• 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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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Fatal Attraction

    No one could decide how to kill Helen of Troy. It’s a glaring oversight for such a crucial character. Greek tragedy is a genre that usually relishes any opportunity for a specific and harrowing death, especially for women—deaths that spill symbolism in shining pools. A woman’s way of dying is the apex of her meaningfulness: Antigone hanging herself in captivity, Clytemnestra stabbed by her own son, Polyxena sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles. It is strange, then, that Helen ends up without an ending. Not least because, according to the logic of the form, she should be the object of two whole

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Eros Smith

    Lately I’ve been feeling differently about birthdays. For a long time I looked forward to them, as we do when we are children. Then I went through a long stage when I dreaded my birthdays because they were little—no, big—reminders of what I’d wanted to do but hadn’t yet done, or had missed the chance to do altogether. Then I entered the birthdays of my late forties and early fifties (I’ll be fifty-three in May), when I actually started to feel, well, old. Death approaching, all that.

    But for the past few months I’ve been thinking, Well, fifty-three, that’s not a bad accomplishment. I’ve survived

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  • 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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