This week’s carnival of laudable criticism features Yiyun Li on Elizabeth McCrackens The hero of this bookCatherine Lacey on Gwendoline Rileys my phantoms and First loveMegan O’Grady on Yiyun Lis The Book of the GooseLaura Miller on Elizabeth Strouts Lucia by the seaand Ryan Ruby at Ian McEwan Instruction.
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“I wonder if this is the first time St. Paul’s has been compared to a moose. Some authors eloquently describe human habitats; others write with wisdom about nature. McCracken sees the moose in the middle of London, an image that perfectly sums up the essence of her fiction: seemingly nonsensical, yet perfectly sensible. The world that is strange in the first place is often made even stranger by our minds. McCracken captures the twilight zone between the conscious and the subconscious, where intuitions are not yet discarded, impulses are not yet smothered… I could easily imagine McCracken’s new book being endowed with one of these systems: This is a novel around loss and grief; a novel aroundresilience and renewal; a novel around a mother-daughter relationship; a novel aroundWrite. These descriptions present the book as I learned to draw a bird in kindergarten: a circle for the head, an oval for the body, two triangles for the wings. But McCracken is one of those fleet-footed writers who never lets the hustle and bustle catch, or even reliably pursue… Like Elizabeth Bowen and Penelope Fitzgerald before her, McCracken is good at capturing those shadowy glimpses and fleeting thoughts in the corners of the mind’s eye, leading to the Makes the reader feel like they are reliving something, although one cannot be sure if it is the past or the future. Has her work brought us back to long-buried memories or to expectations and ideas that we have yet to articulate? … The secret of McCracken’s writing style, it may be said, is her relationship with her characters. She knows and loves them: body and soul.”
–Yiyun Li on Elizabeth McCracken The hero of this book (Harpers)
“In the world of Gwendoline Riley novels, parental love is untrustworthy. What should come here from the house seems crooked and conditional. A reader gets the clear feeling that nothing – not even this supposedly pure emotion – is wasted… There are so many similarities between these two novels that a chapter from one could be inserted into the other without interruption. In this way, my phantoms and First love act almost like a diptych that illuminates and reflects on each other’s concerns and questions. In both we see a young woman trying to love and be loved. In both, a self-absorbed mother is portrayed in exacting, scathing detail. In both cases, an estranged father is dead… Anyone who’s been in an emotionally toxic relationship will cringe with appreciation, and anyone curious about what it’s like might have a good place to start… Both books burst with that kind of painful dialogue, punctuated by endings coming out of nowhere – a knife stabbing a proclamation against a wall… These episodes of domestic confusion at certain moments reminded me of Raymond Carver’s lost, love-hungry men and women. Like Carver’s, Riley’s characters keep throwing themselves at each other trying to get a moment of pure human connection, only to get away with bruises instead.”
–Catherine Lacey on Gwendoline Rileys my phantoms and First love (The Atlantic)
“Li, of course, was never the kind of writer to tell you what you wanted to hear, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why, despite being in her forties, she’s become one of our best living writers: her elegant metaphysics never died of blood and maggots. Agnès and Fabienne manage to create an excitingly illicit world of their own making, one that acknowledges their pain, but Li doesn’t shy away from the girls’ emotional fascism. The village’s indifferent cruelty is reenacted both in the fictional empire they have built and in the way they manipulate their real-life elders to dire consequences. Aspects of their hothouse friendship may at first invite comparison to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but as the novel progresses and Agnès ends up in a British senior school at the behest of a PR-savvy headmistress, I was reminded of the cooler registers of Fleur Jaeggy and Muriel Spark. Their relationship becomes one of correspondence – Fabienne sends Agnès letters both under her own name and under that of an imaginary suitor – and the rules of the game, their friendship and even the novel itself become increasingly ambiguous… All fiction is a kind of hoax in that it Weave deception and evoke real feelings with fictional characters and situations. The most entertaining of Li’s novels, The Book of the Goose is an existential fable that sheds light on the tangle of motivations behind our storywriting: to grasp and avenge the truth of our own being, to let people know what it feels like to be ourselves, to commemorate the people we are in keep our hearts alive in the provincial villages. But it is the motives behind our impulse to read fiction and why we so eagerly engage in this delusion that has struck me through Li’s novel: the desire to suspend life in order to return to it, more specifically and vividly, familiar to us – and perhaps in believing in our own consistency despite all the evidence to the contrary.”
– Megan O’Grady on Yiyun Lis The Book of the Goose (New York Times book review)
“Like all of Strout’s novels, Lucia by the sea has an anecdotal surface that belies a solid underlying structure. It’s meant to feel like life – random, surprising, occasionally lit with flashes of greater meaning – but it’s art. The Shaker simplicity of Strout’s prose stretches to accommodate Lucy’s confusion as she tackles the great project of her life: trying to understand those around her…Strout builds her fiction from moments like these, small hurts and Kindnesses that make up the architecture of human relationships. Readers of the series will recognize that Lucy’s unstable feelings must be a bit of a stretch… She’s a perfectly believable blend of solipsism and sympathy, just as William is both an indifferent confidant and a steadfast protector… The intimacy of Strout’s fiction doesn’t lend itself particularly well on topicality, and as the novel makes careers through recent disasters, from the Covid death toll in New York to the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 riot, his voice occasionally becomes stilted. Lucy Barton’s appeal lies in the immediacy with which she experiences the people and events around her, but here, like so many Americans during the pandemic, she connects to the world primarily through screens and reading a friend’s obituary website and watch the Black Lives Matter protests on TV. Lucy’s responses to all of this feel generic and a bit on the nose… There’s a naïve purity about Lucy that has made her valuable to countless readers of Strout’s work, and a little of that gets lost in her short story and her sets doubt it aside. In a novel full of losses – for Lucy and William are of an age when losses are common – this is a small loss, but it hurts nonetheless.”
–Laura Miller on Elizabeth Strouts Lucia by the sea (The New Yorker)
“Fame has been kind to Ian McEwan, but not to his writing… As befits a regular on the international festival scene, with the occasional byline at the Guardian On the opinion side, his treatment of issues such as the Iraq war, climate change, euthanasia, artificial intelligence and Brexit could be described as narrativized panditry. For this, McEwan was rewarded with increasing non-literary notoriety… It’s all in there Instruction, whose story ends within a year and a half of publication, gives the impression that it was written in the utmost haste… In the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three ominous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any impact on the following four hundred as if they were story coupons that McEwan cut out but forgot to redeem. McEwan’s novel is less an epic and more like three short stories in a trench coat… If that all sounds good, it has less to do with the necessary evil of summarizing the plot in book reviews and more to do with the didactics McEwan used to describe these and other praecepta in the novel self-conveyed… The historical events seem to serve two narrative functions: as substitutes for the kind of concrete details other novelists use to convey the quiddity of a character’s experience of the world, and as markers of the passage of time… Just like people who follow lived the iron curtain, had no shortage of reading material, than mediocre e like Instruction, the market is currently condemning far better books than it to smaller print runs than a samizdat. McEwan, a bestselling Booker Prize-winning Commander of the British Empire, is neither obscure nor powerless…Instruction was written in complete freedom. What did he need it for?”
–Ryan Ruby on Ian McEwans Instruction (New left review)