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“I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in a park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Egan hits her characters at points of near-disintegration, as they circle around near rock bottom; she’s actually very good at this, and even while we’re aware that she’s playing with a stacked deck (or a custom-made little universe) the inner crises of her characters manage to keep each of the linked stories’ stakes high. And the flip-side of this, that we see these characters recur in different stories, told by different narrators disintegrating in different ways, giving glimpses of them often having survived moments at rock bottom and come out more or less intact, doesn’t detract from the immediate crisis, actually conveys a certain amount of hard-won experience and understanding that it’s possible and necessary to go on. This bit, which is one of three moments between Scotty and Benny — high-school bandmates previously; here about to meet again as adults for the first time, with Benny a success and Scotty decidedly not; later concluding the novel together at some near-future point — repeats that, undermines it a little through articulation. It also, I think, emphasizes the insularity of the world of the novel, its dependence on an idea of New York that enables scenes like this, with all things magnetized to Manhattan as the center of the world and serendipity expected rather than rare.

Knopf, 06.08.10



March 14, 2014, 2:34pm  Comments

“Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions).”

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Tangentially a novel about rock and roll, more clearly a novel about the tenuous connections among a bunch of people over a rather long period of time in New York (with other settings, but it’s a New York story), and overtly a novel about time — “time’s a goon” says one of the minor characters — this is the point where the novel lost me. The moment is supposed to be tossed-off and magical: time unfurls and we get to see its workings, in this foreshadow, a spiral out of a moment into the majestic possibilities of the future. Instead, though, by the way the book works, by the way this scope of time and apparent randomness circles around the same people, you know you’re just waiting for Joe to show up (and Lulu, his American wife, who actually emerges as another slightly less minor character): and instead of apprehending the random unspooling of time, I wind up feeling the heavy hand of the author on my shoulder, and instead appreciate the way she orchestrates her cast and their movements. This is a moment meant to take you out of the stream of the story, the safari in the ‘70s or whenever, which it does; it just winds up taking me to the wrong place.

Knopf, 06.08.10



March 13, 2014, 1:26pm  Comments

» Insurrectionary Gordimer has given way to the sedulously horrified Coetzee; ranting Grass to mourning (and deceased) Sebald; angry Rushdie to shitty Rushdie.

I feel like this is correct in diagnosis of a particular phenomenon, mainly transacted in English and for Anglo-American publishing, but — especially in the dichotomy between “thorny internationalism opposed to the smoothly global” at the end of the very long editorial — it fails to ring true to my own reading in translation, the best of which (while plausibly internationalist, in their terms) is simply different from the university-driven stuff rather than polemically oppositional.



February 23, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Mr. McGurk was a plastic leprechaun attached to the dashboard on a spring and he bobbed along comically as the Hitachi sped. How he had ended up being called Mr. McGurk neither of them could remember. Both brothers would do Mr. McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr. McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. Mr. McGurk was six inches of green plastic but entirely alive. He was made alive by their love for each other.”

Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island

And here, pace Brad Leithauser’s piece from last week, is the one-sentence story, and maybe an example of how it serves a writer poorly. Because this one, “White Hitachi,” about a pair of ne’er-do-well brothers (and the elder realizing the younger is even less well-equipped than he to make it in the world) pulls itself up to this point, from a squabble and a bit of danger, to reveal the actual affection between its main characters: to the sentence at the end of the paragraph, where that’s the one sentence that encapsulates the turn in the story, expresses the beauty in the squalor. The paragraph’s a beauty, too: with the humor Barry’s very good at throughout this collection, the detail, even the broguey cadence; this might be the best image in the book. At the same time, the one-sentence sentence seems entirely unnecessary following the sentence before, a slight little slip into mawkishness, spelling things out just a little too much. A hair in the soup.

Graywolf 09.24.13



February 22, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“'The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?'
‘I am watching. And that horrible, horrible stonewash denim!’”

Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island

And maybe my favorite of the bunch, which upon having read in the New Yorker convinced me that Barry could do more than prosy Irish myth, two sinister old aunties out on a drive; here it’s Barry doing character (or, probably, caricature, although that’s actually the fun of it) through dialogue that’s the charm.

Graywolf 09.24.13



February 21, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear — this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.”

Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island

I was, apparently, one of the few people not entirely charmed by Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, a comprehensive and cohesive sealed little world of blarney-drunk style; and so Dark Lies the Island spent a bunch of time sitting on a shelf waiting for me to get to it. That, and I tend to avoid story collections, which seem to me to tend toward either functional or formulaic, working out an idea or fitting it into a pattern, tied up into a bow at the end. And the first story — a slight mood piece on a rooftop that ends with the girl slipping through a Velux window — and this opening paragraph of the second story, “Wifey Redux,” don’t do much to dispel that suspicion. We know where this story is going, especially when we establish the narrator’s bourgie bonafides; we settle comfortably into the gentle swoop of the story arc, as it takes us from this opening graf back and around to the car park again. The only trouble is that the story’s actually very funny, and funny in its observation of details, the occasional off-pitch note or highlighted grotesquerie. The arc is comfortable, but what happens within it is much better than its container.

Graywolf 09.24.13



February 20, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“When I first went to the Charterhouse, I intended only to pretend to follow the ritual. Four years later doing as Carthusians do had come to seem the natural way of things.”

Beverly Swerling, Bristol House

But concentrating only on cleft chins is unfairly reductive, even if we are in the realm of, I think, paranormal romance (because Bristol House goes all over the place, with apparitions of Tudor ghosts and hints at right-wing Israeli conspiracy theories filling in the edges around the central romance between an academic and a TV journalist); this is the second part of a nice, not-overdone parallel between Annie’s allegiance to AA (which she takes whole and without reservations, in a way that she insists outsiders can’t understand) and the ghostly monk (in direct address from Purgatory, but whatever).

Plume 01.28.14



February 19, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Annie had to work to keep herself from concentrating on the cleft in his chin. It was for some reason very attractive.”

Beverly Swerling, Bristol House

Lest you think that this is all you need to judge Bristol House, let me add that this is at least the third mention of a cleft in a chin, which may or may not belong to the same character, depending on how you look at things.

Plume 01.28.14



February 18, 2014, 5:07pm  Comments

» This is so common, actually, that it sometimes seems most of the stories I read are of this type. Readers are herded toward the shiny black nailhead of a particular terminal period.

Brad Leithauser, writing mainly about novels that hang on single sentences, a question about which I am agnostic (despite being a person who tends to pull a sentence or two from a novel and read the whole work into it); while his overall reading, say, of Lord of the Flies is dead-on, I’m more convinced by the scope of his four-sentence read of Thackeray. But the opening, with this bit about the one-sentence short story, is absolutely correct — if a little ironic coming from the New Yorker.



February 12, 2014, 11:31am  Comments

“Five years ago, she had, like Hepzibah, like Euphemia and Beulah and all the sixteen wives before her, seen a whaleboat one morning—the same long slim hull, oars flashing in unison against a bright sky. She had, like her predecessors, reached for a boy’s hand and stepped in and glided away. But unlike so many previous wives, she had felt no irresistible urge. She was compelled not by fresh boys in blue middies, bright ties flying, but by necessity.”

Janice Clark, The Rathbones

Katurah, Moses’s final wife; one of the points where there seems to be the possibility for this book to break out of its fairytale flatness and into something more touched by realism, which doesn’t happen. But which is enough to make you wonder what it would become, if more of the characters had this kind of agency, and weren’t simply subservient to the family saga playing out above and around them.

Doubleday 08.16.13



February 11, 2014, 9:30am  Comments