The first time someone told me the premise of Sudden Death by the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue (translated by Natasha Wimmer), she followed it up by saying, “but it’s not really about that. It’s about everything.”
She was right, of course.
Sudden Death is about a tennis match between the famous Italian painter Caravaggio and the famous Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo in Piazza Navonna in Rome on October 4, 1599. This tennis match is not exactly a historical fact, but you can’t exactly prove it didn’t happen, either. Tennis, in those days, was an almost unimaginably rough sport, a contest for drunken ruffians and rowdy young aristocrats. Dueling at tennis was an acceptable alternative to dueling to the death. In this duel, Quevedo is “seconded” by Pedro Téllez-Girón, 3rd Duke of Osuna, while Caravaggio’s second is the estimable Galileo Galilei. Each point of the tennis match is narrated in rapturous detail, as if Enrigue were reporting from the sideline at Wimbledon. Continue reading
It’s 1945 and soldier Nathaniel Weary has just returned from fighting in Europe to his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Dressed in uniform, his pockets full of military pay, his head full of dreams, he attends a concert and winds up in jail. Fast forward to 1955. Released from prison, Weary emerges into a world that has progressed without him and returns to an unrecognizable hometown. There’s a new airport, television has replaced radio, and black people are boycotting the buses. He has a lot of catching up to do.
Any reader first picking up a novel entitled Driving the King might well imagine “the King” to be Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll; Jesus, The King of Kings and Lord of Lords; or MLK, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. But “the King” in Ravi Howard’s second novel is Nat King Cole, legendary jazz pianist and singer.
I’ve never felt scared of death. When people ask if I’m scared of death I say no. When I attempted to scratch at my wrists in fifth grade, I did not feel scared. I remember my father’s befuddled face: Did you know you could have DIED?
But I’ve always felt scared of the lead-up to death. Death, once I hit it, I imagine to be a sweet release—when there’s nothing to be done about it, I can relax. What I fear is the part when I don’t know if there’s anything to be done, the part when I’m trying to figure out whether to hold on or not.
Reading Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine is like staggering through this anxious interstitial space where you’re not sure if you’re about to die. The book is about a relationship between a city-dwelling young woman, A, her roommate, B, and her boyfriend, C, with whom she mostly watches television and has silent sex as pornography lopes on in the background. Like many close female friends, A and B begin to look alike, diet together, and encourage each other to avoid calories. Like the most skillful postmodernists, Kleeman takes these “normal” contemporary tendencies and stretches them just a bit past what we know.
In Greek mythology, the Fates decide a person’s destiny. They assign us to good or evil and decide how long we live. The Furies are monsters, punishing those of us in the Underworld. Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, brings these mythological creatures to life in the form of a couple named Lotto and Mathilde. The first half of the book, entitled “Fates,” focuses on Lotto, while “Furies” tells Mathilde’s story. As the plot unfolds, Groff reveals a sea of discontent and deceit beneath a seemingly ideal marriage.
Groff is no stranger to complicated, sprawling stories. Arcadia (2011) and The Monsters of Templeton (2008) are full of multiple storylines, changing POVs, and intricate plot twists. Fates and Furies does not disappoint in this respect. It opens when Lotto and Mathilde are married, right out of college, on the beach in the middle of a romantic tryst. It follows the couple through college and marriage, and on to New York City. Lotto, who was supposed to be a successful actor, is floundering. Eventually he turns to playwriting, where he becomes an astounding success. But over the years, their marriage turns out to be a coldly calculated move. No one is who you initially think they are. Continue reading
It’s been said that our first taste of mythology is our family history. Brian Panowich’s debut novel, Bull Mountain, portrays a family poisoned by their own mythology. The Burroughs clan has run Bull Mountain, Georgia, for generations, spreading their outlaw empire from moonshine to marijuana to meth, in an uninterrupted flow of crime and power, until one son, Clayton, abandons the family and becomes a county sheriff, pitting brother against brother and the present against the past.
The novel is a sprawling tale that interweaves the storylines of many members of the family: Clayton and his brother Halford; their father Gareth; Clayton’s wife Kate; and Simon, an ATF agent sent to dismantle the whole Burroughs empire; as well as a few other key players. The structure is reminiscent of Don Winslow’s Mexican cartel novel The Power of the Dog, and it works well for Panowich, with only a few slips. (In one section Clayton is opening a file, and then at the start of the next section two lines later he’s still opening the file). Moving from character to character builds suspense and shows the powerful impact this family has had over the course of generations, their poisonous influence changing the lives of everyone who falls under the shadow of Bull Mountain.
It’s hard to write about Jonathan Franzen’s work without writing about Jonathan Franzen the Public Figure, an entity that seems to bear surprisingly little resemblance to the man himself. Now that his reputation as a crotchety jerk is all but set in stone, it’s easy to forget that Franzen’s original sin wasn’t dissing Twitter or calling Jennifer Weiner a hack but rather some rather tepid hand-wringing during an interview with Terry Gross about whether having an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the cover of The Corrections could be construed as selling out. In the end—by which I mean by the end of his sentence—Franzen had decided that it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Oprah from disinviting him.1
The charges have shifted and morph over the years. More recently, Franzen has been assailed for being insufficiently grief-stricken at the death of his friend David Foster Wallace2 and, retroactively, for saying that his ambition for The Corrections was that it reach a male audience.4 You get the sense that these criticisms have less to do with Franzen than what he represents—an exceedingly privileged rich white male who nonetheless finds the world disappointing and unjust. Identity politics aside, I find it really hard to look at the facts of these claims and come away with any other conclusion than that Franzen has been frequently and repeatedly swift-boated. There’s part of me that wants to avoid it all, but with his new novel, Purity, Franzen seems be directly addressing—and quite possibly trolling—his critics. Here at last, he’s given them what they’ve been waiting for—a book that openly takes aim at millennial, feminism, and the necessity of secrecy in a world where privacy is becoming an ever more alien concept.