A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself.
Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it's also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger's house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet's and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill (Veronica, 2005, etc.) takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.
Gaitskill explores the complexities of love (mares, meres…) to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.
Rough-edged mid-1970s New York provides the backdrop for an epic panorama of musicians, writers, and power brokers and the surprising ways they connect.
New Year’s Eve 1976: Sam, a fanzine author and hanger-on in the Manhattan punk scene, abandons her plan to attend a concert and instead heads to Central Park, where she’s later discovered shot and clinging to life. Why’d she head uptown? Who shot her? Thereby hangs a remarkably assured, multivalent tale that strives to explore multiple strata of Manhattan life with photographic realism. Most prominent in this busy milieu are William, the scion of a banking family who’s abandoned money for the sake of music, art, and drugs; Nicky, the coke-fueled head of an East Village squat who delivers motor-mouthed pronunciamentos on post-humanism and is curiously in the know about arson in the Bronx; Richard, a magazine journalist whose profile of Sam’s father, the head of a fireworks firm, leads to suspicion that there’s a bigger story to be told. With more than 900 pages at his disposal, Hallberg (A Field Guide to the North American Family, 2007) gives his characters plenty of breathing room, but the story never feels overwritten, and the plotlines interlace without feeling pat. One theme of the novel is the power that stories, true or false, have over our lives, so it’s hard to miss other writers’ influences here. At times the novel feels like a metafictional tribute to America’s finest doorstop manufacturers, circa 1970 to the present: Price (street-wise cops), Wolfe (top-tier wealth), Franzen (busted families), Wallace (the seductions of drugs and pop culture), and DeLillo (the unseen forces behind everything). That's not to say he's written a pastiche, but as his various plotlines braid tighter during the July 1977 blackout, his novel becomes an ambitious showpiece for just how much the novel can contain without busting apart.
A Southern farm provides the backdrop for a modern-day slavery tale in this textured, inventive and provocatively funny novel.
The second novel by Hannaham (Creative Writing/Pratt Institute; God Says No, 2009) opens with a harrowing prologue: Eddie, a black 17-year-old, is manically driving a truck from a Louisiana plantation that he’s escaped. His hands have been cut off for reasons not explained till the end of the novel, and he’s desperate to get to Minnesota. The story then snaps back to six years earlier, as Eddie’s mother, Darlene, descends into crack addiction after the murder of her husband, a shop owner and community organizer who fell afoul of local bigots. While working as a prostitute, she and other addicts and indigents are corralled by a woman into a van and coerced to sign a contract that effectively makes them the property of Delicious Foods, a produce farm that plies its workers with drugs and alcohol to extract cheap, unquestioning labor. What’s so funny about any of that? Partly Hannaham’s daring approach to style and point of view: Much of the novel is narrated by the crack Darlene is addicted to. Nicknamed Scotty, the drug first shows up as a few rocks in her purse as she works the streets and throughout has a voice like the devil on your shoulder. (“I rushed into the few doubting and unbelieving parts left in Darlene’s mind and I shouted, Babygirl, surrender to yes! Say yes to good feelings!”) The plot turns on Darlene’s struggles at Delicious Foods and Eddie’s efforts to find her, and in the process, Hannaham finds room to comment on and satirize a variety of racial (and racist) iconographies, from watermelons to David Duke to voodoo to the sexual demands of plantation owners. In that context, the fate of Eddie’s hands becomes a potent allegory for centuries of black men and women stripped of the power to control their destinies.
A poised and nervy study of race in a unique voice.
“Freedom is only what can be conquered”: a welcome, long overdue omnibus collection of the short stories of the great Brazilian literata.
Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector, later Clarice Lispector (Soulstorm, 1989, etc.), has been called the most important Jewish writer since Franz Kafka and certainly one of the most important shapers of late-20th-century Brazilian literature. Those familiar with novels such as The Stream of Life will not need convincing, but those new to Lispector’s work would fruitfully begin with this collection, which shows both the evolution of her style and her early mastery of the story form. Often in her stories there is a vaguely discontented woman who has settled into her fate early on but nurses misgivings. In a story that begins, arrestingly, “Now that the affair is behind me, I can recollect it more serenely,” the narrator remarks on the damnable complacency of those around her, who can barely be budged into action except by such climactic events as birth and death “and their attendant conditions.” “I can recollect it more serenely,” of course, isn’t quite idiomatic, and the collection is marked by a highly literal rendering that at times verges into translatorese: no speaker of American English, in the heat of anger or some other passion, would yell, “I feel tied down. Tied down by your fussing, your caresses, your excessive zeal, by you yourself!” Excessive zeal? There are plenty of perfect moments, though, as when Lispector describes a young lady to whom things are about to happen: “She sat combing her hair languorously before the three-way vanity, her white, strong arms bristling in the slight afternoon chill.” For much of the collection, Lispector favors a kind of elegant realism, though with odd turns: contemplating chicken and egg, literally, she waxes post-Wittgensteinian: “Seeing an egg never remains in the present: as soon as I see an egg it already becomes having seen an egg three millennia ago.”
Essential and sure to turn up soon on reading lists in courses in women’s studies and Jewish diaspora literature as well as Latin American writing.
Communists, oligarchs, and toxic landscapes from Siberia to Chechnya define this collection of tightly linked stories from Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, 2013).
In fact, let’s go ahead and call it a novel: though the individual stories bounce around in time and are told in different voices, they share a set of characters and have a clear narrative arc. More importantly, they share a command of place and character that strikingly reimagines nearly a century of changes in Russia. In the opener, “The Leopard,” a communist censor in 1937 secretly inserts his disappeared brother’s face in the photos he retouches—a fact that re-emerges in later stories and also serves as a symbol for how what’s lost in Russia never quite disappears. (An oil painting of a bland Chechnyan landscape plays a similar role.) From there, the story moves to chilly Kirovsk, a cancer-ridden industrial town that’s struggled to adjust to the fall of Communism, and hometown of Galina, a middling actress who’s risen to fame thanks to her marriage with Russia’s 13th wealthiest man. In Chechnya, we meet her childhood boyfriend, Kolya, who’s been taken prisoner after becoming a soldier. Marra’s Russia is marked by both interconnection and darkly comic irony; Kolya’s stint in captivity is “the most serene of his adult life,” while elsewhere a man is roped into trying to sell mine-ridden Grozny as a tourist destination. (“For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston.”) As in his previous novel, Marra is deft at managing different characters at different points in time, but the book’s brilliance and humor are laced with the somber feeling that the country is allergic to evolution: KGB thugs then, drug dealers and Internet scammers now, with a few stray moments of compassion in between.
A powerful and melancholy vision of a nation with long memories and relentless turmoil.
The provocative author of The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Slumberland (2008) is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet.
Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries.
Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.
A letter from a mysterious stalker upends the life of a Beijing taxi driver in Barker’s (The Orientalist and the Ghost, 2009, etc.) stunning epic, which spans a thousand years of Chinese history and six lifetimes of betrayal.
Wang Jun, husband of Yida, father of Echo, is driving down Workers Stadium Road when the first note falls from the visor of his cab. “I watch you most days,” it reads. It is taunting in its anonymity: “Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.” And so begins Wang’s unraveling. In the present, it’s 2008. The city is preparing for the impending Olympics, and Wang—distanced from his troubled family, mostly recovered from the nervous breakdown of his college years—has carved out something like contentment for himself: a beautiful wife, a beloved child, a job, if not the one he once seemed destined for. But this is not Wang’s first or only life, the letters explain. There have been other incarnations. He and the “soulmate” have, in fact, been intimately connected for more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the Opium War to the Cultural Revolution. They have been father and illegitimate daughter, the product of incest and fellow courtesans to the sadistic Emperor Jiajing; schoolmates at the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls and Jurchen boys, enslaved by the Mongols. Moving between Wang’s many pasts, all of them thrilling, gruesome, and tragic, and his increasingly desperate present, Barker’s historical tour de force is simultaneously sweeping and precise. It would be easy for the novel to teeter into overwrought melodrama; instead, Barker’s psychologically nuanced characters and sharp wit turn the bleakness and the gore into something seriously moving.
