A day in the life of an enchanting and gifted woman who is almost too frazzled to go on.
The women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the mad housewives, and the Annie Halls can welcome a new member to their club: Eleanor Flood, the narrator of Semple’s (Where’d You Go Bernadette, 2012, etc.) second sendup of Seattle and its denizens. Eleanor, formerly a New Yorker and the animator of a popular cartoon about four girls in “ '60’s style pinafores” misdirecting “their unconscious fear of puberty into a random hatred of hippies, owners of pure-bred dogs and babies named Steve,” lives in Seattle with her sweet Seahawks doctor husband and her precocious, makeup-wearing third-grade son. Timby goes to Galer Street School, an ultra–PC environ familiar to Bernadette fans, where Eleanor imagines his arrival was greeted with delighted cries of “Eureka! We’ve got a transgender!” This book is so packed with interesting characters and situations, it could have been three times as long. You want more New Orleans Garden District (where Eleanor’s sister has been kidnapped by an effete Mardi Gras krewe captain), more New York animation studio, more poignant childhood stories (dead actress mother and alcoholic father, illustrated in a beautiful color insert), more annotated poems ("Skunk Hour," by Robert Lowell). Only one thing you don’t want more of—a weird plotline about husband Joe’s secret life. As Eleanor tells Timby when they visit a public art installation, “I don’t mean to ruin the ending for you, sweet child, but life is one long headwind. To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will pack you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage—My God, I’m making it sound so glamorous and personal! What the world is, more than anything? It’s indifferent.” Ah, Eleanor. You could have stopped at glamorous and personal. Because few will be indifferent to this achingly funny and very dear book.
This author is on her way to becoming a national treasure.
Since emigrating from his native China, Jin has earned considerable renown for his poetry, stories, and novels (Waiting won the National Book Award in 1999). But he’s never been known as a barrel of laughs.
What makes his latest so refreshing is that it's laugh-out-loud funny while being as illuminating as ever. The plot is simple enough: investigative reporter Feng Danlin, who narrates the book, works for a Chinese news agency in New York. His editor assigns him to unravel the true story behind a blockbuster novel by his ex-wife, Yan Haili, who dumped him on the day he traveled to America to join her and who's now written a romance that exploits 9/11 and is attracting international attention and million-dollar film deals—and even an endorsement from President George W. Bush. She’s been mentioned as a contender for a Nobel Prize, though Feng knows she's “certainly not a gifted writer” and thinks all the attention is “getting more farcical by the hour.” The problem is that everything he writes in his exposés seems to some like the bitterness of a jilted husband whose own writing has never generated such interest. There are accusations about his failings as a husband, his misogyny, and his betrayal of China. As the plot thickens, it seems that not only does the Chinese government have a vested interest in the success of Haili's novel, but that American bureaucracy and Danlin's own employers have begun colluding against him. Is he paranoid? Could his ex-wife’s novel have more merit than he thinks? Is the fix really in? The tensions extend well beyond the two antagonists, as relationships of male/female, fact/fiction, Chinese/American, freedom/fatalism, and ideals/realities are all thrown up for grabs, subverting conventional wisdom.
The narrator ultimately realizes what an innocent he's been, and the reader shares the epiphanies of this pilgrim’s progress.
A keen, controlled novel about dance and blackness steps onto a stage of cultural land mines.
