After the questions and answers with his readers, the Author may or may not have a sexual encounter, one in which he must...

RHYMING LIFE AND DEATH

As an exercise in literary gamesmanship, metafiction subverts the typical relationship between author and reader. Though lit-crit scholars may ponder the essence of words on a page and what they might possibly “mean,” readers generally want to lose themselves in a riveting plot driven by characters of depth, coherence and verisimilitude, whose fates reveal something essential about our lives and our world.

Israeli novelist Amos Oz performs an exquisite balancing act in his taut, evocative novel Rhyming Life & Death, which immerses readers in the vagaries of the creative process, never letting us forget that there’s an author pulling the strings, making the decisions—however arbitrary—and making us complicit in the illusion that these words on the page somehow represent lives lived, destinies fulfilled and desires thwarted. “He wrote more or less the way he dreamed or masturbated,” explains the protagonist known only as “the Author,” a creative projection of the author (Oz). “[With] a mixture of compulsion, enthusiasm, despair, disgust and wretchedness.” As Oz takes us inside the writer’s mind, nothing much that happens within this novel exists outside that creative consciousness. The Author has agreed to appear at the “monthly meeting of the Good Book Club at the refurbished Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Cultural Centre.” Before his appearance, he sits in a coffee shop, anticipating all of the questions that he has heard so many times before and has never been able to answer adequately for himself: “Why do you write?...What role do your books play?” And so on. Yet a waitress who catches his eye and libido means more to him than all of those unanswerable questions. Certainly more than the pronouncements of the literary critic who will accompany him onstage, making grand, Clintonian assertions about “the actual meaning of the term ‘meaning.’ ” Instead, the Author finds himself spinning a narrative in his head about the waitress, a narrative that will eventually encompass other elements. Reality, in these pages at least, exists only in the mind of the Author, who, of course, exists only in the mind of Oz.

After the questions and answers with his readers, the Author may or may not have a sexual encounter, one in which he must try to conjure a narrative that will counter his self-consciousness and allow him to rise to the occasion. In fact, it’s up to the reader to determine whether the plot takes this course or another. As Oz reminds us throughout this spellbinding fable, readers are partners with novelists in this enterprise of fiction, imagining in our heads what exists only as words on a page.

Pub Date: April 14, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-15-101367-8

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2009

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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