DEMOCRACY

"Fitful glimpses" from the 1960s/'70s life of glamorous Inez Christian Victor—wife of Senator Harry Victor (a onetime Presidential aspirant), daughter of Honolulu colonial aristocracy, and supposed acquaintance of writer Joan Didion, who sprinkles this short, glossily disjointed novel with precious authorial warnings, asides, and false starts. ("I am resisting narrative here.") In a heavy, gimmicky style more suited to New Journalism than fiction, narrator Didion ("Call me the author") assembles vi. gnettes from—and mini-essays about—Inez's existence in the public eye: the "major cost" of such a life, we're repeatedly told, is "memory." Thus, Inez has "come to view most occasions as photo opportunities." She endures the pressures of political wifedom (including Harry's infidelities) with "passive detachment." Her teenage children are disasters, of course—piggy son Adlai and drug-addict daughter Jessie. And the only real emotional connections for Inez seem to be her encounters through the decades with steely Jack Lovett, an older man who's some sort of spy/diplomat/entrepreneur. ("They were equally evanescent, in some way emotionally invisible; unattached, wary to the point of opacity, and finally elusive. They seemed not to belong anywhere at all, except, oddly, together.") Then, as insistently foreshadowed throughout, 1975 melodrama triggers a change in this passive life: Inez's insane father kills her sister and an Hawaiian congressman; meanwhile, daughter Jessie disappears—determined to be a waitress in collapsing South Vietnam. So Inez, shaken, leaves insensitive Harry and his venal political-machine at last, running off to Kuala Lumpur with Jack—who manages to find Jessie in the midst of the Saigon evacuation. And finally, after Jack dies, Inez acquires a global social conscience (she "ceased to claim the American exemption"), devoting her life to working at Southeast Asian refugee camps. A dissection of false-fronted political lifestyles? An indictment of American ethnocentricity? Well, Didion hammers away at both those themes—producing a few very shrewd nasty/funny lines of dialogue but little more. Meanwhile, the characters remain lifeless objects of smug, essayistic scrutiny, kept at a far distance by all the narrative tricks (Didion-as-character, roman a clef inklings, etc.). Still, the surfaces here—full of observant detail and aggressive, ironic sophistication-are likely to satisfy much of Didion's readership. And if the book-world's hype machine can make a major novel out of Renata Adler's Pitch Dark, it can certainly do as much for this more accessible, more political, but quite similar arrival: a chic literary objet with a thin soap-opera center.

Pub Date: April 25, 1984

ISBN: 0679754857

Page Count: 246

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1984

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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