I was tiring of My Struggle. I was not sure if I would even read Book 5, and it did not help matters any that in my interview with Knausgaard he had told me that he wrote Book 5 in a matter of weeks and could not stand to read it any longer. Was it possible that it was even worse than Book 4? Such was my mood that by the time a galley of Book 5 appeared on my front porch early in 2016, I dutifully tweeted a photo, more out of a sense of nostalgia than from anticipation. I let the book sit for a month, and it might have sat much longer were it not for the intervention of a good friend. Regardless, pick it up I did, and as I began to read it something was happening.
Not Kleist but Rilke. Not Cortázar’s proud tiger roaming the country estate where ennui, apathy, and terror reign in equal measure, but Rilke’s caged and beleaguered panther. Different guides, different totems, yet in Napoleon’s Roads, his fourth and latest story collection, David Brooks continuously mediates between these two extremes to tell stories that are always on the point of dissolving in their own generative streams, leaving behind merely what Brooks calls “a force-field amongst their elements.” What else, after all, can language aspire to?
Friedman’s work is most often considered as a contribution to the emergence of “black humor” in American fiction, but his first novel, Stern (1962), could at the time have easily enough been regarded as absurdist, an existential comedy about the angst of Jewish assimilation. The novel’s title character finds himself in alien territory—the American suburbs—confused and beset by a series of humiliations he struggles to understand. The story of his misadventures is funny, but in the way the plays of Beckett and Ionesco are funny, in a detached and deadpan manner that can also be disconcerting.
Part of what is so interesting about this film in terms of all that is happening is how we might also distinguish between narrative and narrativization; there isn’t the same sense of closure while providing a particular presentation of reality here. There are gaps in understanding, and then there are gaps that are filled so utterly it’s hard to navigate out of the mud. I thought of Tarkovsky, yes, there is very much a poetry to the camerawork and the gaze, but also Herzog, the almost slapstick interactions between characters that often don’t have real impact on the “story,” yet the film here is about the piling on of these aggressions, gestures, failures, footsteps, coughs, rain, etc.
Though László Krasznahorkai’s early fictions were set in his native Hungary, over the past two decades he has turned to settings that cover the globe across much of historical time. He is suited to this wide range by his erudition, by the air of conviction in his long, oscillating sentences; above all because he is a writer temperamentally nowhere at home. His protagonists are wanderers, sometimes easily distinguished from their author, sometimes less so. Whether in Renaissance Florence, Muromachi Japan, New York or Berlin, they meet their surroundings with the foreigner’s mixture of curiosity and fear, and can count no homeland but the symbolic one of art. Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is the most recent Krasznahorkai volume to appear in English; though it carries the subtitle “Reportage,” it differs from the fiction only in that its confusion and longing are not joined to outright peril.
If the spectrum of contemporary American literature spans from swampy historical fiction, where the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century are yet again exploited for dramatic benefit, to the hyper-educated faux-memoir of urban professionals, where anxiety is the primary antagonist, Bible’s book is something else entirely. It’s a mixture of Raising Arizona, Waiting for Godot, and bong doxology. In other words: a whole bunch of fun.
Because our lives move in straight lines but our perceptions do not, we are forever trying to squeeze the latter’s unruliness into the former’s rigor. This, perhaps, explains why memoirs so often have the clean story arcs, senses of closure, and thematic consistencies that our lives never, ever have. Memoirs are lies; autobiographies are lies with footnotes. Somewhere in those footnotes, though, in those interstices clarifying and digressing from the main tales, lies glimmer of the real. In The Child Poet, Homero Aridjis gives us such gleaming footnotes and green shoots of offhand mystery that we’re reminded that it’s not necessarily bad to be told lies, so long as the teller realizes that he is indeed lying.
There are habits of the mind that are nurtured by Walter Benjamin’s collection of notes, dreams, short stories, characters, and diary entries in The Storyteller. Like the art of medicine, storytelling is a practice that is both technical in terms of skill and relational in its potential to reach people across any distance; Benjamin even used surgery as a metaphor to distinguish between these two aspects of art in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” suggesting that the healing touch hidden within a surgeon’s attempt to detach from his patient could be left uncommunicated and lost like the mass proliferation of human images due to industrial advancement. Without collapsing the comparisons of medicine and writing, the larger theme at work in his prose is that the healing power of art is derived from rituals rather than material reality alone.
