• review • November 16, 2022

    No Man’s Land

    There must be a room, sealed against the present, before we can make any attempt to deal with the past.

    — Thomas Pynchon, V.

     So many characters in twentieth-century literature are absorbed into narrative scenery or lost to the torrents of history. The uncertain ending seemed evidently suitable to novelists whose notions of fate were darkened in the years before, between, or after the World Wars. The helpless Karl Rossmann of Kafka’s unfinished Amerika, written between 1911 and 1914, apprehends the “vastness” of the Oklahoman wilderness in which, we may presume, he would have been

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  • excerpt • November 07, 2022

    Human Misbehavior

    Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos is fundamentally about the human species and the promises and perils of human nature. Although Vonnegut published Galápagos fifteen years before scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer first proposed the idea of naming our current geological epoch the Anthropocene, the novel’s environmental parables become even more relevant as we experience the effects of humans acting as geological agents on the planet. 

    Galápagos is able to tackle these topics successfully because it is grounded in science. The novel simultaneously employs Darwin’s theories of natural selection

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  • print • November 03, 2022

    Brood Meridian

    “IT MAY BE THAT THE subconscious is really a committee,” Cormac McCarthy tells Oprah in their 2007 interview, a full eight years before he could have gotten the idea from Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out. “They may have meetings and say, ‘What do you think we should tell him? Should we tell him that? Nah, he’s not ready for that.’ . . . Sometimes the sense of the subconscious and its role in your life is just something you can’t ignore. It may have to do with the subconscious being older than language, and maybe it’s more comfortable creating little dramas than telling you things, but it has to

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  • excerpt • October 27, 2022

    “All these possibilities!”

    Unlike her character Sibylla, Helen DeWitt did successfully complete her degree. She won the prestigious Ireland Prize for young classicists and might have been able to make a career in the academy. Oxford University Press wanted to publish her dissertation. But DeWitt decided to leave. She didn’t leave, or didn’t only leave, because Oxford failed to live up to her fantastic stan­dards. She also left because she discovered an alternative to the aca­demic pursuit. In graduate school, she recalls, “a British Jew introduced me to Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and Dennis Potter, to the power of imaginary

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  • excerpt • October 13, 2022

    Made Up Things

    “The Foot of the Tan Building”

    A woman jumped from the top floor of a Northeast Bronx building, from the 33rd floor of a building, at around 10:40 in the morning (10:40 am, a time that seems too early to jump from anything at all). The woman might have recently lost a child. The photograph online shows the body at the foot of the tan building, near a patch of grass. Under a white sheet—a waiting body. Before the woman’s final decision she might not have considered the possibility of this white sheet, its thinness, or how it would not cover her body fully, the birds moving around her, how her

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  • review • October 07, 2022

    Fierce Detachments

    Stephanie LaCava’s second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You, opens with a strange epigraph: “Cows are not sentient beings.” The quote is attributed to “Reddit”—not a specific person on Reddit, but the platform itself, the amorphous, faceless chorus of fifty-two million very opinionated daily active users. It’s an enigmatic piece of front matter for an enigmatic story, and one that successfully primes the reader to enter the world of LaCava’s protagonist, Margot Highsmith, who, in a way, lacks sentience of her own.   

    Margot—an actress, early twenties, privileged, and very thin—is an iteration

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  • review • September 27, 2022

    Mostly Disconnect

    Jem Calder’s Reward System is a fractionated fiction for a fragmented world: one in which the means of connection are constantly available, but connection is harder than ever, and everything is linked, but little is shared. The book, Calder’s debut, consists of six “ultra-contemporary fictions” that center on two characters, Julia and Nick, old university friends and one-time lovers whose post-university years are dominated by work and technology. Calder flits between episodes in their lives, magnifying specific incidents, leaving the reader to string together a narrative from discrete stories.

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  • print • Sep/Oct/Nov 2022

    Pictures from an Institution

    IN A VIRAL VIDEO from last October, Jamie Lee Curtis repeats the word “trauma” ad infinitum on the press circuit for Halloween Kills. The comedy comes partly from Curtis’s unorthodox pronunciation—trow-muh, not trah-muh—but also from the supercut’s temporal absurdity, how a word uttered repetitively and uninterruptedly misplaces meaning. The context of the slasher flick raised additional hackles: we’ll exploit trauma to elevate just about anything. The video appears, in hindsight, to be an early indicator that the tides were turning: now there was a slapstick, tacky sensibility to trauma’s

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  • print • Sep/Oct/Nov 2022

    The Return of the Repressed

    THERE ARE A LOT OF OLD FLAMES in Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 book First Love. The novel begins where so many end—in marriage, with its protagonist Neve moving into her husband Edwyn’s flat in London. What looks like the prelude to the sweet life—two lovers easing into domestic settlement—soon turns sour. There are pet names, and then there are “other names, of course.” On page two, we learn that Edwyn once called Neve “a fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had . . . green acid shoved up it,” among other things. It only gets more rancid from there. 

    Neve is thirty-three, around

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  • print • Sep/Oct/Nov 2022

    Making It

    MUST A NOVEL ENGAGE with contemporary life? One still finds the call, as tenacious as cliché, for novels that “speak to the moment we are in,” “work out society,” or otherwise “interpret the now,” insisted upon regularly in marketing copy and pieces of criticism, not to mention on Twitter. A better question to ask is whether a novel can do anything but react to—or reflect—contemporary life. This one is characteristic of a certain kind of Marxist criticism, which seems at times to make a point of noting that novels engage with the “now” regardless of their authors’, or readers’, intentions. And

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  • excerpt • July 25, 2022

    Ways of Seeing

    “Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held—I am tempted to say salvaged,” John Berger writes in his 1983 essay “The Production of the World.” “Reality is inimical to those with power.” 

    There’s a Berger short story, published in the New Yorker in 2001, called “Woven, Sir” that reminds me, in a way, of this. It’s a story in which Berger’s adult narrator describes being in Madrid, waiting for a friend at the Ritz Hotel (with classic Berger observations around the sensual realities of class and wealth, as in his impression, in the hotel, of “the deafness of money . . .

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  • review • July 22, 2022

    Just One More Click

    The narrator of Jordan Castro’s debut novel, The Novelist, is a writer and a recovering heroin addict. Newly sober, he feels as if he’s seeing the world for the first time, and all the ordinary things he overlooked as an active addict are now taking on a surreal quality—the way the light plays on the bedroom wall alone seems to be too much. He is trying to write a novel about his once-humorous, pathetic life as an addict, except he is now driven by a more common addiction: checking Gmail and scrolling through Twitter. Sobriety gives him a new existence, but the need to feel a dopamine rush

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