Benjamin Anastas

  • Let’s Do Launch

    The Clinton Hill brownstone where Kathleen Alcott’s second novel, Infinite Home (2015), is largely set is about as far away from the Apollo program’s Lunar Module—Lem, in NASA-speak—as fictional territory can be. Edith, the elderly landlord of this neglected five-unit dream factory, hasn’t raised the rent in fourteen years and lives in closer communion with the neighborhood’s past than its multi-racial, gentrifying present; the tenants are eccentrics with maladies and psychic wounds that make it impossible for them to traffic in the world outside. One night, when Edith wanders disoriented into

  • Listening In

    Early on in Javier Marías’s reputation-galvanizing novel A Heart So White (1992), the narrator, Juan, lies awake on his honeymoon in Havana listening to a couple argue in the hotel room next door. The man on the other side of the wall is a Spaniard, like Juan, and he has a wife back in Madrid; the woman is his tough-talking Cuban mistress. They seem to be hashing out a plot to murder the Spaniard’s wife. Juan’s new bride, Luisa, is also eavesdropping from bed, but she pretends to be asleep. Both Juan and Luisa work as translators at diplomatic congresses and cultural events—a typical profession

  • Absence Makes the Art

    Marcos Giralt Torrente’s short-story collection The End of Love is haunted by an ellipsis. There it is in the first story, “We Were Surrounded by Palm Trees,” right where the eye rests, intervening with a pause before we’ve even read the opening lines: “. . . I remember when it started. There is one scene that comes back to me, frequently, though it seems arbitrary to focus on it.” The scene our narrator fixates on—hesitantly, with the attention, it seems, of a writer—takes place on an unnamed island in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa. It is familiar enough in fiction involving travel

  • Elmer Gantry (1927) by Sinclair Lewis

    It’s hard to pin down a signal moment when reality in America, as Philip Roth first claimed, became too unruly a beast—too repellent in its pieties, too cheap in its tastes, too nakedly consumed with its own advancement—for the novelist to try and capture it without the extreme risk of badness. But my vote is for the 1920s, a decade, let’s not forget, that featured Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Ku Klux Klan, and the staged kidnapping of “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson, the biggest radio evangelist of the day—and that’s just a partial list.

    Sinclair Lewis’s howl of outrage

  • Power Play

    Once upon a time, Ian McEwan was content to snare readers with his literary gamesmanship and stun them into submission with his talent for revealing the unsettling and irresistibly deviant appetites that undergird life. Thanks to early books like First Love, Last Rites (1975), The Cement Garden (1978), and The Comfort of Strangers (1981) and their tightly plotted agonies of flesh and mind, the press gave McEwan the nickname Ian Macabre. While the exact point of progression is arguable, ever since his missing-child epic, The Child in Time (1987), McEwan has undertaken a much larger, more ambitious

  • God, Living Is Enormous

    It’s typical of God’s vanity that, after creating the heavens and the earth and all that goes with them, he had to go ahead and claim the word for his son’s business. “In the beginning was the Word,” the opening lines of the Gospel of John instruct, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Ever since, the power to capitalize the w has been the prize that nearly every writer would kill for—or die trying. If the poem is a salvo at the skies and the play a pincer movement, then the novel is a full-blown putsch. It creates its own firmament between two covers, divides light from darkness,

  • Northern Enclosure

    "My worst nightmare was a boring nightmare," Art Bechstein tells us in Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published to rapturous acclaim in the distant year of 1988, "the dream of visiting an empty place where nothing happened, with awful slowness." Bechstein, a dreamer in the tradition of both Neil Klugman (the lustful protagonist of Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's more platonic Jay Gatz, was describing his job at Boardwalk Books, the store where his imagination took a breather in between adventures. "The job had no claim upon me," Bechstein