Unfinished or no, it’s worth reading this long, partly shaped novel just to get at its best moments, and to ponder what...

THE PALE KING

Rollicking postmodern romp, by the late cult-favorite novelist and essayist Wallace (with help from an editor), through the bowels of the IRS.

Leave it to Wallace (Infinite Jest, 1996, etc.) to find fascination in the workings of a tax audit. Yet, with its mock-Arthurian title, his novel explores the minds and mores of the little men in the gray flannel suits, or at least their modern gray-souled counterparts. The story of the making of the novel is at least as interesting as the book itself: It was assembled, writes editor Michael Pietsch, from “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s bags heavy with manuscripts,” working from multiple drafts and notes and various other clues, but with no certainty that Wallace intended the book to have its current, somewhat lumpy shape. Neither would Wallace, obsessive perfectionist, allowed some of the sloppinesses and redundancies in the present version to stand. Thus it deserves its title-page rubric “An Unfinished Novel,” and thus it should be thought of less as the last word by the late writer—and certainly more manuscripts will be extracted from the vaults and published—than as a glimpse into his mind at work. And what a mind: Wallace was nothing if not thorough, and his tale of accountant Claude Sylvanshine, heroic traveler on bad commuter airlines and dogged reader of spreadsheets, is full of details, facts and factoids assembled over years of study and rumination. There’s something of the author, perhaps, in Claude, but then there’s something of him in the other characters, too, and it would be a mistake to read this as roman à clef. All of Wallace’s intellectual interests come through: the notes and asides, the linguistic brilliance, the fact piled atop fact, the excurses into entropy and, yes, autobiography (“Like many Americans,” reads one note, “I’ve been sued...Litigation is no fun, and it’s worth one’s time and trouble to try to head it off in advance whenever possible.”) Does it add up to a story? Not always. But there are many moments of great beauty, as with this small passage: “Drinion looks at her steadily for a moment. His face, which is a bit oily, tends to shine in the fluorescence of the Examination areas, though less so in the windows’ indirect light, the shade of which indicates that clouds have piled up overhead, though this is just Meredith Rand’s impression, and one not wholly conscious.”  

Unfinished or no, it’s worth reading this long, partly shaped novel just to get at its best moments, and to ponder what Wallace, that excellent writer, would have done with the book had he had time to finish it himself.

Pub Date: April 15, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-316-07423-0

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2011

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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