Christian Lorentzen

  • Cold Snap

    BORN DAVID CORNWELL in 1931, John le Carré was too young to go to war and thus too young to experience Britain’s patriotic struggle with Nazi Germany from inside the intelligence service, too young to have worked in alliance with the Soviet Union, and much too young to have been a university student in the 1930s, when many idealistic young Britons joined with the Communists because they were the staunchest opponents of fascism. He was sent to boarding school at the age of five, and it left him with a bitter feeling toward his country’s ruling institutions, even as he would remain thoroughly a

  • Hardwick Times

    WHAT IS IT WE WANT from literary biographies? A portrait, surely, of the subject, something beyond the profiles and interviews that they grinned through whenever one of their books appeared. Perhaps even a good story. A prominent biographer once told me that there would never be a biography of Don DeLillo because all he ever did was sit at his desk and write his books: there’s no fun for a biographer in mining that kind of life. On the other hand, new books seem to appear every year on the short life of Sylvia Plath, the narrative thread always winding through the snow to the frantic calls to

  • Hillbilly Effigy

    PERCIVAL EVERETT’S NEW NOVEL begins in Money, Mississippi, the town Emmett Till was visiting from Chicago when he was lynched in 1955. The fourteen-year-old Till was tortured, mutilated, and shot in the head. His killers, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, tied his corpse to a cotton gin with barbed wire, and dropped it in the Tallahatchie River. They were tried and acquitted, and, though they admitted their crime to a journalist for Look magazine the next year, rules against double jeopardy ensured they were never brought to justice. The Trees opens at a family gathering of the descendants of Bryant

  • Like Rain on Your Wedding Day

    WHAT IS THE APPROPRIATE NARRATIVE MODE to capture the last few years of US history? What mode will fit the times going forward? Political eras lend salience to certain sorts of stories. We have just lived through a gothic phase of history, and a new sentimental age is upon us. These two modes of narrative have been alive, if not always dominant, in America since the eighteenth century, and they have lately defined our politics. The tropes of the Trump administration were those of a gothic nightmare—sexual perversion and predation, the sinister influence of forces emanating from the shadowy

  • The Vying Animal

    MORE THAN REALISM OR ITS RIVALS, the dominant literary style in America is careerism. This is neither a judgment nor a slur. For decades it has simply been the case that novelists, story writers, even poets have had to devote themselves to managing their careers as much as to writing their books. Institutional jockeying, posturing in profiles and Q&As, roving in-person readership cultivation, social-media fan-mongering, coming off as a good literary citizen among one’s peers—some balance of these elements is now part of every young author’s life. It’s a matter of necessity and survival, above

  • The Martin Papers

    “SENESCENCE” ISN’T QUITE THE RIGHT WORD for the stage the writers of the Baby Boom have reached. Sure, they may be collecting social security, the eldest of them in their mid-seventies, but the wonders of modern science may allow some another couple of decades of productivity. When the Reaper starts to come for the writer’s instrument, the first thing to go is flow, but that may not matter: fragments are in. In a decade or so, robbed of their transitions and reduced to accumulating prose shards, the octogenarian Boomers may find themselves newly trendy. A strange fate for a generation that

  • One Pill Makes You Smaller

    WHAT ARE THESE RED PILLS AND WHERE DO YOU GET ONE? They seem more potent than most non-metaphorical drugs. Just a single dose and you’ll never see the world the same way again. The term comes from The Matrix. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) presents Neo (Keanu Reeves) with a choice of two pills, a blue one that will allow him to live complacently within the illusion he’s used to (a fake life as a regular Joe with a family and an office job), or a red one (it looks like a Robitussin tablet) that will show him “the truth” (he’s really in a pod hooked up to a tube that sucks out his life force—the

  • There Will Be Flood

    In your new novel, A Children’s Bible (Norton, $26), a group of kids, teens mostly, are on vacation with their parents in an old mansion when a flood occurs and American society begins to fall apart. Would it be fair to call it a soft apocalypse, or a plausible dystopia?

    The scenario in the book has a high degree of plausibility—it’s not phantasmagorical. It’s not an alternate world, simply this one. Plausible dystopia, soft apocalypse—they’re terms for genres, but they also describe our actual life now. Although at times, lately, I’ve watched the news or read the tweets and felt our reality

  • Her Struggle

    One Thanksgiving during the four years I was a resident of London, at a dinner of Americans and French people, one of the Yanks at the table remarked that if she were a member of the English working class, she “would be throwing Molotov cocktails on the King’s Road and torching Buckingham Palace.” There had been riots in London the year before, student protests were a constant, and the previous autumn had seen the occupation of St. Paul’s, but none of this energy had been directed at the royal family. The Windsors are subsidized at a rate of £82 million a year, or £1.24 per British citizen, an

  • Norm Corps

    Whether or not he was born that way, Ross Douthat is a defeated man. The child of hippie aspiring writers—a father who became an attorney and a mother who became a homemaker (both became published writers late in life: the father a poet, the mother a contributor to the Christian journal First Things)—Douthat arrived at Harvard in 1998 yearning to live the life of the mind and found himself among a horde of grade-grubbing careerists, most of them from affluent families, biding their time until they filled their reserved slots among the neoliberal power elite. This state of affairs became the

  • No Exit

    I missed Guillaume Nicloux’s film The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq on its release in 2014. What a mistake—it’s a real hoot! Nicloux’s deadpan mock thriller tacks from a rumor that the author had been kidnapped “by Al-Qaeda (or aliens)” during the book tour for his 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. (I watched it on Google Play, which mislabels it a “documentary”—much of it does seem to be improvised, and Houellebecq does seem to be speaking as himself, but credit Nicloux for the devious scenario and execution.) We see Houellebecq’s routine—smoking on the street and bumping into friends,

  • Press Play

    The erstwhile wunderkind has been coping with the onset of middle age for four books now. The novels NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016) were about the ways youth slips away, among other things: friendship, neighborhood loyalties, class, celebrity, violence, inequality, biracial identity, sex, the internet, Africa, England, and how to write a novel when realism is anxious about its own survival. The essays in Feel Free (2018) and now the stories in Grand Union have taken in parenthood, the passing of the older generation, unexpected political upheavals, unwelcome physical transformations, and the

  • culture August 12, 2019

    David Berman (1967–2019)

    Three writers pay tribute to the poet and songwriter David Berman, who passed away last week. Berman was the inimitable force behind the bands the Silver Jews and, most recently, Purple Mountains. His book of poems, Actual Air, was published by the books arm of the legendary Open City in 1999, and remains a cult classic.


    By Christian Lorentzen

    There’s long been an urge to believe that rock ’n’ roll is, or can, or could, or should, be poetry. It was the impulse behind the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2016 to Bob Dylan, and it’s the reason we’ve seen lines

  • 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