• print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Meditations in an Emergency

    Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was narrated by an eight-year-old girl named Grace. Grace’s mother, Anna, starts out a little crazy, the kind of intellectual eccentric whose home-school curriculum consists of a room painted black and a “cosmic calendar” marking out the origins of life, and then she gets a lot crazy—driving naked, insisting on picnicking inside a burned-down restaurant, that kind of thing. On Anna’s thirty-fifth birthday, mother and daughter bury a time capsule filled with photographs. “The box was made out of a special kind of metal that could survive any kind of

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    The Possessed

    The title of Garth Greenwell’s new novel appears exactly once in the book, close to its midpoint, in the second of its three sections, as the narrator describes a relationship that has introduced him to the heretofore alien qualities of stability and happiness. The unnamed protagonist, who was also the central figure in Greenwell’s 2016 debut, What Belongs to You, is an American living in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where he teaches at a prestigious high school. What Belongs to You, and other chapters of this new book, Cleanness, contain vivid accounts of the teacher’s sexual habits and

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Field of Bad Dreams

    We name things to make them less fearful. It’s an expression of affection or conquest (isn’t that why Adam christened the animals?). I think of how my kids sometimes bark out “Alexa, play Mamma Mia!” even though we don’t own an Amazon device. I’ll never buy one of those things, but my resistance is futile: My children already inhabit a reality in which they’re on a first-name basis with the internet. It’s like no one remembers HAL!

    The Resisters, Gish Jen’s fifth novel, posits a future perhaps less distant than we think. Forget first names; the tech infrastructure that undergirds all of society,

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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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  • 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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