A blue mannequin staring you full in the face from out behind the title and author printed in the same cyan font. Don DeLillo. Zero K. This image itself seems to say that Don DeLillo’s new novel, his sixteenth, will most likely be his last. It will deal with isolation, with absolutes and nullities, and with what Catholics would call “Last Things”: heaven, hell, death, judgment. Also known as Absolute Zero, Zero K or 0° Kelvin (-273.15 °C) represents the asymptotic point where atoms reach perfect stasis. Where nothing moves. Where time stops.
The son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Roberto Arlt grew up in an impoverished barrio of Buenos Aires, living in close quarters with the kinds of sketchy characters that would later appear in his novels. His formal education ended when we was only eight years old, at which point he quit school and began working a series of odd jobs around the city. He was a true autodidact, reading voraciously throughout his youth, and he eventually found his own language for tackling profound themes—a crude and colloquial language peppered with inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. Compared to the polished prose of Borges, Arlt’s writing comes off as the work of an incessant inventor, a welder and dock worker from a rough neighborhood who assembled his vocabulary from novels, manuals on engineering, and street slang. Naturally, this made him an easy target for critics who dismissed him as a bad writer.
Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert arrived to minor acclaim four years before the publication of Debord’s treatise. Clébert’s vivid, incantatory descriptions of Paris’s streets and back alleys, its abandoned attics and houses of ill-repute, its losers, liars, poor, criminals, and outcasts, caught the attention of the budding Letterists, who incorporated the author’s aleatory aesthetic into their project. As Luc Sante reports in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, whole passages from Debord’s theory “[sound] like nothing so much as descriptions of Clébert’s book.” And while Debord and the writings of the Letterists and, later, Situationists have found a long life in the world of critical theory, English-language readers have had to wait until now to read Clébert’s magnificent ode to the underbelly of Paris, rendered beautifully from the French by translator Donald Nicholson-Smith.
Horses places Western readers in a familiar literary landscape. It is the territory of W.G. Sebald, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, where the overlap between fiction and memoir is increasingly unclear and perhaps even irrelevant. The narrator of Horses is, of course, Hideo Furukawa, doing much of what the novelist Hideo Furukawa did following 3.11. Unlike say, Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Furukawa spares us the extensive quotidian cataloging (Horses is a slim book), and he also works in a few meta-fictional tactics. If anything, Horses has a vague kinship with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in its blending of memoir and literary criticism, though Nelson’s book remains more unconventional in its narrative form while Horses has to retain a veneer of journalistic investigation because of the 3.11 tragedy.
The Lights of Pointe-Noire, the new memoir by the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, is bleak, muted, and sometimes evasive. Suffused with guilt and regret, it is an exceptionally sensitive and well-written account of an exile’s return to his homeland. Read it, by all means, but not when you need a pick-me-up. Mabanckou, born in the Republic of Congo in 1966, is the author of short, darkly comic novels that include Blue-White-Red, African Psycho, Broken Glass, and Memoirs of a Porcupine. Like many of Africa’s major contemporary writers, he has lived and worked elsewhere. The Lights of Pointe-Noire, describes his return to the city of his childhood after an absence of 23 years.
Childhood is idealized as a state of innocence that is sheltered from the sobering truths of experience. Moments of unhappiness exist in this refuge, but they are simple, passing concerns. We know that the reality is different: calamities of the adult world often disrupt the sanguine lives of children. In the first volume of Lojze Kovačič’s autobiographical trilogy Newcomers—translated by Michael Biggins—such threats emerge as a tribalist Europe consumed by hatred and fear. They break the spell of normalcy that had deceived its young narrator, and they expel him into an uncertain future.
For a book whose title means gibberish, or nonsense, Ghachar Ghochar packs a lot of substance. Delving deeply into the ambitions and emotions of the Indian middle-class, it joins a crowded field of books dealing with the harsh realities this demographic has to face each and every day, especially in India’s neon-inflicted mall culture and corporate-business-parks-brandishing metropolises. What makes this novel stand out is how it poses itself as a “novel of the family,” with the twist that it relates what happens after the family has attained the limits (and sometimes beyond) of its early ambitions.
The Devil Is a Black Dog is a relentlessly masculine book: a white, straight, Western, male book by a photojournalist whose name, when Googled, returns a photo of the author brandishing a semi-automatic weapon. Tobacco, alcohol, violence, and Sudanese prostitutes are recurring presences in this collection of close to twenty short stories unfurling from North Africa to the Middle East to Eastern Europe. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the bulk of the laudatory reviews that this book has garnered have been authored by white, presumably straight, Western males. All of which will, understandably, turn people away from the book and this review. Understandable, perhaps, but also a shame.
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