Middlesex, like a girls’ locker room, is crowded and noisy, with smells. The novel combines the respective hysterias of two fraught traditions–the Greek and the mid-century American (one produced the professional lady mourner, the other produced Saul Bellow). At the center of this story, which, like many family histories, is at once tremendously unlikely and perfectly plausible, Jeffrey Eugenides has placed the two great standards of the human race: a pair of genitals, and a heart. And while the genitals of Middlesex’s intersex hero are of an unusual sort, with them Eugenides conveys not only the singular misery of gender and sexual confusion, but the universal lumpen misery of adolescence, and the pain of young love. These, and the goofy relatives, and the historical vignettes, are relayed as a kind of artful schmaltz, which doesn’t stray too far into parody. The novel seems carefully researched and written; and its numerous set pieces (Smyrna burning, Detroit burning, penis stirring) are controlled. It’s a wonderful novel. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Life is impossible; it can’t possibly continue; and then it does. Existential despair accretes; time passes; the color of one’s despair changes. Time seems to change its velocity, its direction. Suddenly everything is different. The title story in Twilight of the Superheroes describes this problem so gently and bravely: “And yet, here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. … Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.” Deborah Eisenberg’s stories remind me of William Maxwell’s; they are wise, kind, careful, benevolent.
Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a book I return to for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure. The title story is a masterpiece, a miracle of structure, character and plot, in which two teenage girls write prank letters to a housekeeper and thus set off a chain of events that changes and creates lives.
Munro is a realist of profound and subtle comprehension whose great subject is women’s lives. She is not a romantic, not sentimental, nor does she work the other end of authorial power and put her characters through excruciations and misery simply because she can. Instead, she writes with the clear, rigorous dispassion of a spiritual master.
Because literary convention so often nudges narratives toward familiar outcomes–happy endings, redemption, tragedy–Munro has retooled form to suit her nuanced purposes. Her stories have the range and depth of novels; their structures are intricate and unusual but completely lucid. Her pace is leisurely; she lingers on physical descriptions of trees, geology, and faces, and on gradations of emotions. Yet somehow the stories often span years, even decades, and cover vast tracts of ground. She makes all this seem effortless.
Alice Munro has taught us to find literary pleasure in leaping over time, in the odd swerves life takes, in the unexpected sources of comfort and sustenance, and in the idiosyncratic arrangements made for human happiness. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, she is at the top of her powers, each story, one after another, a stalwart, shimmering beauty.
When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative.
In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect.