Reviewed by Rachel Veroff
May 13, 2017: This is the date that Olivia Laing’s new novel Crudo opens. The heroine, Kathy, has just gotten off a plane from New York, and she is “crazy as a bedbug.” She is getting married. Kathy has written several books—including Great Expectations and Blood and Guts in High School—and she expects you to have heard of them. (They are, in fact, titles by the real-life Kathy Acker, who died in 1997, and whose writings and letters are liberally quoted in the pages of Crudo.) Fans of Acker will recognize the punk poet’s voice immediately: youthful, irreverent, manic, hilarious. Fans of Olivia Laing’s distinctive style, on the other hand, will need to pause after the first page, take a deep breath, and marvel at how ambitious this endeavor is. In so expertly channeling Acker, Laing has not only demonstrated her amazing versatility as a writer, but also offered a surprising guide for our times.
Reviewed by Joseph Schrieber
A mood, an atmosphere, rises up from the opening pages of Esther Kinsky’s River—a melancholy that unfolds so softly, so insistently that I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading words that originally existed in German. I found myself wondering: What would the German feel like in my hands? How would its texture taste, guttural tones against the back of my throat? These are questions that, in their asking, underscore how River is a text to linger in, to touch, to absorb, and recognize one’s self in…
Reviewed by Jonathan Wlodarski
“Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. I think there are a lot of people like me. Who aren’t around, who’ve disappeared. They show up all of a sudden in the arrivals terminal and start to exist when the immigrations officers stamp their passport, or when the polite receptionist at whatever hotel hands over their key.” The woman speaking, perpetually traveling, is one of many voices animating the one hundred sixteen parts of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. These pieces build to something off the radar, a far cry from novels or short story collections in the conventional sense. If anything, they’re like people in transit, abstractions shot through with alarmingly distinctive features, demanding to be recognized in order to exist: the woman walking through the airport in rainboots, the child clutching a stuffed iguana on the bus. Like these people, the accumulation of fragments in Flights invites new perspectives and startling revelations…
Reviewed by Margaret Grabar Sage
A small figure strolls across the page at the start of each section of QWERTY Invectives, accompanied by its shadow. Each drawing has a different physique, different clothing, and sometimes a prop (a stroller, a cane, a dog), but their shadows hang dark and large, distorting their bodies into funny and sinister new shapes. These little drawings may be the least significant detail in the whole cahier, but they are also exquisite reflections of the text that surrounds them. Besides, Éric Chevillard is not one to dismiss insignificant details. QWERTY’s sections are defined and organized by topic, yet what we get each time is an entertaining and revealing distortion. Chevillard, as commanding and hilarious as always, is constantly shifting his grip on reality—not losing his mind, but finding it in the most unexpected places.
Reviewed by Hannah LeClair
In the opening pages of Norah Lange’s People in the Room, a flash of lightning blanches all the corners of a young girl’s bedroom on Calle Juramento, and illuminates the mask-like faces of three women sitting in the living room of the house next door. In that instant, recounts Lange’s unnamed narrator, “I saw them for the first time, began to watch them, and as I watched them, slowly examining their three faces in a row, one barely more elevated than the others, it seemed to me that I held—like the suit of clubs in a game of cards—the pale clover of their faces fanned out in my hand.” Lange’s darkly surreal novel crystallizes around this single moment of transfixion. For Lange’s teenaged narrator, the glimpse of these three women’s mysterious faces is like an “indelible first portrait” or “the beginning of an accidental life story” and her longing to uncover their story becomes an obsession that positions her as the protagonist of a strange narrative. Lange’s narrator enthralls—as she is herself enthralled by the women she watches from her window . . .
Reviewed by Andrea Scrima
Fox is subtle, virtuosic, and jarring; it’s also mordantly funny. In light-footed, deceptively playful detours and digressions, the book skips from Stalinist Russia to an American road trip with the Nabokovs, academic conferences and literary festivals to the largely untold story of the Far-East diaspora of persecuted Russian intellectuals on the eve of World War II. Fox is a novel, but its formal structure poses a challenge; some chapters read as essays, some as autonomous short stories, and while many recurrent threads reveal themselves upon closer inspection and reflection, unraveling the author’s narrative strategy takes time and attention.
