The Glittering World‘s promotional blurb pitches author Robert Levy’s debut novel as a kind of Lovecraftian In the Woods—a story of trauma and origins that ratchets up to eleven the blink-and-miss-it, ambivalent uncanniness of Tana French’s novel. Forty pages in, it seems as if something even better is in store. A series of bizarre and kaleidoscopic murals—”frolicking manticores, a nude woman with a red star on her back, the flowering roots of swollen tubers”—grace the walls of an abandoned mill, with only one sentence written in explanation: “Borealis the Mother was sent up from the Heavens of the Faraway World to bring comfort to the children of the Screaming Places.”
Purple prose, definitely—but effective in its weird blend of heavenly and hellish imagery. There’s something primal about it. Continue reading
Love triangles just don’t seem to have the literary currency they once did. It’s tempting to attribute their decline to one too many bloated and overwrought YA romances, but the fall off likely has more to do with the fact that adultery just isn’t as taboo—or, inevitably, as titillating—as it once was. It’s a shame, though. The best literary love triangles were never really about illicit love affairs. They were about the explosive combination of three personalities—not just two. They verged on ménage à trois territory without veering wholesale into domesticity; they still retained an edge of dangerousness. Think Sophie’s Choice, or perhaps some iterations of the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle. Or, simply think of Lily King’s fourth and latest novel: Euphoria. Continue reading
“That could be. That could most certainly be.”
This is the constant refrain—and perhaps the core philosophy—of Brian Doyle’s latest novel The Plover, a loose sequel to his debut Mink River. No doubt it’s reductive to mine such a freewheeling novel for a single “message,” but in this case, at least, the message readers arrive at will likely be one of expansive possibility.
The Plover picks up where Mink River left off: with Declan O Donnell casting off from Oregon in his beloved boat, heading “west and then west” on the “Impacific” Ocean. Continue reading
Dear Committee Members is a book for anyone who has ever taught at, studied at, or been within five miles of a university. The latest novel by writer (and University of Minnesota faculty member) Julie Schumacher, it chronicles a year in the life of Jay Fitger, a professor of creative writing at a (fictional) small research college. Like their real-life counterparts, Payne University’s administrators are seeking to cut costs in some areas in order to spend lavishly in others. Unfortunately for Prof. Fitger, the posh digs provided to lucrative programs, the extravagant amenities designed to lure in unsuspecting undergraduates, and the (one assumes) well-padded pockets of the administrators themselves come at the expense of the English Department, which has had its budget repeatedly slashed and is currently being chaired by a sociologist. To add insult to injury, the building that houses the department is currently undergoing renovations for the benefit of the economics faculty, who have been evacuated until the restoration is finished. Not so the English faculty, and the warning about “particulate matter” leads Fitger to playfully hypothesize that “the deanery is annoyed with [the English faculty’s] request for parity and, weary of waiting for [them] to retire, has decided to kill [them].” Continue reading
Note: I received a copy of this book from Bloomsbury USA (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.
A Slant of Light is a novel about the aftershocks of violence—but not, perhaps, the violence that you’d expect, given that it’s set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. The gruesome double killing that opens Jeffrey Lent’s latest novel is an act of domestic violence. It is also the tragic explosion of resentments (and injustices) that have been festering for years. So perhaps, in that respect, Lent’s novel is as apt a depiction as any of the wreckage left behind in the wake of a cataclysmic civil war. Continue reading
Here’s a bold statement: reading Your Face in Mine made me want to crack open my long-neglected copy of Derrida (or, perhaps, my less neglected—but no less dense—copy of Judith Butler).
To those who aren’t theory junkies, I say: don’t worry (and I sympathize). It is entirely possible to read and enjoy Jess Row’s debut novel without a background in deconstruction. It is, however, a mark of Row’s strength and ingenuity as a writer that he is able to engage with some very complex philosophical thought while steadily sharpening the novel’s gripping, thriller-like edge.
This is, of course, to say nothing of the fact that Your Face in Mine is a novel about race written by a white man. As you might expect, reviewers have been quick to trumpet Row’s daring. Continue reading
Note: I received a copy of this book from Hesperus Press (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.
Reading The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman so soon after reviewing a novel like You is a strange—and not altogether comfortable—experience. In the Author’s Q&A that accompanies the novel, Denis Thériault confesses that he worried readers would fail to sympathize with the novel’s protagonist—would, perhaps, even see him as sociopathic. And at two or three pages into the novel, I have to admit that I had similar concerns. I wondered: for the sake of the novel’s intriguing premise, for the sake of whatever insights it had to offer into the nature of identity and the power of the written word, could I temporarily quell my kneejerk discomfort with anything that remotely resembles stalking, manipulation, and romantic subterfuge? In the spirit of open-mindedness, I forged ahead, and am largely happy that I did so. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite stomach the second leap of faith the novel required of me—the acceptance of what was for me a jarringly discordant conclusion. That said, I suspect that the novel’s ending will likely prove as controversial as its subject matter, with some readers defending the aesthetic daring of Thériault’s abrupt, startling ending even as others wish he had kept the novel on a more even tonal keel throughout. Continue reading
Please note: The following contains spoilers for An English Ghost Story, so read at your own risk!
Do you believe in ghosts? According to surveys in the US and the UK, there’s a pretty good chance that you do. So if you did indeed answer “yes,” the more interesting question might be: what do you think ghosts are? The spirits of those who have died with unfinished business is one common answer, but it is surely not the only one—nor, as Kim Newman’s latest novel demonstrates, is it the only interesting one. There is, to be sure, a long and venerable tradition of using the paranormal as a reflecting glass for the neuroses of one’s earthly protagonists, but in An English Ghost Story, Newman carries this tradition to intriguing extremes. Here, it is the unfinished business of the living that drives the plot, as the fissures and shifting alliances within a troubled family spill psychically into the environment that surrounds them. Continue reading
2014 may go down as the year of the out-of-left-field twist ending. Back in February, Helen Oyeyemi rounded out her eerie, racially charged retelling of “Snow White” with a last-minute, gender-bending revelation that proved controversial. Readers of Mermaids in Paradise—the latest novel by the equally intelligent and prolific writer Lydia Millet—can take comfort in the fact that its own concluding swerve has none of the unsavory implications that regrettably cling to Oyeyemi’s otherwise standout novel. Better yet, the twist—though unexpected—does what it’s supposed to do: It recasts the events that preceded it in a way that makes you want to reread the novel. Unfortunately, it will also likely make you wish that what preceded it was a stronger, more reliably engaging read. Though Mermaids in Paradise is a highly (and deservedly) memorable novel, it suffers from tonal problems that temporarily threaten to eclipse its wit and inventiveness. Continue reading
Writers like to write about the writing process, and critics like to read novels that reflect on literature itself—that much is clear. All too often, of course, this metafictional bent devolves into (at best) a kind of neurotic navel-gazing and (at worst) self-important proselytizing on the transcendent, transformative nature of art. The messianic overtones of the latter in particular can quickly become grating, even to the staunchest proponents of literature’s intrinsic value, which is perhaps why Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman comes as such a breath of fresh air. “I bet you believe in the redemptive power of art,” writes Aaliya Sohbi, the novel’s wearied, aging, but delightfully quick-witted narrator, “I’m sure you do. I did. Such a romantic notion. Art will rescue the world, lift humanity above the horrible quagmire it’s stuck in. Art will save you.” Continue reading