• print • Mar/Apr/May 2021

    The War of Art

    RARE IS THE ART CRITIC who writes novels, though I’ve never really understood why. In 2012, I asked eminent art essayist Lucy R. Lippard about her only published work of creative writing, I See / You Mean (1979). She sighed and said, “I thought I was going to be a great novelist. . . . I was not a great novelist.” Not so rare are fiction writers and poets who pen art criticism. Lippard’s contemporary Susan Sontag famously thought of herself as a great novelist first. In the 1980s, Lynne Tillman began to mix genres in her “Madame Realism” fiction-essays. Today, authors such as Zadie Smith and

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2021

    Wayne’s World

    IN THE ANTIC TALE that opens The Cheerful Scapegoat, Wayne Koestenbaum’s book of self-described “fables,” a woman named Crocus, like the flower, arrives at a house party wearing a checkered frock designed by the Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb. She cowers in the entrance, vacillating over whether to enter or not. She phones her doctor, a man whom she refers to as the “miscreant-confessor,” who entreats her to be social. Inside, Crocus accompanies a “fashionable mortician” to a bedroom where she happens upon a fully clothed woman lying atop a fully clothed man. Observing something “unformed

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2021

    It’s Complicated

    TORREY PETERS HAS BEEN self-publishing and giving away her stories online for pay-what-you-like prices since the mid-2010s. In the short works The Masker, Glamour Boutique, and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones—a sci-fi contagion story about hormones—Peters zeroes in on moments when her trans protagonist behaves or thinks in ways that communal consensus has agreed is “wrong.” Peters simplifies nothing, explains nothing to the outsider, which is why she is treasured by readers who are also protective of her and her work. For as long as such stories have stayed in the underground, where people

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2021

    Fortress of Solitude

    A DECADE AND A HALF AGO, a book so enchanted me that it was hard to pull away. If I were to get any of my own work done, I needed to hide it. (The book was very long, over eight hundred pages; I didn’t have the time.) But the tome kept jumping back into my hands. I could have given it away, of course, or simply tossed the thing, but surely at some point—when this oppressive spell of work was over—I’d want to dive back in. I had only finished a third, perhaps less. One day, I came across a length of twine, and instantly its purpose was apparent to me: I neatly tied the fat book up, quartering

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2021

    Apocalypse When

    THE LIFE OF THE MIND, Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, begins with an ending. We meet Dorothy, a contingent faculty member in the English department where she used to be a doctoral student, as she negotiates the miscarriage of an accidental pregnancy. The pregnancy, at once unexpected and welcome, is a blighted ovum, “just tissue” according to her ob-gyn. The metaphor is clear: Dorothy’s academic career and the pregnancy are both projects of development and growth that never had a chance to thrive.

    Dorothy is introduced after the first wash of her miscarriage, as she is waiting anxiously to

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  • print • Mar/Apr/May 2021

    Fearful Circuitry

    KLARA, THE TITLE CHARACTER OF KAZUO ISHIGURO’S new novel, would seem to have some serious shortcomings as a narrator. Introduced in a retail outlet in an unnamed city where she alternates between the window and less desirable display positions, Klara is a solar-powered AF, or Artificial Friend, who exists solely to assist and accompany the human child who purchases her. Despite her impressive capacity for mimesis and spongelike powers of absorption, we never forget Klara’s obvious limitations. Her view of the world is circumscribed, her vocabulary stilted, her agency virtually nonexistent. All

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  • excerpt • January 21, 2021

    An excerpt from Japan’s first bilingual, semiautobiographical novel

    I thought that in the interest of financial stability Nanae ought to increase her hours of part-time work rather than stocking up on lottery tickets.

    “You know those tickets never win.”

    I know[1].”

    “Why don’t you quit buying them then?”

    Yeah. But I still have a dollar and a few dreams. A person can’t live without dreams, after all.”

    “I suppose not.”

    “Anyway, nothing good ever happens in life.” She sighed.

    This was her constant refrain. I gave my stock reply: “No, it doesn’t. Good things just don’t happen.”

    “I’d have been satisfied with something small. I don’t need a million dollars.

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  • review • January 12, 2021

    On pleasure and survival in Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille

    Claude McKay’s “lost” novel Romance in Marseille begins where most novels would end: with a twist of fate that brings life to a grinding halt. Lafala, a West African sailor and a man of “shining blue blackness,” is discovered stowing away on a ship traveling from Marseille to New York and detained in an uninsulated bathroom, where he nearly freezes to death. When he comes to, he’s in a New York hospital, legless. Lafala’s first reaction is fear: he has heard that doctors in hospitals sometimes kill Black patients to use as cadavers. This is not merely superstition, but the unremitting condition

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  • review • December 15, 2020

    David Mitchell’s vertiginous novel of a fictional British rock band

    For every novel David Mitchell writes, two are published: there is the novel read by Mitchell’s fans, and the novel read by first-timers. Each of his books stands alone, as a thoughtful, researched, realistic portrayal of a specific time or place. There is a coming-of-age novel about a video-game obsessed adolescent in present-day Japan (Number9Dream), a novel about a Dutch visitor to a port near Nagasaki at the very end of the eighteenth century (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), a novel that deals with a widespread environmental collapse and the horror it brings to ill people (The Bone

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2021

    Scotland Made Me

    IN HIS THIRTEEN-LINE POEM “Scotland,” the Scottish poet Alastair Reid invokes a perfect day when “the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels” and “sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” When the poet meets “the woman from the fish-shop,” he marvels at the weather, only to be told by her in the poem’s last line: “We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!”

    That tension between high spirits and low guilt, between the dream of happiness and a Calvinist nightmare of retribution, has nourished the Scottish novel over the past half century. Part of the project

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2021

    All the World’s a Cage

    IT IS CUSTOMARY TO START an essay about Kafka by emphasizing how impossible it is to write about Kafka, then apologizing for making a doomed attempt. This gimmick has a distinguished lineage. “How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume?” Cynthia Ozick asks in the New Republic before she presumes for several ravishing pages. In the Paris Review, Joshua Cohen insists that “being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.” But far from pointing, he gestures for thousands

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2021

    The Stranger

    A MAN AND HIS FAMILY are vacationing in a tiny village in France. On the eve of their planned departure, the man’s wife and son disappear. He embarks on a hopeful search, asking for information about his missing family from neighbors and the local police. They went to pick up eggs and they didn’t come back, he tells anyone who will listen. But it’s September, and, with the other Parisian vacationers gone, the town—usually sunny and cheery—has transformed. It’s cold and wet, and the townspeople, once spirited and deferential to visitors, are distant and unhelpful. They are also confused by the

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