• 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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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2021

    The Hate You Live

    LAURENCE STERNE DESIGNATED the poet and novelist Tobias Smollett a “Smelfungus” in his 1768 novel-length travelogue A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Smollett published his travelogue Travels Through France and Italy two years before, and Sterne’s punishing evaluation of that work is as follows: “The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris,—from Paris to Rome,—and so on;—but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted.—He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.” That

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  • review • November 19, 2020

    All the Pretty Lies

    ELENA FERRANTE DOES NOT require privacy. She lays out her psychosexual-emotional range for all the world in multiple languages. She does not lock down her time, although she controls its use: one written interview in each language with each book. What she avoids is the parade, the opportunity for outsiders to evaluate aspects of her she is not ferociously driven to present. That is why she wrote a letter to her publishers in 1991, before they released her first novel, Troubling Love, before she knew whether she would find one reader or one million. In the letter, she gently refused to appear

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  • review • October 06, 2020

    In Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel, literary desire is no match for reality

    Authors have long asked whether fiction is useful in times of crisis, a question that has been especially pronounced in the past four years, following the election of the current president, the advent of coronavirus, and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. What can a book do in a time like this? It’s a question central to Want, Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel. The narrator, unnamed until the penultimate page, asks herself throughout the book: Why did I study English? Why did I think that sharing books with people was a worthwhile way to spend my life?

    The disaster at the heart

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  • review • October 01, 2020

    A North Korean best-seller provides a rare view inside the isolated nation

    Most fiction about North Korea published outside of that country is by defectors and dissenters, and most of it tells of the hardships of living under a totalitarian regime. Fiction published in North Korea tends to be the opposite: when I visited in 2017, the only English-language books at the bookshop that passed as fiction were hagiographic historical novels about former supreme leaders.

    Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend is something different. Neither a work of dissent or leader-worship, it is, instead, an account of a married couple on the brink of divorce, as narrated from the presiding judge’s

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  • review • September 24, 2020

    The relatable, unlikeable characters of Halle Butler’s fiction

    In today’s novels of disillusionment, every party has at least one person who doesn’t know why they’re there, who is thinking, as they find themselves on the periphery of various conversations: “Oh my god, everyone in this world is just way too interested in things.”

    So proclaims Megan in Halle Butler’s debut novel Jillian (2015), issued in a new paperback edition this summer. Megan is a typically afflicted millennial protagonist, so chronically overwhelmed that she doesn’t even notice it anymore. She drifts through life on cynical, unflappable autopilot: immune to surprise or delight,

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  • review • September 22, 2020

    In Nicole Flattery’s fiction, precarity is an all-consuming problem

    In Nicole Flattery’s recent story collection, Show Them a Good Time, precarity is a draining certainty. Unlike the protagonists in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends or Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which precarity is expressed as youthful malaise, Flattery’s characters experience money problems as a potentially endless catastrophe. Originally from Mullingar, Flattery is part of a generation of Irish writers whose adult lives have been defined by austerity. The all-female protagonists in Show Them a Good Time are stuck in this boom-bust loop. Hometowns are not

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  • review • September 17, 2020

    The exam-room confessions of Katharina Volckmer’s new novel

    In Katharina Volckmer’s debut novel, The Appointment, a patient sits in a medical exam room and monologues at a man named Dr. Seligman for 131 pages. The patient, Sarah, was born in Germany but is now based in London and likes to gossip about her former shrink, Jason, whom she hates. She isn’t sure whether she hates Dr. Seligman, though she initially distrusts him. She wonders if he’s like Jason, who would definitely smile his way “through any atrocity” with the ridiculous conviction that he could forgive all “petty human errors.” This raises an obvious question: if Sarah doesn’t trust doctors,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Signs and Symbols

    ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Kate Zambreno’s novel Drifts, the unnamed narrator notices a butternut squash. It makes her think of a detail in a Dürer engraving. Later, in a restaurant, she spots a decorative squash. “There appears to be a vast referentiality everywhere,” she tells us. It’s true that patterns exist—or, anyway, that we’re constantly finding them. It’s less true, I think, that there’s meaning in this fact. It’s only a game we while our lives away playing.

    Drifts has place (New York) and players (the narrator’s friends; her partner, John; a neighbor; her dog, Genet), but not much in the

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Ashes to Ashes

    BEFORE SHE ORDAINED HER BOYFRIEND the first “good cop,” Lana Del Rey was born to die. It was 2012. She was only five months away from twenty-seven, the age at which celebrity musicians are, anecdotally speaking, very likely to experience a turn of fate. (Amy Winehouse overdosed in her tenth month, Janis Joplin in her ninth.) The album she put out that year, Del Rey’s second, was considered a breakout hit. Born to Die, critics agreed, had changed the course of her life.

    America has always been a death cult; the only variable has been its soundtrack. In the stereo age, boomers, armed with IRAs

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