A lively, loopy experimental novel rich with musings on language, art, and, yes, teeth.
Each section of the second novel by Mexican author Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd, 2014) opens with an epigram about the disconnect between the signifier and signified. If you dozed off during lectures on semiotics in college, fear not: though the author is interested in the slippery nature of description, this novel’s style and tone are brisk and jargon-free. The narrator, Gustavo, has decided late in life to become an auctioneer (“to have my teeth fixed”), a job he thrives at in part by skillfully overhyping the values of the objects on offer. Not that he’s immune to being oversold himself: did the new set of teeth he buys at auction really once belong to Marilyn Monroe? The skeletal plot focuses on Gustavo’s hosting an auction to benefit a church outside Mexico City, his hoard of prized objects, and his reunion with his son. But the book lives in its offbeat digressions, like an extended discussion of literary eminences’ lives via their teeth. (St. Augustine was inspired to write his Confessions due to a toothache; G.K. Chesterson had a marble-chewing habit; false teeth were recommended to calm Virginia Woolf’s inner turmoil.) But all this dental chatter isn’t precisely the point. “We have here before us today pieces of great value, since each contains a story replete with small lessons,” Gustavo tells a group of auction attendees, and the whole book is a kind of extended commentary on how possessions acquire value largely through the stories we tell about them. (In an afterword, Luiselli explains that this “novel-essay” was inspired by such questions and was first written for workers in a factory outside Mexico City that has a gallery connected to it.)
A clever philosophical novel that, as the author puts it, has “less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.”
The narrator of the six-volume memoir-novel confronts his late teens, in which he defies his father by behaving much like him.
As the book opens, Karl Ove is 18 and bent on proving his independence. Instead of going to college, he’s taken a teaching job at a school in rural north Norway, much as his father did a few years earlier. Karl Ove, though, is determined to use the gig as a steppingstone to becoming a writer, using his off hours to work on his fiction. Naturally, his plans are undone in short order. Neighbors, fellow teachers and even some students in the tiny town come knocking unannounced, hard-drinking parties are the sole entertainment, and teaching is more challenging than he’d expected. After an agonizing hangover, the story shifts to Karl Ove at 16, as his mind operates on two tracks: cultivating his dreams of being a writer (he finagles a gig writing record reviews for a paper) and scheming to lose his virginity. Standing in the way of the latter goal are his pretentiousness, a growing alcohol habit to match his dad’s and a premature ejaculation problem, but he’s keenly aware of only the last issue. Of the four books in this series published in English thus far, this one is the most rhetorically conventional: Knausgaard employs humor, irony and melodrama in ways that he studiously avoided in previous episodes. But he’s done so not to pander but to criticize, echoing the mindset of a sex-obsessed and callow young man still in his teens and unshaped as a person and as a writer. And when the story arrives at its climax (and you can likely guess what that involves), Knausgaard uses the plainspokenness that defined his previous books to powerfully evoke the depth of his obliviousness, the hollowness of his triumph.
An entertaining portrait of the artist as a young lout.
Nobel laureate Pamuk (The Museum of Innocence, 2009, etc.) sets a good-natured Everyman wandering through Istanbul’s changing social and political landscape.
Tricked by his scheming cousin Süleyman into writing impassioned love letters for three years to Rayiha, Mevlut finds himself eloping with the older sister of the girl whose dark eyes intoxicated him at a relative’s wedding. (Süleyman gave him the wrong name because he wanted the beautiful youngest for himself.) This being Turkey in 1982, and Mevlut being easygoing in the extreme, rejecting a woman who has compromised herself by agreeing to run away with him is unthinkable. The young couple prove to be well-matched and quite happy, although Mevlut doesn’t make much money. His checkered day jobs in food services, selling rice with chickpeas from his own cart and ineffectually managing a cafe among them, give the author a chance to expatiate on Istanbul’s endemic corruption, both municipal and personal. Pamuk celebrates the city’s vibrant traditional culture—and mourns its passing—in wonderfully atmospheric passages on Mevlut’s nightly adventures selling boza, a fermented wheat beverage he carries through the streets of Istanbul and delivers directly to the apartments of those who call to him from their windows. Although various characters from time to time break into the third-person narration to address the reader, this is the only postmodern flourish. If anything, Pamuk recalls the great Victorian novelists as he ranges confidently from near-documentary passages on real estate machinations and the privatization of electrical service to pensive meditations on the gap between people’s public posturing and private beliefs. The oppression of women is quietly but angrily depicted as endemic; even nice-guy Mevlut assumes his right to dictate Rayiha’s behavior (with ultimately disastrous consequences), while his odious right-wing cousin Korkut treats his wife like a servant. As Pamuk follows his believably flawed protagonist and a teeming cast of supporting players across five decades, Turkey’s turbulent politics provide a thrumming undercurrent of unease.
