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LOCUS AMOENUS

An occasionally clever novel that, in its weakest moments, makes a trifle of national tragedy.

Alexander’s (Naked Singularity, 2003, etc.) newest novel finds Hamlet taking place in rural America against the backdrop of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

“Something is rotten in the United States of America.” So says Alexander’s narrator, a young man named Hamlet. After his father dies on 9/11, Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, move to upstate New York, where they maintain a farm. After several years, Gertrude meets Claudius, a bureaucrat and scientist who contributed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology's World Trade Center report. Of course, Hamlet doesn’t trust Claudius, and, well, you no doubt see where this is headed—especially when Hamlet meets his old teacher, Mr. Horatio, a conspiracy theorist and engineer who has some ideas about 9/11. Yes, this is Hamlet reimagined as a truther, and in this retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the protagonist isn’t just feigning madness—he’s genuinely losing his mind. In the beginning, it feels like Holden Caulfield playing the role of Hamlet, but by the end, Jared Loughner has taken over. The tone never quite works in the novel’s second half; Alexander’s writing is a little too glib to support the heavy subject matter, a problem that becomes especially clear in the violent coda (bluntly powerful though it may be). The novel works best when the author jettisons Shakespeare entirely. The sequence in which Gertrude tries to convince her neighbors and fellow school board members to embrace healthier cafeteria options has madcap comic intensity. But Alexander’s desire to stick to Shakespeare means that the characters sometimes feel like props. For instance, Gertrude marrying Claudius feels less like something the free-spirited mother would do and more like something Alexander needs Gertrude to do to move the plot forward.

An occasionally clever novel that, in its weakest moments, makes a trifle of national tragedy.

Pub Date: June 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-57962-391-3

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Permanent Press

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

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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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NORMAL PEOPLE

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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