Christine Smallwood

  • Absence Makes the Heart

    CONSTANCE DEBRÉ’S autobiographical novel Playboy is the story of a metamorphosis. We meet the narrator just after she has left her husband, Laurent, and started dating and having sex with women. She had been with Laurent for fifteen years. They were both bored the entire time. The boredom was “a solid foundation,” “a bomb shelter.” 

    The essence of couple life is being bored shitless. Couple life and life in general. In that sense, we were compatible, Laurent and I. . . . We were both the same height, we wore the same clothes, we were both as bored as each other. . . . What we liked

  • Cold Comforts

    SHIRLEY HAZZARD WAS BORN in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. She was the second daughter of Reg and Kit, who met while working in the office of the engineering company that built the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Theirs was a marriage marked, as Brigitta Olubas puts it in Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, by an “almost lifelong incompatibility” made more difficult by Reg’s alcoholism and Kit’s bipolarity. Shirley was Kit’s favorite. When she was six or seven years old, Kit asked her to come to the kitchen so they could together put their heads into the gas oven. Shirley later said that the character Dora

  • Passing Through

    THE NARRATOR OF SIGRID NUNEZ’S NEW NOVEL, What Are You Going Through, is an unmarried female writer who seems to be between sixty and seventy years old. She has a friend, another unmarried female writer of the same age, who is dying of cancer. (The friend prefers the word fatal to the word terminal—“Terminal makes me think of bus stations, which makes me think of exhaust fumes and creepy men prowling for runaways,” she says.) After the last round of treatment fails, the friend—no one is named, which works well in the novel but is already cumbersome in a review—invites the narrator to accompany

  • Meditations in an Emergency

    Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was narrated by an eight-year-old girl named Grace. Grace’s mother, Anna, starts out a little crazy, the kind of intellectual eccentric whose home-school curriculum consists of a room painted black and a “cosmic calendar” marking out the origins of life, and then she gets a lot crazy—driving naked, insisting on picnicking inside a burned-down restaurant, that kind of thing. On Anna’s thirty-fifth birthday, mother and daughter bury a time capsule filled with photographs. “The box was made out of a special kind of metal that could survive any kind of

  • “Nobody Likes Being Called a Cesspool”

    My relationship with D. H. Lawrence began in high school, when I bought a copy of Sons and Lovers more or less at random and proceeded to read it all the way through, by which I mean that my eyes literally traversed every page and recognized that the English language was there recorded in some complexity. But the words, instead of building a reality I could enter and move around in, were like a continually dying fluorescence. I had no idea what was going on. What registered was something like “words, words, flower, sentence, words, coal mining” (like I knew what a coal mine was). As far as I

  • State of Affairs

    BY THE TIME COUPLES CAME OUT, John Updike had already published four novels, three story collections, two poetry collections, and a volume of assorted prose. He had been called, by the New York Times Book Review, “the most significant young novelist in America,” and had been sent by the State Department on a tour of the Communist bloc. And yet there was a growing sense that he had not made a major statement on the issues of the day. He could describe a barn well enough, but to what end? The man whose name will be forever asterisked with the insult David Foster Wallace made famous—“just a penis

  • Pleasure and the Text

    In 2009, after his show “Sade for Sade’s Sake,” Paul Chan took a hiatus from making art. He used his time away to found Badlands Unlimited, a press that has since published Saddam Hussein’s On Democracy, Calvin Tomkins’s interviews with Duchamp, dozens of artist e-books, a “digital group show” called “How to Download a Boyfriend,” and one engraved sandstone. In 2015, Badlands started putting out erotica under the imprint New Lovers. “Art is what I do now to pass the time while editing erotic fiction,” Chan told the Paris Review. He says he was inspired to launch New Lovers by Olympia Press,

  • Desert Course

    The first essay of Geoff Dyer’s new collection, White Sands, features the perpetually unsatisfied author on a junket to Tahiti. He’s supposed to be writing about Gauguin, whose famous painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? gives the piece its title, but—and this will be no surprise to readers of Dyer—he winds up writing about writing about Gauguin. Turns out tropical paradise is no paradise. The trip may be free, but it sure ain’t fun. The food is bad and overpriced; the view from the hotel is compromised; the monuments are just dumb rocks. And then there are the

