book so popular—beyond its utility to American Cold War propagandists targeting Soviets—is that the literary naturalism brought the imagined surveillance state into reality. The gritty dismal future was made concrete and literal. Fully realized fear powerfully attracts readers. This is your future. Here we are. Continue reading →
THE BRAVURA BEGINNING
The beginning of this novel (Random House, 262 pages), pervaded, as one reviewer writes, with “dazzling cinematic bravura,” is worth citing at some length. The protagonist Joe Rose, a science writer, and his wife Clarissa Mellon—a university professor who has just returned to London from the U.S., where she was doing research on the poet John Keats—are about to have a picnic.
“This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand [for the bottle of wine], and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me. Continue reading →
Though I spent a not inconsequential portion of my early-twenties leisure time at Bay Street in Sag Harbor, where such reggae luminaries as Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Lucky Dube frequently performed, I did not know that not far from the concert venue was a neighborhood that had been built by African-American families after World War II. That neighborhood, made up of Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Nineveh, is geographically and existentially at the center of Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (Penguin/Random House, 352 pages).
Early in the novel, the now grown-up narrator Benji recalls his fifteen-year-old self settling into Sag Harbor for the summer of 1985 and contemplates the mythical aura that surrounded some of the people who came before him:
“What I did know about DuBois was that he fell into the category of Famous Black Folk—there was a way people said certain names so that they had an emanation or halo. The respectful way my mother pronounced DuBois told me that the man had uplifted the race.”
Continue reading →
Citadel (Global, 372 pages) is a much needed, unforgiving and unapologetic evisceration of the idea of female inferiority we have so primitively accepted today and throughout history. Remick shows tremendous skill in the way he attacks such a heated and complicated subject. He never shies away from the atrocious acts of violence against women, but neither does he lose the magic of his whirlwind storytelling in favor of lecture. Citadel is an honest, sometimes savage look at the relationship between men and women, and what the world could be like if women were in control.
Trisha de Tours is an editor at Pinnacle Books and has been directed by her boss to find a bestseller. When she finds out the new resident in her condos, Daiva Izokaitis, has a manuscript called Citadel, she agrees to read it. Trisha soon finds out Daiva is a literary rebel, refusing to adhere to the fundamentals of writing and later refusing to participate in the editing process, yet she has created a revolutionary novel that overcomes Trisha so completely we see her drown in the story, and reemerging a different woman. Continue reading →
THE GREAT AMERICAN BOONDOGGLE
(The Sad State of the American Short Story)
The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening? Continue reading →
Edoardo Nesi’s new novel, Infinite Summer, translated from the Italian by Alice Kilgarriff (Other Press, 320 pages), takes place in Tuscany between August 1972 and August 1982, right in the middle of the period known in Italy as the “Years of Lead,” a period of social and political turmoil marked by left-wing and right-wing killings and bombings. Knowing a bit of this history gives the novel a feeling of unfolding in an alternate Italy, an Italy of booming growth, expanding global markets for Italian goods, and limitless possibilities.
Nesi is a translator, writer, filmmaker, and politician. He has translated Bruce Chatwin, Malcolm Lowry, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace, among others. He’s written a dozen books, one of which, Fughe da Fermo, was made into a film that he directed. In 2013 he was elected to the Italian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. Continue reading →
I listened to the audiobook of Purity (FSG, 576 pages) as I was held captive on a thirty-five hour road trip. Although the first fifty pages or so had some wit and interesting characters, such as Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange persona, Purity soon devolved into stylistically bland chicklit. Jenna Lamia narrates the part of the twenty-something title character, with, appropriately for the writing style, that special millennial lilt that seems to run out of energy at the end of every sentence. The remaining 526 pages were concerned with relationship negotiations between men and women, children and parents. People complain, worry about their self-image, elaborate the details of “he said, she said” and, instead of having interests in the world, all the characters try to control and manage how other people feel about them. The characters are pure self-interest without any self-reflection. Worse yet, the plot is straight about of a women’s drug store novel: Purity’s love relationships fail as she seeks a father figure, having grown up without one. Confronting hard economic times and suffering through dead-end jobs, she finally stumbles upon her father and discovers that she is an heiress.
Seriously. An heiress. Continue reading →
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 →
I like a book that’s unafraid of big themes, and this one has a beauty: mortality itself, the reality waiting behind our illusions of security. It’s a mythic idea, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, and Bowie clearly intends us to understand it in terms of the universal as well as the particular.
The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (Ogee Zakamora, 342 pages) begins rather slowly and at too much length, but pacing is less of an issue once the Palm Sunday riot at the Southwest Ohio Correctional Facility is fully underway and the initial explosion of violence settles into unmitigated tension. Length works then, mimicking the ongoing, endless strain. Personalities emerge, and we begin to hold our breath. Continue reading →