Effortlessly blends the past with the present, dark humor with profound sadness. A deeply human masterpiece.
Brutality, racism and lies are relieved by moments of connection in Morrison's latest.
A little girl is born with skin so black her mother will not touch her. Desperate for approval, to just once have her mother take her hand, she tells a lie that puts an innocent schoolteacher in jail for decades. Later, the ebony-skinned girl will change her name to Bride, wear only white, become a cosmetics entrepreneur, drive a Jaguar. Her lover, a man named Booker, also bears a deep scar on his soul—his older brother was abducted, tortured and murdered by a pedophilic serial killer. This is a skinny, fast-moving novel filled with tragic incidents, most sketched in a few haunting sentences: "The last time Booker saw Adam he was skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees." When Bride's falsely accused teacher is released from prison, there's a new round of trouble. Booker leaves, Bride goes after him—and ends up in the woods, recovering from a car accident with hippie survivalists who have adopted a young girl abused by her prostitute mother. Meanwhile, Bride is anxiously watching her own body metamorphose into that of a child—her pubic hair has vanished, her chest has flattened, her earlobes are smooth. As in the darkest fairy tales, there will be fire and death. There will also be lobster salad, Smartwater and Louis Vuitton; the mythic aspects of this novel are balanced by moments like the one in which Bride decides that the song that most represents her relationship with Booker is "I Wanna Dance with Somebody."
A chilling oracle and a lively storyteller, Nobel winner Morrison continues the work she began 45 years ago with The Bluest Eye.
A darkly comic, lightly metafictional tale about a banker seeking love and a novelist seeking wealth amid the fallout from the financial boom and bust in Ireland.
Claude Martingale, a well-paid analyst in the Bank of Torabundo’s Dublin office, finds his routine upset when a man named Paul asks if he can trail Claude as research for his next novel. It isn’t long before Claude discovers the research actually entails casing his bank, one of several moneymaking schemes Paul undertakes. Still, the two men form a cautious friendship, and Paul tries to help shy Claude talk up the Greek waitress Ariadne, while Claude tries to prod Paul back to the writing he's fled since his first novel was panned. Murray (Skippy Dies, 2010, etc.), the real and well-reviewed novelist named Paul, offers his alter ego’s scams as humorous microcosm to the avaricious inventions still common in the financial world two years after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Other parallels abound. Just as fictional Paul has a delightfully profane Russian sidekick, the bank’s hedge fund chief relies on a Russian math whiz and his “providential antinomies” that “monetize failure.” Ariadne has a rant on Greece’s financial chaos as preview for where Ireland is headed. A writer quits that trade to become an artist who turns his written pages into art within a frame. So Murray creates the novel his other Paul is meant to produce at the urging of a guilt-ridden banker and another character who asks, “when are our writers going to address the banking crisis?” The speaker is the powerful critic who slammed fictional Paul’s debut.
Murray manages the trick of being thoughtful and entertaining. His creative energy sends the book in many directions, making it a little loose and lumpy, but the same may be said of Dickens, with whom real Paul also shares wit, sympathy, and a purposeful sense of mischief.
The lives and loves of expatriates on Mallorca, shaped by a 60-year-old misunderstanding.