Smith, who wowed the world at 24 with her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), once again crafts quicksilver fiction around intense friendship, race, and class. She opens with a scene of that social media–fueled nightmare: public humiliation. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” the unnamed narrator tells us. She was “put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John's Wood.” From this three-paragraph prologue, the story jumps abruptly back 24 years to 1982, when the narrator, a “horse-faced seven-year-old,” meets Tracey, another brown girl in North West London arriving for dance class. The result is a novel-length current of competition, love, and loathing between them. Tracey has the tap-dancing talent; the narrator’s gifts are more subterranean: “elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Tracey struggles for a life onstage while the narrator flies aloft, becoming personal assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star: “I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, and wiped very occasional break-up tears.” Smith is dazzling in her specificity, evoking predicaments, worldviews, and personalities with a camera-vivid precision. The mothers of the two women cube the complexity of this work, an echo of the four protagonists in Smith’s last novel, NW (2012). All their orbits are distorted by Aimee, the Madonna/Angelina Jolie–like celebrity impulsively building a girls’ school in West Africa. The novel toggles its short chapters between decades and continents, swinging time and geography. Aimee and her entourage dabble in philanthropy; Tracey and the narrator grope toward adulthood; and Fred Astaire, dancing in blackface in Swing Time, becomes an avatar of complexity presiding over the whole thing. In her acknowledgements, Smith credits an anthropological study, Islam, Youth and Modernity in the Gambia. Its insights flare against a portrait of Aimee, on the other side of the matrix, procuring “a baby as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.”
Moving, funny, and grave, this novel parses race and global politics with Fred Astaire’s or Michael Jackson's grace.
A faux memoir of the novelist’s grandfather, whose life as an engineer, veteran, and felon offers an entree into themes of heroism and imagination.
When “Michael Chabon,” the narrator of this novel, was growing up, his maternal grandparents were steeped in mystery and mythology. His grandmother was a tight-lipped Holocaust survivor with a fixation on tarot cards, while his grandfather was a World War II Army officer who’d also done time in prison. The novel is largely Chabon’s (Telegraph Avenue, 2012, etc.) effort to understand his grandfather’s wilder escapades. Why did he try to strangle a former business partner with a telephone cord? What was he thinking when he and a buddy in the Army Corps of Engineers prankishly set explosives on a bridge in Washington, D.C.? What did he feel while he hunted down Wernher von Braun in Germany? And, more tenderly, what did he see in the young girl he met in Baltimore after returning home from the war? A study in intellect, violence, and displacement, his grandfather is engaging on the ground level while also serving as a kind of metaphor for Cold War America. And Chabon writes tenderly about his grandparents’ relationship—his grandmother was a horror-flick host on local TV and suffered from mental illness her husband was ill-equipped to handle. Chabon’s theme is the storytelling (i.e., lies) people lean on to survive through complicated times: “The world, like the Tower of Babel or my grandmother’s deck of cards, was made out of stories, and it was always on the verge of collapse.” A noble enough theme, but Chabon is an inveterate overwriter who dilutes his best storytelling with more ponderous digressions—on the manufacture of the V-2 rocket, model-making, Thomas Pynchon, and the relationships his widowed grandfather pursued before his death. He’s captured a fine story about the poignancy of two souls’ survival but also too many others about plenty else besides.
Mind-meld James Michener, Charles Dickens, and Stephen King and you'll approach the territory the endlessly inventive Moore stakes out in his most magnum of magna opera.
Moore, the influential conjurer of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and other dark graphic masterpieces, seeks here to capture the gritty, sweaty demimonde of Northampton, England, between covers. It’s the Northampton of the wrong side of the tracks, a place where it’s necessary to ration the coins in one’s pocket carefully, staying in of an evening so as not to have to “go through the humiliating pantomime of taking charity” from someone with not much more in the way of cash to spare. Alma Warren, her name the first words in the book, is just 5 years old when we meet her, thrust into a bewildering world among people who speak a language doomed in the face of globalism: “’E ain’t gunner urcha,” says her mother of a fellow cowled and masked like a “phantom burglar” (shades of V), “un 'e dun’t see people very orften. Goo on in un say 'ello or else 'e’ll think we’re rude.” In this gloomy milieu of wet cobblestone streets and decaying buildings, Alma and her kin and acquaintances serve as focal points and guides. Moore constructs a world seen from many different points of view, from wizened old masked men to reticent, fearful children and not much more confident adults in search of some measure of happiness, or at least a little sex (“He has more sperm in him than he knows what to do with and the planet circling about his axis seems to share the same promiscuous excitement”). Many storylines dance through Moore’s pages as he walks through those humid streets, ranging among voices and moods, turning here to Joycean stream-of-consciousness and there to Eliot-ian poetry (“Their gait resembling the Lambeth Walk/While in the upper corners of the room/Are gruff, gesticulating little men”), but in the end forging a style unlike any other.
