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Great Neck

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While not yet a large enough collection to call a subgenre, several books have appeared in the past few years with enough in common to hint at one. Their authors seem to have sublimated the lessons of postmodernism and used them to reinvent the novel of family life. Think of Franzen’s The Corrections and perhaps also Eugenides’s Middlesex, and now add Great Neck to the list. All of these are as ambitious as their ancestors in their willingness to sprawl, and they explode the details of domesticity across their many pages. Cantor’s contribution concerns the residents of the eponymous Long Island suburb, particularly a group of privileged, mostly Jewish friends who pass from childhood into adulthood as the civil-rights movement of the sixties and seventies unfolds. Obviously, political and racial themes are prominent—one character states, “if the body on trial is a black one, then justice is always far from blind. Criminal justice is always only criminal politicsâ€?—but the real interest here is in the way the characters are built through a steady accretion of observation and incident. The book is densely written, with a knotty chronology that takes a step back every time it takes two steps forward, and in its surfeit of detail it captures the sense of living through an almost paralyzing era that featured far too much to think about and do. Reading Great Neck requires almost the same amount of effort as living a life; those who are willing to work will find that Cantor’s created a rewarding plenitude.
Camouflage: Stories

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Australian writer Murray Bail is mainly noted as a novelist, but he’s also produced a small body of short fiction that’s at last available in the U.S. Camouflage assembles fourteen stories (eleven more than the UK edition with the same title, be warned), comprising a tidy overview of his career. It’s hard to tell which of the pieces are of recent vintage, first because the publisher provides no provenances, but more importantly because they’re all equally fresh and equally timeless. Whatever setting Bail depicts, whether it be a suburban backyard, a competitive office, or a reverent museum, he subtly defamiliarizes it, always making it seem new and often rendering it positively uncanny. His style is flexible enough to paint perfect verbal portraits and to experiment with formal boundaries, sometimes in the same paragraph. His prose is economical, almost terse at times, suggestive far beyond what it makes explicit. While there’s no mistaking Bail’s voice, several other authors sprang to mind as I read these stories—Penelope Fitzgerald for her compression of ideas, Steven Millhauser for his dreaminess, Robert Coover for his innovation—and what they all have in common is their confident mastery. Like them, Bail is an assured writer in perfect command, able to achieve any effect he might wish. He can be sedate or shocking by turns, and is frequently funny in either mode, but the most prevalent tone in this volume is one of detached melancholy, as when he writes, “She sat at my kitchen table one afternoon and wept uncontrollably. How can words, particularly ‘wept uncontrollably,’ convey her sadness (her self-pity)? Philosophers other than myself have discussed the inadequacy of words.â€? Whatever truth there may be in the discussions of those philosophers, there’s no inadequacy in Camouflage.
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

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There is no bleaker or more bitter book. There is no better or more beautiful one, either. This novel, Cormac McCarthy's finest, depicts violence so depraved as to be almost unbearable, and doesn't ameliorate its impact by confining the evil within one or two sociopathic characters. His violence is institutionalized and endemic. His vision indicts the entire project of Western expansionism, and goes farther to become a threnody for the debased human condition.The writing in this book, though, is so careful and pure that the act of reading it is itself redemptive. As the story grows ever more horrific and threatens to engulf the reader in despair, the cumulative power of detail and diction elevates the spirit and mind. More than almost any other book, "Blood Meridian" shows art's ability to ennoble us while it illustrates our worst aspects.The experience is exhilarating.
The Golden Age

