George Saunders is one of the most democratic of great modern writers. His story collections concern disappointed Americans stuck in thankless stations of life, and can be appreciated by such Americans, as the stories are written in satiric, empathetic, tightly coiled prose that sails off the page, propelled by hidden rhythms that are outwardly heartbreaking and inwardly brilliant and vice versa. To paraphrase Ratatouille, the author is implicitly saying that anyone can cook or, in this case, experience the transcendent illumination and sense of understanding and purpose that’s provided by art. (Last summer, Saunders even wrote a stirring and perceptive portrait of Donald J. Trump’s supporters, taking them on their own terms while rejecting said terms, somehow simultaneously.)
Books (#1–10 of 177)
In a famous essay on Dog Day Afternoon, Fredric Jameson argues that the bank robbery at the film’s core, along with its assortment of characters from different class backgrounds, forms an allegory for late capitalism in which the rebellious actions of Sonny (Al Pacino) appeal to the “manifest sympathy of the suburban movie-going audience itself.” However, as Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt claim, Jameson’s narrative doesn’t account for the film’s use of “queer intimacy” within its allegory, specifically a scene where Sonny, a queer man, phones his lover. The scene’s end reveals the couple’s conversation hasn’t been private, as others have been monitoring the call all along. Schoonover and Galt highlight that the scene’s depiction of “false intimacy” and its suggestion of a world organized by “inhuman terms” demonstrates how “queerness—and its relationships to publicness and privacy, intimacy and worldliness—transpires to be at the heart of Dog Day Afternoon’s allegory of late capitalism.”
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, is a lean epic that spans two continents and some 250 years of history, delving into the transatlantic slave trade, the Anglo-Ashanti wars, the convict leasing system, and Harlem’s heroin epidemic, to name just a few of its paths of historical inquiry. Gyasi, who wrote the novel over the course of seven years, condenses an overwhelming amount of incident into just over 300 pages. The result is a book that’s dense yet accessible, precisely structured yet refreshingly open-ended, intellectually rigorous yet grandly emotional.
Homegoing opens with Effia, a beautiful but “cursed” girl born in the mid 1700s to a noble family in a Fante village. Though her beauty makes her a prime candidate to become one of the wives of Abeeku Bade, next in line to be chief, she’s instead married off to a white British soldier who takes her away to the Castle, a British fortress on the Gold Coast of Africa (now Ghana), which, unbeknown to Effia and the other Ghanaian “wenches” married to British soldiers, serves as a major outpost for the slave trade. Women and men, among them Effia’s half-sister, Esi—most of them prisoners captured by warring tribes and sold off to the British—are kept in the Castle’s dungeon, waiting to be transported to America where they’ll be sold into slavery.
Late in Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, an unnamed operative of the Convergence, a cultish institute offering the promise of immortality via cryogenic freezing, tells a group of soon-to-be-frozen patients, “You are completely outside the narrative of what we refer to as history.” Adherents of the Convergence’s quasi-religious ideology are attempting to outrun not just death, but language, geography, even humanity itself. In the hallways of the Convergence, video screens display montages of mass death (climate catastrophe, terror, war), reminders of the human horror they’re escaping. Once resurrected from their deep-freeze slumber, they’ll awake to a world liberated from horror and also freed from the banal strictures of daily life, the weight of the past, the limitations of human perception. They’ll even speak a new language, one that “will offer new meanings, entire new levels of perception.”
A figure named Death dressed in black standing in front of the sea. A woman shot through her glasses with blood pouring down her face. A man huffing gas while stroking a garment made of blue velvet. These images—all iconic moments from watershed films—first presented themselves to me during my adolescence as I intensely perused a 1999 volume titled Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. Most cinephiles surely have a comparable story, a moment when the local multiplex started to take a backseat to the larger scope of a cinematic past that seemed far more mysterious than anything Anakin Skywalker and the gang were getting into.
Mark de Silva’s Square Wave is defined less by its plot, characters, or setting than by long essayistic excursions into historical, scientific, and artistic arcana. Its world is a blearily glimpsed dystopic future in which political factions are competing for power and violence is omnipresent, but no one quite knows who’s perpetrating it or what it means. After Carl Stagg, a kind of government watchman, discovers the beaten and bloodied body of a prostitute, he investigates this heinous act, the latest in a string of similar crimes. At the same time, Stagg pursues his true avocation, writing and researching a work on Sri Lankan history through the lens of his own family. Meanwhile, peripheral characters study atmospheric science, compose avant-garde music, and make their entry into the world of pornography.
