• print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Meditations in an Emergency

    Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was narrated by an eight-year-old girl named Grace. Grace’s mother, Anna, starts out a little crazy, the kind of intellectual eccentric whose home-school curriculum consists of a room painted black and a “cosmic calendar” marking out the origins of life, and then she gets a lot crazy—driving naked, insisting on picnicking inside a burned-down restaurant, that kind of thing. On Anna’s thirty-fifth birthday, mother and daughter bury a time capsule filled with photographs. “The box was made out of a special kind of metal that could survive any kind of

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    The Possessed

    The title of Garth Greenwell’s new novel appears exactly once in the book, close to its midpoint, in the second of its three sections, as the narrator describes a relationship that has introduced him to the heretofore alien qualities of stability and happiness. The unnamed protagonist, who was also the central figure in Greenwell’s 2016 debut, What Belongs to You, is an American living in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where he teaches at a prestigious high school. What Belongs to You, and other chapters of this new book, Cleanness, contain vivid accounts of the teacher’s sexual habits and

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Field of Bad Dreams

    We name things to make them less fearful. It’s an expression of affection or conquest (isn’t that why Adam christened the animals?). I think of how my kids sometimes bark out “Alexa, play Mamma Mia!” even though we don’t own an Amazon device. I’ll never buy one of those things, but my resistance is futile: My children already inhabit a reality in which they’re on a first-name basis with the internet. It’s like no one remembers HAL!

    The Resisters, Gish Jen’s fifth novel, posits a future perhaps less distant than we think. Forget first names; the tech infrastructure that undergirds all of society,

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    We Need to Talk

    Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a novel about the things women (largely women of a certain class) talk about, when alone with each other, when with men, when in the world, and privately to themselves. Stories about ourselves—and how we tell them—are the core of this twisty, prickly, sometimes brilliant debut. Wit is never in short supply here; the narrator is a perceptive observer of her own habit of falling into, and her ultimate inability to accept, a series of stock roles: bright but naive graduate student; professor’s wife; suburban mother; clever daughter; single parent. The

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Invisible Woman

    We often look to novelists to encapsulate a moment, era, or generation. Earlier in the 2010s, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) captured our anxious new millennium and offered wisdom on race, colonialism, capitalism, and immigration. Her literary success gave way to TED Talks, widespread interviews, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among other honors. Despite the breadth of Adichie’s texts, what she became most sought after to comment upon—the lens through which her work was evaluated—was identity.

    A few years later, Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends, and the 2019

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Elegant Variations

    “I do not believe in serendipity,” says Percy, the narrator of Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s The Exhibition of Persephone Q. “I don’t think there are moments, of which so many people speak, in which a life irrevocably and neatly forks, like a line in your palm. I believe instead that the past returns to you in waves, crashing onto the shore, so that the ground on which you stand is always shifting, like a beach, imperceptibly renewed.” I found myself returning to this passage throughout my reading, and for some days afterward, trying to decide whether I believed it, either as a general proposition

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    An Artist of the Floating World

    In her essay “Something Has Brought Me Here,” Amina Cain, the author of two story collections and now the novel Indelicacy, speaks of her preoccupation with the affinities between landscape painting and literature. “Whenever I read a novel,” she begins, “narrative has been impressing itself more and more visually in my mind. Or maybe it’s that my mind has gone more and more toward these fictional visions. Even though I’m a writer, it’s not always language I’m drawn to.” In an interview with fellow writer Renee Gladman, Cain presents her fixation as a question: “Can a story be like a painting?”

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Fatal Attraction

    No one could decide how to kill Helen of Troy. It’s a glaring oversight for such a crucial character. Greek tragedy is a genre that usually relishes any opportunity for a specific and harrowing death, especially for women—deaths that spill symbolism in shining pools. A woman’s way of dying is the apex of her meaningfulness: Antigone hanging herself in captivity, Clytemnestra stabbed by her own son, Polyxena sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles. It is strange, then, that Helen ends up without an ending. Not least because, according to the logic of the form, she should be the object of two whole

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Eros Smith

    Lately I’ve been feeling differently about birthdays. For a long time I looked forward to them, as we do when we are children. Then I went through a long stage when I dreaded my birthdays because they were little—no, big—reminders of what I’d wanted to do but hadn’t yet done, or had missed the chance to do altogether. Then I entered the birthdays of my late forties and early fifties (I’ll be fifty-three in May), when I actually started to feel, well, old. Death approaching, all that.

    But for the past few months I’ve been thinking, Well, fifty-three, that’s not a bad accomplishment. I’ve survived

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Curb Your Enthusiasm

    Octogenarian, slight, and frizzy-haired, Sonallah Ibrahim is a bit of a grump. For over five decades, the Egyptian novelist has served as the Arab world’s preeminent bard of dashed hope and disillusionment. His oracular if gloom-filled books are blinding inventories of consumerism, degradation, dictatorship, stagnation, pleasureless sex, creeping Islamism, and mind-numbing Americanization. To be alive and conscious, suggests Ibrahim, is to be humiliated. He lives in Cairo, the city of his birth and the mother of endless annoyance. “I’m so irritated most of the time by the dirt, the noise, and

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Inhuman Bondage

    “Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose”—so said a tenebrous Toni Morrison in a 1988 speech at the University of Michigan. It was a canny, candid pronouncement: Morrison had registered a horripilating chill in the body of American literature, the presence of a ghost passing through—that of the Afro-American. A muted, neglected specter, she said, it stalked the canon in a close orbit, reputed not to exist. Her genius was to listen for it, to log the whispers of its alternate and unsanctioned histories.

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    I Color

    “These things happened, but not as described.” So begins The Baudelaire Fractal, the vertiginous debut novel by poet, translator, essayist, and most genteel of insurgents Lisa Robertson. Like her previous books, her latest is a work of buoyant loveliness and muscular erudition, a lush thicket of thoughts that here enrich the ease and breeziness of personal narrative with the chewier textures of history, criticism, and literary theory. “Writing unfolds like a game called ‘I,’” declares the novel’s diaphanous narrator, behind whom Robertson herself lurks, and to whom she gives the name—the I

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