I’m an idiot. I know this. I was even more of an idiot back in college and I don’t like being reminded of this fact. So I admit I was hesitant when I picked up a copy of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I feared the narrator Selin and I had too much in common for us to ever get along. Like Selin, I’d fallen for a man via email while in college. Like her, I’d gone on to teach English in another country. Like her, I was trying (“doomed”) to be a writer. Unlike her, I didn’t go to Harvard. We were off to a shaky start.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. In some ways, following a year in the life of Selin was like reliving the prime of my idiocy, the crème de la crème of my naivety.
It’s strange how much I enjoyed it. Continue reading
Exes by Max Winter comes out today! It’s a heartbreaking, hilarious novel-in-fragments, in which Clay Blackall compiles the stories of longtime residents of Providence, Rhode Island, in an attempt to understand his brother Eli’s death and the city that has defined and ruined them both.
Fiction Advocate: Max! How are you celebrating the publication of Exes?
Max Winter: I guess I already did? Because even though Exes’ official release date is April 11, Amazon shipped their copies two weeks early, which completely caught me off guard. (But I worked media retail in the pre-Internet Age, when these dates were inviolate. Except for the new Sinatra box when Liv Tyler or Richard Hell were asking.) It felt thrilling, of course—knowing the book was finally in readers’ hands—but because my author’s copies hadn’t even arrived yet, it also felt an awful lot like having blacked out at a wedding. “Ohmygod, you don’t remember? You were so funny and/or mean!”
George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, reads like confetti, like fireworks, like a snowstorm. This novel, like an image made of pixels, is a collage of intricate individual parts that, taken together, create the dazzling swirl and pulse of tenuous coherence.
Allow me to literalize: it is a story told in snatches by dozens of different narrators, most of whom are dead and dwelling in the “bardo” (a Buddhist term for the transitional state between life and death) of a crypt in Georgetown. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the novel’s clearest intertext, souls are punished according to their sins—one sexually frustrated man sports a massively engorged member because he was never able to consummate his marriage. Death, heaven, and intermediate states have long been a fascination for Saunders, explored in stories like “Escape From Spiderhead,” “Sea Oak,” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders looses his ghosts on the graveyard to shuffle through their danse macabre. Continue reading
Virginia Woolf took her greatest risks as an artist in 1930. Fresh off the success of Orlando and To The Lighthouse, she embarked on The Waves, a more experimental, more fluid novel than her previous works. (She describes it in her diary triumphantly as “my first book in my own style.”) If The Waves marked an invigorating period of self-expression for Woolf, the process of writing it—and editing it—was nonetheless taxing. (“Never,” she laments, “have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”) In an entry dated April 11th, 1931, Woolf, who was balancing a few writing projects at the time, complains about revision: “I am so tired of correcting my own writing… And the cramming in and the cutting out… But I have no pen—well, it will just make a mark. And not much to say, or rather too much and not the mood.”
The plot of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell is easy to summarize. A woman learns that her only brother has committed suicide, so she returns home to figure out, detective-like, why he did it.
But that summary doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the trippy, engrossing sensation of reading this book. Cottrell’s narrator, Helen Moran, is one of the most paradoxical and unforgettable creations in recent literature—a clever observer of people who mangles every social interaction, a rigid follower of rules who casually gives drugs to children, an exuberantly verbal thinker who rarely speaks. Her uniquely warped point of view is the second mystery that this hilarious and devastating novel invites readers to unravel. Continue reading
Ottessa Moshfegh lifts the rock of our inner lives to see what sort of critters writhe beneath in darkness. While she thoroughly explored the inner lives of troubled protagonists in her novels McGlue and Eileen, Moshfegh’s tight-yet-roomy plotting lends itself well to short fiction. Because of this, there is perhaps no better display of her unique talents than Homesick for Another World, which features new pieces alongside stories that previously appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. In each story, a cockeyed protagonist is confronted by exactly the kind of pain they need to grow. That may sound rote, but Moshfegh dazzles with her abilities to sidestep sentimentality in favor of plot development, to humanely portray the broken, and to slowly unfold a surprise. Continue reading