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THE COUNTERLIFE

Much of the last two decades' metafictional nattering is made to look like so much sandbox-play by Roth's new novel; if the technique of ostensibly real characters imagining they're in books (and vice-versa) has a fatal flaw, it's that neither character nor book usually tackles the unbearable alibis, transgressions, and needs—and the punishingly naked absurdity—that both art and life seem to demand. But that's what Roth, in his most virtuoso effort yet, has done here. Disenfranchisement, re-creation, and the severe guilt of independence are the I-beams of Roth's Zuckerman books—of which this is one—but never has the ceiling vaulted so high, the aim been so nervy. The earlier books were the deathbeds of novelist Zuckerman's father and mother, and it's now the turn of Nathan's dentist brother Henry to die. He does so semi-electively: rendered impotent by heart medication, he goes through with a multiple bypass that fails fatally. Yet the book's very next section, "Judea," finds Henry not dead but in Israel, on the West Bank, in thrall to a right-wing Jewish Kahane-type—and Nathan leaving his own peaceful London writer's existence to try to walk some sense into his kid brother, to get him to return home to his family. How did Henry dead turn into Henry the irrendentist? The same way, it turns out, that it's actually Nathan—in the section called "Gloucestershire"—who's died to restore his potency. Henry's story, then, is one that Nathan wrote; and Nathan's story may be the book we're reading, subject to disputes and interruptions and resentments from those closest to him, lives he has cannibalized for the art-pot. Whether Henry's, Nathan's, or Nathan's new Gentile British wife's, it isn't clear until the end which story is true, which made up—but each section (including an El Al hijacking Nathan is unwilling party to) faces another like a mirror, bringing characters back to themselves, real or not. The presiding theme, never more naked, is Jewishness, complete with Talmudic feints, discontinuous pleating (a lesson learned, one senses, from Roth's admiration for Central European fiction, Kundera and the like)—allowing Roth to write a book of intellectual argument and atavistic rejoinder that someone like Saul Bellow has been lately trying to write, without success. The Israel sections alone are brilliant reportage; in tangled context—of fictional projection, an assuaging of guilt by secular Nathan—they suggest a kind of forced and frightened choral laughter. Certainly Roth's most complex, ambitious work—and one of his best.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1986

ISBN: 0679749047

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1986

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

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 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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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