If Harry Potter lived in an alternate Ireland, had no real magical powers but talked a good game, and fell all over himself every time he saw a girl, he might well belong in this splendid, sardonic magnum opus.
It seems safe to guess that Dublin resident Murray (An Evening of Long Goodbyes, 2004) knows the world of boarding schools, of drab dorms, fetid hallways and teenaged lads with their layers on layers of desperation. It seems even safer to guess, though, that unlike Seabrook College for boys, his Ruprecht Van Doren has no exact counterpart in real life. While the others lust after the girls in the prep school next door, Ruprecht—who “arrived at Seabrook in January, like a belated and non-returnable Christmas gift, after both his parents were lost on a kayaking expedition up the Amazon”—is exercising his weird brilliance by opening portals into parallel universes and confounding post-Newtonian physics. All the same, he’s a fairly normal kid compared to some of the others, devout in his studies, hand up in class, quick to volunteer for extracurricular activities. Out in the hall, after all, there are thugs and drugs, kids steeped in Vietnam films and antinomianism, other kids lost in their own dismal worlds. The grown-ups aren’t too much different; one teacher who is only ten years out of Seabrook himself has visions of the place in flames, while another seeks to find his way across the generation gap to find out just what junior is thinking. Throughout lurk the ghosts of the dead of World War I and the tutelary spirit of Robert Graves, odd sightings of whose memoir Goodbye to All That dot Murray’s narrative. Oh, and then there’s a fatal doughnut-eating contest as well, whence the title. Murray wanders confidently through the torments of the adolescent imagination, and he delivers a rollicking tale worthy of a Stephen Dedalus—but a lot more comprehensible.
Long and impossibly involved, but also beautifully written, with much truth and not a wasted word. A superb imagining of a strange world—that of pimply-faced kids, that is. Alternate universes, too.
As he demonstrated in Bliss (1981) and Illywhacker (1985), Carey is partial to eccentrics. Here, he provides a splendid array of cranks and monomaniacs—with two of them, the title characters, living out an odd and tender love story. Yet theirs is only the central plot in an astonishingly complex literary performance that moves between England and Australia in the 1860's. There are dozens of characters and at least five important storylines, two set in the Old World and three in the New. Mostly, though, this is a leisurely and witty fable about the two great enthusiasms of the 19th century—religion and science. Many great schemes were hatched to try to harmonize the two, and so it is here. Lucinda, an Australian heiress, consults Joseph Paxton, architect of London's Crystal Palace, and then she and Oscar, a clergyman, set out to erect a glass church—in darkest New South Wales. The whole book is also a literary parody. Here, the results are uneven, largely because Carey has made some errant choices. His first targets are Fielding and Sterne. But these were 18th-century writers who expressed the energy of a particular moment: the last gasp of Merrie Olde England, about to be submerged by piety, industrialism, and red plush draperies with ball fringe. Carey is off the mark here. He fares better when he begins to parody Trollope. His style then becomes more appropriate to the material; also less facetious and digressive. Oscar and Lucinda (582 pp.) is sometimes too slow, and its energetic whimsicality can be grating. Against that, though, set writing that is far more often lucid and fine, beautifully drawn characters, and a remarkably clever narrative scheme. A brave and original novel.
Musician, poet and visual artist Smith (Trois, 2008, etc.) chronicles her intense life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during the 1960s and ’70s, when both artists came of age in downtown New York.
Both born in 1946, Smith and Mapplethorpe would become widely celebrated—she for merging poetry with rock ’n’ roll in her punk-rock performances, he as the photographer who brought pornography into the realm of art. Upon meeting in the summer of 1967, they were hungry, lonely and gifted youths struggling to find their way and their art. Smith, a gangly loser and college dropout, had attended Bible school in New Jersey where she took solace in the poetry of Rimbaud. Mapplethorpe, a former altar boy turned LSD user, had grown up in middle-class Long Island. Writing with wonderful immediacy, Smith tells the affecting story of their entwined young lives as lovers, friends and muses to one another. Eating day-old bread and stew in dumpy East Village apartments, they forged fierce bonds as soul mates who were at their happiest when working together. To make money Smith clerked in bookstores, and Mapplethorpe hustled on 42nd Street. The author colorfully evokes their days at the shabbily elegant Hotel Chelsea, late nights at Max’s Kansas City and their growth and early celebrity as artists, with Smith winning initial serious attention at a St. Mark’s Poetry Project reading and Mapplethorpe attracting lovers and patrons who catapulted him into the arms of high society. The book abounds with stories about friends, including Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Sam Shepard, Gregory Corso and other luminaries, and it reveals Smith’s affection for the city—the “gritty innocence” of the couple’s beloved Coney Island, the “open atmosphere” and “simple freedom” of Washington Square. Despite separations, the duo remained friends until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. “Nobody sees as we do, Patti,” he once told her.
With subtlety and grace, a first novel—actually a series of eight linked, chronologically arranged stories—illuminates momentous if commonplace events in the lives of a modern New England family.
