A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page–I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page–and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention–major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status–but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists. In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.
Never Let Me Go, like The Remains of the Day and, to a lesser extent, When We Were Orphans, is a mystery in which a Martian-like, yet strangely affecting first-person narrator (a young female clone, an aging butler, a middle-aged celebrity detective) deciphers the dimly sensed evil (human organ-harvesting, Nazi collaboration, a family crime) underlying an idyllic quintessentially English institution (a beautiful manor house, a posh boarding school, the British colony in Shanghai). Despite the radically different settings, all the three novels share the same key formal elements: a painstakingly unraveled historical mystery, constructed on the time scale of a single human life; a journey to track down characters from the past who have survived, inconceivably, into the present; an unhappy love story; the haunting sense of a decayed idyll that remains, despite its historical rottenness, the locus of all the most beautiful and meaningful impressions in somebody’s life.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro brilliantly and heartbreakingly executes the same retrospective plot in the unlikely chronotope of science fiction. This book made me cry for days. Did I feel a little bit exploited—did I feel that sci-fi rule-bending had been used to construct an otherwise inconceivably tragic story of doomed young love? I did, but it was worth it.
Be Near Me, by Andrew O’Hagan
The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson
The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, edited by Álvaro Uribe and Olivia E. Sears
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
The Book Against God, by James Wood
The Death of Sweet Mister, by Daniel Woodrell
The Diviners, by Rick Moody (Our review)
Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana
The Dog of the Marriage, by Amy Hempel
The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth
Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower (Our review)
Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins
Falling Man, by Don DeLillo
The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck
The Lazarus Project, by Aleksander Hemon (Our review)
Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida
Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard
The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (Our review)
Love Creeps, by Amanda Filipacchi
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, by Peter Orner
Servants of the Map, by Andrea Barrett
The Singing Fish, by Peter Markus
The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya (Our review)
Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Our review)
What Was She Thinking? : Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller (Our interview)
When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Yonder Stands Your Orphan, by Barry Hannah
You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers
Zeroville, by Steve Erickson
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Reverend John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. There are strands of plot in the book — flashbacks involving Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the explanation of how Ames met his young wife and became a father so late in life; and the story of his friendship with his neighbor Reverend Robert Boughton. But Robinson is really interested in extended rumination, charting Ames’ thoughts about mercy, mortality, forgiveness, grace and doubt in great detail. The pace of these thoughts requires an initial patience from the reader that is amply rewarded. The book’s modest, carefully planed language and its concern with primary human needs make it timeless, but it’s hard not to also marvel at and appreciate the way it functions as a timely corrective. While the proudly ignorant hardcore religious right and arrogant preachers like Richard Dawkins shout past each other, Robinson addresses faith in a way that is both spiritually generous and intellectually serious. Here is religion not as a political cudgel or a claim for moral superiority but as a thoughtful balm for an attentive individual soul.