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» 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

“Though Mordecai could name any fish or seabird’s rank in phylum or species in a flash, I was beginning to understand that he knew nothing of what they swam in and flew over. He did not account for those things that could not be mapped: the vagaries of wind or a sudden storm that might force a pod of whales deeper, slower; a freak of cold threading up from the deep to send a school of squid spiraling away from the whales, the whales hurrying after, away from Mordecai’s precious route. Having lived indoors his whole life, he was so untuned to the sea and its ways.”

Janice Clark, The Rathbones

From the files of too-easy-to-take-advantage-of: despite a stack of juicy subject matter (incest! whaling! serial wife-abduction! a guest appearance by Circe!) this tends toward timid and equivocal; the frame story seems insufficient to carry the weight of the history Mercy wants to discover, as she and Mordecai move from revelation to revelation with very little friction, and the tone, which teeters somewhere between magical realism and full-on fairytale, smooths things out too, making the book into a series of linked set-pieces. The set pieces are often nice, with nicely poetic language and images pulled through, from one to the next — but the soft frame and the soft tone don’t give enough of a skeleton for the pretty bits to stick to.

Doubleday 08.16.13

February 10, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Yes, they still make TV shows somewhere. The rest of the country is still pretty shiny, from what I hear. Apparently the West Coast is more or less the same. Sunshine. Palm trees. Beautiful women in drop-top convertibles. Singing surfers. Moral rot. The whole enchilada, in the shape of California.”

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

If I’ve not been clear enough, and I’m never sure I am, another comparison that’s probably worthwhile is to the last few William Gibson books — because the kind of stuff Sternbergh is doing (near future, semi-dystopian, deadpan cool, genre conventions; even and especially the virtual-reality layer of plotting and action) comes out of, has membership in, the world Gibson’s created. Shovel Ready is much, much tighter than (especially) any of the Blue Ant books: surface is perfect, plot never bogs down, manages its dumps of exposition gracefully, which is one of Gibson’s great failings. But Gibson’s flaws, especially in terms of exposition, put across the author’s sense of enthusiasm, his excitement at how strange things (increasingly actual contemporary things, too) really are: they’re glitches. By being glitch-free, Shovel Ready is better entertainment, probably, but entirely, completely low-cal.

Crown 01.14.14

February 09, 2014, 9:30am  Comments