Nichols' novel opens in 2005 with a chance meeting between Lulu Davenport and Gerald Rutledge on a cliff-top road near The Rocks, Lulu's seaside hotel. Though they live in the same small town on an island, the couple has managed to avoid each other since their very brief marriage in the 1940s, and this encounter immediately becomes a confrontation. In its course, the pair of 80-somethings accidentally tumble to their deaths. The remaining sections of the novel—set in 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951, and 1948—trace backward through the ripple effects of their falling-out to the incident that started it all, sweeping into the vortex their children by other spouses, and the generation after that as well. As intoxicating as a long afternoon sitting at the bar at The Rocks, the book features complications that include a book deal, a real estate swindle, a shipwreck, a drug bust, and many sexual affairs, including a couple of statutory rapes. All of it is absolutely riveting, leaving the reader desperate to depart immediately for swoony Mallorca, depicted from the time no one knew where it was (one would-be visitor goes to Monaco by mistake) to its present-day popularity. Nichols' expertise on everything from the Odyssey to olive oil to classic movies enriches the story, as does his profound understanding of his screwed-up cast of characters. "They were self-employed professionals, artists, writers, nonviolent sweet-natured criminals, mysteriously self-supporting or genteelly impoverished,....occasionally sleeping with one another in a manner that disturbed no one. In unspoken ways, they recognized one another, and everything they did made perfect sense to them, though they often arrived on the island as pariahs of the outside world, but were soothed and taken in by their steady, tolerant, and nonjudgmental friends and lovers on Mallorca."
A literary island vacation with a worldly, wonderfully salacious storyteller.
Award-winning novelist, essayist and playwright Phillips (Color Me English, 2011, etc.) responds to Wuthering Heights.
A difficult daughter and an unhappy wife, Monica Johnson is contrary, self-destructive and—finally—mad. That Monica, in her broad outlines, resembles Cathy Earnshaw is no accident. Her story—as well as that of her husband and their sons—is interwoven with scenes inspired by Wuthering Heights and the life of its author. This is not to say that Monica is Cathy, transplanted from the moors to Oxford in the late 1950s. This is not a retelling. The interplay between this novel and Emily Brontë’s masterpiece is much more interesting than that. For example, Phillips imagines Heathcliff before Mr. Earnshaw takes him to the Heights. This boy is the son of a slave, a woman who worked a sugar plantation before being transported to England. Phillips isn’t the first to read Brontë’s “dark-skinned” antihero as black, but he also connects the boy to Monica’s husband, Julius—a man who gives up academic life in order to take up the cause of anti-colonialism in his West Indian home country—and to their neglected, dispossessed sons. The thematic links between the modern story and Wuthering Heights only become clear over time, and—even then—they’re too rich and subtle to work as simple allegory. Empire and race are among Phillips’ concerns, but he also offers heartbreaking depictions of alienation and the fragility of human relationships. While it would be easy to identify Heathcliff as the lost child of the title, it could also refer to Monica’s younger son—or her older boy. But Monica is lost, too. And then there’s Brontë, drifting further and further into her invented world as she dies. What Phillips seems to be saying, in the end, is that the lost child could be any of us—perhaps even that the lost child is all of us.
In a novel that's part love story, part urban thriller, Phillips (And Yet They Were Happy, 2011, etc.) captures the way an isolating job and an indifferent city can stealthily steal our lives and erode our souls—and the protective, nourishing power of love.
A nameless, genderless, nearly faceless boss with rank breath; a tiny office in a vast windowless building, its “pinkish ill-colored” walls fluorescently lit, marked with “scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands” of bureaucrats past, and impervious to efforts at beautification; the incessant, maddening drone of typing; the red-eyed co-workers of uncertain trustworthiness; the computer database into which numbers on pages in piles of files must be entered and double-checked and processed just so—these are the things Josephine Anne Newbury encounters in the administrative job she accepts, asking few questions and getting fewer answers, for a mysterious organization. Having up and moved to the city from the “hinterland” looking for new opportunities, Josephine and her beloved husband, Joseph, endure mindless work following a long period of unemployment and the added alienation of living in unwelcoming apartments, surrounded by other people’s belongings. They find solace, joy, and vitality in each other, in the linguistic playfulness that has become their own language, in the warm glow of simple meals enjoyed together by candlelight, and in their shared dream of starting a family. But the city to which they have moved “in hope of hope” sweeps them into its sinister clutches and brings them face to face with pressing existential questions to which the answers may be as inevitable and unpleasant as they are unclear. Phillips takes situations and sentiments that will be all too familiar to many readers—a soul-crushingly dull job that callously steals our youth and beauty, the desperate yearning to be free of it, the restoring power of love and food and intimacy and of shared language and laughter—and uses them to explore bigger universal themes of life and death and the choices and compromises they demand.
