• print • Summer 2018

    Moscow Analytica

    In one sense, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country picks up where his first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, left off. That book’s last chapter is set in 2008, the year it was published, and narrated by one of the titular young men—needy, resentful, compulsively charming, and not always easily distinguishable Lost Boys who divide their time between anguished political musings, intellectual pissing contests, and the quest to disappoint as many attractive women as they can. After a few years spent mostly in Moscow, a city he notes is “what the world looked like before you covered it up with

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  • print • Summer 2018

    The Moviegoers

    In his 1929 essay “Will Talkies Abolish the Theater?” Luigi Pirandello offered a provocative reading of cinema (and defense of the stage) when the younger medium was at a pivotal moment. “The greatest success to which film can aspire, one moving it even farther along the road toward theater, will be to become theater’s photographic and mechanical copy, and a bad one at that. Like all copies, it must arouse a desire for the original.” What stoked Pirandello’s criticism of film was the introduction of sound—he wrote the essay after seeing The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, and not long after

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  • print • Summer 2018

    The Return of the Real

    At some point after 1986, when he arrived in the United States, Amitava Kumar discovered what he later called an anxiety endemic to the “expatriate Indian.” He sensed that the longer he stayed in his new country, the more he risked “losing touch with the society he took as his subject.” He used that fear, in many darting, subtle essays and several books, to urge himself toward a style that was scrupulously faithful to what he saw and heard. “The mannered delivery of lines” in 1990s Hindi movies, the bodies of people poisoned by uranium in a small Jharkhand mining town, and the speech of New

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Peep Show

    A fan of Alan Hollinghurst’s masterpiece The Line of Beauty has created a Twitter account, @lollinghurst, to document the many epigrams and sly jokes and thrillingly acute descriptions found throughout that novel. These “lines of beauty” don’t just serve to decorate the book; they are the book. “His lips quivered and pinched with the sarcastic alertness that was his own brand of happiness.” “He felt victimized, and flattered, pretty important and utterly insignificant, since they clearly had no idea who he was.” In The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst evokes inner states and interior decor with

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Double Jeopardy

    There’s a food truck that roams Manhattan, offering a Belgian waffle piled with bananas, strawberries, chocolate fudge, and whipped cream called the WMD—the “Wafel of Massive Deliciousness.” That WMDs can now be casually vended around the city signals the end of one era and the beginning of another. We’re still in the midst of indefinite war, but September 11 is no longer the center of our civic life, and the memory of it, like a kidney stone in the national consciousness, is being pulverized and passed, in cultural remnants, here and there. The activist books are still being written, but the

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Art Monster

    When Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation came out in 2014, I couldn’t elbow my way to the bar without having a conversation with a woman writer about whether or not we knew any art monsters. Ottessa Moshfegh? Even Kate Zambreno and Joy Williams have children. . . . It seemed fitting we were all suddenly preoccupied with this question, as if we’d found a way to talk about whether or not we wanted to be geniuses, like the men.

    An art monster is what the woman in Dept. of Speculation wanted to be when she was young and single, energetically nursing her nascent career. “Women almost never become

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Antics Roadshow

    I

    OF THE FEW real-life intrusions into The Solitary Twin, the final novel by Harry Mathews, the most unexpected is a cameo by a certain billionaire mayor. Apparently Michael Bloomberg has been a regular visitor to the remote town where the book takes place. Situated “at the end of the world,” New Bentwick was smartly planned by “enlightened capitalists” in the late 1800s and has run like clockwork ever since, without a single murder staining its ledgers.

    In the twenty-first century, some of its civic leaders fire up an “innovation lab” to “find ways of renovating the world.” That’s where

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Siberia Made Me

    “Shalamov’s experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “I respectfully confess that to him and not me it was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all.”

    Varlam Shalamov was a decade older than Solzhenitsyn. Born in Vologda in 1907, he was arrested for the first time in Moscow, in 1929, for seeking to distribute copies of “Lenin’s Testament”—a document that called for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Sentenced to

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Siren Song

    Since the turn of the century, the New Yorker has mentioned the German writer W. G. Sebald on seventy-seven occasions and devoted six longform articles to his ouevre. During the same period, Sebald’s contemporary Alexander Kluge has been named in that magazine only twice: once in reference to his films, not his novels, and another time to mention one of his works of theory—and only in the online edition. Why have two writers of such similar gifts, similar tastes, and—in Germany—equal stature, found such different receptions in the English-speaking world?

    It may simply be that Sebald, unlike

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  • print • Apr/May 2018

    Gender Trouble

    The narrator and (barely) protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s smart and sleightful novel—her first since American Genius, A Comedy (2006)—is one Ezekiel H. Stark, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in vernacular photography. He’s a playful invention, given to citing highbrow or avant-garde culture—“We worked in silence. John Cage scored with it.”— and then undercutting himself with passé slang: “Kidding. Not.” In his earnest, academic, sometimes awkwardly demotic fashion, Zeke outlines his personal-professional interests in self and image, the inward oddness of family life, and wider cultural

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  • 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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