Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction

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Most Anticipated: The Great Spring 2024 Preview

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April April 2 Women! In! Peril! by Jessie Ren Marshall [F] For starters, excellent title. This debut short story collection from playwright Marshall spans sex bots and space colonists, wives and divorcées, prodding at the many meanings of womanhood. Short story master Deesha Philyaw, also taken by the book's title, calls this one "incisive! Provocative! And utterly satisfying!" —Sophia M. Stewart The Audacity by Ryan Chapman [F] This sophomore effort, after the darkly sublime absurdity of Riots I have Known, trades in the prison industrial complex for the Silicon Valley scam. Chapman has a sharp eye and a sharper wit, and a book billed as a "bracing satire about the implosion of a Theranos-like company, a collapsing marriage, and a billionaires’ 'philanthropy summit'" promises some good, hard laughs—however bitter they may be—at the expense of the über-rich. —John H. Maher The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso, tr. Leonard Mades [F] I first learned about this book from an essay in this publication by Zachary Issenberg, who alternatively calls it Donoso's "masterpiece," "a perfect novel," and "the crowning achievement of the gothic horror genre." He recommends going into the book without knowing too much, but describes it as "a story assembled from the gossip of society’s highs and lows, which revolves and blurs into a series of interlinked nightmares in which people lose their memory, their sex, or even their literal organs." —SMS Globetrotting ed. Duncan Minshull [NF] I'm a big walker, so I won't be able to resist this assemblage of 50 writers—including Edith Wharton, Katharine Mansfield, Helen Garner, and D.H. Lawrence—recounting their various journeys by foot, edited by Minshull, the noted walker-writer-anthologist behind The Vintage Book of Walking (2000) and Where My Feet Fall (2022). —SMS All Things Are Too Small by Becca Rothfeld [NF] Hieronymus Bosch, eat your heart out! The debut book from Rothfeld, nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post, celebrates our appetite for excess in all its material, erotic, and gluttonous glory. Covering such disparate subjects from decluttering to David Cronenberg, Rothfeld looks at the dire cultural—and personal—consequences that come with adopting a minimalist sensibility and denying ourselves pleasure. —Daniella Fishman A Good Happy Girl by Marissa Higgins [F] Higgins, a regular contributor here at The Millions, debuts with a novel of a young woman who is drawn into an intense and all-consuming emotional and sexual relationship with a married lesbian couple. Halle Butler heaps on the praise for this one: “Sometimes I could not believe how easily this book moved from gross-out sadism into genuine sympathy. Totally surprising, totally compelling. I loved it.” —SMS City Limits by Megan Kimble [NF] As a Los Angeleno who is steadily working my way through The Power Broker, this in-depth investigation into the nation's freeways really calls to me. (Did you know Robert Moses couldn't drive?) Kimble channels Caro by locating the human drama behind freeways and failures of urban planning. —SMS We Loved It All by Lydia Millet [NF] Planet Earth is a pretty awesome place to be a human, with its beaches and mountains, sunsets and birdsong, creatures great and small. Millet, a creative director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, infuses her novels with climate grief and cautions against extinction, and in this nonfiction meditation, she makes a case for a more harmonious coexistence between our species and everybody else in the natural world. If a nostalgic note of “Auld Lang Syne” trembles in Millet’s title, her personal anecdotes and public examples call for meaningful environmental action from local to global levels. —Nathalie op de Beeck Like Love by Maggie Nelson [NF] The new book from Nelson, one of the most towering public intellectuals alive today, collects 20 years of her work—including essays, profiles, and reviews—that cover disparate subjects, from Prince and Kara Walker to motherhood and queerness. For my fellow Bluets heads, this will be essential reading. —SMS Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal, tr. Robin Moger [NF] Mersal, one of the preeminent poets of the Arabic-speaking world, recovers the life, work, and legacy of the late Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat in this biographical detective story. Mapping the psyche of al-Zayyat, who died by suicide in 1963, alongside her own, Mersal blends literary mystery and memoir to produce a wholly original portrait of two women writers. —SMS The Letters of Emily Dickinson ed. Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell [NF] The letters of Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest and most beguiling of American poets, are collected here for the first time in nearly 60 years. Her correspondence not only gives access to her inner life and social world, but reveal her to be quite the prose stylist. "In these letters," says Jericho Brown, "we see the life of a genius unfold." Essential reading for any Dickinson fan. —SMS April 9 Short War by Lily Meyer [F] The debut novel from Meyer, a critic and translator, reckons with the United States' political intervention in South America through the stories of two generations: a young couple who meet in 1970s Santiago, and their American-born child spending a semester Buenos Aires. Meyer is a sharp writer and thinker, and a great translator from the Spanish; I'm looking forward to her fiction debut. —SMS There's Going to Be Trouble by Jen Silverman [F] Silverman's third novel spins a tale of an American woman named Minnow who is drawn into a love affair with a radical French activist—a romance that, unbeknown to her, mirrors a relationship her own draft-dodging father had against the backdrop of the student movements of the 1960s. Teasing out the intersections of passion and politics, There's Going to Be Trouble is "juicy and spirited" and "crackling with excitement," per Jami Attenberg. —SMS Table for One by Yun Ko-eun, tr. Lizzie Buehler [F] I thoroughly enjoyed Yun Ko-eun's 2020 eco-thriller The Disaster Tourist, also translated by Buehler, so I'm excited for her new story collection, which promises her characteristic blend of mundanity and surrealism, all in the name of probing—and poking fun—at the isolation and inanity of modern urban life. —SMS Playboy by Constance Debré, tr. Holly James [NF] The prequel to the much-lauded Love Me Tender, and the first volume in Debré's autobiographical trilogy, Playboy's incisive vignettes explore the author's decision to abandon her marriage and career and pursue the precarious life of a writer, which she once told Chris Kraus was "a