Norman Rush has suddenly become one of America’s must-read novelists. He crept up on us, because his two previous novels, Mating and Mortals, were such enormous books that you could easily tell yourself that you’d read them next year. (Mr. Rush debuted in 1986, at the age of 53, with a collection of short stories, Whites, which was critically acclaimed but as under-read as most other debut collections of short stories.) Now Subtle Bodies has arrived, at just 256 dense, colloquial, inviting pages, and you’re out of excuses. This is cause for celebration. Mr. Rush is our … I’ve been searching for a suitable comparison, but he really is sui generis. The first two novels are reminiscent of War and Peace because of their length, intelligence and realism, but Mr. Rush is a more psychological and playful writer than Tolstoy. One could imagine Flaubert as a contemporary (and obviously happy) American and maybe come up with a writer like Norman Rush. I also keep thinking of Evelyn Waugh, perhaps because of the doubtless deliberate resonance between the two titles (Mr. Rush’s Subtle Bodies echoing Waugh’s Vile Bodies). In both Waugh and Mr. Rush, we are always in the middle of the action, and, like Waugh, Mr. Rush presumes a slow, careful reader. We have to figure out the subtleties on our own.
Michael H. Miller
By Andrew Marzoni 9/03/13 9:05pm
“You’re not going to be graded on the language, I don’t care if you comment in emoticons or Harry Potter rebus, Mugglespeak or whatever, just offer some evidence of engagement,” says Cicero Lookins, the fictional “triple token” (“gay, black, and overweight”) of rural Maine’s Baginstock College, a Comp Lit professor doling out guidelines as to how his students ought to write in his seminar, “Disgust and Proximity.” “Put your fingerprints on the thing,” he commands them, demanding substance over style, politics over poetry—engagement.
In his latest novel, Jonathan Lethem—like Cicero—seems less interested in form than in content. Dissident Gardens (Doubleday, 384 pages, $27.95) spans decades, tracks a handful of protagonists, and stands as Mr. Lethem’s most substantive attempt at social realism. Gone here are the Philip K. Dickian fantastical elements and formal experimentations of his earlier novels’ softcore sci-fi. For his debut as a more straightforward realist, Mr. Lethem—still one of our “young writers,” having turned 49 in February—has chosen an appropriately mature theme: ideas, or more accurately, ideology itself. Read More
By Michael H. Miller 8/27/13 9:37am
Of Elmore Leonard’s 45 published novels, about a third are set in Detroit, the city he lived in for most of his life and where he was buried last weekend at the age of 87. He spent his career in Bloomfield Village, Michigan, which as far as literary hamlets go, is not exactly Brooklyn. He wrote on yellow legal pads in a concrete room in his basement for about eight hours a day, without breaking for food. If Leonard ever used a semicolon, I have yet to come across it. His novels did not so much end as stop in mid-motion. He didn’t covet a literary reputation; he garnered none of the prestigious literary honors awarded to his peers. He was quick to point out his shortcomings to interviewers, even though he had very few. One of his greatest supporters was Mike Lupica, a sports writer. Leonard once said that he didn’t have many friends who were writers because all they did was talk about writing. He was too busy writing.
His crime novels eventually traveled all over the world—to Israel and Rwanda and Palm Beach and Harlan County—but Detroit was his greatest character. For decades, writers have tried to do that city justice, to get at the heart of its coldness, of all that ugly beauty–even more now since Detroit became the largest American city to ever declare bankruptcy in July–but only Leonard made it come alive so consistently. There are passages of his writing that have enough power to make Céline’s Detroit novel Journey to the End of the Night look like a brochure from the Michigan tourism board. Read More
By Miranda Popkey 8/20/13 9:05pm
Pamela Erens’s new novel, The Virgins (Tin House Books, 288 pp., $15.95), is one explicitly concerned with narrative. Set in 1979 at a New Hampshire boarding school called Auburn, its narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, confesses up-front that the story he’s unspooling—that of a highly visible and ultimately doomed romance between two students, a Korean-American man, Seung Jung, and a Jewish woman, Aviva Rossner—is largely one he has imagined. “They meet in music theory,” he tells the reader of Aviva’s first encounter with Seung. “Let’s say that.”
He follows Aviva, in his mind, where he cannot physically go: to an on-campus girls’ bathroom “where she looked into the mirror and saw the blurred face that always frightened her. She thinks her features are ill defined, that she is too pale; the eyes of others will sweep over her and not linger”; backward in time to her adolescence in Chicago, where “every morning [she goes] through the ritual the makeup lady taught her. The special soaps for cleaning, the dabbing on of foundation, the painstaking combing of mascara onto each lash.” Read More
By Michael Robbins 8/13/13 10:03pm
Some writers excel in more than one form: Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence and Eileen Myles are poets and novelists. Others, well—Eliot and Yeats are very great poets who wrote some plays. It might be unfair, but I approach modern and contemporary poets’ left-handed work—Wallace Stevens’s plays, Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings, Robert Creeley’s fiction—with adjusted expectations.