Reviewed by Hal Hlavinka
In his home country, Dag Solstad is an inescapable literary figure. His extraordinary and diverse output suggests a peripatetic mind ever searching for modernism’s golden calf: the New. Here in the States, one of our very own Saints of the New, Lydia Davis, taught herself Norwegian by reading Solstad’s infamous Telemark novel in the original. “Do exactly what you want,” she has said of his demanding style: “the drama exists in his voice.” But for most of us American readers, who rely on gifted translators to do all the heavy lifting, and who have had to be satisfied with the 2015 rendering of Shyness and Dignity or hunt down UK editions of Novel 11, Book 18, and Professor Andersen’s Night, the majority of his work remains hidden. Happily enough, this year brings a comparative glut of Solstad novels, as a pair of the author’s late works, T Singer and Armand V, have arrived in English—in lucid, agile translations courtesy of Tiina Nunnaly and Steven T. Murray, respectively—to reintroduce readers to the Norwegian giant’s dry wit and protean style…
Reviewed by Chad Felix
Deep within My German Brother, Chico Buarque’s rich and inventive new novel, the narrator Ciccio, the youngest son of a respected literary family, announces that he’s “almost beginning to believe the things [he] made up.” The statement’s directness underscores its starkness: because his older (Brazilian) brother is gone, their mother is grieving by constructing a world in which her eldest child is still alive, “now drinking hot chocolate in the Café Tortoni, now strolling trough Plaza San Martín, now greeting a blind poet on Calle Maipú.” Ciccio plays along, making things up in an effort to soften the blow, half-believing . . .
Reviewed by Darren Huang
Sergio Chejfec has written a number of erudite, highly idiosyncratic, and densely philosophical works, either in the form of novels or novel-based visual art, that follow peripatetic narrators in their meditations on artistic creation, memory, and landscape. Baroni: A Journey, his most recent book translated into English, is a modern interpretation of the flâneur novel. The result is a stylistic tour de force, a rigorous exploration of the border between art and life, and an intimate chronicle of a man’s intellectual and spiritual engagement with an artist and her work…
Reviewed by Sophie Pinkham
“Sudbina,” the new album by American vocalist Eva Salina and Serbian-Romanian Romani accordionist Peter Stan, opens with the lines, Let me live, let me love. Salina’s wistful delivery leaves little doubt that hers is a hopeless plea. The singer’s fate is cruel; she can only watch the happiness of others. Stan’s accordion keens along with Salina, a trusted confidant alone in the room with her. At the end of the song, Stan cuts off the air to his instrument, leaving only the voiceless clacking of the keys.
Reviewed by Timothy Aubry
…let’s get back to Murnane’s strangeness for a minute, because his fiction is so very, so intricately strange and one benefit of his refusal of realist protocols is that he can make it just as strange as he likes, thereby expanding our sense of and our admiration for the possible—the one thing, he notes, that the “actual” can never be.
Reviewed by Sam Carter
Because any attempt at exculpation ultimately evaporates when forced to face the facts, what remains in The Desert and Its Seed is an excavation, a brushing away instead of a brushing off that seeks to uncover what Jorge Baron Biza once called “the difference between the exterior appearance of a tragedy and its interior view...”
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
The artist and his medium were locked in a decades-long dance of death. While still in high school, having already weathered surgery for clubfoot, Joe Frank developed testicular cancer and had to undergo painful cobalt radiation treatments. He would spend the rest of his life in and out of treatment for various severe medical ailments, including bladder cancer. He also endured a kidney transplant. Long spells of medically and chemically induced quarantine provided Frank with ample time to ponder the alienation he felt from the world of the living, and ultimately translate much of that uncertainty into groundbreaking radio fictions.
Reviewed by Nick Oxford
The Chandelier amplifies the lonely interior monologues and infighting that had been the hallmark of Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. At the same time, it challenges the reader even more than any of Lispector’s earlier texts: the novel becomes a proving ground, where the only way to succeed is to persevere through the long sentences and blurred boundaries between Virginia’s life and her contemplation thereof...
Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer
Though largely a conservative society, Wilhelmine Germany was nonetheless home to some of the most progressive and pioneering thinkers of its time. The pronounced militarism and censorship embodied by Kaiser Wilhelm II were counteracted by early human-rights activism and experimental, anti-reactionary art. Yet fiction and non-fiction from this period, in particular from exponents representing the liberal side of these conflicting forces, have remained largely unknown to Anglophone readers. Seeking to rectify this problem, the Berlin-based publisher Rixdorf Editions, in two authoritative translations by James Conway, has now released two texts never before available in English: The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (1917) by Franziska (Fanny) zu Reventlow, a short story collection; and Berlin’s Third Sex (1904) by Magnus Hirschfeld, which according to Conway is “arguably the first truly serious, sympathetic study of the gay and lesbian experience ever written.”
Reviewed by David O'Meara
His enthusiasts know the biography. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Minsk, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa's district of Lower Town—occupied then by mostly French and Irish Catholics—before being sent to England as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Returning to Canada, he attended McGill University and published two poetry collections before his first novel, The Angled Road (1952) and a memoir, Canada Made Me in 1958 (“My writing begins with that book,” Levine would write). For some critics, this book is considered the main reason for Levine’s neglect in Canadian letters. Written as a three-month journey across the country, Levine’s recollections and portraits are less than flattering, depicting a gritty, desolate, working-class panorama of mid-century Canada. He writes: “No one is really a stranger in Canada if he was brought up in a small town. They remain so much the same across the country: a vast repetition, not only of the Main Street, the side-streets, the railway track, the river; but the same dullness and boredom."
Reviewed by Jan Steyn
The table of contents announces seven chapters (the numbers are mine): 1) Dragonese, 2) D̶o̶n̶'̶t̶ Do Translations, 3) And Still No Rain / Roland Barthes Rhymes with, 4) Amateur Translator, 5) Maker of Wholes (Let’s Say of a Table), 6) Who Refuses To Let Go of Her Translations Until She Feels She Has Written the Books Herself (Or, Translation and the Principle of Tact).
I am interested in tables, so I turn to the fifth chapter and start skimming. It begins with the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand in Paris (the one with the four right-angled towers facing in on each other like open books and the “sunken forest garden” in its center). It ends with a plea to recognize the singularity of every translation. Ah, I think, she is here also “actively parrying against the all purpose explanation.”
And so: Kate Brigg’s book, This Little Art, is about translation, dragons, and tables. It argues for singularity and against all-purpose explanations. It applies the methods of genre-bending song and active parrying to evidence from Roland Barthes and the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand…
Reviewed by Jennifer Croft
Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country may be part of a larger resurgence. Jennifer Hodgson’s curation shapes these short stories and autobiographical sketches and the unfinished Unmapped Country itself into a chronicle of someone slowly running out of steam. What is feisty, even cocky at the start will fade into exhaustion; experiments seem to yield few findings, and the attempt to understand what underlies the daily misunderstandings of modern life is frustrated and stops short in an incomprehension that comes to feel absolute...
Reviewed by Halley Parrey
Hermione Hoby’s aptly named debut novel Neon in Daylight examines the roles we assign ourselves to play and how our performances are received or simply ignored. Under Hoby’s purview, we do not fare much better at communicating than neon signs. We perform—we flare, we fizzle out—hoping to illuminate the darkness, which we achieve slightly, clumsily, if at all.
Reviewed by Irina Denischenko
As in his earlier works, Krasznahorkai’s narrators in The World Goes On find themselves wandering in a world of forgotten revelations and corrupted messages, blindly groping toward ineffable essences that forever remain out of reach. As the reader eavesdrops on their minds caught up in obsessive thought patterns, s/he witnesses consciousness on the threshold of insight. By recasting themes familiar from his novels in short story form, Krasznahorkai condenses fragmented revelations, increasing their potency, and creates a sense of wholeness that short story collections often lack. The World Goes On is a labyrinth of parallel universes that echo and correspond to one another, creating, with each new story, a déjà vu like effect that renders the reader’s escape into linear clarity nearly impossible. Moreover, the broad scope of this collection clarifies the various links between Krasznahorkai’s recurrent themes and the importance of his stylistic innovations, such as his unending sentences and estranged narrative positions that dissolve the boundaries of narrative voices...