Magisterial: an epic that outdoes Danielewski, Vollmann, Stephenson, and other worldbuilders in vision and depth.
Foer’s (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005, etc.) first novel in 11 years aspires to be a contemporary Jewish epic.
The book is not unlike a Jonathan Franzen novel crossed with one by Philip Roth. Like Franzen, Foer details the disintegration of an American family against the backdrop of a larger social breakdown—a 7.6 earthquake, epicentered beneath the Dead Sea, that devastates both Israel and the Middle East. Like Roth, he investigates a basic question: what does it mean to be a Jew? That all of this is more complicated than it appears is the point of the sprawling novel, which showcases Foer’s emotional dexterity even as it takes place across a wider canvas than his previous books. Beginning just before the bar mitzvah of Sam Bloch, a precocious if disconnected 13-year-old, Foer traces a well of family trouble (dying elders, dying pets, the relentless testing of all boundaries), culminating in the separation of Sam’s parents, Jacob and Julia. Jacob is a TV writer and Julia is an architect, and their relationship has withered beneath the onslaught of their responsibilities. “She needed a day off,” Foer writes of Julia. “She would have loved the feeling of not knowing how to fill the time, of wandering without a destination in Rock Creek Park, of actually savoring a meal of the kind of food that her kids would never tolerate.” This is great stuff, written with the insight of someone who has navigated the crucible of family, who understands how small slights lead to crises, the irreconcilability of love. Where the novel runs into trouble, however, is in widening its lens to the geopolitical after the earthquake, as the Arab states unite against Israel and the Israeli prime minister calls on all Jewish men to come home. It’s not that the conflict isn’t potent or that Foer doesn’t understand its awful ironies; “There was absolutely nothing,” he observes about the Iranian ayatollah, “to distinguish his face from that of a Jew.” Still the tension is diffused by two concluding sections that take place well after the main part of the action, undermining the sense of impending apocalypse on which the novel relies. In the end, we are left to wonder what the stakes are—or more accurately, where the real connections reside. “What would it sound like to cry in Jewish?” asks the rabbi at Jacob’s grandfather’s funeral. The answer—“Maybe like laughing”—is both fulfilling and unfulfilling, much like this ambitious, if not entirely satisfying, book.
Sharply observed but perhaps a bit too sprawling, Foer's novel bites off more than it can chew.
Despite its title, this novelization of The Tempest explores the perspective not of Caliban, the enslaved witch’s son, but of Prospero, his magician master.
The latest in The Hogarth Press’ series of Shakespeare retellings is Atwood's (The Heart Goes Last, 2015, etc.) take on tyranny, betrayal, and art. In dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the feminist master of literary science fiction explored the fate of the oppressed, but here she focuses instead on the power of an artist to reimagine his fate. Her Prospero, the actor/impresario Felix Phillips, has spent too many years ignoring office politics so he can concentrate on “the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he has made such genius use.” As a result, he’s been ousted as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his scheming second-in-command, Tony Price (Antonio), and the Chair of the Board, Lonnie Gordon (Gonzalo). Fleeing the scene of his betrayal, Felix changes his name to Mr. Duke and finds refuge in the Literacy Through Literature program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, a job he agrees to take only if he’s allowed to direct the inmates in Shakespeare plays. There he plots revenge, which unfolds when Tony, now Minister of Heritage in the Canadian government, along with Lonnie and assorted other dignitaries, makes a photo-op visit to see Felix’s production of—what else?—The Tempest. Once Felix has his enemies isolated in his dominion, he directs his sprites—the inmate actors—to bewitch, drug, and humiliate them, exposing their treachery. The plot’s self-referential layers recall Prospero’s famous “air, thin air” speech about actors. But despite this clever construction and a few genuinely moving moments involving Felix’s dead daughter, Miranda, who died of meningitis as a toddler and whose spirit hovers through the story Ariel-fashion, the bulk of the novel can feel like spending some 300 pages in a high school English class. The inmate-actors seem more like puppets than people; oddly, the most forgettable is the eponymous Caliban-counterpart.
