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.
Guy in Your MFA may be all the rage on Twitter these days but he first made an appearance in Straight Man, the 1997 novel by Richard Russo. The book is the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr.—Hank, for short—a professor in the English Department at the Railton Campus of West Central Pennsylvania University. In Hank’s workshop, his student Leo is unshakably confident despite his mediocre writing skills. Like Guy in Your MFA, he thinks that he and Hank are “after a fashion, team-teaching the course.”
From the author interviews Leo devours, he has learned that the worst thing that can happen to a talented young writer is to be given too much praise, so Leo is grateful to me for protecting him. I don’t know whether he’s grateful to the other students in the workshop, who have been even more determined than their instructor not to ruin him with too much praise. Or any praise.
This novel is like a masterclass in itself. Other peripheral characters, much like Leo, are given such concrete characteristics that it remains easy to keep track of all of them as the English Department, which Hank chairs, faces the threat of impending budget and faculty cuts. Right at the start of the book, we meet Teddy, one of Hank’s colleagues. Continue reading
Larry Kramer’s The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart has drawn as much praise as it has criticism.
It is the first in a planned trilogy by the iconic American author and activist. Some critics claim the book is sure to become a new “American classic.” Others wonder whether the novel’s gargantuan size and impenetrable prose merit its phenomenal praise. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “consistently frustrating” as Kramer’s sprawling and incendiary story is weighed down by verbose backstories and a litany of characters who come and go. In The New Yorker, David Leavitt said we must “celebrate… the nerve” of The American People whether or not we value the stylistic and literary merit of the entire volume.
One thing everyone can agree on is that AIDS activist Larry Kramer has spent a lifetime using his voice loudly and unapologetically.