• 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

    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

    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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