• print • Feb/Mar 2018

    The Odd Couple

    I don’t know whether or not The Friend is a good novel or even, strictly speaking, if it’s a novel at all—so odd is its construction—but after I’d turned the last page of the book I found myself sorry to be leaving the company of a feeling intelligence that had delighted me and even, on occasion, given joy.

    The narrator is a writer whose great and good friend of thirty years (a man who’d once been her mentor) has committed suicide. She goes into shock and stops working: “I missed my deadline. Was given a compassionate extension. Missed that deadline, too. Now the editor thinks I’m malingering.”

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2018

    Notes from Untergrund

    Some things can exist only on the verge of nonexistence. Like the novel, moribund since its inception—and like God, abidingly vulnerable to heresy and debunking—Berlin has always teetered toward death. It had died and died again by the time I moved there in 2012, when everyone said it was over.

    But news of its demise hadn’t reached me, and my first weeks in the city were raw with stupid excitement. I seemed to live on trains: shuffling from one to the next, squinting at maps threaded with lines and knotted with stations, confused when the Strassenbahn, or street train, slouched under the

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2018

    Dead Reckonings

    In Tatyana Tolstaya’s earlier short-story collection, White Walls, a character remarks, “If a person is dead, that’s for a long time; if he’s stupid, that’s forever.”

    This was marvelous, I thought, one of those wise, wise Russian sayings.

    I mentioned this to a friend.

    “Oh that’s all over the internet,” she said.

    “Really?” That was disappointing.

    She produced her device and paddled her finger across it like people do and said, “See? Here.”

    “When you’re dead you don’t know that you’re dead, and it’s the same when you’re stupid,” the screen reported.

    “But that’s entirely different,” I

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2018

    Trans and Transient

    A postulate: Queer writers do twentieth—century picaresque uniquely well. The picaro figure was, after all, a rogue, originally: slippery, necessarily on the move and on the make, situationally criminal, effectively fugitive. More or less the situation of lots of LGBT people reading the signs and crafting a life outside of compulsory (cis) heterosexuality in the US in, say, 1992, which is when twenty-first-century queer writer Andrea Lawlor sets their new novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Ideally, in picaresque fiction, the resourceful hero’s attributes, those suited to navigating

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2018

    Up In Flames

    In a story in Fleur Jaeggy’s I Am the Brother of XX, a tour guide takes a seat on a bench outside Auschwitz, leaving her client, Anja, to walk through the former concentration camp on her own. Basia, the guide, makes this pointed refusal because she understands that the horrors of history have been reduced to the sanitized procedures of museum voyeurism. The guidebook instructs visitors to climb to the top of the tower in the adjacent town of Birkenau for an excellent view. Seeking mementos, visitors scurry about the camp taking snapshots and posing in front of the cremation ovens, unaware that

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2018

    The Alt-Write

    I’ve heard it argued—and I agree—that fiction that builds a universe whose rules depart from our own allows for the contemplation of ethical dilemmas that cannot be addressed in or by the world as we know it. This kind of fiction—what my toddler might call “same but different”—tends to disrupt our go-to feelings. In an alternate universe, you are moved to relitigate the basics because you cannot take anything for granted. The sun is black; the moon is pink; everything we know needs to be reevaluated—the facts of our lives and, by extension, the principles we hold dear. Similarly, fiction that

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2018

    States of Wander

    The encomiums that plastered the internet in the hours and days following John Ashbery’s death on September 3 were mostly in accord: Ashbery’s poetry was “puzzling,” “enigmatic,” “impenetrable,” “difficult,” “elusive,” “obscure,” “incomprehensible,” “inscrutable,” “confounding,” “indecipherable,” “inaccessible,” “hard to grasp,” “incoherent,” “challenging,” “mysterious.”

    I may have sighed. Oh, it’s accurate enough—I was immediately seduced when I first read Ashbery, in college, but I couldn’t have told you precisely what the words that seduced me, you know, meant. Ashbery was at first for me

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2018

    Caste in Doubt

    The title of Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel recalls V. S. Naipaul’s Booker Prize–winning collection In a Free State, from 1971. Like Naipaul’s book, which consists of two stories and the titular novella, bookended by sections of documentary observation, Mukherjee’s is not a novel in the sense we might recognize, though it is being called one. It, too, is made up of five parts, more like long episodes than complete narratives. But the departure from the novel form is superficial. All of these episodes are set in India, and feature minor characters we glimpse in passing and then learn more about

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2018

    Revel with a Cause

    All the ancient-Greek tragedians put their personal stamps on preexisting myths, but in terms of panache, no one could match Euripides. Even while working within the boundaries of ancient-Greek mythos, he turned tales on their heads, irreverently vamping standards like Elektra. As poet and essayist Anne Carson wagers, “Euripides was a playwright of the fifth century BC who reinvented Greek tragedy, setting it on a path that leads straight to reality TV. His plays broke all the rules, upended convention and outraged conservative critics.”

    This is certainly the case with his version of the

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2018

    Borderline Cases

    “I’d been here three days already, and was tired of selling newspapers . . . and so yesterday I took the plunge.” This is Roberto, a Dominican migrant in Mexico, and he’s not speaking metaphorically. Roberto plunged into the Rio Grande (out of hope? boredom?). He even made it across. But he saw police lights at the US border, reports Óscar Martínez in The Beast (2013), his chronicle of Mexico’s migrant trail. So Roberto jumped back in the river. “I was too tired then and I almost drowned.” If his survival seems remarkable, his trip itself is not. Every year, per the Center for Border Studies

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

    Two Mississippi

    Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County and Jesmyn Ward has Bois Sauvage—neither real, both true. Faulkner reimagined Lafayette County, in the northern half of Mississippi, while Ward has used Bois Sauvage in three novels to stand in for the small towns of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which could include DeLisle, where Ward grew up. Ward’s 2008 debut, Where the Line Bleeds, is about twin brothers struggling to get by in Bois Sauvage. Salvage the Bones (2011) follows Esch, a pregnant teenager who loves Greek mythology, living in the days before Hurricane Katrina. (This won Ward the National Book Award

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

    A Spouse Divided

    In a 1966 essay for the New York Review of Books on divorce in America, the sociologist Christopher Lasch remarked: “Divorce is a depressing subject from almost any point of view. For participants, it is not likely to be an ennobling experience; nor does it have the compensatory virtue, like other forms of suffering, of lending itself to literary uses.” Because divorce tended to throw dignity out the window, it was beneath the tragic mode, and the subject simply put off writers with comic talents. “Grim earnestness” or “sensationalism” seemed to be the two modes available to writers treating

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