  • Short Cuts

    A novel is not designed to be read in one sitting. A reader finds herself in different moods, and different chairs, over the course of a novel; its pages become saturated with meals and conversations and days good and bad. A short story is read all at once, and alone. It might get knitted into life if it is reread many times over the years, but it always arrives complete, a thing apart and sufficient unto itself, like an asteroid. It is at once smaller and more vulnerable than a novel, and stranger and stiffer, somehow more independent. It doesn’t ask for attachment. It asks only to be heard.

  • Hybrid Times

    I WANT TO BE perfectly clear from the start that when I talk about Hilton Als’s The Women (1996), and when I call it one of the most remarkable works of narrative hybridity that I have ever read, I am not, or not only, referring to its use of the first person. There is a lot of talk these days about “reality hunger,” intrusive narrators, the rise of memoir, and the unrest—not new, but certainly newly meaningful—of metafiction. There is a lot of talk, these days, about the respective merits of and differences between nonfiction and fiction, and the truths each is uniquely adept at telling. The

  • The Grain of the Choice

    When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges, professor Sir Christopher Ricks, to a bit of flailing. “Lydia Davis’s writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind,” he fretted. “Just how to categorize them? Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories? Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apothegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations?” Personally, I’m not sure what the problem with

  • culture July 16, 2013

    Lionel Shriver’s Speculative Fictions

    It took the American novelist Lionel Shriver a long time to get our attention. Her first six books, published in the course of two decades, were met with a critical shrug and sales that Shriver later described as “in the toilet.” Her seventh, an epistolary novel narrated by the mother of a school shooter, was rejected by thirty publishers before a small house in England (Shriver’s adopted homeland) paid her all of two thousand pounds for the manuscript.

  • The Debasement Tapes

    In Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (2006), the protagonist Sylvie remarks to an all-male group of intellectuals, including her husband, that there are no women on the list of writers they’re putting together for a cross-cultural literary tour. No one knows any of the “dowdy” lesbians that Sylvie has put forward, so they settle on Kathy Acker. There is little debate. “Of course, thinks Sylvie, if there has to be a woman, Acker would be it. Her books seduce and challenge heterosexual men; her photos just seduce them. . . . Why could the famous artist men be friends, the women just competitors? Was

  • Greater Expectations

    THE TITLE OF THE SECOND VOLUME of Susan Sontag’s private writings is taken from an entry dated May 22, 1965, when Sontag was thirty-two years old. “Novel about thinking—” it begins. “An artist thinking about his work.” In the margins, she adds, “A spiritual project—but tied to making an object (as consciousness is harnessed to flesh).”

    It’s a strange and spooky phrase, the richest image in the diary’s five hundred pages. There’s something sad about this emblem of captivity, the spirit being put under reins. There’s also something enabling and empowering—the inanimate being directed, gaining


    Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman, published in 2006, was widely praised for its treatment of, in Norman Rush’s words, “the paradoxes of Western aid-giving.” The book, D’Souza’s first, recounted the adventures and foibles of a white American man, Jack Diaz, in Ivory Coast during its recent civil war. His NGO’s money dries up, so Diaz doesn’t dig any of the wells he thought he would. Instead, he passes the days hunting the flapping francolin bird, tooling around on a mobylette, and, like so many before him, trying to show his “red stick” to Ivorian women. Self-critical musings like “All the things I had


    Among the pleasures to be found in reading Christian Oster’s books, surprise may not numbered. The unnamed protagonist of his new novel, The Unforeseen, will be all too familiar to readers of his other works in English—this is the third of his eight novels to be translated from the French. Like the narrators of A Cleaning Woman (2001) and My Big Apartment (which won the 1999 Medicis Prize), this one is a neurotic. Like them, he is a lonely Parisian of indeterminate white-collar employment; like them, he must recover from a romance that has gone sour for no particular reason. Like them, he meets