• print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

    Song of My Selves

    Love meant to take refuge from one’s own world in another’s . . .

    —Hermann Broch

    The Portuguese poet and essayist Fernando Pessoa aspired to be unlike himself. Over the course of his life as a commercial and literary translator in fin de siècle Lisbon, he assumed around 130 “heteronyms,” invented identities with distinctive histories. These personalities came to subsume his own quiet biography: In a letter to the writer Adolfo Casais Monteiro, he wrote, “I, who created them all, was the one who was least there.” Instead of there, he was elsewhere, and instead of himself, a celibate autodidact

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

    On the Waterfront

    The littoral locale that provides the title for Jennifer Egan’s excellent fifth novel may be difficult for even longtime New York City dwellers to fix in their minds geographically. (It was for me.) Despite the name, Manhattan Beach is not in Manhattan. “It’s near Coney Island but cleaner, private,” says Dexter Styles, an underworld kingpin and resident of the neighborhood, to Anna Kerrigan, a young woman working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Manhattan Beach is a rarely depicted patch of Kings County, among the most excavated locations in contemporary literature and film. And

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

    Fathers and Sons

    Not long after finishing his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, a family saga in the tradition of Buddenbrooks, the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk says he “began to regret having written something so outmoded.” (Perhaps that explains why the book, published in 1982, has never been translated into English.) Determined to separate himself from the regnant Turkish tradition of realistic, engagé fiction—which he deemed “narrow and parochial”—the young novelist resolved to become more “experimental.”

    The problem, as he saw it, was that the Westernizing elite of the early Turkish Republic “

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

    Here There Be Monsters

    With electrifying tension and sustained energy, Jorie Graham’s demanding poems assemble ancient and contemporary materials. Adapting Wallace Stevens’s philosophical mode, they are poems of the act of the mind—a subject-spirit both metaphysical and resolutely disillusioned. Graham’s persona is part Antigone keeping faith in a damaged world, part transcendental apperception. Designed to take the reader into depths, her works also defy the anticipations embedded in their topical frames and pointed digressions (she takes on exploitation of the oceans, the Islamic State, cryogenesis, digital “second”

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2017

    Broke Girl

    The index card pinned to an unassuming bulletin board is catnip for lonely women with bad day jobs—the types who spend late nights at AA meetings in church basements and do their own wash-and-fold in sticky, twenty-four-hour laundromats. Listless and desperate for change, bored in depressing, utilitarian cityspaces, they try contacting a stranger.

    It’s a lo-fi deus ex machina for novelists who write about wayward New York girls. In Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), an overweight thirty-four-year-old woman working the graveyard shift as a proofreader answers an index card posted

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2017

    Love in Wartime

    In a time of insurgency or civil war, the literary text has a way of seeking out shadow and unease to protect itself from political rhetoric or easy drama, as though avoiding gunfire or shrapnel. In Ireland, for example, in the period between the 1916 Easter Rebellion and the end of the civil war, W. B. Yeats wrote poems filled with inwardness, with self-questioning and ambiguous tones. The violence made him wonder (“Was it needless death after all?”). And made him unwilling to celebrate the heroism or the sacrifice (“Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart”).

    In fiction that

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2017

    The Secret Histories

    On the morning of June 9, 2012, Avtar Singh called 911 in Selma, California, to say that he had killed his family and was about to turn the gun on himself. When the police reached his house, they sent in a robot equipped with a camera. The feed from the robot showed Singh lying dead in the living room. His wife and two sons were also dead; a third son, the eldest, was still breathing, but he died from his wounds five days later. Each person had been shot in the head.

    Singh owned a small transport business; he himself drove a truck. But a decade and a half earlier, he had been an officer in

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2017

    Stranger Things

    Victor LaValle’s first book, Slapboxing with Jesus (1999), offered realistic depictions of working-class young people in the five boroughs, but by his second novel, The Ecstatic (2002), something stranger, if not outright weird, had begun to creep in. A little more weirdness came with each book: Big Machine follows a man who, having survived a death-obsessed cult, is recruited, at a bus station, to join what might be called a paranormal investigation squad. You could attribute some of the bizarre moments to the characters’ fraught mental states; perhaps, you might think, it’s all in their minds.

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2017

    Home Invasion

    Edward Said thought the novel was innately cosmopolitan, a product of migration and the loss of identity that comes with it. “Classical epics,” he argued in Reflections on Exile, “emanate from settled cultures in which values are clear, identities stable, life unchanging. The European novel is grounded in precisely the opposite experience, that of a changing society in which an itinerant and disinherited middle-class hero or heroine seeks to construct a new world that somewhat resembles an old one left behind forever.” In an epic, he wrote, there’s “no other world, only the finality of this

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  • print • Apr/May 2017

    Invitation to a Rereading

    Among those who consider themselves serious readers, it's seen as infra dig to treat literature as self-help. Fiction is not there to teach us how to live or to help us imagine different ways out of our mundane personal difficulties. Nabokov is stern on this in his Lectures on Literature: "Only children can be excused for identifying themselves with the characters in a book." Any of us who nonetheless persist in, say, taking a novel as a model for our love lives, might hesitate to start with the nineteenth-century Russian canon, unless we aspire to be connoisseurs of suffering. Not so the mother

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  • print • Apr/May 2017

    Life Sentences

    When you sit down to read a review, as you are doing right now (unless you are standing—in which case, please sit down and take a minute), you rarely have a sense of where the critic is writing from: what time of day it is, what she has eaten, what else she has just read or seen, what's on her mind. But all of this factors into the work, just as wherever you are as a reader, and how you are feeling, will, too. The pleasure of a critical essay can often be the escape it grants from diachronic time; the living room couch fades away into a painting's scumbled imagery or a book's knotty metaphor.

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  • print • Apr/May 2017

    The Sounds and the Fury

    Part of the suspense in reading Hari Kunzru's astringent, transfixing White Tears comes in wondering when, or if, it's going to stumble into becoming the very thing it's trying to subvert: a sentimental paean to black musical authenticity that gets its back up about white folks' egregious and (seemingly) endless appropriation of blues, jazz, rap, and other African American art forms. Such suspicions grow as it becomes clear that, once again, African Americans themselves are consigned in Kunzru's narrative to bystander status, at best. But by the time the book's horrific jolts have finished

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