• review • September 27, 2022

    Mostly Disconnect

    Jem Calder’s Reward System is a fractionated fiction for a fragmented world: one in which the means of connection are constantly available, but connection is harder than ever, and everything is linked, but little is shared. The book, Calder’s debut, consists of six “ultra-contemporary fictions” that center on two characters, Julia and Nick, old university friends and one-time lovers whose post-university years are dominated by work and technology. Calder flits between episodes in their lives, magnifying specific incidents, leaving the reader to string together a narrative from discrete stories.

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  • print • Sep/Oct/Nov 2022

    Pictures from an Institution

    IN A VIRAL VIDEO from last October, Jamie Lee Curtis repeats the word “trauma” ad infinitum on the press circuit for Halloween Kills. The comedy comes partly from Curtis’s unorthodox pronunciation—trow-muh, not trah-muh—but also from the supercut’s temporal absurdity, how a word uttered repetitively and uninterruptedly misplaces meaning. The context of the slasher flick raised additional hackles: we’ll exploit trauma to elevate just about anything. The video appears, in hindsight, to be an early indicator that the tides were turning: now there was a slapstick, tacky sensibility to trauma’s

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  • print • Sep/Oct/Nov 2022

    The Return of the Repressed

    THERE ARE A LOT OF OLD FLAMES in Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 book First Love. The novel begins where so many end—in marriage, with its protagonist Neve moving into her husband Edwyn’s flat in London. What looks like the prelude to the sweet life—two lovers easing into domestic settlement—soon turns sour. There are pet names, and then there are “other names, of course.” On page two, we learn that Edwyn once called Neve “a fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had . . . green acid shoved up it,” among other things. It only gets more rancid from there. 

    Neve is thirty-three, around

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  • print • Sep/Oct/Nov 2022

    Making It

    MUST A NOVEL ENGAGE with contemporary life? One still finds the call, as tenacious as cliché, for novels that “speak to the moment we are in,” “work out society,” or otherwise “interpret the now,” insisted upon regularly in marketing copy and pieces of criticism, not to mention on Twitter. A better question to ask is whether a novel can do anything but react to—or reflect—contemporary life. This one is characteristic of a certain kind of Marxist criticism, which seems at times to make a point of noting that novels engage with the “now” regardless of their authors’, or readers’, intentions. And

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  • excerpt • July 25, 2022

    Ways of Seeing

    “Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held—I am tempted to say salvaged,” John Berger writes in his 1983 essay “The Production of the World.” “Reality is inimical to those with power.” 

    There’s a Berger short story, published in the New Yorker in 2001, called “Woven, Sir” that reminds me, in a way, of this. It’s a story in which Berger’s adult narrator describes being in Madrid, waiting for a friend at the Ritz Hotel (with classic Berger observations around the sensual realities of class and wealth, as in his impression, in the hotel, of “the deafness of money . . .

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  • review • July 22, 2022

    Just One More Click

    The narrator of Jordan Castro’s debut novel, The Novelist, is a writer and a recovering heroin addict. Newly sober, he feels as if he’s seeing the world for the first time, and all the ordinary things he overlooked as an active addict are now taking on a surreal quality—the way the light plays on the bedroom wall alone seems to be too much. He is trying to write a novel about his once-humorous, pathetic life as an addict, except he is now driven by a more common addiction: checking Gmail and scrolling through Twitter. Sobriety gives him a new existence, but the need to feel a dopamine rush

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  • review • July 14, 2022

    The Books I Read

    The austerity of painting stripped down to reveal the threadbare lives of the artists; domestic strife heighted to the point of sublimity; personal memoir caressed by the ancient lunacy of myth; comic-book characters trespassing at the gates of high modernism; the love of books and cats. Frederic Tuten’s trajectory through letters has been uncategorizable, heteroclite, and consistently at odds with the prevailing fashion—so much so that he comes across less as a member of any extant school of literature and more as a Dada or Pop artist who happens to work primarily with words. His new story

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  • review • July 01, 2022

    Jock Itch

    A FRIEND OF MINE from what feels like a lifetime ago once introduced me to her uncle during dinner at her mom’s house. That he was avuncular in all the classic ways—huge, meek, seemed like he had a life defined by extreme silence—was mostly unremarkable, but what lingered from our meeting was his decision to forcibly share his two clearest, greatest fantasies with a table largely made up of children. The first, he said, extending a finger over some entreé meat, was to meet supermodel Christie Brinkley before he faced the grave. The other—up went another finger, eyes and heart fat with conviction—was

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  • excerpt • June 27, 2022

    All She Wrote

    It’s always been a sport to argue about the canon. I’ve never been one for sports.

    When readers declare a desire to read away from the canon, I admire the instinct. It’s almost a predictable part of the cultural cycle: the resurrection or rediscovery of those whom the times have left behind or unjustly ignored. It’s thrilling to reckon with the work of artists never given their due—in recent years, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lucia Berlin, Kathleen Collins, Alice Adams, Bette Howland. But I confess: it rankles, a little, the cri de coeur “Read Women.” There’s a long list of reasons to

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  • excerpt • June 14, 2022

    Pear, Grape, Apple

    She is biting her nails when I open the door, her purse pressed tightly against her breasts. As usual, I think as she walks in, head down, and sits in her usual place, Mondays and Thursdays, five o’clock: as usual. I shut the door, walk over to the armchair in front of her, sit and cross my legs, making sure I pull up my pants first so they won’t have those awful creases on my knees. I wait. She doesn’t say anything. She seems to be staring at my socks. Slowly, I pull a cigarette out of the pack in my coat pocket, then tap it on the arm of the chair as I search for a lighter in my back pocket.

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2022

    Reality Bites

    EARLY IN ELIF BATUMAN’S NEW NOVEL Either/Or, she quotes a blurb on the front of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, extracted from its 1986 review in the New York Times. “Good writers abound—good novelists are very rare,” the critic theorizes, deeming Ishiguro “not only a good writer, but also a wonderful novelist.” For Either/Or’s narrator, the distinction comes as a shock. Since she was young, Selin has aspired to become a novelist, and she views much of her life to date as training for that vocation. Assessing herself according to the reviewer’s implied rubric, Selin realizes

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2022

    Doppelgänger, Poltergeist

    A SPECTER IS HAUNTING AUTOFICTION. The specter of ripping off your life for your novel and not making a whole goddamn thing about it. Elizabeth Hardwick’s unnamed narrator spent her Sleepless Nights in Elizabeth Hardwick’s apartment and it worked out fine for both of them. Roth had Zuckerman and, later, “Roth,” and later still Lisa Halliday had “Ezra Blazer.” There have been abundant Dennises Cooper, Joshuas Cohen, and Dianes Williams. Sebald and Bellow—just saying the names should be enough. Jamaica Kincaid gave Lucy her own birthday. Then you’ve got the New Narrative movement of the ’70s and

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