Like Guy Davenport’s, similarly influenced by European modernist models, Sontag’s stories can be arch, smart, and elegant—if...

DEBRIEFING

Nearly 40 years after I, etcetera, a new collection of short fiction from the noted essayist and critic, revealing her to be indeed “an occasional rather than a habitual writer of short stories.”

A debriefing, in Susan Sontag’s sort-of-Lacanian language, is a data dump of sorts following some sort of emotional trauma: death, suicide, illness. Though editor Taylor finds common cause with Chekhov’s “autobiographophobia,” the fictional pieces here in fact are patently informed by events in Sontag’s life: the opening story, “Pilgrimage,” for instance, begins with Sontag at 14, having moved from Arizona to Southern California; lines such as “I felt I was slumming, in my own life” are vintage essayistic Sontag. So, in later pieces, are the flurries of apothegms: “China is certainly too big for a foreigner to understand. But so are most places.” Indeed, and like the real Sontag, the narrator of the story “Project for a Trip to China” approaches the country from earlier visits to Hanoi and Phnom Penh, complete with a son in tow named David. Later stories are more clearly fictional, some marked by the usual Manhattan immigrant’s wrinkled nose at the things of flyover country: “Once she spent two whole weeks in a little cabin in the Ozarks, catching up on back issues of The Saturday Evening Post, sleeping twelve hours a day, and occasionally yielding to the advances of George, the proprietor of the nearby Friendly Ed Motel.” Still, though not quite de Maupassant, such pieces are rich in observed detail. So it is with “Baby,” told in the voices of parents baring all to a psychiatrist about the brilliant monster they’re raising: “Baby says he was born on Krypton and that we’re not his real parents.” Talk about your little emperor….Returning to an autobiographical vein, Sontag’s collection closes with a pensive meditation on death, illness, and “the desire to stop listening to people’s distress.”

Like Guy Davenport’s, similarly influenced by European modernist models, Sontag’s stories can be arch, smart, and elegant—if sometimes a touch arid. For all that, a welcome collection.

Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-10075-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2017

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A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS

The story of the entangled affairs of a group of exceedingly smart and self-possessed creative types.

Frances, an aloof and intelligent 21-year-old living in Dublin, is an aspiring poet and communist. She performs her spoken-word pieces with her best friend and ex-lover, Bobbi, who is equally intellectual but gregarious where Frances is shy and composed where Frances is awkward. When Melissa, a notable writer and photographer, approaches the pair to offer to do a profile of them, they accept excitedly. While Bobbi is taken with Melissa, Frances becomes infatuated by her life—her success, her beautiful home, her actor husband, Nick. Nick is handsome and mysterious and, it turns out, returns Frances’ attraction. Although he can sometimes be withholding of his affection (he struggles with depression), they begin a passionate affair. Frances and Nick’s relationship makes difficult the already tense (for its intensity) relationship between Frances and Bobbi. In the midst of this complicated dynamic, Frances is also managing endometriosis and neglectful parents—an abusive, alcoholic father and complicit mother. As a narrator, Frances describes all these complex fragments in an ethereal and thoughtful but self-loathing way. Rooney captures the mood and voice of contemporary women and their interpersonal connections and concerns without being remotely predictable. In her debut novel, she deftly illustrates psychology’s first lesson: that everyone is doomed to repeat their patterns.

A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49905-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

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. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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