bit like Saint Augustine and his conversion." Virginie Despentes is a fan, so I'll be checking this out. —SMS Native Nations by Kathleen DuVal [NF] DuVal's sweeping history of Indigenous North America spans a millennium, beginning with the ancient cities that once covered the continent and ending with Native Americans' continued fight for sovereignty. A study of power, violence, and self-governance, Native Nations is an exciting contribution to a new canon of North American history from an Indigenous perspective, perfect for fans of Ned Blackhawk's The Rediscovery of America. —SMS Personal Score by Ellen van Neerven [NF] I’ve always been interested in books that drill down on a specific topic in such a way that we also learn something unexpected about the world around us. Australian writer Van Neerven's sports memoir is so much more than that, as they explore the relationship between sports and race, gender, and sexuality—as well as the paradox of playing a colonialist sport on Indigenous lands. Two Dollar Radio, which is renowned for its edgy list, is publishing this book, so I know it’s going to blow my mind. —Claire Kirch April 16 The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins by Sonny Rollins [NF] The musings, recollections, and drawings of jazz legend Sonny Rollins are collected in this compilation of his precious notebooks, which he began keeping in 1959, the start of what would become known as his “Bridge Years,” during which he would practice at all hours on the Williamsburg Bridge. Rollins chronicles everything from his daily routine to reflections on music theory and the philosophical underpinnings of his artistry. An indispensable look into the mind and interior life of one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of all time. —DF Henry Henry by Allen Bratton [F] Bratton’s ambitious debut reboots Shakespeare’s Henriad, landing Hal Lancaster, who’s in line to be the 17th Duke of Lancaster, in the alcohol-fueled queer party scene of 2014 London. Hal’s identity as a gay man complicates his aristocratic lineage, and his dalliances with over-the-hill actor Jack Falstaff and promising romance with one Harry Percy, who shares a name with history’s Hotspur, will have English majors keeping score. Don’t expect a rom-com, though. Hal’s fraught relationship with his sexually abusive father, and the fates of two previous gay men from the House of Lancaster, lend gravity to this Bard-inspired take. —NodB Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek [F] Graywolf always publishes books that make me gasp in awe and this debut novel, by the author of the entrancing 2020 story collection Imaginary Museums, sounds like it’s going to keep me awake at night as well. It’s a tale about a young woman who’s lost her way and writes a letter to a long-dead ballet dancer—who then visits her, and sets off a string of strange occurrences. —CK Norma by Sarah Mintz [F] Mintz's debut novel follows the titular widow as she enjoys her newfound freedom by diving headfirst into her surrounds, both IRL and online. Justin Taylor says, "Three days ago I didn’t know Sarah Mintz existed; now I want to know where the hell she’s been all my reading life. (Canada, apparently.)" —SMS What Kingdom by Fine Gråbøl, tr. Martin Aitken [F] A woman in a psychiatric ward dreams of "furniture flickering to life," a "chair that greets you," a "bookshelf that can be thrown on like an apron." This sounds like the moving answer to the otherwise puzzling question, "What if the Kantian concept of ding an sich were a novel?" —JHM Weird Black Girls by Elwin Cotman [F] Cotman, the author of three prior collections of speculative short stories, mines the anxieties of Black life across these seven tales, each of them packed with pop culture references and supernatural conceits. Kelly Link calls Cotman's writing "a tonic to ward off drabness and despair." —SMS Presence by Tracy Cochran [NF] Last year marked my first earnest attempt at learning to live more mindfully in my day-to-day, so I was thrilled when this book serendipitously found its way into my hands. Cochran, a New York-based meditation teacher and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner of 50 years, delivers 20 psycho-biographical chapters on recognizing the importance of the present, no matter how mundane, frustrating, or fortuitous—because ultimately, she says, the present is all we have. —DF Committed by Suzanne Scanlon [NF] Scanlon's memoir uses her own experience of mental illness to explore the enduring trope of the "madwoman," mining the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, and others for insights into the long literary tradition of women in psychological distress. The blurbers for this one immediately caught my eye, among them Natasha Trethewey, Amina Cain, and Clancy Martin, who compares Scanlon's work here to that of Marguerite Duras. —SMS Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman [NF] This science memoir explores Zimmerman's journey to botany, a now endangered field. Interwoven with Zimmerman's experiences as a student and a mother is an impassioned argument for botany's continued relevance and importance against the backdrop of climate change—a perfect read for gardeners, plant lovers, or anyone with an affinity for the natural world. —SMS April 23 Reboot by Justin Taylor [F] Extremely online novels, as a rule, have become tiresome. But Taylor has long had a keen eye for subcultural quirks, so it's no surprise that PW's Alan Scherstuhl says that "reading it actually feels like tapping into the internet’s best celeb gossip, fiercest fandom outrages, and wildest conspiratorial rabbit holes." If that's not a recommendation for the Book Twitter–brained reader in you, what is? —JHM Divided Island by Daniela Tarazona, tr. Lizzie Davis and Kevin Gerry Dunn [F] A story of multiple personalities and grief in fragments would be an easy sell even without this nod from Álvaro Enrigue: "I don't think that there is now, in Mexico, a literary mind more original than Daniela Tarazona's." More original than Mario Bellatin, or Cristina Rivera Garza? This we've gotta see. —JHM Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other by Danielle Dutton [NF] Coffee House Press has for years relished its reputation for publishing “experimental” literature, and this collection of short stories and essays about literature and art and the strangeness of our world is right up there with the rest of Coffee House’s edgiest releases. Don’t be fooled by the simple cover art—Dutton’s work is always formally inventive, refreshingly ambitious, and totally brilliant. —CK I Just Keep Talking by Nell Irvin Painter [NF] I first encountered Nell Irvin Painter in graduate school, as I hung out with some Americanists who were her students. Painter was always a dazzling, larger-than-life figure, who just exuded power and brilliance. I am so excited to read this collection