Take their word for it, then: it’s literature. For sure it’s European, and it’s of much interest to literary readers and...

BEST EUROPEAN FICTION 2016

Latest installment in an annual anthology, now in its sixth edition, running the continent from Austria to Wales.

What is literature? That’s the subject of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s rather glancing preface, which mostly settles, and then arguably, on what literature is not: it’s not crime fiction; even though crime is about death and the subject of literature at its heart “is death, what it means to die,” literature is too bespoke to admit the mass market. Or something like that. The collection is silent as to the criteria for getting into it, but presumably what we have here is literature. Much of it is about death, in any event. The more pertinent question, perhaps, is: what is the difference between European and American literature? (And why no Iceland, home of ponies and Nobel Prize winners? Why no Russia?) That’s the subject for someone’s doctoral dissertation, but for the moment, suffice it to say that most American writers would not have a protagonist who was moved by the prospect of taking a bus in the morning so that he could have time “just to read Nietzsche.” For Moldovan writer Ion Buzu, by way of his story “Another Piss in Nisporeni,” though, it’s business as usual, and if the diction is a little odd to American ears (“Nyah, loser, screw off!”), the rueful story is a revelation. Just so, most American tales are not as historically and politically charged as Latvian writer Mara Zalite’s “The Major and the Candy,” a Gogol-esque yarn about a sodden encounter between the KGB and erstwhile evacuees from the Baltic. No one dies there, but the possibility is palpable. And death is in the offing, too, in Huw Lawrence’s soulful vignette of ordinary Welsh life, “Restocking,” in which one character meaningfully says, “Nobody is lying in a coffin all day, not even in the Council Tax Offices.”

Take their word for it, then: it’s literature. For sure it’s European, and it’s of much interest to literary readers and writers on this side of the pond.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62897-114-9

Page Count: 332

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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