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Farrar Straus And Giroux (#110 of 11)

As I Lay Surrendering Édouard Louis’s History of Violence

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As I Lay Surrendering: Édouard Louis’s History of Violence
As I Lay Surrendering: Édouard Louis’s History of Violence

Much like his earlier The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis’s History of Violence is an autobiographical “novel” in which the events that form the frame of the story are true and other parts have been imaginatively reordered. The narrative is divided into two components: Louis’s first-person experience of being raped and nearly killed on Christmas Eve 2012 in Paris, and the same story as retold by Louis’s sister to his brother-in-law when the character/author returns to his small hometown after the incident. Reda, his hookup-turned-rapist, is a character who makes Louis alternately uneasy, excited, protective, and fearful.

At its best, History of Violence is about the tension between desire and danger, between passion and destruction, and about how individuals heal from trauma without allowing themselves to remain perpetual victims. Against expectations, Louis’s novel is an act of empowerment in a time when too many encourage responses that disempower. Throughout, the author wrestles between liberalized notions of how the world should be and conservative ones of how the world is. Throughout, we see him strip away the liberal tendency to empathize with criminals as victims of social failures.

The Emperor Has New Clothes Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña

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The Emperor Has New Clothes: Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña
The Emperor Has New Clothes: Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña

In 1960, Gore Vidal wrote The Best Man, a play about two politicians vying for their party’s nomination for president, in addition to the sitting president’s endorsement. Both men can be seen as stand-ins not only for the political figures of Vidal’s day (John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson in this case), but also for the political archetypes that American voters have come to expect. Watching (or reading) The Best Man today reveals the timelessness of Vidal’s perspective on American politics and the familiarity of the style of politics he portrayed.

Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña is populated with characters even more thinly veiled than Vidal’s were 60 years ago. Although Baitz wrote the play during the 2016 election—and later appended it with a new prologue and epilogue after the results—if he’d written it even five years ago, it might have seemed too outrageous and farcical in certain parts to be believable. The line between the familiarly louche brand of politics Vidal portrayed in Best Man and the brow-furrowing shock of Vicuña is only navigable by the map 2016 laid out.

Review: Emily Gould’s Friendship

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Review: Emily Gould’s Friendship
Review: Emily Gould’s Friendship

There’s a saying often espoused by teachers of creative writing: “Write what you know.” The main problem with Emily Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, is not that she writes about what she knows, but that anyone familiar with her background knows all of these things already.

Gould’s main characters, Bev and Amy, both in their early 30s, wish to become writers, though there isn’t one time either writes, unless you count a rushed email at the conclusion. In the beginning, Midwestern Bev rides the temp circuit, serving as a receptionist at “a commercial real estate company” and (sometimes) a French bank, but what she’s really “working on” are “short stories that are sort of…memoiristic.” Amy, an East Coaster and a thinly veiled stand-in for Gould, manages a two-person editorial team at the website Yidster, “the third-most-popular online destination for cultural coverage with a modern Jewish angle.”

Years earlier, Bev and Amy meet as assistants at a publishing house, and their office-related interactions spark a real bond. The friendship between them is, of course, at the center of the work, but Gould may have done better if she omitted the flashback vignettes showing its evolution. How Amy and Bev remained friends in the past—when Amy rose in blogger prominence and Bev moved to Wisconsin with a boyfriend she believed she’d marry—is of little consequence in the present; it distracts, rather, from the current conflict, which is how, with Bev pregnant from a one-night stand and Amy without a job and an apartment, they can stay close.

Firing Out Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then

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Firing Out: Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then
Firing Out: Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then

This is what Virginia Woolf says at the end of the third section of her essay “A Room of One’s Own”: “The reason perhaps why we know so little of Shakespeare—compared with Donne or Ben Jonson or Milton—is that his grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us. We are not held up by some ’revelation’ which reminds us of the writer. All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed.”

In a lot of ways, Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then tries to be like a Woolf novel, particularly To the Lighthouse. It’s about the dissolution of a family, it jumps perspective sometimes from one character’s mind to another’s, and it zooms out of its narrative every now and then and waxes poetically about the age of the Earth and the transience and dust-like quality of all things under the sun.