It’s 1979, and O’Neil’s parents, Arthur and Miriam, are preparing to visit him at his New Hampshire college. Each has a secret: she’s just learned that she probably has breast cancer; he’s just written a note to Dora Auclaire, a family friend he believes he’s fallen in love with. Those secrets are never divulged (though Arthur’s note will surface later). On their return to Glenn’s Mills, New York, they take a wrong turn in a snowstorm and are killed; their deaths will reverberate throughout these pages. O’Neil’s future wife Mary is introduced well into the novel, working rather aimlessly at a bar in a Minnesota college town not far from where she grew up. Pregnant by her artist roommate, a man she doesn’t particularly like, she decides on abortion: “How terrible, she thought, to be twenty-two, and already have the worst thing of her life to remember.” Cronin only sparingly sketches the details of how Mary and O’Neil meet, while their wedding is related in a brilliant passage titled simply “Groom.” Late for the ceremony, O’Neil remembers his parents: “He holds the picture in his mind as long as he can, until . . . the signal breaks up like a radio station gone out of range.” Nothing very unusual happens to the couple. They become teachers, have children, incur debts, face marital problems. Much of the story’s second half is taken up with O’Neil’s sister Kay, now stricken with cancer. Throughout, O’Neil himself is cast in the everyday roles of son, brother, husband, and father, yet Cronin infuses these passages of common life with a tenderness and depth that draw the reader in.
A quiet debut, its very understatement giving rise to its poignancy and strength.
A bittersweet-comic version of all living things anchors this enchanting short novel by the acknowledged master of magical realism (Strange Pilgrims, 1993, etc.). In fiat, reportorial tones (perfectly captured in Grossman's eloquent translation), the 1982 Nobel — winner spins an extravagant tale of ethnic contrast and cosmic dislocation, set in a Colombian-like South American backwater near the Caribbean Sea. When 12-year-old Sierva Maria, only child of a desiccated marquis and his dissolute lowborn wife, is bitten by a rabid dog, the girl's mendacious disposition and unsophisticated demeanor are interpreted as signs of demonic possession. Held captive in an austere convent, she is denounced by a bigoted abbess, befriended by a kindly murderer, and adored from afar, then more intimately, by Father Cayetano Delaura, the diocese librarian whose surprised discovery of passion both complicates and transfigures his bookish, selfless existence. The tale of their thwarted love resonates down the years as a union of opposites that's all but anathema to a culture whose prosperity is built on a thriving slave trade and whose privileged classes live in fear that their servants will rise up and murder them in their beds. Garcia Marquez mockingly breaks down conventional barriers between not just masters and servants, but also whites and blacks, clergy and laity, humans and animals. This is a world in which bats drain the blood of sleeping humans, a 100-year-old horse is buried in holy ground, and a learned physician imperturbably straddles the metaphysical boundaries separating life and death. In a society distinguished by "so much mixing of bloodlines," it is implied, people and things blend into and become one another — despite the repressive exertions of wealth and power, and the delusory authority of a religion that sees demons in every instance of dissent or independence. Written with masterly economy, brimming with colorful episodes and vividly sketched characters: a haunting, cautionary tale that ranks among the author's best.
How do "impossible" couples evolve? In this most recent, luminous novel by Tyler, a "fairly chilly" man, muffled in loneliness, learns that a man and a woman can come together "for reasons the rest of the world would never guess." One can leave the principality of self to tour another's—to love "the surprise of her. . .the surprise of himself when he was with her." Macon Leary, married to Sarah, is an author of travel books for businessmen whose "concern was how to pretend they had never left home"—who want safe and comforting accommodations and food, who want to travel "without a jolt." Macon and Sarah, devastated by the senseless murder of their 12-year-old son in a fast-food shop holdup, are about to part. Sarah will leave this man that she claims remains "unchanged," who refuses to argue with the knowledge that the world is vile. Immobilized by a broken leg (was that accident an unconscious wish?), Macon will settle in with the family he started with—two brothers (one divorced) and sister Rose—in ultimate safety, where like plump, brooding fowl, the four deliberate in soothing converse, rearrange the straws of domesticity, Enter the "impossible" Muriel Pritchett, shrill as a macaw, single mother of a pale, wretched young boy, scrabbling for a living at various jobs, and existing messily on a cacophonous Baltimore street. Muriel has arrived at the Leary compound to whip into line Edward, Macon's pugnacious Welsh corgi who's fond of treeing bicyclists and family members. Muriel cows Edward while talking nonstop, and gradually Macon will find himself in "another country" of noise and color, where red slippers with feathers are necessary accessories to a woman in the morning. From a perspective where Macon feels he's a "vast distance from everyone who mattered" and a marriage where he and his wife seem to have "used each other up," Macon will find in foreignness his own "soft heart." Again in Tyler's tender, quiet prose, a delicate sounding of the odd and accidental incursions of the heart. Tone-perfect, and probably her best to date.
Imagine a university-educated lesbian Charles Dickens with a similarly keen eye for mendacity and melodrama, and you’ll have some idea of the pleasures lurking in Waters’s impudent revisionist historicals: Tipping the Velvet (1999), Affinity (2000), and now this richly woven tale of duplicity, passion, and lots of other good stuff.
