Christian Lorentzen

  • Tell Me Everything

    TELL ME A SECRET. In the abstract, it’s an awful request. It suggests that the asked has a repository of secrets to reveal at any time if the feeling is right; that the asker deserves to be told one or any of these secrets; that the revelation of the asked’s secret wouldn’t constitute a betrayal of some third party; that the asked is the sort of person who keeps secrets at all, i.e., either somebody with something to hide, or someone with an inner life and private history so special that no one would ever suspect it; that it’s charming to be someone with secrets, perhaps a little dangerous too;

  • Low Life

    Call it a curse for an American writer to be born in 1909. These authors matured into the Depression; were subject, if male, to the draft during wartime; passed into middle age during the Red Scare; and, if they were lucky enough to see the 1960s, witnessed liberations they were too old to savor. They also witnessed a sea change in American literary fashions, as the naturalism of the 1930s was demoted by a cadre of critics reorganizing the canon around Henry James. Some of them weren’t very lucky at all. A roll call includes James Agee, dead at forty-five of a heart attack in the back of a

  • Grace in the Hole

    The last lines of the last story in David Means’s new collection, “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother,” provide clues to his method and to the goals of his fiction. A man is driving away from the addiction-treatment center where he’s visited his homeless brother. He’s imagined a scenario of suicide: the discovery of his brother’s boots “near the edge of the palisade, the sheer drop-off to the shore of the river,” implying a spectacular jump that would indicate a sort of fatal liberation. He’s aware that his brother’s life will never yield such an episode of tragic catharsis. Nonetheless he

  • Notes on Campaign

    I spent some time on the campaign trail in 2016, and one thing that struck me about the genuine Trump supporters I met was that they seemed to be full of shit. The pronouncements they made were empty: that the Constitution would be imperiled if Donald Trump lost, that his defeat would spell the “end of America,” slogans they seemed to have picked up from fringe websites or AM radio stations. It was the enthusiasm of the sports fan. Of course, there were other sorts of voters on the Trump train. Casual and virulent racists, accessorized with Confederate battle flag pins. The chauvinist Apprentice

  • The Riot Stuff

    ANACHRONISM WAS THE RULE at the political conventions of the summer of 1968. It was anachronism that generated both boredom and spectacular violence. On Miami Beach it was as if the cast of Our Town had been gathered and multiplied by a few thousand to fill out the GOP ranks: The Republicans were a party stuck in the past and trying to perpetuate it. In Chicago you could say the demonstrators represented the future and that the police who beat them and arrested them were punishing the future for coming too soon. Or you could say that they represented a practically prehistoric syncretism of

  • A Spouse Divided

    In a 1966 essay for the New York Review of Books on divorce in America, the sociologist Christopher Lasch remarked: “Divorce is a depressing subject from almost any point of view. For participants, it is not likely to be an ennobling experience; nor does it have the compensatory virtue, like other forms of suffering, of lending itself to literary uses.” Because divorce tended to throw dignity out the window, it was beneath the tragic mode, and the subject simply put off writers with comic talents. “Grim earnestness” or “sensationalism” seemed to be the two modes available to writers treating

  • Tour de Raunch

    ABOUT A DOZEN YEARS AGO a friend of mine described to me the literary magazine he thought America really needed. It would feature the country’s best fiction writers—specifically, its most refined stylists—and in this quarterly they would write only hard-core erotica. I don’t think he ever came up with a name for the journal, and I don’t remember the entire contributors’ roster for the dream inaugural issue, but it included Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Harry Mathews, Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ben Marcus, and Nicholson Baker. Funding wasn’t available, and soon my

  • The Power of Positive Thinking

    The unseemly origins of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations can be traced back to at least 1985, when the chairman of the New York State Republican Party visited him in his Trump Tower office, hoping to recruit him to run for governor. Trump responded that he’d only consider running for president. It was an idea encouraged by his driver and bodyguard Tom Fitzsimmons, a former cop. As Wayne Barrett writes in his classic and still definitive (as far as it goes) 1992 biography Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, it was Fitzsimmons who introduced Trump to Marla Maples: The notion was that Ivana

  • Into the Mists

    Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel is set in a supernatural England, some years after the death of King Arthur. “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated,” goes the first sentence. There’s something deadpan in the tone: As if on being told we’d been transported to Shropshire or thereabouts in the sixth century, we’d be disappointed that we hadn’t been dropped, instead, onto the set of a Merchant Ivory production. Then there’s the matter-of-fact presentation of the ogres “still native to this land”:

  • Future of Fiction

    I was visiting Brooklyn last month, and my bag was stolen out of the back of my friend’s car on Bedford and North Fourth Street. The bag was heavy, and the thief discarded much of its contents, including my passport (thanks) and about a dozen of my books. He (she?) made off with my old and failing laptop, my clothes, and four books by Ben Lerner (whose novel 10:04 I reviewed in the last issue of Bookforum). Clearly a robber with taste. Perhaps even a poet him/herself. I was surprised that among the books discarded was Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012).

