Diary, essay, thriller, conspiracy theory, posthumous memoir, novel—Vila-Matas uses all the materials to construct his...

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MAC'S PROBLEM

A Barcelonian diarist unravels into his devotion for literature.

Two months into unemployment, Mac, a 60-ish husband, father, part-time drunk, and lifelong reader, begins a diary. Tyro though he is, Mac’s not without ambition. His “great dream” as a writer is to become “a falsifier”—that is, to write a book which, upon its discovery, “could appear to be ‘posthumous’ and ‘unfinished’ when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete.” But, of course, “a beginner must be prepared for anything,” so Mac is content to simply “put pen to paper every day and see what happens.” His only demand: that his diary not turn into a novel: “I don’t…have much sympathy for novels, because they are, as Barthes said, a form of death, transforming life into Fate.” Alas for Mac, he has a chance encounter with his neighbor, Ander Sánchez, a “celebrated Barcelona writer” who, 30 years before, wrote an eclectic novel in stories called Walter’s Problem: the purported memoir of a murderous ventriloquist and his journey to “the historic heart of that source of all stories.” Walter’s Problem was a “flawed work,” but Mac, who’s fascinated by repetition, suddenly realizes that if he were to write a novel, it would be a rewrite (with modifications) of Walter’s Problem. This is where Vila-Matas (Vampire in Love, 2016, etc.) begins turning the screw: As Mac prepares his rewrite, he begins encountering troubling replicas of Sánchez’s novel in his own life. Longtime Spanish heavyweight Vila-Matas’ latest offering is a metafictional paean to storytelling. Mac, in his diary, pores incessantly through literature and life, struggling to demarcate the two; he references Ana María Matute, Peter Paul Rubens, Walter Benjamin, Jean Rhys, Bernard Malamud, Marcel Schwob, David Markson, Philip K. Dick, David Foster Wallace, and dozens more as he tries to map (and ends up remapping until it’s incoherent) the fluid borderlands between fact and fiction. What’s left of Mac in the end? That which was there in the beginning: storytelling—the webs and rhymes and replications of literature.

Diary, essay, thriller, conspiracy theory, posthumous memoir, novel—Vila-Matas uses all the materials to construct his latest metafictional fun house.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2732-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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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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