Exhaustive and exhausting, the novel only sporadically comes together to present something like a vision, but in the ruin of...

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LACKING CHARACTER

White (We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, 2015, etc.) merges the social satire of his fiction with his nonfiction’s interest in identity in the age of data totality.

In the city of N____ somewhere in central Illinois, a masked and leather-panted stranger named Percy has shown up at the door with a message to deliver to the Marquis, a hashish smoking “Halo” addict whose estate has fallen on hard times. Percy is a creature of the Queen of Spells—a sort of Morgan le Fey–esque fairy godmother from the Outer Hebrides—whose essential innocence is the result of his having originated as only so much “flabby cack,” to which he is probably destined to return. Meanwhile, his message—a request to enroll him in the local community college—is fatefully mismanaged, and Percy is lost among the sycophant sex predators, patricides, tattooed gym gods, and porn-faced burnouts that make up White’s bleak idea of 21st-century America. From this early point, the novel particulates into a swirl of styles, indulgences, and high-profile interruptions from the author himself. White’s latest exploration of the satire of social dysfunction is endlessly inventive and endlessly imitative—cribbing forms from such diverse masters as E.T.A. Hoffman, Jonathan Swift, Flann O’Brien, and many more. With nods to the pantheon of avant-garde cultists within whose milieu White swirls (David Foster Wallace, Paul Auster, Martin Amis, and Don DeLillo all come immediately to mind), the novel bills itself equally as a bomb tossed into the bunker of literary convention; an algorithm endlessly replicating the capitalist apocalypse; a picaresque through which White’s mad characters tilt at real giants disguised as miniature-golf windmills. The result is a profane wrestling match between high style and low comedy which owes as much to Rocky and Bullwinkle as it does to Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon, though, like both, it requires a willing audience to witness its exertions.

Exhaustive and exhausting, the novel only sporadically comes together to present something like a vision, but in the ruin of its parts, some runic message might be scrawled. Or, then again, it might not.

Pub Date: March 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61219-678-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Melville House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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