HARVARD SQUARE

A rather modest addition to immigrant experience literature.

Two immigrant outsiders hang out in cafes near Harvard. One vents, the other listens, in this third novel from the Egyptian-born Aciman (Eight White Nights, 2010, etc.). 

With the students gone, Cambridge in August is a sleepy place. But the nameless narrator does not have the wherewithal to leave town in 1977. He’s a graduate, sweating over his dissertation on 17th-century literature, with last-chance exams looming. The 26-year-old is scraping by on library work and tutoring French. His background is sketchy: He’s a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt by way of Paris; these autobiographical details are fleshed out in Aciman’s well-received 1994 memoir Out of Egypt. He’s drawn to the tiny Café Algiers by its French-Arab flavor and finds it dominated by a new arrival, a beret-wearing guy in his 30s who holds forth in French about white Americans’ addiction to “all things jumbo and ersatz.” His rapid-fire delivery has earned him the nickname Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. He’s a Berber from a Mediterranean town in Tunisia, driving a cab while applying for a green card; that bid is in jeopardy because his American wife is divorcing him. Kalaj has an immediate appeal for the narrator (he is his id, his unexpressed anger), and the two become friends. The purpose of Kalaj’s rants is to attract women; they are also a defense mechanism, should America reject him. His success with the ladies rubs off on the narrator. In short order, he beds a very rich Persian graduate student, a Romanian baby sitter and another rich graduate student, a white American, plus his always available neighbor Linda. These flings might have been more credible if Aciman had not placed their lovemaking off limits. As for Kalaj, this should have been his story, but he has not been developed into a picaresque hero, which is why Aciman shifts our attention back to his colorless narrator.

A rather modest addition to immigrant experience literature.

Pub Date: April 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-08860-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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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

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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