Nikil Saval

  • American Carnage

    WILLIAM CALLEY’S EARLY CHILDHOOD, in a wealthy neighborhood of Miami, was uneventful. He was short—five foot three—and came to weigh around 130 pounds. Because he had reddish hair, he was given the nickname Rusty. He got into trouble, in the normal way of teenagers, but never with drugs or violence. He had friends. Things took a turn for the worse: diabetes afflicted his father, cancer his mother. The family business (construction) failed; they moved from Miami to their vacation home in North Carolina. Calley returned to Miami to complete high school. He graduated at the bottom of his class.

  • Life Sentences

    Toward the middle of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina recalls an anticolonial reverie he experienced while getting drunk in a cheap bar in Nairobi as a young man. He had just read Decolonising the Mind (1986) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which had been banned by the Kenyan government. “It is illegal and it was thrilling, and I had vowed to go back to my own language,” Wainaina writes. “English is the language of the colonizer.” He dreamed of abandoning his professional life entirely, giving up on his plans to work for an advertising firm

  • Caste in Doubt

    The title of Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel recalls V. S. Naipaul’s Booker Prize–winning collection In a Free State, from 1971. Like Naipaul’s book, which consists of two stories and the titular novella, bookended by sections of documentary observation, Mukherjee’s is not a novel in the sense we might recognize, though it is being called one. It, too, is made up of five parts, more like long episodes than complete narratives. But the departure from the novel form is superficial. All of these episodes are set in India, and feature minor characters we glimpse in passing and then learn more about

  • Twilight of the Idylls

    THE MOST DURABLE IMAGE of the utopian promise of the United States comes from one of the country's most sobering books. It is toward the close of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway imagines a Dutch sailor seeing the "fresh, green breast" of Long Island—an explorer faced perhaps "for the last time with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." This sublime retrospect draws its power from its coming at the book's end, after Fitzgerald has exposed the tawdriness and tragedy of even the most poetical American hopes. There is something strange—allegorical maybe—in the fact that this

  • The Art of the Steal

    IF YOU WANTED TO BECOME an uncatchable master burglar and make a name for yourself among baffled, admiring police, where would you start? Choosing pragmatism over glamour, Jeffrey Manchester, the renowned thief who became known as “Roofman,” started at McDonald’s. To rob a McDonald’s, after all, is to rob a building whose layouts are virtually uniform, whose staff follow predictable working patterns: Roofman knew precisely when they entered and exited. Alighting on the roof (thus the name), he would excise a portion of the ceiling and descend. The employees he caught unawares were usually

  • Of Human Bondage

    I AM A SHIT. But at least I am a successful one. Bob Slocum, Joseph Heller’s repugnant narrator-protagonist in Something Happened (1974), is a member of the corporate elite. He spends his time either at the office, which makes him unhappy, or with his family, whose demands provoke in him alternating moods of detachment and anguish. Both of these spheres become, for Slocum, debilitating sites of fraught power dynamics and regressive behavior. Slocum calls himself an “anaclitic,” someone unusually attuned to others, so much so that he picks up their mannerisms and habits, stammering when he

  • The Grand Master

    By the end of his life, the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris—universally known by his nom de pinceau, Le Corbusier—had emerged from decades of frustrated plans, encircled by controversy and dismissal, to become the world’s most renowned architect. For a man who had devised three hundred projects but seen only seventy-eight of them built, the high-profile commissions that belatedly started pouring in proved a glorious bounty: the National Museum of Western Art for Tokyo; a church, apartment building, and elementary school for Firminy, France; the Olivetti tower outside Milan;

  • Modern Times

    Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901–1962) endured one of the most thoroughgoing modernization drives of the twentieth century—Kemal Atatürk’s revolution in Turkey, which left few areas of cultural life untouched. Over several years in the 1920s, Atatürk completed an aggressive Westernizing campaign intended to erase any semblance of indigenous or Islamic culture: He ended the caliphate; closed all religious schools and organizations; instituted Western legal codes; banned all outward symbols of Islam, such as fezzes and veils; and replaced the Arabic alphabet with a Latin one. As a distinguished poet

  • culture August 29, 2013

    White Happy Doves: On Mo Yan

    When the English translation of Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) was published in 2004, it was seen by some critics as his bid for global literary prestige. It hit all the right notes: it was a historical saga of modern China featuring a proliferation of stories, it was unceasingly violent and nasty, and it came near to puncturing Party myths. In the preface, Howard Goldblatt, Mo Yan’s longtime translator and advocate, reported that it had provoked anger on the mainland among ideologues for humanizing the Japanese soldiers who invaded Manchuria, though there can’t have been very