of her essays on history, literature, and politics, and how they all intersect. The fact that this collection contains Painter’s artwork is a big bonus. —CK April 30 Real Americans by Rachel Khong [F] The latest novel from Khong, the author of Goodbye, Vitamin, explores class dynamics and the illusory American Dream across generations. It starts out with a love affair between an impoverished Chinese American woman from an immigrant family and an East Coast elite from a wealthy family, before moving us along 21 years: 15-year-old Nick knows that his single mother is hiding something that has to do with his biological father and thus, his identity. C Pam Zhang deems this "a book of rare charm," and Andrew Sean Greer calls it "gorgeous, heartfelt, soaring, philosophical and deft." —CK The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby [NF] Huge thanks to Bebe Neuwirth for putting this book on my radar (she calls it "fantastic") with additional gratitude to Margo Jefferson for sealing the deal (she calls it "riveting"). Valby's group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world. —SMS Appreciation Post by Tara Ward [NF] Art historian Ward writes toward an art history of Instagram in Appreciation Post, which posits that the app has profoundly shifted our long-established ways of interacting with images. Packed with cultural critique and close reading, the book synthesizes art history, gender studies, and media studies to illuminate the outsize role that images play in all of our lives. —SMS May May 7 Bad Seed by Gabriel Carle, tr. Heather Houde [F] Carle’s English-language debut contains echoes of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son and Mariana Enriquez’s gritty short fiction. This story collection haunting but cheeky, grim but hopeful: a student with HIV tries to avoid temptation while working at a bathhouse; an inebriated friend group witnesses San Juan go up in literal flames; a sexually unfulfilled teen drowns out their impulses by binging TV shows. Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón calls this “an extraordinary literary debut.” —Liv Albright The Lady Waiting by Magdalena Zyzak [F] Zyzak’s sophomore novel is a nail-biting delight. When Viva, a young Polish émigré, has a chance encounter with an enigmatic gallerist named Bobby, Viva’s life takes a cinematic turn. Turns out, Bobby and her husband have a hidden agenda—they plan to steal a Vermeer, with Viva as their accomplice. Further complicating things is the inevitable love triangle that develops among them. Victor LaValle calls this “a superb accomplishment," and Percival Everett says, "This novel pops—cosmopolitan, sexy, and funny." —LA América del Norte by Nicolás Medina Mora [F] Pitched as a novel that "blends the Latin American traditions of Roberto Bolaño and Fernanda Melchor with the autofiction of U.S. writers like Ben Lerner and Teju Cole," Mora's debut follows a young member of the Mexican elite as he wrestles with questions of race, politics, geography, and immigration. n+1 co-editor Marco Roth calls Mora "the voice of the NAFTA generation, and much more." —SMS How It Works Out by Myriam Lacroix [F] LaCroix's debut novel is the latest in a strong early slate of novels for the Overlook Press in 2024, and follows a lesbian couple as their relationship falls to pieces across a number of possible realities. The increasingly fascinating and troubling potentialities—B-list feminist celebrity, toxic employer-employee tryst, adopting a street urchin, cannibalism as relationship cure—form a compelling image of a complex relationship in multiversal hypotheticals. —JHM Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang [F] Ting's debut novel, which spans two continents and three timelines, follows two gay men in rural China—and, later, New York City's Chinatown—who frequent the Workers' Cinema, a movie theater where queer men cruise for love. Robert Jones, Jr. praises this one as "the unforgettable work of a patient master," and Jessamine Chan calls it "not just an extraordinary debut, but a future classic." —SMS First Love by Lilly Dancyger [NF] Dancyger's essay collection explores the platonic romances that bloom between female friends, giving those bonds the love-story treatment they deserve. Centering each essay around a formative female friendship, and drawing on everything from Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath to the "sad girls" of Tumblr, Dancyger probes the myriad meanings and iterations of friendship, love, and womanhood. —SMS See Loss See Also Love by Yukiko Tominaga [F] In this impassioned debut, we follow Kyoko, freshly widowed and left to raise her son alone. Through four vignettes, Kyoko must decide how to raise her multiracial son, whether to remarry or stay husbandless, and how to deal with life in the face of loss. Weike Wang describes this one as “imbued with a wealth of wisdom, exploring the languages of love and family.” —DF The Novices of Lerna by Ángel Bonomini, tr. Jordan Landsman [F] The Novices of Lerna is Landsman's translation debut, and what a way to start out: with a work by an Argentine writer in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares whose work has never been translated into English. Judging by the opening of this short story, also translated by Landsman, Bonomini's novel of a mysterious fellowship at a Swiss university populated by doppelgängers of the protagonist is unlikely to disappoint. —JHM Black Meme by Legacy Russell [NF] Russell, best known for her hit manifesto Glitch Feminism, maps Black visual culture in her latest. Black Meme traces the history of Black imagery from 1900 to the present, from the photograph of Emmett Till published in JET magazine to the footage of Rodney King's beating at the hands of the LAPD, which Russell calls the first viral video. Per Margo Jefferson, "You will be galvanized by Legacy Russell’s analytic brilliance and visceral eloquence." —SMS The Eighth Moon by Jennifer Kabat [NF] Kabat's debut memoir unearths the history of the small Catskills town to which she relocated in 2005. The site of a 19th-century rural populist uprising, and now home to a colorful cast of characters, the Appalachian community becomes a lens through which Kabat explores political, economic, and ecological issues, mining the archives and the work of such writers as Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Hardwick along the way. —SMS Stories from the Center of the World ed. Jordan Elgrably [F] Many in America hold onto broad, centuries-old misunderstandings of Arab and Muslim life and politics that continue to harm, through both policy and rhetoric, a perpetually embattled and endangered region. With luck, these 25 tales by writers of Middle Eastern and North African origin might open hearts and minds alike. —JHM An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children by Jamaica Kincaid and Kara Walker [NF] Two of