This strangely amusing novella has the power to inspire serious efforts to find significance in the very book in which it is...

THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE

Forgotten tyrants and blatant belly buttons have equally playful roles in this deceptively slight, whimsically thoughtful tale of a few men in Paris not doing or saying much.

The sight of young women with exposed navels in the Luxembourg Gardens sets Alain to musing “on the different sources of feminine seductiveness.” Not far away, Ramon avoids a Chagall show because of the long line. D’Ardelo, whose medical tests reveal he doesn’t have cancer after all, nonetheless lies when he meets Ramon in the park and says he does. A man seduces a woman with banal remarks because brilliance challenges her to compete, “whereas insignificance sets her free.” Stalin enters the narrative by way of a biography of Khrushchev given to Charles, who tells a visiting Ramon that “our master” provided it. The master is the narrator or author, whose intrusions resonate with Charles’ desire to use the Khrushchev story in a marionette theater. The Stalin thread opens with a bad joke about his bagging 24 partridges on a hunt, a story derided by Khrushchev and others over the urinals they share. (Scholars may reference the latrine fouled by Stalin’s son in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Charles, Ramon, and Alain discuss how the monstrous Stalin has faded from memory. But the narrative recalls an official named Kalinin, a “poor innocent puppet” in Stalin’s government, who has a weak bladder. He and the tyrant reappear late in the book, shooting and urinating in the Luxembourg Gardens before driving off in a small carriage drawn by two ponies. Art, sex, disease, history, and friendship are lightly treated themes woven through scenes whose significance may be partly the disproving of a concern raised in Kundera’s Ignorance, that “emigration causes artists to lose their creativity.” But does the Czech-born writer who’s lived in France for years truly believe, at age 86, that insignificance is “the essence of existence”?

This strangely amusing novella has the power to inspire serious efforts to find significance in the very book in which it is so perversely denied.

Pub Date: June 23, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-235689-5

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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