De Silva spends whole chapters of his debut novel exploring 17th-century Sri Lankan power struggles, cloud-seeding experiments, microtonal theory, and ass smoothies, and ultimately the characters are subordinated to these ideas. Though these passages are clearly and sometimes beautifully written, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds. But this, it seems, is very much the point. De Silva forces the reader to make connections among these sundry topics, to leave oneself open to their prismatic meanings.
Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read is that rare book that manages to speak to its specialized academic audience while imagining and addressing a much broader readership. Bérubé, who’s the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, has crafted an accessible, if still rigorous, study of the way fiction grapples with intellectual disability.
“Representations of disability are ubiquitous,” he states in his opening sentence, “far more prevalent and pervasive than (almost) anybody realizes.” Take Disney’s Dumbo: You maybe wouldn’t use the language of disability to describe the oversized ears of the titular elephant, but at the heart of the 1941 film is a message about overcoming—embracing even—one’s differences in order to succeed. By the end of Bérubé’s book, you’re likely to start spotting the way disability is often used as a trope in films as diverse as Minority Report, Total Recall, and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Bérubé wants to push us further than merely understanding the ubiquity of disability in pop culture. This is especially important as disability (both physical and intellectual) is often used as a metaphor or character trait in popular art, significant only in the way it teaches us something about a story or a character with rarely any nuance with regard to the disability itself.
The original U.K. title of The Blue Hour is The Heat of Betrayal, which is a more apt description of the novel’s events. The Blue Hour may home in on the Morocco-set story’s air of mystery (“the hour at daybreak or dusk when nothing is as it seems; when we are caught between the perceived and the imagined”), but it implies a more metaphoric meditation on the liminal spaces at the periphery of author Douglas Kennedy’s twisty story about, yes, the burning fires of betrayal.
Kennedy begins with a schematic sketching of a married couple’s life. Robin is an accountant who prides herself on being cautious and organized. Her husband, Paul, is an artist who revels in his own impulsive drives. They’re on their way to Morocco, where Paul is to work on new lithographs and Robin plans to relax and work on her French. Maybe, too, the wild sex they plan to have will finally bring them a child. But their expectations of an idyllic summer stay in the picturesque North African country soon turns sour when Robin finds out something about Paul that upends everything she’s known about him.
There’s no way of talking about The Blue Line without invoking author Íngrid Betancourt’s biographical details. A politician turned activist, she ran for her native Colombia’s presidency in 2002, and during her campaign she was kidnapped by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group and remained a hostage until her release in 2008. Her personal experience with the way political violence scars on both a personal and national level is palpable throughout her latest novel.
The Blue Line begins with an intentionally mundane depiction of its protagonist’s contentment: at the home she’s made for herself, and with a man she’s always loved. It’s the summer of 2006 and Julia is happily staring out a window of her Connecticut home, around which the serenity-heightening landscape—with its “neatly clipped shrubs in the garden across the way, the carefully aligned elms along the avenue that runs perpendicular to the beach”—suggests a painting by Mark Rothko.
Over the course of The Big Green Tent’s nearly 600 pages, which take us from the final years of Stalin’s reign to the collapse of the Soviet Union, novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya recounts all manner of Soviet repression, from omnipresent KGB surveillance to labor camp imprisonment to the forcible deportation of the Tatars and subsequent refusal of their right of return, and yet the novel closes with an epilogue entitled “The End of a Beautiful Era.” For Ulitskaya, who came of age in the post-Stalin era, this was the ugliest of times and the most beautiful of times, an epoch when the dreariness of Soviet public life was counterbalanced by the voracious private consumption of books.
The Big Green Tent is, in its way, a deeply nostalgic novel, wistful for a time when books really mattered. Beginning with a trio of young, aesthetically minded friends—Sanya, the musician; Ilya, the photographer; and Mikha, the poet—who dub themselves the LORLs (short for Lovers of Russian Literature), the novel’s early chapters capture that ferocious rapacity for literature which can only be fully experienced in youth, when writers like Tolstoy and Pushkin seem to hold all the secrets to life.