But in many other and more pungently noticeable ways, See Now Then contains a lot of those fecal-smelling “grudges and spites and antipathies” mentioned above by Woolf that writers are supposed to wipe from the page and toss into the garbage if they want their book to be memorable and interesting and maybe even transcendental instead of just forgettable and tedious and vague.

This Is His Life Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away

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This Is His Life: Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away
This Is His Life: Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away

The latest in Jonathan Franzen’s catalogue of long books with lonesome titles, Farther Away collects the author’s magazine reporting, personal histories, and book reviews from the past 13 years and arranges them in reverse chronology, creating a this-is-your-life kind of recap of how the long hours around the publication of those two great novels, The Corrections and Freedom, were killed. The answer is that the author, for the most part, worries. He worries about the state of New York. He worries, twice, that Facebook users are unlearning the desire to communicate in person. Occasionally, he worries that he worries too much, but not much, since he already covered that in his memoir.

Without the editorial restraint of his previous nonfiction collection, How to Be Alone, Farther Away suffers under the weight of all this worrying, filled as it is with so many rote pieces impassive to the author’s skills as a novelist: his sensitivity to the various impressions an encounter can have on different people, his ability to flex and withhold judgment, his dialogue. Tasked with writing about things that already mean something to someone, the author becomes contrarian and full of points, dispassionately pooh-poohing defenders of his given topics, or the unimpressed, or, in one of the most awful tirades, people who say stuff to each other on cellphones.

An Enjoyable Beginning Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich

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An Enjoyable Beginning: Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich
An Enjoyable Beginning: Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich

In Roberto Bolaño’s riotous compendium of fictional pan-American writers, Nazi Literature in the Americas, we read of an Argentinean author who “had been dandled by the Führer” and who “treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms.” If her house was on fire and she could save only one possession it would be this picture, “even over her own unpublished manuscripts.” Earlier, in another fictional entry, we hear of another Argentinean writer who “financed the magazine The Fourth Reich in Argentina and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.” There’s yet another, a successful sci-fi writer, who’s creator of something called the Fourth Reich saga.

Such writing manages to incorporate several of Bolaño’s themes—violence, evil, Nazism, the value of literature—while showcasing his in-built trademark style and tone: blackly humorous, bitingly satirical, and so weirdly inventive that we don’t question any blurring between the real and the absurd. The Third Reich, his latest novel to be translated into English, doesn’t take us into a Fourth Reich, rather it deals with ways or “variants” to reimagine the Third. It was probably the first novel Bolaño wrote (it has been dated as late ’80s), and consequently those themes and styles, though undeniably present, are only nascent, and would not be developed and perfected until the later exuberant masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666. This debut is decidedly slight in comparison and yet there is still much to enjoy.

Going Nowhere Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

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Going Nowhere: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot
Going Nowhere: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

If there’s a love triangle at the center of The Marriage Plot, then it’s isosceles—two towering male characters (one autobiographical, one biographical) grounded by one basic female, Madeleine Hanna, about whom, despite her prominence in the novel, we end up knowing very little. She’s an English major at Brown University who loves both Jane Austen and Roland Barthes; she’s better behaved than her older sister; she’s shown, at one point, perched on her dorm room’s bed in some kind of pajama, eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon, looking for all the world like a commercial of a girl hard at work. For much of the novel, Madeleine’s work consists of a paper about the use of the marriage plot in Victorian novels, a de facto focus arising from a college course entitled, of course, “The Marriage Plot.” It starts as an assignment, turns into her undergraduate thesis, and is later edited into a published article (presumably by Madeleine, though aside from her peanut-butter bender we rarely see her consult her books for anything but romantic fortunes, and her only use of a pencil comes in the form of a Dear John letter), but through her hours of work on “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot,” those elusive thoughts never really take shape.

What we can glean from the story comes to us in the form of characters defined not by marriage, but by sex—the having of it, the anticipation, and the desire to explicate of it. The novel opens with Madeleine hung over in bed, an enticing stain on the dress she fell asleep in. Two of her previous boyfriends are summarized right away, one of whom would speak only of circumcision, the other of whom she was ashamed to like because of his side career as a male model; she’s described at one point wishing he were an athlete or a politician instead, grasping for platitudes of masculinity. At the end of her first date with her future husband, Leonard Bankhead, the syntax contorts to emphasize the fact that they don’t kiss goodbye over what actually does happen. Later, or perhaps earlier (chronology is one of this novel’s great victims), Madeleine meets the other side of her triangle, a religious studies major named Mitchell Grammaticus, at a toga party, and her toga briefly slips off her shoulder in front of him. Having now succeeded in viewing her breast, Mitchell loves Madeleine, but Madeleine loves Leonard. Leonard loves Madeleine, too, but he also loves the manic effects of his manic depression. Nobody loves Mitchell, except late in the novel when Jesus loves him.