It begins as the narrative of 17-year-old Susan Trinder, an orphan resident of the criminal domicile run by Hogarthian Grace Sucksby, a Fagin-like “farmer” of discarded infants and den-mother to an extended family of “fingersmiths” (i.e., pickpockets) and assorted confidence-persons. One of the latter, Richard Rivers (a.k.a. “Gentleman”), engages Susan in an elaborate plot to fleece wealthy old Mr. Lilly, a connoisseur of rare books—as lady’s maid “Susan Smith” to Lilly’s niece and ward Maude, a “simple, natural” innocent who will be married off to “Mr. Rivers,” then disposed of in a madhouse, while the conspirators share her wealth. Maidservant and mistress grow unexpectedly close, until Gentleman’s real plan—a surprise no reader will see coming—leads to a retelling of events we’ve just witnessed, from a second viewpoint—which reveals the truth about Mr. Lilly’s bibliomania, and discloses to a second heroine that “Your life was not the life that you were meant to live.” (Misdirections and reversals are essential components of Waters’s brilliant plot, which must not be given away.) Further intrigues, escapes, and revelations climax when Susan (who has resumed her place as narrator) returns from her bizarre ordeal to Mrs. Sucksby’s welcoming den of iniquity, and a final twist of the knife precipitates another crime and its punishment, astonishing discoveries about both Maude and Susan (among others), and a muted reconciliation scene that ingeniously reshapes the conclusion of Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Nobody writing today surpasses the precocious Waters’s virtuosic handling of narrative complexity and thickly textured period detail. This is a marvelous novel.
A stunning novel—erudite, compassionate and penetrating in its analysis of love relationships.
Eugenides focuses primarily on three characters, who all graduate from Brown in 1982. One of the pieces of this triangle is Madeleine Hanna, who finds herself somewhat embarrassed to have emerged from a “normal” household in New Jersey (though we later find out the normality of her upbringing is only relative). She becomes enamored with Leonard, a brilliant but moody student, in their Semiotics course, one of the texts being, ironically, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, which Madeleine finds disturbingly problematic in helping her figure out her own love relationship. We discover that Leonard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his first year at Brown, and his struggle with mood swings throughout the novel is both titanic and tender. The third major player is Mitchell, a Religious Studies major who is also attracted to Madeleine but whose reticence she finds both disturbing and incomprehensible. On graduation day, Leonard has a breakdown and is hospitalized in a mental-health ward, and Madeleine shows her commitment by skipping the festivities and seeking him out. After graduation, Leonard and Madeleine live together when Leonard gets an internship at a biology lab on Cape Cod, and the spring after graduation they marry, when Leonard is able to get his mood swings under temporary control. Meanwhile Mitchell, who takes his major seriously, travels to India seeking a path—and briefly finds one when he volunteers to work with the dying in Calcutta. But Mitchell’s road to self-discovery eventually returns him to the States—and opens another opportunity for love that complicates Madeleine’s life.
Dazzling work—Eugenides continues to show that he is one of the finest of contemporary novelists.
The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart.
A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames’s first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames’s sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel’s present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he’s grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father’s church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was.
Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.
A first US appearance of a novel originally published in 1987, this crisp portrayal of “flaming youth” in the late 1960s proves one of Murakami’s most appealing—if uncharacteristic—books.
Best known to us as the comic surrealist-symbolist author of such rousing postmodernist fare as A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Murakami is also a highly intelligent romantic who feels the pangs of his protagonist Toru Watanabe’s insistent sexual and intellectual hungers and renders them with unsparing clarity (the matter-of-fact sexual frankness here seems unusual for a Japanese novel, even a 1987 one).Toru’s narrative of his student years, lived out against a backdrop of ongoing “campus riots,” focuses on the lessons he learns from relationships with several highly individual characters, two of them women he simultaneously loves (or thinks he loves). Mercurial Naoko, who clearly perceives the seeds of her own encroaching madness (“It’s like I’m split in two and playing tag with myself”), continues to tug away at Toru’s emotions even after she enters a sanatorium. Meanwhile, coy fellow student Midori tries to dispel shadows cast by her parents’ painful deaths by fantasizing and simulating—though never actually experiencing—sex with him. Other perspectives on Toru’s hard-won assumption of maturity are offered by older student Nagasawa (“a secret reader of classic novels,” and a compulsive seducer); Naoko’s roommate Reiko, a music teacher (and self-styled interpreter of such Beatles’ songs as the one that provides Murakami’s evocative title) who’s perhaps also her lesbian lover; and the specter of Toru’s boyhood friend Kizuki, a teenaged suicide. There’s a lot of talk about books (particularly Fitzgerald’s and Hesse’s) and other cultural topics, in a blithely discursive and meditative story that’s nevertheless firmly anchored to the here and now by the vibrant immediacy of its closely observed characters and their quite credibly conflicted psyches and libidos.
A contemporary equivalent of This Side of Paradise or Vile Bodies, and another solid building-block in one of contemporary fiction’s most energetic and impressive bodies of work.