Rich, complex, and pulsing with urban life: one of this gifted writer’s best.
“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.
Norwegian Petterson (It’s Fine By Me, 2012, etc.) shows his considerable gift for exploring the darker crevices of boyhood in this elegiac story of two long-estranged friends whose lives have not turned out as they expected.
In 2006, Tommy and Jim speak briefly on a bridge in Oslo where Jim is fishing and Tommy is driving his Mercedes. While Tommy is a successful if lonely businessman, emotionally fragile Jim has not worked at his job at the Oslo Libraries for a year, and his sick leave has run out. More than 30 years ago, the two were best friends growing up together in the working-class neighborhood of Mørk. Back then, Jim—raised by his devoted single mom, who taught religion and instilled in Jim the belief that “you had to make yourself worthy”—seemed headed for success. Tommy’s childhood was a disaster—after his mother’s disappearance in 1964, his father abused his three younger sisters until 13-year-old Tommy attacked him with a bat and his father disappeared, too. The children were sent to different homes. While living with kindly neighbor Jonsen, Tommy tried to maintain a bond with his sister Siri, although her heavily Christian new parents considered him a bad influence. In adolescence, Siri was no longer close to Tommy but began a romance with Jim when he started attending her high school. The triangular connections became complicated, but all three had a sweetness and innocence about them. Then one afternoon Jim had a moment of what he considered cowardice while skating with Tommy and never forgave himself. Going about what turns into a trying day for each in 2006, both middle-aged men are drawn back to memories of that earlier time and each other, exposing how the scars from their (and Siri’s) pasts formed them. Don’t expect redemption here, but hope for connection.
Without pyrotechnics, Petterson brings his characters and working-class Norway vividly, even passionately, to life; days after they finish the novel, readers may still have dreams of ice cracking.
Inexorable seismic changes—in society and in the lives of two female friends—mark the final volume of Ferrante's Neapolitan series.
Elena and Lila, the emotionally entwined duo at the center of Ferrante’s (ThoseWho Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014, etc.) unsentimental examination of women’s lives and relationships, advance through middle age and early old age (perhaps) in this calamitous denouement to their saga. The more fortunate Elena, an author who struggles to assert herself in the misogynistic world of 1970s and '80s Italy, is drawn back to Naples and its internecine bloodshed; Lila, who has stayed in the city of their youth, is at odds with its controlling families. Elena’s “escape” and attempts at personal and familial fulfillment, on her own terms, hint at the changing roles of women in that era, but it's Lila’s daily struggle in a Camorra-controlled neighborhood that illuminates the deep fractures within contemporary Italian society. The paths to self-determination taken by the lifelong friends merge and separate periodically as the demands of child-rearing, work, and community exert their forces. The far-reaching effects of a horrific blow to Lila’s carefully maintained equilibrium resonate through much of the story and echo Ferrante’s trademark themes of betrayal and loss. While avid devotees of the Neapolitan series will be gratified by the return of several characters from earlier installments, the need to cover ground in the final volume results in a telescoped delivery of some plot points. Elena’s narrative, once again, never wavers in tone and confidently carries readers through the course of two lives, but the shadowy circumstances of those lives will invite rereading and reinterpretation.
The enigmatic Ferrante, whose identity remains the subject of international literary gossip, has created a mythic portrait of a female friendship in the chthonian world of postwar Naples.
English-language debut of a celebrated Indonesian author.