    Earlier that day I had run

  • Back to the Present

    In 2011 Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was brought out by Coffee House Press, a Minneapolis independent, to wide and deserving if improbable praise. Improbable because of its provenance, but more so because its author, thirty-two at the time, was already a decorated poet, with three collections and a National Book Award nomination to his name. There are in recent memory American poets who write novels—from John Ashbery and James Schuyler to Forrest Gander and Joyelle McSweeney—but crossover success, measured in terms of attention paid by organs like the New Yorker and

  • Buddy System

    Emily Gould bolted to local media fame seven years ago as a Gawker blogger. She wrote scathing posts about writers, celebrities, and anyone else who happened to come in for online scrutiny on a given day. She was funny. She was reckless. She was really good at being really mean. She was twentysomething and photogenic, and when she appeared on CNN, Jimmy Kimmel told her she had a decent chance of going to hell. I met her around this time at an event she was covering at the New York Public Library, and the first thing she said to me was that she’d heard going out with me made a mutual friend of

  • syllabi December 19, 2013

    The Best Novels of 2013

    Bookforum contributor Christian Lorentzen picks his favorite novels of the year, from Coetzee's "deep joke" to Pynchon's portrayal of the "deep Web."

    Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.

  • The Gospel According to Norman

    In July at the Manchester International Festival, I saw a preview of Matthew Barney’s seven-part film opera River of Fundament. Barney explained that Norman Mailer, before he died, challenged him to adapt his 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, which he felt to be his most misunderstood and unjustly loathed work (“a muddle of incest and strange oaths,” James Wolcott wrote in Harper’s, “reducing everything to lewd, godly bestial grunts”). Barney admitted that it was a book he both loved and hated. In 1999 Mailer had acted in Barney’s Cremaster 2 as Harry Houdini, by family legend the grandfather of

  • culture May 29, 2013

    Against Alice Munro

    There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy

  • The Wild Bunch

    RACHEL KUSHNER’S FIRST NOVEL, Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist in 2008, chronicled life on the island in the 1950s, mostly as seen through the eyes of two American children: a boy, K. C. Stites, whose father runs a United Fruit sugar plantation, and a girl called Everly Lederer, whose father manages a nickel mine. Politics is glimpsed through the smoke from the back of a nightclub, where the Cuban showgirl Rachel K (as tricky as the author who named her) stirs intrigues among the deposed President Prio, the soon-to-be-deposed President Batista, the up-and-coming Castros, and a

  • The Tippling Point

    What’s the proper solution to the following problem? You wake one morning in a bed not your own to find that ash from a carelessly enjoyed cigarette at the end of the night—one that you don’t exactly remember smoking—has burned through two bedsheets and a blanket. Additional brown marks and grooves indicate damage to the bedside rug and table. Now keep in mind the following conditions: (1) The burns were not caused by an intruder but certainly by you; (2) you smoked the cigarettes after sneaking out of the house to a pub and consuming eight pints of beer; (3) you returned to make out with

  • Fictitious Values

    IN THE FALL OF 2013 OR 2014, if not before, we’ll probably be reading a novel about Occupy Wall Street. What would such a book look like, and what would it tell us about money? You can bet the narrator will be omniscient and the telling panoramic. If half the action takes place in and around Zuccotti Park—where the hardened core of the cast squats, drumming, deliberating, echoing announcements—the rest will be scattered about the newsrooms, boardrooms, barrooms, and bedrooms of Manhattan, with excursions to Williamsburg or Long Island City or Hoboken, maybe even Staten Island, convenient by

  • culture March 15, 2012

    What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

    In 1941 the American journalist Dorothy Thompson published an essay called ‘Who Goes Nazi?’ She proposed ‘an interesting and somewhat macabre parlour game’ to be played at dinner parties. The concept is in the name: look around the room and everybody swings one way or the other. She runs through various guests: the sportsman bank vice-president (Nazi); the threadbare editor (not a Nazi); the scientist’s masochist wife (Nazi); the chauffeur’s grandson serving drinks (not a Nazi); the Jewish speculator who doesn’t like Jews (Nazi); the quiet Jewish man from the South (not a Nazi). In Thompson’s