The 600-plus pages of The Banquet suggest that the late poet Kenneth Koch had two right hands, even if it’s impossible to agree with Mac Wellman’s assertion in the foreword that these plays might “prove as theatrically durable as” those of Beckett. The Banquet (which has one of the ugliest book covers I’ve ever seen, but you know what they say) follows The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch (Knopf, 2005), On the Edge: Collected Long Poems (Knopf, 2007) and The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch (Coffee House Press, 2005). (We thus have approximately one billion pages of Mr. Koch in print, but no decent selected edition for those of us who’d rather sift to spare our shelves; Ron Padgett’s otherwise excellent Selected Poems for the American Poets Project is actually a bit thin.) Read More
The Best Part of Breaking Up: In 1953, Alfred Hayes Published One of the Greatest Books Ever About the End of a Relationship
By Michael H. Miller 8/06/13 9:05pm
Alfred Hayes’s long-out-of-print novel In Love (NYRB Classics, 130 pp., $14) was first published in 1953, but it contains only a few temporal markers that offer the sense of a concrete setting. The USS Missouri—“The Big Mo,” where the Japanese surrendered in 1945, its appearance here hinting at a series of repressed traumas in postwar America—has just set out for Korea. A gaudy Atlantic City hotel has automatic lights in its bathrooms, a novelty of which the bellhop is particularly proud. The United Nations building, “a sign of progress” and a mere skeletal outline in the book, was already “the really outstanding architectural horror of the day.” The building was completed in 1952, but since 2011 it has remained under more horrible construction, another sign of New York’s perpetual “progress.”
So we are clearly somewhere around 1950, but there are many details that feel familiar in Mr. Hayes’s remarkable book about the end of a relationship. During a heat wave, “you could almost hear the stretched human nerve snap. The city had become, once more, impossible.” Elsewhere, “the subway expresses came and departed, all without any knowledge of” the people in the buildings above. Read More
By Michael H. Miller 7/30/13 9:10pm
The first book by Choire Sicha, a former editor at Gawker and The New York Observer, is, according to its subtitle, “an entirely factual account.” The book, titled Very Recent History, follows “John,” no last name, as he frets over his finances. He meets his co-workers at a bar and announces, “Drinksies!” whenever he’s ready for another round. He sleeps with—or talks about wanting to sleep with—numerous young men in his social milieu, one of whom “had huge ears and skin like a glass of milk and was pretty.” Meanwhile, the company where John works—“a corporate entity that was privately owned” and does not earn “more than they spent”—is undergoing a personnel change. John’s boss, “Thomas,” and the unnamed owner of the company—who eventually marries “a princess, of sorts, though technically she was becoming her own king”—“did not particularly get along, although they said they did to anyone who asked.” The owner fires the cleaning lady. Thomas leaves the company and is replaced by “Timothy,” who attempts to run the business with his second in command, “Jacob,” who both eventually leave. John also leaves, to work once more with Thomas at a different company. Amid all these transactions, John falls in love with “Edward,” and the book works up to a climax in which the two men can—finally and without distraction—spend some time alone together. The book’s thesis arrives quite early, though. Sex, money, employment, friendship, love: “Almost everything in the City was capital.” Read More
By Ali Pechman 7/23/13 8:45pm
The story behind The Art of Joy is inextricable from the novel itself: Italian-born Goliarda Sapienza wrote the nearly 700-page novel from 1967 to 1976 in Rome and would spend much of her life trying to publish it. She died in 1996—mostly forgotten and in poverty as a result of her efforts—and never saw its publication. Her husband, Angelo Pellegrino, writes in the foreword to the new English translation that the novel, which charts the life of its heroine, Modesta, in the first half of the 20th century, must have been “cursed.” It was ridiculed and rejected by publishers for its overt sexuality and exhausting length. Like Ms. Sapienza, Mr. Pellegrino originally worked as an actor, and he spares no dramatic note in describing the book’s destiny. “Goliarda will not see her Modesta in bookstores. But I know that the sorrow is no longer hers; it’s all mine for her.” Read More
By Michael H. Miller 7/19/13 12:02pm
Dear Man Who Slapped Me on the Subway Yesterday:
You may not remember me, but you were one of the dozen or so people on the F Train who didn’t get out of the way while the other passengers were trying to get off and the doors were closing at the 2nd Avenue stop. I Read More
On the Beach: In ‘Lost Girls,’ Robert Kolker Looks Past the Long Island Serial Killer and Into the Lives of the Victims
By Jordan Michael Smith 7/09/13 4:00pm
There are two types of true-crime books. Some are exploitative, titillating their readers with gory details. These books are often made without the victims’ blessing or participation. The other type grasps at serious literature.
Robert Kolker’s new book falls into the latter category. A New York magazine contributing editor, Mr. Kolker does more in this text to illuminate the frightening world of Internet-procured prostitution than any other work of which I am aware. “The demand for commercial sex will never go away,” he writes. “Neither will the Internet; they’re stuck with each other.” Read More