“One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years.” With this surprising sentence, Kurniawan sets the stage for an epic picaresque that’s equal parts Canterbury Tales and Mahabharata. Weaving back in forth in time, moving from character to character, the author tells the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days, through the Japanese occupation during World War II, and into independence as a modern state. Kurniawan’s characters are broadly drawn, but they aren’t one-dimensional. Dewi Ayu, the most sought-after prostitute in the seaside city of Halimunda, is a shrewd, fearless, and resourceful woman but an ambivalent mother. Her lover, Maman Gendeng, is a romantic thug. The soldier Sodancho is both an illustrious revolutionary and a self-serving racketeer; he’s also a rapist. These contradictions are more mythic than psychologically subtle, a reminder that few heroes are purely heroic. The great warriors of yore often come across as bullies and thugs, and when Homer called Ulysses “wily,” it wasn’t meant as a compliment. Some readers may object to this author’s blithe depiction of horrors—including incest, bestiality, and murder—but that, too, makes good folkloric sense. In fairy tales, monstrosity is a sign, and violence is a catalyst; the concept of lingering trauma has no hold on the folk imagination and no place in the world Kurniawan has constructed. There are undoubtedly references and resonances here that are meaningful only to those well-versed in Indonesian history and indigenous storytelling traditions, but that’s as it should be: Kurniawan is an Indonesian writer. That said, Anglophone readers are lucky to have access to this exuberantly excessive and captivating novel.
Second part of an alien-contact trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, 2014) from China’s most celebrated science-fiction author.
In the previous book, the inhabitants of Trisolaris, a planet with three suns, discovered that their planet was doomed and that Earth offered a suitable refuge. So, determined to capture Earth and exterminate humanity, the Trisolarans embarked on a 400-year-long interstellar voyage and also sent sophons (enormously sophisticated computers constructed inside the curled-up dimensions of fundamental particles) to spy on humanity and impose an unbreakable block on scientific advance. On Earth, the Earth-Trisolaris Organization formed to help the invaders, despite knowing the inevitable outcome. Humanity’s lone advantage is that Trisolarans are incapable of lying or dissimulation and so cannot understand deceit or subterfuge. This time, with the Trisolarans a few years into their voyage, physicist Ye Wenjie (whose reminiscences drove much of the action in the last book) visits astronomer-turned-sociologist Luo Ji, urging him to develop her ideas on cosmic sociology. The Planetary Defense Council, meanwhile, in order to combat the powerful escapist movement (they want to build starships and flee so that at least some humans will survive), announces the Wallfacer Project. Four selected individuals will be accorded the power to command any resource in order to develop plans to defend Earth, while the details will remain hidden in the thoughts of each Wallfacer, where even the sophons can't reach. To combat this, the ETO creates Wallbreakers, dedicated to deducing and thwarting the plans of the Wallfacers. The chosen Wallfacers are soldier Frederick Tyler, diplomat Manuel Rey Diaz, neuroscientist Bill Hines, and—Luo Ji. Luo has no idea why he was chosen, but, nonetheless, the Trisolarans seem determined to kill him. The plot’s development centers on Liu’s dark and rather gloomy but highly persuasive philosophy, with dazzling ideas and an unsettling, nonlinear, almost nonnarrative structure that demands patience but offers huge rewards.
A sweeping novel of life in the Cold War Soviet Union, with plenty between the lines about life in Putin’s Russia today.
With only a dozen or so major characters, Ulitskaya’s (Sonechka, 2005, etc.) latest doesn’t threaten to rival War and Peace or The Possessed on the dramatis personae front. Still, it obviously harbors epic intentions and ambitions, spanning years and lifetimes and treating the largest possible themes. The latter include some of the most classic questions of all: the nature of love, the value of friendship, and, inevitably, the sorrow of betrayal. The early part of the story is set in the tumultuous years following the death of Josef Stalin (which, Ulitskaya notes with quiet satisfaction, occurred on Purim), when three schoolboys bond in friendship. Nerdy and bookish, they are playground victims, despised as outcasts and outsiders precisely “due to their complete disinclination to fight or be cruel.” As the three grow into manhood, they struggle against the odds to remain more or less pure of heart even as Soviet society enters into a new era of anti-Semitism and oppression—for though Stalin is dead, his machinery of terror lives on. Still outsiders, Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha are artists, intellectuals, dissidents. If Mikha begins with the most promise, not only blessed with an endlessly curious mind, but also “possessed of an inchoate creative fire,” the others are brilliant, too. Among many other things, Ulitskaya’s novel is also about the power of books, writing, and music to shape lives worth living. But more, it is about what happens to people inside a prison society: denunciations, hardship, and punishment ensue as surely as night follows day. The novel is impressively vast in scope and commodious in shape; still, reading of, say, Ilya’s love for the resonant Olga, “with her slightly chapped lips, her pale freckles sprinkled over her white skin, the center of his life,” one wants more.
Indeed, the greatest tragedy of Ulitskaya’s story is that it comes to an end. Worthy of shelving alongside Doctor Zhivago: memorable and moving.