• review • May 05, 2022

    Back with a Vengeance

    Six-year-old Marina Salles dubs her grandmother’s house on the salt-swept Monterey Peninsula “the Plastic Palace.” Protective runners cover the carpets and kitchen table, encased and safeguarded from spills. The Plastic Palace is a special nickname, something shared between Marina and her mother, Mutya, who are living there with her grandmother, Lola Virgie, in 1982. Love, here, peeks out from corners: from the “sharp tips” of the plastic, from Lola’s routines and regimens. Mutya evades domestic responsibilities, spending weekdays at college and leaving Marina in Lola’s care.

    At the Plastic

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  • review • April 28, 2022

    Guilty Associations

    I spent the last days of 2019 with family in a Panamanian duplex, across the street from a “village” of high-end apartments where men worked the yards. Fernanda Melchor’s new novel, Paradais, takes place at a Mexican luxury development that shares the Panamanian complex’s name: Paradise. The coincidence is banal, if illustrative. “Páradais,” the phonetic rendering of an English word, is a clichéd, empty signifier of colonial “luxury,” sort of like an American apartment complex called “Royal Glen” or “High Manor.” But Melchor’s novel owes less to the unimaginative naming conventions of developers

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  • review • April 14, 2022

    Yoko Tawada’s postapocalyptic look at language without borders

    There is a Shinto myth called kotodama that implies there are divine powers in the Old Japanese language—koto meaning “speech” or “word” and dama meaning “soul” or “ghost.” In this cosmogony, different words were believed to contain different qualities: a positive word could bring positive spirits and a negative word could wake up the demons inside. Practitioners of Shinto would erase loanwords from Chinese during their rituals to make their prayers as linguistically “pure” as possible. Nowadays, however, if you google kotodama, the internet returns links on the New Age potential of Aikido,

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    Judgment Days

    IT IS TECHNICALLY POSSIBLE to write about Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, by following the rising action. Such a review might track Heti’s main characters—father and daughter—through his death, her long mourning, their reunion in a leaf (it’s a sort of limbo), and her learning to live without him. The idea would be to shepherd readers through the novel by focusing on its most legible story line, in the hopes of making it all make sense. At the end, three or four sentences would remain to pronounce one or two judgments on how Heti perverts or expands the nature of the father-daughter

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    More Than Meets the I

    THE WRITER AND THE NOVELLA were both new to me: two plosive proper nouns and one personal pronoun, adding up to just three potent monosyllables. Kay Dick (1915–2001): an indelible name, especially for a lesbian. They: her ninth book (and sixth work of fiction), published in 1977, and best summed up, per text on this slim volume’s title page, as “a sequence of unease.”

    Who are the “they” of They, a book broken into nine titled chapters, each of which could stand as an autonomous short story? The antecedent is never specified. But the actions of this anonymous, menacing group are concrete. These

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    We Took Out All the Books We Could

    IN AN ORDINARY CLASSROOM, ON AN ORDINARY DAY in an ordinary English childhood, a girl points at a box of books and says, “Look.” Look, she says, and another girl gets up, retrieves one of the school-owned hardbacks, and pushes it into her chest: “It was your idea.” The first girl is the narrator of Checkout 19, never named, and the second is one of her classmates; the high school moment is being remembered by the narrator, embroidered even in the remembering. Look, the grown-up narrator explains, “no child says ‘Look’ without meaning for something to happen. A child’s eyes are instinctively

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    Same Difference

    IN AN ESSAY ABOUT NATALIA GINZBURG, the Chilean novelist and critic Alejandro Zambra writes, “When someone repeats a story we presume they don’t remember that they’ve already told it, but often we repeat stories consciously, because we are unable to repress the desire, the joy of telling them again.” Of course the compulsion to retell a story is not always situated in joy’s lofty terrain. We might repeat a story in the hopes of shrinking it to a manageable bite, or because it reminds us of another story, or to shine up disagreeable aspects of our lives, or to mock it, perhaps secretly wishing

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    The Parent Trap

    ALL WOMEN ARE NOT UNHAPPY,” the Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima wrote in the Chicago Tribune, but women are made to suffer more “just because they are women.” By design, a system animated by capitalism and heteropatriarchy is especially cruel to single mothers. I remember nearly nothing of my childhood, yet I harbor acute recollections of my mother waitressing or bartending while I perched primly atop a barstool, memorizing my Mariah Carey cassette and learning what humiliation borne of economic necessity looks like. The phrase “to make ends meet” has one origin in dressmaking, meaning to gather

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    Only Human

    IN STORIES ABOUT INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL, space usually wins out over time. The accounting of minutes and hours is too petty, too human, for the vast distance between one star and another; some genres just won’t accommodate the clockface. This is true of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which mad astronauts prove incapable of distinguishing between past and present, as well the Swedish poem and film Aniara, about a spaceship destined for a future of endless drift—which is to say, no future at all. Few places are as interminable as outer space, which urgently raises the question of where one is while rendering

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    Daughters and Lovers

    TESSA HADLEY’S NEW NOVEL, Free Love, begins in 1967 London. The book is split between Otterley, a fictional suburb of manicured houses and back gardens, and Ladbroke Grove, the site of hippie excess, progressive dropping out, and émigré professional striving. Hadley focuses on Phyllis Fischer, a forty-year-old housewife, and her fifteen-year-old daughter Colette. The attention to these two characters, as they break slowly and then all at once from the circuits of the lives expected for them, makes up the bulk of the plot. Phyllis is elegant, the well-groomed and beautifully dressed mistress of

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2022

    Mass Culture

    THE SCHOOLGIRLS HAVE BEGUN TO BEHAVE STRANGELY. At night, they gather to perform incantations that involve crystals and candle wax, delicately dripped. One of them hides sambuca in a mouthwash bottle and slips out for parties after babysitting jobs. Another attempts suicide by smashing a thermometer to drink the mercury within, but only succeeds in cutting herself. The last stops eating altogether, unless she can cadge food off of someone else’s plate.

    What could be wrong? Perhaps there is some dark, supernatural presence at work. We are, after all, in Massachusetts, home of Salem’s doomed

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  • excerpt • December 09, 2021

    Revisiting Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and its interpreters

    At some point in moving from The Savage Detectives to 2666, Bolaño sketched a map (or diagram, or dream image) of Santa Teresa, the city on whose outskirts Cesárea Tinajero dies in the earlier book and that would become the center of his final novel. The picture (which you can find in the exhibition catalogue Archivo Bolaño 1977-2003) looks like a classic grid in a process of decomposition: names of landmarks or neighborhoods float in a disjointed space connected by gestural lines indicating streets or thoroughfares. But even in this exploded condition, we recognize how Bolaño’s imagination

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