Of Living Obsolete Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams

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Of Living Obsolete: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams
Of Living Obsolete: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams

Despite its mostly linear cradle-to-grave movement, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams makes two very notable exceptions to make clear what it’s after, introducing us to its subject well past his birth and receding from his death at the book’s conclusion. The subject is Robert Grainier, a Depression-era laborer who makes a living on the construction of railways, but the framework is his curse—its placement and its lifting.

The novella opens with Grainier on the site of a railway in progress, where a Chinese laborer has been accused of theft; seeing a group of whites struggle to wrestle the Chinese laborer up the slope of a cliff, Grainier joins in, eventually handling the victim’s feet and asserting himself as primary among the captors. The Chinese laborer escapes anyway, maneuvering the partial trestle of cliffside tracks like monkey bars, and the assaulters go their own ways. Grainier’s own way is through the woods and back to his young wife and daughter at home, along which he pauses to consider what he just did and almost did. Over the course of a two-mile detour, he decides that the Chinese laborer must have placed a curse on him, and that tragedy is in store.

Bruisable Contexts Edie Meidav’s Lola, California

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Bruisable Contexts: Edie Meidav’s Lola, California
Bruisable Contexts: Edie Meidav’s Lola, California

“The year is 2008,” reads the press release for Lola, California, and that’s sort of true, but it also turns out to be 1981, and 1993, and lots of other years before and in between. One chapter is marked “1983 & 2008”; another “1970–1979”; another, late in the book, is simply “Soon.” Time shifts and is shifted throughout Lola, California, with no real warnings or discernable patterns, resulting in a narrative whose contexts are largely internal. (Even the epigraphs belong to the world of the book, excerpting a passage from a semi-religious text by one of the characters and a line from another’s diary.) When the book opens with a glimpse of Lana and Rose, the two friends at the center of the story, on vacation somewhere in Spain between high school semesters, the actual stuff of the scene turns out not to mean very much; the narrator even tells us outright that it could be one or another city, with any number of different choreographies, and all that matters is Rose, “bruisable and diffident,” crossing a plaza toward her friend. Similarly, it’s only the placement of this scene that helps define the scenes to come, even if its content has little bearing on the ensuing content of the girls’ lives.

Fools for Beauty Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

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Fools for Beauty: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
Fools for Beauty: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

In Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, middle age becomes a second adolescence, ripe with the same confused restlessness, heightened desire, and crushing heartbreak that is, generally speaking, the special province of sensitive, love-struck teenagers. Imagine now that passionate strain of teenage melancholia conflated with and compounded by the familiar cruelties of middle age: the softening belly and disappearing ass, hair turning the color of ashes, and the unsettling ease with which a long marriage becomes reduced to a predictable palette of “atmospheres and weathers”—fights forecasted by palpable shifts in tone or mood, sexual overtures communicated through uninspired, rote gestures.

This is where Peter Harris, the successful Manhattan gallery owner at the center of Cunningham’s novel, finds himself: trapped in a fog of sensible middle age ennui, yet entirely capable of being transfixed by beauty with an ardor to rival any 15 year old. The soft belly and gray hairs and comfortable but dull marriage—these are the peripheral cruelties of middle age that hover at the edge of his discontent. Peter has graduated into midlife with all outward signs of maturity and respectability intact (the spacious SoHo loft, the—presumably—rock-solid marriage, the circle of urbane friends), but buried under the black suit and firm handshake, there’s a part of him that’s not quite ready to “reconfirm his allegiance to the realm of the sensible.” There’s part of him, rarely manifested in everyday life, that fantasizes of “that other, darker world—Blake’s London, Courbet’s Paris; raucous, unsanitary places where good behavior was the province of decent, ordinary people who produced no works of genius.”