the most brilliant minds on the planet—writer Jamaica Kincaid and visual artist Kara Walker—have teamed up! On a book! About plants! A dream come true. Details on this slim volume are scant—see for yourself—but I'm counting down the minutes till I can read it all the same. —SMS Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. Angela Rodel [F] I'll be honest: I would pick up this book—by the International Booker Prize–winning author of Time Shelter—for the title alone. But also, the book is billed as a deeply personal meditation on both Communist Bulgaria and Greek myth, so—yep, still picking this one up. —JHM May 14 This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud [F] I read an ARC of this enthralling fictionalization of Messud’s family history—people wandering the world during much of the 20th century, moving from Algeria to France to North America— and it is quite the story, with a postscript that will smack you on the side of the head and make you re-think everything you just read. I can't recommend this enough. —CK Woodworm by Layla Martinez, tr. Sophie Hughes and Annie McDermott [F] Martinez’s debut novel takes cabin fever to the max in this story of a grandmother,  granddaughter, and their haunted house, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. As the story unfolds, so do the house’s secrets, the two women must learn to collaborate with the malevolent spirits living among them. Mariana Enriquez says that this "tense, chilling novel tells a story of specters, class war, violence, and loneliness, as naturally as if the witches had dictated this lucid, terrible nightmare to Martínez themselves.” —LA Self Esteem and the End of the World by Luke Healy [NF] Ah, writers writing about writing. A tale as old as time, and often timeworn to boot. But graphic novelists graphically noveling about graphic novels? (Verbing weirds language.) It still feels fresh to me! Enter Healy's tale of "two decades of tragicomic self-discovery" following a protagonist "two years post publication of his latest book" and "grappling with his identity as the world crumbles." —JHM All Fours by Miranda July [F] In excruciating, hilarious detail, All Fours voices the ethically dubious thoughts and deeds of an unnamed 45-year-old artist who’s worried about aging and her capacity for desire. After setting off on a two-week round-trip drive from Los Angeles to New York City, the narrator impulsively checks into a motel 30 miles from her home and only pretends to be traveling. Her flagrant lies, unapologetic indolence, and semi-consummated seduction of a rent-a-car employee set the stage for a liberatory inquisition of heteronorms and queerness. July taps into the perimenopause zeitgeist that animates Jen Beagin’s Big Swiss and Melissa Broder’s Death Valley. —NodB Love Junkie by Robert Plunket [F] When a picture-perfect suburban housewife's life is turned upside down, a chance brush with New York City's gay scene launches her into gainful, albeit unconventional, employment. Set at the dawn of the AIDs epidemic, Mimi Smithers, described as a "modern-day Madame Bovary," goes from planning parties in Westchester to selling used underwear with a Manhattan porn star. As beloved as it is controversial, Plunket's 1992 cult novel will get a much-deserved second life thanks to this reissue by New Directions. (Maybe this will finally galvanize Madonna, who once optioned the film rights, to finally make that movie.) —DF Tomorrowing by Terry Bisson [F] The newest volume in Duke University’s Practices series collects for the first time the late Terry Bisson’s Locus column "This Month in History," which ran for two decades. In it, the iconic "They’re Made Out of Meat" author weaves an alt-history of a world almost parallel to ours, featuring AI presidents, moon mountain hikes, a 196-year-old Walt Disney’s resurrection, and a space pooch on Mars. This one promises to be a pure spectacle of speculative fiction. —DF Chop Fry Watch Learn by Michelle T. King [NF] A large portion of the American populace still confuses Chinese American food with Chinese food. What a delight, then, to discover this culinary history of the worldwide dissemination of that great cuisine—which moonlights as a biography of Chinese cookbook and TV cooking program pioneer Fu Pei-mei. —JHM On the Couch ed. Andrew Blauner [NF] André Aciman, Susie Boyt, Siri Hustvedt, Rivka Galchen, and Colm Tóibín are among the 25 literary luminaries to contribute essays on Freud and his complicated legacy to this lively volume, edited by writer, editor, and literary agent Blauner. Taking tacts both personal and psychoanalytical, these essays paint a fresh, full picture of Freud's life, work, and indelible cultural impact. —SMS Another Word for Love by Carvell Wallace [NF] Wallace is one of the best journalists (and tweeters) working today, so I'm really looking forward to his debut memoir, which chronicles growing up Black and queer in America, and navigating the world through adulthood. One of the best writers working today, Kiese Laymon, calls Another Word for Love as “One of the most soulfully crafted memoirs I’ve ever read. I couldn’t figure out how Carvell Wallace blurred time, region, care, and sexuality into something so different from anything I’ve read before." —SMS The Devil's Best Trick by Randall Sullivan [NF] A cultural history interspersed with memoir and reportage, Sullivan's latest explores our ever-changing understandings of evil and the devil, from Egyptian gods and the Book of Job to the Salem witch trials and Black Mass ceremonies. Mining the work of everyone from Zoraster, Plato, and John Milton to Edgar Allen Poe, Aleister Crowley, and Charles Baudelaire, this sweeping book chronicles evil and the devil in their many forms. --SMS The Book Against Death by Elias Canetti, tr. Peter Filkins [NF] In this newly-translated collection, Nobel laureate Canetti, who once called himself death's "mortal enemy," muses on all that death inevitably touches—from the smallest ant to the Greek gods—and condemns death as a byproduct of war and despots' willingness to use death as a pathway to power. By means of this book's very publication, Canetti somewhat succeeds in staving off death himself, ensuring that his words live on forever. —DF Rise of a Killah by Ghostface Killah [NF] "Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to the Romans while Jesus slept?" Ghostface Killah has always asked the big questions. Here's another one: Who needs to read a blurb on a literary site to convince them to read Ghost's memoir? —JHM May 21 Exhibit by R.O. Kwon [F] It's been six years since Kwon's debut, The Incendiaries, hit shelves, and based on that book's flinty prose alone, her latest would be worth a read. But it's also a tale of awakening—of its protagonist's latent queerness, and of the "unquiet spirit of an ancestor," that the author herself calls so "shot through with physical longing, queer