• review • November 21, 2019

    Out of Sight, Out of Mind

    Here in the United States, we are quite obsessed with stuff. We buy new cars, weighted blankets, statement sneakers, the latest iPhone. Amazon Prime delivers 1.5 million packages per day in New York alone. The things we own have become part of our identity, marking not only our tastes and values, but our sophistication and class aspirations. But imagine what would happen if, one by one, those items began to disappear, not just from our physical lives but from our collective consciousness as well. Who exactly are we without our things and the memories that come with them?

    This is just one of

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  • print • November 20, 2019

    No Exit

    I missed Guillaume Nicloux’s film The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq on its release in 2014. What a mistake—it’s a real hoot! Nicloux’s deadpan mock thriller tacks from a rumor that the author had been kidnapped “by Al-Qaeda (or aliens)” during the book tour for his 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. (I watched it on Google Play, which mislabels it a “documentary”—much of it does seem to be improvised, and Houellebecq does seem to be speaking as himself, but credit Nicloux for the devious scenario and execution.) We see Houellebecq’s routine—smoking on the street and bumping into friends,

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  • review • November 12, 2019

    Do You Have a Reservation?

    At the beginning of Lara Williams’s Supper Club, we find the narrator Roberta stuck in a typical millennial holding pattern. As she enters her late twenties, Roberta is working an uninspiring assistant job. She spends her free time cooking a lot, socializing very little, and dating never. Flashbacks to Roberta’s college days present her as similarly meek—she rarely ventures off-campus, feels bored by her major, and wonders how to interact with her roommates. Then as now, she makes little effort to shift her circumstances.

    Until, that is, Roberta gets an intern. Stevie is beautiful and loud,

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  • review • October 17, 2019

    Why You So Obsessed with Me?

    Of the emotional afflictions we witness in those around us, obsession may be the most discomfiting. It’s also the most gendered: We’re conditioned to find it appealing, flattering when a man is the obsessed—Calvin Klein’s women’s fragrance “Obsession,” is, I assume, designed to elicit obsession from males who pass within smelling range of the female wearer, after all. But an obsessed woman? It’s likely people find her pathetic. In the case of Adam Foulds’s recent novel Dream Sequence, we see obsession engulf Kristin, a lonely divorcée who spends her time holed up in her TV room watching The

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  • review • October 15, 2019

    Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

    Early in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s young heroine finds herself alone on her honeymoon, bewildered by her disappointment in her new marriage. After describing Dorothea’s desolation, the narrator addresses the reader directly:

    Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of

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  • review • October 08, 2019

    All or Nun

    History, Tolstoy insisted, is not driven by great men—the Bismarcks, the Napoleons of this world. It is constructed from an endless number of minute details, like drops of water, or grains of sand.

    The protagonists of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, recently reissued by New York Review Books, are not great men; they are not men. In fact, they’re nuns. The novel describes an unremarkable fourteenth-century Benedictine convent and what happens there.

    Not a lot happens. “A good convent should have no history,” Warner writes at the beginning. “Its life is hid with Christ who

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    The Margins Will Not Hold

    The decades of near-silence that came in the wake of Charles Wright’s trilogy of short novels seem almost as aberrant and disquieting as the novels themselves. Wright died of heart failure at age seventy-six in October 2008, one month before Barack Obama’s election and thirty-five years after the publication of Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, the last of Wright’s novels, whose 1973 appearance came a decade after his debut, The Messenger. Wright clawed and strained from the margins of American existence for widespread acknowledgment, if not the fame his talent deserved. Cult-hood was

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Press Play

    The erstwhile wunderkind has been coping with the onset of middle age for four books now. The novels NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016) were about the ways youth slips away, among other things: friendship, neighborhood loyalties, class, celebrity, violence, inequality, biracial identity, sex, the internet, Africa, England, and how to write a novel when realism is anxious about its own survival. The essays in Feel Free (2018) and now the stories in Grand Union have taken in parenthood, the passing of the older generation, unexpected political upheavals, unwelcome physical transformations, and the

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Sons and Haters

    At the midpoint of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love occurs one of the really extraordinary hidden scenes in English literature. Ursula and Gudrun are the young protagonists, figuring out their ambitions, their loves, and their futures. They are walking to a neighborhood water-party, with their father and mother in front of them, when suddenly they burst out in mockery. “‘Look at the young couple in front,’ said Gudrun calmly. . . . The two girls stood in the road and laughed till the tears ran down their faces, as they caught sight again of the shy, unworldly couple of their parents going on

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    From a Whisper to a Scream

    We all know that men don’t understand women. How could they? Women spend the whole time trying to understand themselves. “I specialize in women,” the writer Nancy Hale said in 1942. “Women puzzle me.” Hale felt that she knew how, “in a given situation, a man [was] apt to react.” (She’d been married three times by the age of thirty-four.) Women, on the other hand, vexed and intrigued her. Her mother, the portraitist Lilian Westcott Hale, made a career of looking at other women, including her daughter. In The Life in the Studio (1969), a memoir about growing up with wealthy, bohemian parents,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Life? Or Theater?

    On October 17, 1973, Ingeborg Bachmann—the Austrian poet, novelist, librettist, and essayist—succumbed to burns sustained three weeks prior when she, tranquilizers swallowed and cigarette in hand, lay down to sleep and inadvertently lit her nightgown and bed on fire. She was forty-seven and had, since receiving the Gruppe 47 prize even before the 1953 publication of her first poetry collection, Borrowed Time, astonished the German-speaking public as well as esteemed peers with texts that pushed against tradition and played at the limits of language. She awed the likes of Günter Grass, Peter

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    The Revolution of Everyday Life

    In the eight years since a small group of anti-capitalist activists set up camp in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street has generated its own literary subgenre: Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and Ling Ma’s Severance all feature scenes of the 2011 protests. In these novels, the Occupy movement, with its non-programmatic political aims and nonviolent tactics, represents a particularly utopian way of thinking about contemporary revolution—one that is less about direct action than it is about nonaction, about indirection.

    Caleb Crain’s new novel,

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