photo by Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times
Jess Row is stealthily becoming our most subversive and progressive literary critic.
You probably know Jess Row for his fiction—The Train to Lo Wu and Your Face in Mine—or maybe for the beautiful little piece he wrote for Fiction Advocate not long ago. But over at The Boston Review, Row has been publishing a series of critical essays about privilege and point of view in literature. These essays are so calm, so deliberate, and so authoritative, that unless you read them all at once, you might miss how comprehensive and devastating Row’s critique really is.
In “The Novel Is Not Dead,” Row takes issue with other critics–mostly James Wood, David Shields, and Benjamin Kunkel–who assert that the best writing is engaged in depicting “reality” or “realism.” Observing that when they call for greater “reality” in fiction, they are often reinforcing their own idea of what reality is—white and privileged—Row accuses these critics of being “dogmatically bigoted.” He writes, “We need critics who set impatient standards, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain an omnivorous appetite for the unfamiliar, the awkward, the angry, the untoward. Instead, we have a gated community, a velvet-roped garden party, a Brooklyn vs. Cambridge fantasy baseball league.”
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up on June 18. If you are a history buff, and you want to understand this momentous occasion a little better, there are plenty of books to choose from. If you are a fiction buff, there is only one: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, first published in French in 1986 and newly reissued by NYRB Classics in a translation by Patricia Cleary.
It’s not hard to imagine that Emperor Napoleon, with his network of military loyalists, could have smuggled himself out of exile on the island of St. Helena by sneaking in a body double to take his place. And, further, it’s not hard to imagine his plan going terribly wrong in one way or another, leaving an elderly Napoleon stranded on the European mainland under a false identity, roaming the new world that his conquests have created, trying desperately to get himself back in the game. That’s the plot of The Death of Napoleon, anyway. Continue reading
“I cut my boyfriend in half” are the first words in Angela Readman’s debut collection of stories. From there it only gets weirder. In “There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop,” a mother turns—inexplicably—into Elvis. A girl helps her father with bizarre taxidermy in order to save the family in “The Keeper of the Jackalopes.”
Don’t Try This at Home includes the story that landed Angela Readman on the short list for the Costa Short Story Award in 2012, and the story that won it for her in 2013. You can read some of her best work here and here.
We asked the author 5 questions.
What do you think your readers think of you? Are they right? Continue reading
Edgar Allen Poe’s early mystery stories are the inspiration for The Black Cat by J.M. Geever, a novel that Fiction Advocate is proud to publish. They are also an inspiration for the world’s most famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In his new book, The Great Detective, Zach Dundas offers a popular history of Sherlock Holmes, which begins with this origin story about Edgar Allan Poe.
“With ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Purloined Letter,’ and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’” Paul Collins [an Associate Professor of English at Portland State University] told me, “Poe starts the tradition of the mystery that centers on a singular, charismatic detective, one who works outside the system and solves the mystery by observation and deduction rather than random chance.” Poe’s stories revolve around a Parisian oddball named Auguste Dupin. Significantly, his nameless and subservient roommate acts as narrator. When I later burrowed back into these numbers, all published in the 1840s, for the first time since high school, Dupin and his buddy struck me as obvious embryos of Holmes and Watson—though, this being Poe, they are significantly weirder. They live together in a giant, decaying mansion, keep the windows shuttered all day to produce artificial night, a.k.a. “the sable divinity,” and lounge about reading creepy books and going into crackpot-Romantic trances. Mrs. Hudson would have to clean the place out with a flamethrower.
His book isn’t even on sale in the United States yet, and already Kamel Daoud has been the subject of breathless coverage in The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine. A Salafist imam in Algeria issued a fatwa against him on Facebook. He narrowly lost the Prix Goncourt—France’s top literary prize—by only two votes. A movie adaption is slated for 2017. So if you haven’t heard of Kamel Daoud yet, take a deep breath. Here we go.
The Meursault Investigation is a novel-length rebuke of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Remember in The Stranger, how the main character—a self-questioning young Frenchman in Algeria named Meursault—goes to the beach at mid-day and lazily shoots a stranger dead? The whole book hinges on that scene. It’s meant to show us that Meursault is so conflicted about conventional morality that he genuinely doesn’t know if killing a stranger is wrong anymore. Must be tough to be Meursault, right?
Maybe. But it’s even tougher to be the guy Meursault killed. In The Stranger he’s only described as “The Arab.” Even though this character’s death is the crux of the novel, and he’s been, you know, murdered for no good reason, Camus barely mentions him. Doesn’t even give him a name. The death of this nameless Arab is a blip in the life of our European hero. For decades, readers have venerated Camus and discussed The Stranger in those terms.
Is there an ethical voice in German literature in the 1930s?
Among the Oscar nominees this year (which included no shortage of Nazi tales, including Fury and The Imitation Game) Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel serves as Hollywood’s sweeping take on “fascism, Nazism, prison, uplift.” His whimsical anti-fascist flick is solemnly dedicated to the work of novelist Stefan Zweig, who fled the rise of the Nazis and, despairing at the rise of Nazism, killed himself in exile. Anderson tries to sum up the age at the end of the film, in an elegy to the fair and uptight concierge of the hotel: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!”
Anderson has no obligation to realism, and yet speaking in epochs prevents his characters from feeling like regular people grounded in time and space. The concierge and his lobby boy are like mythological figures that illustrate history from a vantage point in the present. Real people don’t see themselves through such grand narratives.
I first read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in eighth grade, and though for the years following I called it one of my favorite books, I couldn’t have given a very solid account of the story or its meaning.
I learned the word “envoy,” and the next few stories I would write, in pencil on lined notebook paper, featured alien envoys navigating a stubborn planet. I didn’t know enough about sex to recognize the power of omitting it from daily life, as LeGuin’s androgynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen do, but I wrote about big-headed green aliens who reproduced through a sort of meditative mind-meld, which I suspected to be more evolutionarily sophisticated than the mess of feelings and fluids that my own species engaged in. I didn’t know enough about the cold to recognize how it creates a bond among those who endure it together, as it does between the novel’s two central characters as they traverse the planet’s desolately beautiful ice fields, or its power to remove sex from the equation. What I recognized, and kept with me, were these words from the book’s introduction: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”
And that, for an adolescent trying on artistry and atheism, was enough to make the book a favorite—story, metaphor, and meaning be damned.
Given that Google co-founder Sergey Brin has the name of someone you would run into in Braavos, it’s a wonder that it took so long for someone to do this: A Google map of the Seven Kingdoms.
Click below to explore the large version, or buy your own high quality print on Etsy.