lust, and kink" that she hopes her parents will never read it. Tantalizing enough for you? —JHM Cecilia by K-Ming Chang [F] Chang, the author of Bestiary, Gods of Want, and Organ Meats, returns with this provocative and oft-surreal novella. While the story is about two childhood friends who became estranged after a bizarre sexual encounter but re-connect a decade later, it’s also an exploration of how the human body and its excretions can be both pleasurable and disgusting. —CK The Great State of West Florida by Kent Wascom [F] The Great State of West Florida is Wascom's latest gothicomic novel set on Florida's apocalyptic coast. A gritty, ominous book filled with doomed Floridians, the passages fly by with sentences that delight in propulsive excess. In the vein of Thomas McGuane's early novels or Brian De Palma's heyday, this stylized, savory, and witty novel wields pulp with care until it blooms into a new strain of American gothic. —Zachary Issenberg Cartoons by Kit Schluter [F] Bursting with Kafkaesque absurdism and a hearty dab of abstraction, Schluter’s Cartoons is an animated vignette of life's minutae. From the ravings of an existential microwave to a pencil that is afraid of paper, Schluter’s episodic outré oozes with animism and uncanniness. A grand addition to City Light’s repertoire, it will serve as a zany reminder of the lengths to which great fiction can stretch. —DF May 28 Lost Writings by Mina Loy, ed. Karla Kelsey [F] In the early 20th century, avant-garde author, visual artist, and gallerist Mina Loy (1882–1966) led an astonishing creative life amid European and American modernist circles; she satirized Futurists, participated in Surrealist performance art, and created paintings and assemblages in addition to writing about her experiences in male-dominated fields of artistic practice. Diligent feminist scholars and art historians have long insisted on her cultural significance, yet the first Loy retrospective wasn’t until 2023. Now Karla Kelsey, a poet and essayist, unveils two never-before-published, autobiographical midcentury manuscripts by Loy, The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air, written from the 1930s to the 1950s. It's never a bad time to be re-rediscovered. —NodB I'm a Fool to Want You by Camila Sosa Villada, tr. Kit Maude [F] Villada, whose debut novel Bad Girls, also translated by Maude, captured the travesti experience in Argentina, returns with a short story collection that runs the genre gamut from gritty realism and social satire to science fiction and fantasy. The throughline is Villada's boundless imagination, whether she's conjuring the chaos of the Mexican Inquisition or a trans sex worker befriending a down-and-out Billie Holiday. Angie Cruz calls this "one of my favorite short-story collections of all time." —SMS The Editor by Sara B. Franklin [NF] Franklin's tenderly written and meticulously researched biography of Judith Jones—the legendary Knopf editor who worked with such authors as John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Tyler, and, perhaps most consequentially, Julia Child—was largely inspired by Franklin's own friendship with Jones in the final years of her life, and draws on a rich trove of interviews and archives. The Editor retrieves Jones from the margins of publishing history and affirms her essential role in shaping the postwar cultural landscape, from fiction to cooking and beyond. —SMS The Book-Makers by Adam Smyth [NF] A history of the book told through 18 microbiographies of particularly noteworthy historical personages who made them? If that's not enough to convince you, consider this: the small press is represented here by Nancy Cunard, the punchy and enormously influential founder of Hours Press who romanced both Aldous Huxley and Ezra Pound, knew Hemingway and Joyce and Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams, and has her own MI5 file. Also, the subject of the binding chapter is named "William Wildgoose." —JHM June June 4 The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan [F] A gay Hungarian immigrant writing crappy monster movies in the McCarthy-era Hollywood studio system gets swept up by a famous actress and brought to her estate in Malibu to write what he really cares about—and realizes he can never escape his traumatic past. Sunset Boulevard is shaking. —JHM A Cage Went in Search of a Bird [F] This collection brings together a who's who of literary writers—10 of them, to be precise— to write Kafka fanfiction, from Joshua Cohen to Yiyun Li. Then it throws in weirdo screenwriting dynamo Charlie Kaufman, for good measure. A boon for Kafkaheads everywhere. —JHM We Refuse by Kellie Carter Jackson [NF] Jackson, a historian and professor at Wellesley College, explores the past and present of Black resistance to white supremacy, from work stoppages to armed revolt. Paying special attention to acts of resistance by Black women, Jackson attempts to correct the historical record while plotting a path forward. Jelani Cobb describes this "insurgent history" as "unsparing, erudite, and incisive." —SMS Holding It Together by Jessica Calarco [NF] Sociologist Calarco's latest considers how, in lieu of social safety nets, the U.S. has long relied on women's labor, particularly as caregivers, to hold society together. Calarco argues that while other affluent nations cover the costs of care work and direct significant resources toward welfare programs, American women continue to bear the brunt of the unpaid domestic labor that keeps the nation afloat. Anne Helen Petersen calls this "a punch in the gut and a call to action." —SMS Miss May Does Not Exist by Carrie Courogen [NF] A biography of Elaine May—what more is there to say? I cannot wait to read this chronicle of May's life, work, and genius by one of my favorite writers and tweeters. Claire Dederer calls this "the biography Elaine May deserves"—which is to say, as brilliant as she was. —SMS Fire Exit by Morgan Talty [F] Talty, whose gritty story collection Night of the Living Rez was garlanded with awards, weighs the concept of blood quantum—a measure that federally recognized tribes often use to determine Indigenous membership—in his debut novel. Although Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, his narrator is on the outside looking in, a working-class white man named Charles who grew up on Maine’s Penobscot Reservation with a Native stepfather and friends. Now Charles, across the river from the reservation and separated from his biological daughter, who lives there, ponders his exclusion in a novel that stokes controversy around the terms of belonging. —NodB June 11 The Material by Camille Bordas [F] My high school English teacher, a somewhat dowdy but slyly comical religious brother, had a saying about teaching high school students: "They don't remember the material, but they remember the shtick." Leave it to a well-named novel about stand-up comedy (by the French author of How to Behave in a Crowd) to make you remember both. --SMS Ask Me Again by Clare Sestanovich [F] Sestanovich follows up her debut story collection, Objects of Desire, with a novel exploring a complicated friendship over the years. While Eva and Jamie are seemingly opposites—she's a reserved South Brooklynite, while he's a brash Upper Manhattanite—they bond over their innate curiosity. Their paths ultimately diverge when Eva settles into a conventional career as Jamie channels his rebelliousness into politics. Ask Me Again speaks to anyone who has ever wondered whether going against the grain is in itself a matter of privilege. Jenny Offill calls this "a beautifully observed and deeply philosophical novel, which surprises and delights at every turn." —LA Disordered Attention by Claire Bishop [NF] Across four essays, art historian and critic Bishop diagnoses how digital technology and the attention economy have changed the way we look at art and performance today, identifying trends across the last three decades. A perfect read for fans of Anna Kornbluh's Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism (also from Verso). War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, tr. Charlotte Mandell [F] For years, literary scholars mourned the lost manuscripts of Céline, the acclaimed and reviled French author whose work was stolen from his Paris apartment after he fled to Germany in 1944, fearing punishment for his collaboration with the Nazis. But, with the recent discovery of those fabled manuscripts, War is now seeing the light of day thanks to New Directions (for anglophone readers, at least—the French have enjoyed this one since 2022 courtesy of Gallimard). Adam Gopnik writes of War, "A more intense realization of the horrors of the Great War has never been written." —DF The Uptown Local by Cory Leadbeater [NF] In his debut memoir, Leadbeater revisits the decade he spent working as Joan Didion's personal assistant. While he enjoyed the benefits of working with Didion—her friendship and mentorship, the more glamorous appointments on her social calendar—he was also struggling with depression, addiction, and profound loss. Leadbeater chronicles it all in what Chloé Cooper Jones calls "a beautiful catalog of twin yearnings: to be seen and to disappear; to belong everywhere and nowhere; to go forth and to return home, and—above all else—to love and to be loved." —SMS Out of the Sierra by Victoria Blanco [NF] Blanco weaves storytelling with old-fashioned investigative journalism to spotlight the endurance of Mexico's Rarámuri people, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in North America, in the face of environmental disasters, poverty, and the attempts to erase their language and culture. This is an important book for our times, dealing with pressing issues such as colonialism, migration, climate change, and the broken justice system. —CK Any Person Is the Only Self by Elisa Gabbert [NF] Gabbert is one of my favorite living writers, whether she's deconstructing a poem or tweeting about Seinfeld. Her essays are what I love most, and her newest collection—following 2020's The Unreality of Memory—sees Gabbert in rare form: witty and insightful, clear-eyed and candid. I adored these essays, and I hope (the inevitable success of) this book might augur something an essay-collection renaissance. (Seriously! Publishers! Where are the essay collections!) —SMS Tehrangeles by Porochista Khakpour [F] Khakpour's wit has always been keen, and it's hard to imagine a writer better positioned to take the concept of Shahs of Sunset and make it literary. "Like Little Women on an ayahuasca trip," says Kevin Kwan, "Tehrangeles is delightfully twisted and heartfelt."  —JHM Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell by Ann Powers [NF] The moment I saw this book's title—which comes from the opening (and, as it happens, my favorite) track on Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece Blue—I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year. Powers, one of the very best music critics we've got, masterfully guides readers through Mitchell's life and work at a fascinating slant, her approach both sweeping and intimate as she occupies the dual roles of biographer and fan. —SMS All Desire Is a Desire for Being by René Girard, ed. Cynthia L. Haven [NF] I'll be honest—the title alone stirs something primal in me. In honor of Girard's centennial, Penguin Classics is releasing a smartly curated collection of his most poignant—and timely—essays, touching on everything from violence to religion to the nature of desire. Comprising essays selected by the scholar and literary critic Cynthia L. Haven, who is also the author of the first-ever biographical study of Girard, Evolution of Desire, this book is "essential reading for Girard devotees and a perfect entrée for newcomers," per Maria Stepanova. —DF June 18 Craft by Ananda Lima [F] Can you imagine a situation in which interconnected stories about a writer who sleeps with the devil at a Halloween party and can't shake him over the following decades wouldn't compel? Also, in one of the stories, New York City’s Penn Station is an analogue for hell, which is both funny and accurate. —JHM Parade by Rachel Cusk [F] Rachel Cusk has a new novel, her first in three years—the anticipation is self-explanatory. —SMS Little Rot by Akwaeke Emezi [F] Multimedia polymath and gender-norm disrupter Emezi, who just dropped an Afropop EP under the name Akwaeke, examines taboo and trauma in their creative work. This literary thriller opens with an upscale sex party and escalating violence, and although pre-pub descriptions leave much to the imagination (promising “the elite underbelly of a Nigerian city” and “a tangled web of sex and lies and corruption”), Emezi can be counted upon for an ambience of dread and a feverish momentum. —NodB When the Clock Broke by John Ganz [NF] I was having a conversation with multiple brilliant, thoughtful friends the other day, and none of them remembered the year during which the Battle of Waterloo took place. Which is to say that, as a rule, we should all learn our history better. So it behooves us now to listen to John Ganz when he tells us that all the wackadoodle fascist right-wing nonsense we can't seem to shake from our political system has been kicking around since at least the early 1990s. —JHM Night Flyer by Tiya Miles [NF] Miles is one of our greatest living historians and a beautiful writer to boot, as evidenced by her National Book Award–winning book All That She Carried. Her latest is a reckoning with the life and legend of Harriet Tubman, which Miles herself describes as an "impressionistic biography." As in all her work, Miles fleshes out the complexity, humanity, and social and emotional world of her subject. Tubman biographer Catherine Clinton says Miles "continues to captivate readers with her luminous