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A novel of inaction, lassitude and unfinished business that turns out to be stuffed with incident. The narrator explains the strange culture and geography of the Atlantic island that was his home for three years--the place is nameless because the local language shifts so frequently that nothing sticks, and the inhabitants are mostly noted for their apparent indolence--and freely admits that his story barely qualifies as such, with no climax or even plot to speak of, and risks boring his scanty readership. But along the way, the book becomes a modern 1001 Nights, with digressive tales nested within tales, each topping the last in invention. A jewel thief makes a daring escape across a snowy roof; an astronomer loses himself in the lives of the otherworldly creatures he observes through his telescope; generations of royalty are destroyed by poisons, magic and plain old violence . . . far more goes on, in fact, than would seem to fit inside of The Golden Age's 300 pages.What it all adds up to is another question, of course. The islanders would be befuddled by our search for "meaning" in any of this, which would seem to be at least part of Ajvaz's point. The book is actually quite provocative in its philosophical approach, and calls into question many of the assumptions of Western civilzation, directly in its discussion of island life and even more potently through its atypical approach to narrative. In terms of sophistication and importance, Swift and Kafka are the names that are brought to mind. There's a sharp picture of modern life lurking behind the apparently unstructured surrealism. I especially liked the glimpse of budding, then fading romance that's captured in the narrator's almost offhanded mentions of his erstwhile island paramour. I've probably made The Golden Age sound like pretty heavy going, but it's not. Though the details are often baroque, the language is clear and uncomplicated, and though it can give rise to serious reflection, Ajvaz doesn't ever seem to be taking himself too seriously. Just on the level of sheer imagination, it's tremendously enjoyable, outdoing the wildest productions of the SF and fantasy world. Take note, genre authors--this is where the bar's been set. Anyone with an interest in writing that lies outside the mainstream should take a look at what Ajvaz is up to.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

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An excellent, accessible and enjoyable book. The author makes a surprising number of persuasive connections between then-current events in Engand and the poetry and plays that are believed to have been written in 1599. I'm not sure whether this year was really the single most important in Shakespeare's career, but I'd happily read a whole series of titles that employ this conceit.
Bear v. Shark: The Novel

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Constantine, the typical tyro playwright in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,â€? famously rejects convention, cries out for new forms, and produces a tedious flop. Thankfully, Chris Bachelder, a first-time novelist, realizes the value of having something relatively old to say. Bear v. Shark tells the satirical tale of an ordinary American family traveling to Las Vegas to witness the greatest—that is, most-hyped—spectacle of this or any age, a staged battle between two of nature’s most perfect killing machines. The deadliest thing in the novel, unsurprisingly, is the inescapable, soul-deadening mass media machinery that promotes the event and turns domestic life into a cartoon. TV a vast wasteland? Imagine that. Bachelder freely acknowledges that this point has been dulled by repeated use, however, and he resharpens it by doing so. Part of his fun is referencing nearly all of the literary lions who’ve said something about consumer culture, borrowing styles and dropping names along the way. Rather than seeming derivative, the book is a veritable primer on postmodernism, a metafictional homage to everyone who’s written countercultural essays in the form of metafictional novels, an entertaining set of Cliffs Notes for every undergraduate who hasn’t read the overstuffed masterworks of the last forty years. In one chapter of Bear v. Shark, the “American Vacationâ€? reality program chronicles the family’s trip, with commentary provided by a young unknown—Chris Blackletter? Backacher? Badchildren? Something like that. A viewer e-mails: “Where’s Pynchon. My Internet cable listing said it was going to be Pynchon doing color. That guy with the cummerbund ain’t Pynchon.â€? No, he isn’t, and neither is he Barth, or DeLillo, or David Foster Wallace, but he’s a pretty good simulation and he’s funny as hell.
Peace

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An old man sifts through his memories, his seeming confusion masterfully controlled by the author. Peace is so beautifully written that I lingered through a first reading and wanted to start again as soon as it ended. Rich and strange.
New Grub Street

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Conventional wisdom describes the Victorian era as a golden age of literature, when novelists such as Dickens and Eliot could produce work that was both lasting and lucrative, work that intelligently plumbed the depths of human character and entertainingly splashed in the shallows of high society. Those who love the triple-decker masterpieces of this era may well enjoy this briefer work that illuminates the conditions under which those masters labored. Gissing's juxtaposed tales of success and failure are an excellent reminder of the ways in which his time was much like our own; then, as now, glibness and topicality paid the rent better than integrity and truth. His characters, like us but unlike most literary figures, think daily about their economic constraints and possibilities. By the end of "New Grub Street," we know all too well the price art exacts on the heart and on the pocketbook. Gissing's view may focus on the rougher side of his profession, but the flaws his harsh light exposes on the Victorian antiques make them seem all the more human and all the more valuable.
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