• review • July 14, 2020

    In Andrew Martin’s fiction, dissatisfaction reigns supreme

    In Andrew Martin’s new story collection, we’re with the critics, who are also writers, who often don’t write anything at all. Like Derek, who peaks hate-skimming a novel by the sometime-boyfriend of Violet, a member of his War and Peace reading group: “First paragraph: way too long. How many clauses did one man need? Last sentence: something about a Carolyn ‘emerging carelessly’ from a car. Indeed.” Derek throws the book in the trash, feels something. He is lashing out, having “been proven wrong in his interpretations of the text at every turn” over eight months of Tolstoy, and all in front of

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  • review • June 17, 2020

    In This Town Sleeps, Dennis E. Staples reckons with violence, identity, and history in a small town

    “I don’t know why I keep coming back here,” muses Marion Lafournier, the gay Ojibwe man at the center of Dennis E. Staples’s debut novel, This Town Sleeps. He’s talking about Geshig, a small town at the center of the Languille Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. Despite feeling like an outsider as the town’s only openly gay resident, Marion cannot resist the pull to return home. “The first chance I had to move out of Geshig and off the Languille Lake reservation, I took it,” Marion explains. “I moved to the Twin Cities for college. And then as a few years passed, and after a disastrous

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Good as Hell

    THE TUDOR ROSE ON THE JACKET OF THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT—the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I’ve looked forward to reading for five long years—has watched me like a cyclops eye since the novel’s publication in March. Or, more likely, I first noticed the emblem’s monstrous quality in early April, when nights in New York grew more cinematically wretched and scary: sleepless, ambulance sirens nonstop. I did, at one point, open the book and read the first page, standing in the kitchen. “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away,” Mantel starts, putting us at the

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  • print • Summer 2020

    For Goodness’ Sake

    WHAT MAKES A PERSON GOOD? We can create a profile using social media and essays published in popular magazines. First and foremost, a good person possesses a deep understanding of power structures and her relative place in them. She has a sense of humor that never “punches down.” She doesn’t subtweet, buy stuff on Amazon, or fly on too many planes. She has children in order to fend off narcissism—a bad quality—and develop a stake in the future of planet Earth, but she would never presume to judge another woman’s choice. And though she occasionally makes mistakes—cheats on her boyfriend, offends

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  • print • Summer 2020

    God’s Neon

    PEOPLE LOVE TALKING ABOUT DENIS JOHNSON, but they do not love talking about his fifth novel, Already Dead. Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review tagged the book in August 1997, and it has yet to be untagged. She wrote that Already Dead was “a virtually unreadable book that manages to be simultaneously pretentious, sentimental, bubble-headed and gratuitously violent.” Kakutani got flagrant with the kicker, calling Already Dead an “inept, repugnant novel.” David Gates was more generous in the Sunday Book Review, though not enough to overwrite Kakutani. Few writers fell for the book when it

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  • print • Summer 2020

    A Lover’s Discord

    “WHO CONSCIOUSLY THROWS HIMSELF INTO THE WATER OR ONTO THE KNIFE?” In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1869), Prince Myshkin, the idiot of the title, poses this question to Rogozhin, who is in love with Nastasya. The young woman seems to be in love with both the Prince and Rogozhin, though in The Idiot it’s a bit hard to tell who is in love with who, because everyone is falling in love with each other all the time, and no one will ever admit that she or he is in love, except by way of making fun of the idea of being in love or denying being in love. The Prince asks the question because he knows that

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  • print • Summer 2020

    A Journal of the Plague Year

    MY FRIENDS’ FACES are hovering in a line of small, burnished tiles. Each square looks alive in a miniaturized way, its own gestural universe, flickering and reflective like sequins from the hem of a dress. We are discussing the end of the world, which means, for us, the fortunate, the end of our habits, the necessitation of new ones. We talk about science, swapping scraps of data with the fervent authority we previously reserved for gossip. “Well, I heard . . .” We talk about ventilators, a new finite resource. There were already so many finite resources, it’s odd to discover a new one. As the

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  • print • Summer 2020

    That Elusive Thing

    “AFFECTION IS THE MORTAL ILLNESS OF LONELY PEOPLE.” So says the unnamed narrator of Horse Crazy, a book about many things, but maybe most vividly the wages of loneliness. A longing for profound human exchange, a communion of flesh and mind, courses through Gary Indiana’s novel, his first. The setting is New York City in the 1980s; the narrator, reluctantly shackled to an esteemed downtown publication for which he writes scabrous and lucid art reviews, pines for Gregory, a beautiful if vainglorious former junkie drowning in self-pity and solipsism who gives the critic suggestive shoulder rubs

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Future Shock

    On my first day in Mumbai, I took a photograph of a proverb pasted inside a taxi door. IT IS EASIER TO FALL THAN RISE, it cautioned.

    These days, the press regularly describes India as “upwardly mobile” or “a country of dreamers.” It has become a cliché to say that a street sweeper can become a rickshaw driver and then own a taxi, or maybe even become a Bollywood star. It’s true: The poverty rate is falling, the middle class is growing, and the nation is younger than ever. Or at least this was all the case before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, when rising nationalism and anti-Muslim

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Don’t Be Cross

    He has answered the boy’s questions about condom use, about human nature, and about poo (“the poo-ness of poo”). He has weighed in on the probability of an afterlife (pretty probable) and the pitfalls of having a penis (“Did his penis make him kill people?”). He has explained to him, incessantly, at times impatiently, that “that is the way the world is.” Now Simón, the guardian of David, the boy who might be Jesus, has some questions of his own. I suppose you could call them philosophical. “He, Simón, speaks. ‘I am confused. Did you or did you not tell Dr. Julio that Inés and I are doing bad

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Art Anticipates Life

    Aside from being in poor taste, exchanging high-fives is no doubt a clumsy business on Zoom, which is presumably how Alfred A. Knopf’s marketing team does its conferring these days. Even so, they must have been agog when The End of October ($28), journalist Lawrence Wright’s alternately sober-minded and gaudy new thriller about a devastating global pandemic, got transformed into the season’s most sensational publishing event by a genuine pandemic’s eruption. Apparently, the publication date did get moved up—Christ, what if they find a vaccine first?—but only by a couple of weeks. Now that the

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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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