• print • Apr/May 2020

    Death Becomes Her

    Ottessa Moshfegh is known for lacing her fiction with grossness and ugliness, for cursing her misfit characters with repugnant features, antisocial behavior, and a fascination with the nastier bodily functions. “It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit,” she told Vice of her writing in 2015. “People love that kind of stuff.”

    As the less sexy half of that quote suggests, her earlier work poses as an unflinching look at the body horror of daily life, belying the author’s bored manipulation of the fallacy that the more unpleasant something is, the truer it must be. Her sentences can seem intentionally

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  • print • Apr/May 2020

    Is This It

    Twelve years ago this May, then-twenty-six-year-old Emily Gould wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine, chronicling her addiction to, and subsequent disillusionment with, what was then still a semi-novel cultural phenomenon: blogging. The eight-thousand-word essay made her the poster girl of the overshare: It was accompanied by a series of moodily lit bedroom photographs that Gould herself described as “vaguely cheesecakey.” “Lately, online, I’ve found myself doing something unexpected: keeping the personal details of my current life to myself,” she wrote in the final paragraph.

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  • print • Apr/May 2020

    Complex Messiah

    Heinrich von Kleist died by his own hand at the age of thirty-four. For a man whose life was plagued by failure, his suicide was a remarkable success. On November 20, 1811, two months after turning his eighth play over to the Prussian censors, Kleist and his friend Henriette Vogel retired to an inn outside Berlin, where for one night and one day they sang and prayed, composed final letters, and downed bottles of rum and wine (as well as, the London Times later reported, sixteen cups of coffee) before making their way to the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee. In these idyllic surroundings, as per

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  • print • Apr/May 2020

    Sex and the Sacristy

    At one point it was my good fortune to spend four summers working in Tuscany, surrounded by its heritage of religious art, and by the last visit, it occurred to me I was in possession of the kind of touristic cultural education I remembered Lucy Honeychurch pursuing in Florence, in E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View. Italian religious art plays a role in the plot, especially a scene in which Lucy faints by the Arno, and once I came to recognize the saints’ names and the biblical characters, and the signs that this or that patron had had himself or herself painted as this or that Roman or

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  • print • Apr/May 2020

    Two Lives

    The characters in Sara Sligar’s Take Me Apart live in 2017, but it would be better to say that they live in “our contemporary moment,” a generic version of the Trump era, a time that artists and writers feel compelled to respond to, usually with “urgency.” They have baby-boomer relatives who suggest they stop trying to be journalists and go to law school. They’re saddled with student loans and credit card debt. They discuss intersectionality at parties and wear fanny packs “unironically.” They contend with workplace harassment and watch Vanderpump Rules reruns. Sligar, it seems, has added all

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  • print • Apr/May 2020

    Naked Brunch

    The next time I’m about to dine on a goat-cheese omelet I will pause to reflect on that first forkful. Images of hens in cramped cages stacked on top of each other, the rain of dung that pours down from the highest to lowest, and the thousands of sun-bright bulbs that accelerate their egg-laying cycles will come between that tasty morsel and my prospective enjoyment. A decision to eschew the omelet and order a salad instead would be a testament to the efficacy of Deb Olin Unferth’s unnervingly vivid descriptions of industrial egg production in Barn 8. Animal rights and the dire environmental

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  • print • Apr/May 2020

    Season of the Witch

    While working as a journalist in Veracruz, Fernanda Melchor came across a report of a body found in a ditch outside a small village. A detail stood out: The victim was a known witch, and the suspect, a former lover, took his revenge when he realized the Witch had cast a spell for him to return. Melchor became fascinated with the story. At first she imagined writing a Capote-esque work of nonfiction about the crime informed by interviews with the suspect and the village’s residents, an In Cold Blood set in Mexico. But in Veracruz, a journalist asking too many questions draws the wrong kind of

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  • review • February 27, 2020

    You Better Work

    Though Hilary Leichter’s new novel Temporary takes place in the world of work, it’s not really about money. Instead, the book regards employment as world forming. It follows a young temp whose one desire is to find a regular job—what she calls reaching “the steadiness.” When she’s not employed, she’s called “temporary”; when she is, she takes the name (and birthday) of whomever she’s filling in for. Though we don’t really have a hero (it’s hard to be a protagonist in a system of self-negation), the story is still a quest narrative: The unnamed temp wants to find the perfect match.

    Her supervisor

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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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