Deliberate and carefully built, this novel rarely pulls off true theater’s magic of transforming glitter confetti into fairy dust.
Two families are fused, atomized, and reconfigured by a stolen kiss, a child’s death, and a bestselling novel.
In her seventh work of fiction, Patchett (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, 2013, etc.) turns from the exotic locales and premises of Bel Canto (2001) and State of Wonder (2011) to a subject closer to home: the evolution of an American family over five decades. The story begins on a very hot day in Southern California at a christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s second daughter, Franny. A lawyer named Bert Cousins shows up uninvited, carrying a bottle of gin. With its help, the instant infatuation he conceives for his stunning hostess becomes “the start of his life.” After Bert and Beverly marry and move to Virginia, the six newly minted stepsiblings are dragged unhappily into new relationships and settings. On another hot afternoon, one of the children dies from a bee sting—a tragedy compounded by long-kept secrets and lies. Jumping ahead, we find Franny in her late 20s, having an affair with a Saul Bellow–type novelist 32 years her senior. “Other than the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had an estranged wife, and had written a novel about her family which in its final form made her want to retch even though she had found it nothing less than thrilling when he was working on it, Franny and Leo were great.” Since Patchett comes from a blended family with the same outlines as the one in this book, the problems created by Leo's fictionalized family history, also called Commonwealth, are particularly intriguing. The prose is lean and inviting, but the constant shifts in point of view, the peripatetic chronology, and the ever growing cast of characters will keep you on your toes.
A satisfying meat-and-potatoes domestic novel from one of our finest writers.
Lethem’s 10th novel is a romp in which history, both personal and collective, can't help but assert itself.
Lethem's new novel tells the story of a backgammon hustler named Alexander Bruno who suffers from a pair of physical (or metaphysical) disorders: first, telepathy, or second sight, and then a membranous tumor beneath the surface of his face that does have the happy side effect of keeping his psychic abilities at bay. But when the tumor needs to be removed, Bruno encounters the key conundrum of this free-wheeling novel: that sometimes survival requires more than a bit of despair. Bruno discovers this when he returns to Berkeley, where he was raised, to confront the ghosts of his history, embodied in the figure of Keith Stolarsky, a childhood friend who, for his own reasons, decides to bankroll Bruno’s surgery and recovery. “Why had Stolarsky wanted to save Bruno?” Lethem asks. “What was his life for?” The question cuts two ways. For Bruno, the issue is life or death but also more than that, because the life he has built—traveling alone and playing backgammon as a way of walling off not just his gift (such as it is), but indeed his very heritage—must be altered, drastically. “You asked me to save you,” his surgeon reflects, “but to save you I had to destroy you. That is what I do.” Stolarsky’s motives are more elusive; a reclusive entrepreneur and hippie capitalist, he is, at heart, about control. As such, the novel turns, as it must, conspiratorial, although, as in most conspiracies, it is not always clear who is manipulating whom. Think Thomas Pynchon (whose books this one superficially resembles), especially in the scenes set in Berkeley, a landscape of hipster burger shops and lost souls still longing for a revolution that washed out in an undertow of drugs and dissolution decades before. That makes the novel a fitting follow-up to Dissident Gardens (2013), which traced a different (and not unrelated) set of radical breakdowns, those of New York in the 1950s and the communist left. Lest this sound weighty, it’s not, so much: Lethem takes real pleasure in the language and writes with a sense of the absurd that illuminates his situations and his characters. “Telegraph Avenue,” he writes, describing Berkeley’s famous open-air market of countercultural chaos, “the island of lost toys.” It’s a vivid metaphor.
In this tragicomic novel, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.