Nevermind the lack of a resolution. The robust affirmation that the pursuit of literature is ennobling is sufficient...

WOES OF THE TRUE POLICEMAN

The much admired Chilean writer’s final, unfinished novel is a seductive grab bag filled with the mysteries of sexuality and literature. 

Bolaño began work on the novel in the 1980s and revisited it until he died in 2003, at the age of 50. It’s presented here in five sections, of which the first is the most tightly structured, introducing the protagonist and the germ of a plot. Amalfitano is a middle-aged professor of literature and philosophy. The Chilean has spent most of his life on the move, a militant leftist too hot for some campuses. (He also appears in Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666.) It’s not politics but a sex scandal that ends his career at the University of Barcelona. The professor had started attending salons honoring Catalan literature. Their organizer, Padilla, is a young, tough, promiscuous gay man and a committed poet; for him, sex and poetry are indivisible. He seduces Amalfitano, who has never slept with a man before; the love of his life was his dead wife, Edith, who gave him a daughter, Rosa. Fired by the university, Amalfitano finds another position in Santa Teresa, Mexico. The next three sections are much more diffuse. One of them is devoted to the French novelist Arcimboldi. (Vonnegut had Kilgore Trout; Bolaño has the Frenchman.) Amalfitano seeks literary validation for his newfound homosexuality (Mann, Rimbaud) and explains stumblingly to his beautiful teenage daughter that if communism can collapse, so can his heterosexual regime. Rosa, unconvinced, abandons books for videos, an equally shocking volte-face by this lifelong book lover. The final section suggests new problems for Amalfitano in Mexico. The chief of police arranges with his twin, the university president, to have his new professor tailed. A young cop (the titular policeman?) goes to work, but this storyline must compete with Mexican history and a lively exchange of letters between Amalfitano and Padilla.

Nevermind the lack of a resolution. The robust affirmation that the pursuit of literature is ennobling is sufficient recompense.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-26674-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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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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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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