Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Rumaan Alam on Elif Batumans Either … orBrandon Taylor on Teddy Waynes The Great Man TheoryAlexandra Kleeman on K-Ming Changs gods of distressRachel Cooke on Jordan Cranes keep twoand Joanna Scutts on Damien Lewis’ Agent Josephine.
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“The wild little machines featured in Taiwanese-American writer K-Ming Chang’s first collection, gods of distress…feel so unexpected: everyone is possessed by a strong hunger, an urge to metabolize the recognizable features of a familiar world and transform it into something wilder and painfully alive… Chang pushes the language into strange, disturbing inversions, eroding its given meanings … At times the rhythmic, idiosyncratic nature of these transformations can feel a bit repetitive, but the persistent quality of Chang’s aesthetic is a powerful gesture in and of itself … Chang channels the exodus, the uncertainty, the surrounding unrest and the threat of disappearance that lead to it belong to the emigrant experience in a sinewy text that reflects this deep fungibility. It’s an insatiable, exploratory collection, a testament to just how exciting short stories can be.”
–Alexandra Kleeman on K-Ming Changs gods of distress (New York Times book review)
“After all, quirky characters often make for interesting novels. Think of Saul Bellow’s splenic heroes: Moses Herzog, Augie March and ArturCollector. Paul most closely resembles the first of these men, and The Great Man Theory itself resembles duke (1964), a lament novel aimed at various people and institutions in the protagonist’s life… At such moments, Wayne transforms the smug hurtfulness of the contemporary liberal into an amusing society comedy that is, at best, a worthy successor to those seriocomic novels by Bellow. The most compelling and interesting part of The Great Man Theory is the way it captures an unsettling transformation happening in schools, homes, offices, comment sections and Twitter threads around the world. I don’t mean the insidious rise of the alt-right or the manosphere. I mean the transformation of seemingly enlightened liberals and left-centrists into intimidating paranoids plagued by a shadowy legion of bad actors… He captures both the pathetic and the amusing and painfully poignant nature of this transformation, how it can hollow out a human being… the finale Turning to melodrama just feels contrived and fake. It makes the novel less clever, less compelling, less human. Wayne had the opportunity to write a real life novel about frustrated contemporary masculinity and the way white liberal men are also being corrupted by the internet and its continued entitlement. Instead, what readers end up finding The Great Man Theory is that its author was laughing at her and his characters the whole time. A furious ending to what was almost a great but ultimately bawdy novel.”
–Brandon Taylor on Teddy Waynes The Great Man Theory (New York Times book review)
“It’s a sequel where we pick up right where we left off: there’s the dead voice, the anthropological glimpse into mid-1990s American college life, the catalog of minor humiliations and grandiose thoughts… Are ideas enough, to make a novel ? Either … or is Batuman’s attempt to prove they are. Forget ‘metacomic’ Either … or is a novel that also argues scientifically as a novel… The voice is intimate and idiosyncratic, the principle of order is diary-like… Each chapter initially lasts a week, then it picks up speed and each chapter lasts a whole month. This one-sided treatment reflects what youth feels like, at least in my memory – an endless, informal wait… Either … or feels true to the experience of growing up; Whether we want the fiction to accurately reflect reality is another matter… Batuman is a very funny writer, and funny writing strikes me as the pinnacle of intelligence… But the humor here is so haunting, it’s almost a tic. Does it spring from a desire to show off the narrator’s intelligence, or worse, does it expose you as stupid when you’re fed up? … The emotional impact of the novel is based on the reader’s distance from her own youth; We understand that time is inevitable and we hope it will be kind to Selin… I cannot deny that Batuman is a confident litigator. Your novels anticipate any criticism I might make. And even though I laughed a lot while reading, I still worry that I’m missing part of the joke. Maybe I’m the idiot.”
–Rumaan Alam on Elif Batumans Either … or (The New York Review of Books)
“There’s a good reason why Jordan Crane’s amazing new graphic novel, a beautiful looking book with rounded corners and thick ivory paper, looks a bit like an expensive diary. keep two is in fact a kind of diary, the narrative of which consists almost entirely of the innermost thoughts of its two characters. As in a diary, not much seems to happen for pages, and yet everything happens … is not easy to read. An award-winning cartoonist, Crane is ambitious for his medium and his narrative constantly shifts between past and present, fantasy and reality, at a pace that can be bewildering; every page — every frame — is bathed in a vibrant leafy green, making it difficult at times to read the characters’ emotions (it’s also quite tiring on the eye after a few hundred pages). But it also pays for patience, its powerful climax at once deeply connected to and utterly at odds with the frustrating detours that precede it. When it comes to claustrophobia and loss at times, its larger message has to do with human connection: how much we crave it and how easily we take it for granted.”
–Rachel Cooke on Jordan Cranes keep two (The guard)
“Given the value, danger, and sheer extravagance of Baker’s espionage activities, it’s a shame she hasn’t found a better chronicler of her exploits or complicated history. To the Agent Josephine, Damien Lewis, the British author of several military history and biographical works, dug into inaccessible archives and the chronicles left by key figures to produce an account that is highly detailed but sadly lacking in psychological insight or narrative panache … Despite Baker’s nominal centrality, Lewis is more comfortable with the male characters in her story, whom he can fit into familiar storylines … for an author like Lewis, who is evidently steeped in Fleming’s work, there is a constant buzz of astonishment that Josephine Baker would, or could, work as a secret agent… The ins and outs of her espionage career are remarkable and certainly worth mentioning – both in this form and in the film adaptation, which this book has kept an eye on throughout. But what’s really remarkable is that she’s been so consistently underrated. Josephine Baker was a spy all along.”
–Joanna Scutts on Damien Lewis’ Agent Josephine: American beauty, French heroine, British spy (airmail)