Intense and enigmatic, tense and tender, this novel offers no easy answers—its deeper meanings may mystify—but it grabs you up, propels you along, and leaves you gasping, grasping, and ready to read it again.
An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.
Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories (You Think That’s Bad,2011, etc.), but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who's just 9 years old when the tale begins. He's a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto's chaos, he's separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy's instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?”
Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.
Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker’s ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that’s also serious fun.
At just over 300 pounds, Plum Kettle is waiting for her real life to start: she’ll be a writer. She’ll be loved. She’ll be thin. In the meantime, she spends her days ghostwriting advice to distraught teenage girls on behalf of a popular teen magazine (“Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help”), meticulously counting calories (“turkey lasagna (230)”), and fantasizing about life after weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious young woman in Technicolor tights starts following her, Plum finds herself drawn into an underground feminist community of radical women who refuse to bow to oppressive societal standards. Under the tutelage of Verena Baptist, anti-diet crusader and heiress to the Baptist diet fortune (a diet with which Plum is intimately familiar), Plum undertakes a far more daring—and more dangerous—five-step plan: to live as her true self now. Meanwhile, a violent guerrilla group, known only as “Jennifer,” has emerged, committing acts of vigilante justice against misogynists. As her surgery date nears and Jennifer’s acts grow increasingly drastic, Plum finds she’s at the center of what can only be described as a literal feminist conspiracy—and she’s transforming into a version of herself she never knew existed. But while it would be easy for the book to devolve into a tired parable about the virtues of loving yourself just the way you are, Walker’s sharp eye and dry humor push it away from empty platitudes and toward deeper and more challenging turf. Ultimately, for all the unsettling pleasure of Walker’s splashier scenarios—and there are many—it’s Plum’s achingly real inner life that gives the novel its arresting emotional weight.
Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.
A tour-de-force first novel blisters with drought, myth, and originality.
Watkins drew gasps of praise and international prizes for Battleborn (2013), 10 short stories that burrowed into Reno, Nevada, its history, and her own. Now she clears the high bar of public expectation with a story set in a desiccated future where “practically everyone was thin now.” The callow Luz Dunn, 25, a former model from Malibu, has hooked up with nice-guy Ray Hollis, a surfer and AWOL soldier from “the forever war.” A large swath of the United States has gone “moonscape with sinkage, as the winds came and as Phoenix burned and as a white-hot superdune entombed Las Vegas.” In “laurelless canyon,” the couple squats in the abandoned mansion of a Los Angeles starlet, dodging evacuation roundups. When Luz and Ray stumble across a strange towheaded toddler, they—gingerly—form an ersatz family. But cornered with no documentation, Ray and Luz decide to scoop up the child and hit the road, seeking a rumored desert commune. It doesn’t go well. A sand dune the size of a sea begins barely beyond LA. The little girl keeps asking “What is?”—a device through which Watkins drops clues. On each page she spikes her novel with a ticking, musical intelligence: the title is a list of what drew people to California; an entire chapter hums with sentences beginning with “If she went….” The territory is more alluring and dystopian than Mad Max’s. Watkins writes an unforgettable scene with a carousel; another in a dank tunnel where the couple seeks contraband blueberries. The author freckles her fiction with incantations, odd detours, hallucinations, and jokes. Praised for writing landscape, Watkins’ grasp of the body is just as rousing. Into the vast desert she sets loose snakes and gurus, the Messianic pulse of end times. Critics will reference Annie Proulx’s bite and Joan Didion’s hypnotic West, but Watkins is magnificently original.
The ghost of John Muir meets a touch of Terry Gilliam.
Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.
Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.
The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.