• review • November 19, 2020

    All the Pretty Lies

    ELENA FERRANTE DOES NOT require privacy. She lays out her psychosexual-emotional range for all the world in multiple languages. She does not lock down her time, although she controls its use: one written interview in each language with each book. What she avoids is the parade, the opportunity for outsiders to evaluate aspects of her she is not ferociously driven to present. That is why she wrote a letter to her publishers in 1991, before they released her first novel, Troubling Love, before she knew whether she would find one reader or one million. In the letter, she gently refused to appear

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2021

    The Martin Papers

    “SENESCENCE” ISN’T QUITE THE RIGHT WORD for the stage the writers of the Baby Boom have reached. Sure, they may be collecting social security, the eldest of them in their mid-seventies, but the wonders of modern science may allow some another couple of decades of productivity. When the Reaper starts to come for the writer’s instrument, the first thing to go is flow, but that may not matter: fragments are in. In a decade or so, robbed of their transitions and reduced to accumulating prose shards, the octogenarian Boomers may find themselves newly trendy. A strange fate for a generation that

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  • 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

    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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