• review • October 06, 2020

    In Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel, literary desire is no match for reality

    Authors have long asked whether fiction is useful in times of crisis, a question that has been especially pronounced in the past four years, following the election of the current president, the advent of coronavirus, and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. What can a book do in a time like this? It’s a question central to Want, Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel. The narrator, unnamed until the penultimate page, asks herself throughout the book: Why did I study English? Why did I think that sharing books with people was a worthwhile way to spend my life?

    The disaster at the heart

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  • review • October 01, 2020

    A North Korean best-seller provides a rare view inside the isolated nation

    Most fiction about North Korea published outside of that country is by defectors and dissenters, and most of it tells of the hardships of living under a totalitarian regime. Fiction published in North Korea tends to be the opposite: when I visited in 2017, the only English-language books at the bookshop that passed as fiction were hagiographic historical novels about former supreme leaders.

    Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend is something different. Neither a work of dissent or leader-worship, it is, instead, an account of a married couple on the brink of divorce, as narrated from the presiding judge’s

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  • review • September 24, 2020

    The relatable, unlikeable characters of Halle Butler’s fiction

    In today’s novels of disillusionment, every party has at least one person who doesn’t know why they’re there, who is thinking, as they find themselves on the periphery of various conversations: “Oh my god, everyone in this world is just way too interested in things.”

    So proclaims Megan in Halle Butler’s debut novel Jillian (2015), issued in a new paperback edition this summer. Megan is a typically afflicted millennial protagonist, so chronically overwhelmed that she doesn’t even notice it anymore. She drifts through life on cynical, unflappable autopilot: immune to surprise or delight,

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  • review • September 22, 2020

    In Nicole Flattery’s fiction, precarity is an all-consuming problem

    In Nicole Flattery’s recent story collection, Show Them a Good Time, precarity is a draining certainty. Unlike the protagonists in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends or Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which precarity is expressed as youthful malaise, Flattery’s characters experience money problems as a potentially endless catastrophe. Originally from Mullingar, Flattery is part of a generation of Irish writers whose adult lives have been defined by austerity. The all-female protagonists in Show Them a Good Time are stuck in this boom-bust loop. Hometowns are not

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  • review • September 17, 2020

    The exam-room confessions of Katharina Volckmer’s new novel

    In Katharina Volckmer’s debut novel, The Appointment, a patient sits in a medical exam room and monologues at a man named Dr. Seligman for 131 pages. The patient, Sarah, was born in Germany but is now based in London and likes to gossip about her former shrink, Jason, whom she hates. She isn’t sure whether she hates Dr. Seligman, though she initially distrusts him. She wonders if he’s like Jason, who would definitely smile his way “through any atrocity” with the ridiculous conviction that he could forgive all “petty human errors.” This raises an obvious question: if Sarah doesn’t trust doctors,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Isle Be There

    It took me a while to get around to Circe (Back Bay Books, $15), Madeline Miller’s extremely popular 2018 novel told from the perspective of the island-dwelling witch from The Odyssey. Friends had raved about it circa its publication. I’d read one page and put it down, finding it too hard to get into the narrator’s formal, serious Ancient Greekness. Then, two years later, novels featuring contemporary people stopped being able to hold my attention. Characters went to bars and museums, rode the subway, walked around with their faces uncovered. I couldn’t relate. Time to read about an immortal

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    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

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Pictures from an Institution

    HOW DO YOU WRITE A POLITICAL NOVEL IN 2020? How do you not write a political novel in 2020? It is impossible to imagine a contemporary writer presenting a version of the world that is not marked in some way by Trumpism, the threat of ecological catastrophe, the deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the spectacle of racist police brutality. Yet the process of digesting the various horrors of the present into prose isn’t always noble. There is a way to use the novel as a balm to soothe the tempers of people who see themselves as opposed to cruelty, to violence, to climate disaster.

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Playing Depart

    “I PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF THE AGE,” the Austrian writer Joseph Roth proclaimed in a 1926 letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist,” he continued. “I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”

    In the English-speaking world, Roth is most often canonized as a novelist. He is known primarily as the author of The Radetzky March, a 1932 saga about an Austrian dynasty rendered tragic—and ridiculous—by the collapse of the dual monarchy. During his own lifetime, however, Roth was better known as a writer of feuilletons, and even his longer works are rich with

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    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

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Signs and Symbols

    ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Kate Zambreno’s novel Drifts, the unnamed narrator notices a butternut squash. It makes her think of a detail in a Dürer engraving. Later, in a restaurant, she spots a decorative squash. “There appears to be a vast referentiality everywhere,” she tells us. It’s true that patterns exist—or, anyway, that we’re constantly finding them. It’s less true, I think, that there’s meaning in this fact. It’s only a game we while our lives away playing.

    Drifts has place (New York) and players (the narrator’s friends; her partner, John; a neighbor; her dog, Genet), but not much in the

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Ashes to Ashes

    BEFORE SHE ORDAINED HER BOYFRIEND the first “good cop,” Lana Del Rey was born to die. It was 2012. She was only five months away from twenty-seven, the age at which celebrity musicians are, anecdotally speaking, very likely to experience a turn of fate. (Amy Winehouse overdosed in her tenth month, Janis Joplin in her ninth.) The album she put out that year, Del Rey’s second, was considered a breakout hit. Born to Die, critics agreed, had changed the course of her life.

    America has always been a death cult; the only variable has been its soundtrack. In the stereo age, boomers, armed with IRAs

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