VILNIUS POKER

Think of it as The Matrix behind the Iron Curtain—unsettling and profoundly interesting.

Feverish novel about life in the closing days of Soviet-ruled Lithuania—though just who’s in charge doesn’t matter, since it’s always Them.

Gavelis (1950–2002), a physicist by profession, wrote this novel from 1979 to 1987, publishing it in that magical year 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire began its collapse; this is the first time the book has been translated into English. Gavelis’ vision, prescient in several respects and perhaps absurd in others, recalls both the alternate worlds of Stanislas Lem (and, for that matter, Richard Price) and the acerbity of Vilnius-born Csezlaw Milosz. Its protagonist/antihero, Vytautas Vargalys, has done a spell in the Gulag and been repaid for that injustice with a busywork job that pays the bills but has no meaning: He is a digital archivist in a library that no one is allowed to visit or consult. “But,” he says, “there is an ordinary world too, the real world; you always return to it, you’ll never escape it—just as you’ll never escape from Them.” Obsessed by the female form (“I was a headless stuffed dummy, a doll drowsing on a bed of dreamy breasts”), among other things, Vytautas finds it ever more difficult to distinguish reality from the hallucinogenic world that lies behind his eyes. What he is sure of, however, is that They are in charge, and the rest of his compatriots and indeed the citizens of the world have ignored Them because they are bombarded with “impressions, images, and words” that disguise the real reality, so to speak. As the narrative progresses, it becomes ever more perceptibly unhinged, paying homage to Céline and Dostoevsky as Vytautas encounters odd, dangerous people in the street who are beginning to figure things out for themselves, including one threatening character who “smells like a holy man who has murdered his own God.”

Think of it as The Matrix behind the Iron Curtain—unsettling and profoundly interesting.

Pub Date: Jan. 13, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-934824-05-4

Page Count: 486

Publisher: Open Letter

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2008

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Awards & Accolades

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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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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