A hypnotizing, bleak account of the ways people trap themselves in their own minds.

THE ANCESTRY OF OBJECTS

In this spare novel, a young woman copes with the yawning emptiness of her life by having an affair.

By the time the narrator, referred to only as “we,” meets David in a bar, she has already lost her job in medical dictation and, faced with the prospect of coming to terms with her own life, is now fixated on killing herself. Her life is one of complete isolation—she has no friends and lives alone in the house she inherited from the grandparents who raised her, severely devout Christians whose constant judgment of her during her childhood replays in her head ceaselessly. “You can’t go alone, the grandmother says.…You can’t leave the house like that. What will people think. They’ll find your body in the lake. You need a man to take you/show you/protect you/tell you how to be.” Just as inescapable is the clutter they left behind, which forms the fabric of the narrator’s existence as she spends her days lying listlessly in bed or on the floor: the “glittering linoleum, the puzzles with missing pieces and bars of old soap, the rusted razors dropped into the wall behind the medicine cabinet and decades of dust woven into the thinning thread of the curtains.” When she and David begin having sex—his wife, Lara, is away visiting her sick mother—he moves in and out of the woman’s house freely and without warning, and she longs to be truly known by him even as she acts detached. Ryckman writes with cool, tightly packed precision on the futile ways people try to fill the emptiness and absence of life with objects and religion and desperate acts. Her rendering of the dynamics of an affair, which is so often an attempt to escape oneself, is especially keen: “Each time David comes, the guilt shrinks so that the noose of shame which ties us together diminishes into habit. As the guilt diminishes so does the pleasure. And with the pleasure our worth.”

A hypnotizing, bleak account of the ways people trap themselves in their own minds.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-64605-025-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Deep Vellum

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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