• 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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  • 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

    The Possessed

    The title of Garth Greenwell’s new novel appears exactly once in the book, close to its midpoint, in the second of its three sections, as the narrator describes a relationship that has introduced him to the heretofore alien qualities of stability and happiness. The unnamed protagonist, who was also the central figure in Greenwell’s 2016 debut, What Belongs to You, is an American living in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where he teaches at a prestigious high school. What Belongs to You, and other chapters of this new book, Cleanness, contain vivid accounts of the teacher’s sexual habits and

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Field of Bad Dreams

    We name things to make them less fearful. It’s an expression of affection or conquest (isn’t that why Adam christened the animals?). I think of how my kids sometimes bark out “Alexa, play Mamma Mia!” even though we don’t own an Amazon device. I’ll never buy one of those things, but my resistance is futile: My children already inhabit a reality in which they’re on a first-name basis with the internet. It’s like no one remembers HAL!

    The Resisters, Gish Jen’s fifth novel, posits a future perhaps less distant than we think. Forget first names; the tech infrastructure that undergirds all of society,

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    We Need to Talk

    Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a novel about the things women (largely women of a certain class) talk about, when alone with each other, when with men, when in the world, and privately to themselves. Stories about ourselves—and how we tell them—are the core of this twisty, prickly, sometimes brilliant debut. Wit is never in short supply here; the narrator is a perceptive observer of her own habit of falling into, and her ultimate inability to accept, a series of stock roles: bright but naive graduate student; professor’s wife; suburban mother; clever daughter; single parent. The

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Invisible Woman

    We often look to novelists to encapsulate a moment, era, or generation. Earlier in the 2010s, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) captured our anxious new millennium and offered wisdom on race, colonialism, capitalism, and immigration. Her literary success gave way to TED Talks, widespread interviews, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among other honors. Despite the breadth of Adichie’s texts, what she became most sought after to comment upon—the lens through which her work was evaluated—was identity.

    A few years later, Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends, and the 2019

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2020

    Elegant Variations

    “I do not believe in serendipity,” says Percy, the narrator of Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s The Exhibition of Persephone Q. “I don’t think there are moments, of which so many people speak, in which a life irrevocably and neatly forks, like a line in your palm. I believe instead that the past returns to you in waves, crashing onto the shore, so that the ground on which you stand is always shifting, like a beach, imperceptibly renewed.” I found myself returning to this passage throughout my reading, and for some days afterward, trying to decide whether I believed it, either as a general proposition

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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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