The author looms again, we infer, in Death with Interruptions, in which a universe of dramatic possibility exfoliates from...

DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS

When Portugal’s José Saramago received the 1998 Nobel Prize, it seemed a fitting climactic acknowledgement of a brilliant career of a stubbornly independent genius who—like Tolstoy and Verdi and Picasso in their times, the late Saul Bellow and the ever underrated Hortense Calisher in our own—had demonstrated unimpaired creative power well into old age.

Saramago’s time to be thrust onto the pantheon had come, it seemed, just as his working life must be nearing its end. His 80th year was approaching, and he had dominated the international scene with an imposing succession of recent masterpieces, crowned by his luminous 1995 novel Blindness, an ingenious Orwellian parable soon to become even better known in acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles’s forthcoming film. But Saramago wasn’t done, and increasingly complex, mischievous, astonishingly inventive books kept coming: a reimagining of Plato’s classic allegory in which a humble artisan’s graceful creations fall victim to punitive government restrictions—until he fights back (The Cave); the voyage of discovery shared by exact physical likenesses, during which both men are challenged, and fulfilled (The Double); a forthright political satire (Seeing, developed from the elements of Blindness), wherein a stiff-necked government is panicked, and given a salutary comeuppance, when a majority of its citizens rise up in protest and refuse to vote in a major election. Much of Saramago’s biography is in his books: his unconventional writing life, begun early, then suspended for several decades while he supported himself as an auto mechanic, teacher, translator and journalist (before the critical success of his 1992 historical romance Baltasar and Blimunda); his avowed Communism and atheism (incarnated in the intricate sociopolitical texture of his finest novel A Year in the Death of Ricardo Reis and his serenely inflammatory The Gospel According to Jesus Christ); and his contempt for stultifying xenophobia and bureaucratic obtuseness (given memorable symbolic form in The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names).

The author looms again, we infer, in Death with Interruptions, in which a universe of dramatic possibility exfoliates from its stunning, cunning opening sentence: “The following day, no one died.” The premise’s development occupies the novel’s first half, featuring an unnamed country’s contrivance—with the aid of organized crime—to shuttle inconveniently terminally ill survivors across its borders (where the moribund keep dying, as usual) and handle the complaints of hospitals, morticians and other providers of essential services threatened with financial ruin. Then, in a spectacular tonal and thematic shift, Death herself becomes the protagonist, and the nature of her intimacy with humans becomes the vehicle for a thrilling threnody composed of grief, love (for that which cannot last) and a resigned, muted acceptance of the inevitable. Simultaneously, we may sense we hear the voice of a great artisan who may not have shown us the last of his creations; who instead whispers his promise: Not just yet, there’s more to be told.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-15-101274-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2008

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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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