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An initially off-putting collection that gradually becomes habit-forming.

More dauntingly opaque but often brilliant snippets and meditations from MacArthur recipient Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, 2001, etc.).

Davis, an esteemed translator from French, writes in the tradition of the French postmodernists and surrealists. (She’s translated Blanchot and Leiris.) The 56 stories in this volume include short prose poems (“The Fly,” “Head, Heart”) and chilling one-liners (“Suddenly Afraid,” “Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans”). Two of the longer pieces adopt the dispassionate protocols of case studies. “We Miss You” exhaustively deconstructs get-well letters written by ’50s-era fourth graders to a classmate hospitalized after being hit by a car. “Helen and Vi, a Study in Health and Vitality” analyzes how the workaday routines and altruism of two elderly women have contributed to their healthy longevity. (Contrast the intermittent, italicized foibles of narcissist Hope, age 100.) Many of the stories not overtly labeled studies are structured as such, with topical captions, such as “Mrs. D. and Her Maids,” possibly about Davis’s writer-mother. Parents, particularly aged parents, are a preoccupation: Davis has clearly done her time in the halls of eldercare. Her narrators are cynical and reluctant but “good-enough” caregivers. In “What You Learn About the Baby,” a mother catalogs in excruciating detail just how her infant dominates and disrupts her life. The laconic “Burning Family Members” bears hard-eyed, shell-shocked witness to a father’s death. Unabashedly autobiographical, like many of the stories, is “The Walk,” a defense of Davis’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003) vs. the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation, and “Cape Cod Diary,” in which a writer vicariously travels America with a nameless French historian (presumably de Tocqueville, also translated by Davis). Her impersonal, bloodless tone, plain prose style and tendency to summarize rather than dramatize can have a distancing effect; but Davis’ ability to parse hopelessly snarled human interactions (as in the title story) astounds.

An initially off-putting collection that gradually becomes habit-forming.

Pub Date: May 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-374-28173-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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