prose, her riveting attention to detail, and her continuing genius to bring the past to life." —SMS God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer by Joseph Earl Thomas [F] Thomas's debut novel comes just two years after a powerful memoir of growing up Black, gay, nerdy, and in poverty in 1990s Philadelphia. Here, he returns to themes and settings that in that book, Sink, proved devastating, and throws post-service military trauma into the mix. —JHM June 25 The Garden Against Time by Olivia Laing [NF] I've been a fan of Laing's since The Lonely City, a formative read for a much-younger me (and I'd suspect for many Millions readers), so I'm looking forward to her latest, an inquiry into paradise refracted through the experience of restoring an 18th-century garden at her home the English countryside. As always, her life becomes a springboard for exploring big, thorny ideas (no pun intended)—in this case, the possibilities of gardens and what it means to make paradise on earth. —SMS Cue the Sun! by Emily Nussbaum [NF] Emily Nussbaum is pretty much the reason I started writing. Her 2019 collection of television criticism, I Like to Watch, was something of a Bible for college-aged me (and, in fact, was the first book I ever reviewed), and I've been anxiously awaiting her next book ever since. It's finally arrived, in the form of an utterly devourable cultural history of reality TV. Samantha Irby says, "Only Emily Nussbaum could get me to read, and love, a book about reality TV rather than just watching it," and David Grann remarks, "It’s rare for a book to feel alive, but this one does." —SMS Woman of Interest by Tracy O'Neill [NF] O’Neill's first work of nonfiction—an intimate memoir written with the narrative propulsion of a detective novel—finds her on the hunt for her biological mother, who she worries might be dying somewhere in South Korea. As she uncovers the truth about her enigmatic mother with the help of a private investigator, her journey increasingly becomes one of self-discovery. Chloé Cooper Jones writes that Woman of Interest “solidifies her status as one of our greatest living prose stylists.” —LA Dancing on My Own by Simon Wu [NF] New Yorkers reading this list may have witnessed Wu's artful curation at the Brooklyn Museum, or the Whitney, or the Museum of Modern Art. It makes one wonder how much he curated the order of these excellent, wide-ranging essays, which meld art criticism, personal narrative, and travel writing—and count Cathy Park Hong and Claudia Rankine as fans. —JHM [millions_email]

How Avant Is It? Zadie Smith, Tom McCarthy, and the Novel’s Way Forward

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1. “Two Paths for the Novel” It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.” The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith's, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken." Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians. Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009. Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but. This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame. The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission. This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith's advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: "the future of the avant-garde novel." The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That's assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?   2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something. To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past.  Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the "self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.” Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs.... In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of "self"-sabotage to a superhighway? Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.” There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn't "remainder" just a synonym for "trace?") But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told, blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. Then again: The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But: Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. And: [Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt: "If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism." The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have - especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the "gnarled, dirty and irregular" carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have...which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest. Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language's inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.” In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.) That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn't entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I've got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about "the melancholy impasse out of which the...novel has yet to work its way"; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.'s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It's likewise possible to see Remainder's avant-gardism as purposefully "semi-fictitious." By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.   3. I’ll Be Your Mirror Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative.  That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better. Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme. The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu. But the "authenticity" reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still "changing her mind," working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. "Anything, anything at all, that doesn't sound like me," she wrote in her response to Wood's "Hysterical Realism." "Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important." It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own. Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland: Is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational.  In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they're the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will.  The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible. Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: "We can only be who we are.... Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can." What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as "violent rejections" of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith's or Tom McCarthy's or anyone else's—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it. Vive la différance. From Our Archives: "Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder." "The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland." "Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS."

