• 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

    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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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Now the Grammar of Our Discontent

    In 2008, Gary Lutz gave a lecture called “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” a transcript of which was later published in The Believer. The lecture outlined Lutz’s approach to short stories, specifically his punctilious focus on the sonic qualities of the sentence. He spoke in favor of “steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” Interest in The

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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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  • 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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  • 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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