PEN World Voices Report: The Art of Failure

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Late Thursday night, after several PEN events and many drinks, a European friend and I succumbed to the temptation to make sweeping generalizations about the state of literature in America and abroad. Most of our aperçus wouldn't withstand scrutiny in the sober light of morning, but I liked his epiphanic declaration that one of the worst things a piece of writing can be is "harmless." By that standard alone, the work of the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931 - 1989) is high art. As Horacio Castellanos Moya put it at "The Art of Failure," an evening panel on Bernhard at the Austrian Cultural Forum, "Bernhard is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison."Castellanos Moya knows whereof he speaks. He is the author of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, as well as the recently translated Senselessness, which adapts Bernhard's long, rhythmic sentences into a Spanish-language idiom. The other "Art of Failure" panelists - scholar Fatima Naqvi, LIVE from the NYPL impresario Paul Holdengräber, and novelist Dale Peck, - had their own insights into Bernhard's misanthropy. Naqvi has made a career out of studying it, Holdengräber is the scion of a Viennese family forced into exile during World War II, and Peck has raised hackles with his poison-pen reviews of fellow writers.It was odd, then, that "The Art of Failure" started off on a lethargic note. Moderator Jonathan Taylor, author of a recent Bernhard article in The Believer, was a soft-spoken, even phlegmatic host, and the panel's format - in which each guest spoke for ten to fifteen minutes before conversation began - seemed ill-suited to its subject. Both Naqvi and Peck seemed to have over-rehearsed their opening remarks. And though Castellanos Moya - "This guy is writing because he doesn't want to go out killing people!" - added some verve to the proceedings, Holdengräber concluded the first part of the discussion with an apt question: What would Bernhard think of us?Not much, apparently. Bernhard, according to Naqvi, was a strident opponent of bourgeois cultural institutions like PEN World Voices and the Austrian Cultural Forum. He looked contemptuously on all forms of dilettantism and groupthink. Indeed, part of what Bernhard meant with his frequent invocation of the word "failure" and its synonyms was the condition of dilettantism. Like his countryman Wittgenstein, (whose nephew appears in one of Bernhard's novels), he held himself to standards few writers are capable of observing.If the Bernhard panel failed to achieve rigor or purity, though, it did, in its second half, grow into something more involving. As monologues gave way to actual discussion, the panelists began to explore Holdengräber's proposition that "there is something hygenic in [Bernhard's] misanthropy." Postwar Austrians, according to Naqvi, worked so hard to efface the strain of National Socialism in the culture that they often risked harmlessness. In novels such as The Loser and Correction, Bernhard made a place in postwar Austrian literature for a modernist aesthetics of opposition.Dale Peck, whose critical writings I find both embarrassingly self-involved and hostile to the seductions of literature, proved to be surprisingly eloquent on Bernhard's aesthetics. He spoke of the importance of "[giving] yourself over" to Bernhard's totalizing sensibility and the anxiety it produces. And perhaps Bernhard didn't always live as he wrote; Taylor offered evidence that Bernhard listened to Prince.Ultimately, questions about the merits of Bernhard's Weltanschauung remained unresolved. Those panelists who have flirted professionally with dilettantism seemed almost intimidated by Bernhard. And perhaps the novelist's shade was hovering above us, watching in disgust. Still, in an age when literature too often flirts with harmlessness, the value of a room packed with Bernhard enthusiasts (and neophytes like myself) seemed beyond dispute.

Reports of Novel’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

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For better or for worse, Salman Rushdie is never at a loss for words. At a star-studded PEN reading last week, Rushdie surveyed the youthful audience and said something to the effect of, Maybe the novel's not dead after all. Hermione Lee makes the same observation, though for different reasons, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Her tone is light, almost tossed off: "But 2006 seemed, to me at least, to be a year when the novel's survival and significance were not in question." Her import, however, is important.Once upon a time, the novel was derided as frivolous, ephemeral, commercial - even an incitement to immorality. In Book XIII of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding invoked not Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, but "fat Ufrow Gelt" - Mistress Money. "Instructed by thee," he joked, "some Books, like Quacks, impose on the World by promising Wonders; while others turn Beaus, and trust all their Merits to a gilded Outside." The commercial printing press, Fielding suggested, was unseating the substantial in favor of the superficial.Such arguments against the novel recall Socrates' argument against writing in the Phaedrus, as well as the more recent arguments privileging analog over digital media. Without weighing in on those debates, though, I'd argue that the barriers between writing and speech, print and writing, online and print, have proven infinitely permeable. The virus of triviality (if virus it be) can infect words no matter what form they take. And in the centuries following Fielding, the novel's fortunes have ascended like those of a Balzac hero. Its reputation burnished by Austen and Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Joyce, its base beginnings have receded into the mists. Now we look to the novel as the repository of the best that has been thought. Hence the periodic outbreaks of hand-wringing over its death. (See, for example, this well-worn Philip Roth quotation).What Rushdie and Lee have noticed, however, is that the myth of the "Death of the Novel" has lately lost its potency. Perhaps because we have not, after all, reached the end of history - perhaps because we, like the Moderns, find ourselves in a time of both shimmering possibility and immersive fear and suffering - a form built on "belief in the value of the individual" is vital again. I'm not sure that a young, hyper-educated, and largely white audience at a PEN event exactly proves this point, nor that the novels anointed by the critics and Nielsen BookScan are those likely to be read in a century from now. But in the moral universe of the novel, these quibbles seem minor, at best. Lee quotes Edward Mendelsohn: "The novel offers one of 'the most intellectually and morally coherent ways of thinking about human beings. [That is,] as autonomous persons [...] instead of as members of any category, class, or group.'" Think about the literary sturm und drang of the past decade: Tom Wolfe's too strident manifestos, B.R. Meyers' too close readings, Jonathan Franzen's too public anguishings, James Wood's critical dialogue with Zadie Smith... n+1 versus McSweeney's, Ben Marcus versus Franzen, Dale Peck versus nearly everything, and, most recently, Marilynne Robinson's and Cynthia Ozick's attempts to synthesize it all. Or read the Hermione Lee article, citing an entirely different set of sources. Or, if these strike you as too Ivy League, peruse the mission statements of The Underground Literary Alliance. The vital arguments in 2007 are not about whether the novel is alive, but about what kinds of novels we should be writing, and how we should be reading them. These are, of course, insoluble questions. But the mere fact that we are asking them again seems to bear out an idea of DeLillo's: "If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we're talking about when we use the word 'identity' has reached an end."It's possible that the sense of the novel's vulnerability has in the past spurred authors to their best work. But now we must write from a larger awareness: the vulnerability of the world as we know it. So quit your damn web-browser, novelists of tomorrow, and get to work!