Anthony Domestico is a writer and an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, State University of New York. His book, Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. His book reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Commonweal, among other places. Anthony can be found on Twitter @tony_domestico
How to Set a Fire and WhyJesse Ball
RaveThe Boston Globe...the most remarkable achievement of this novel, is its narrative voice. It belongs to Lucia Stanton, the novel’s disaffected, Holden Caulfield-style young narrator and heroine. Lucia is a marvelous creation and the richness of her voice — its intelligence, its casual precision — is felt on the very first page ... What makes How to Set a Fire and Why so radical, though, isn’t its politics. At least within Ball’s career, the novel is radical because of how traditional — how voice- and character-driven — it all feels. (I mean that as a compliment.) To deeply inhabit a character’s perspective and voice, Ball suggests, can be its own form of rigorous experimentation.
Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleStation Eleven is terrifying, reminding us of how paper-thin the achievements of civilization are. But it’s also surprisingly — and quietly — beautiful … Mandel’s decision to open with ‘King Lear’ is appropriate, since much of the rest of the novel explores what the raging king describes as ‘unaccommodated man’ — humanity stripped of luxury and easefulness. Mandel moves back and forth between the pre- and postapocalyptic worlds, but the most effective parts are those that are set after the flu has hit … Station Eleven is a superb novel. Unlike most postapocalyptic works, it leaves us not fearful for the end of the world but appreciative of the grace of everyday existence.
The Seventh Function of LanguageLaurent Binet, Trans. by Sam Taylor
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleEven as the pages rip by and the melodrama piles up — more murders, a suicide, some ritualized disfigurements — Binet acknowledges and delights in the silliness of it all ... So does it all work? Not as much as one would hope. Partly it’s a problem of what Jakobson calls the 'conative' function of language. Who, exactly, is the imagined audience for this book? To be sure, readers of theory will chuckle over the novel’s many cameos — there’s John Searle! there’s Jonathan Culler! — and happily identify its Easter eggs. But the Wikipedia-level engagement with ideas — a page on signification here, a paragraph on rhetoric and semiology there — will leave such readers unmoved. The theory isn’t made new, and the theorists are delightfully absurd but also terribly one-note ... Binet has written a perfect beach read about semiotics — no small feat. Yet he doesn’t show why we, professors and common readers alike, should care about theory once we’ve closed the book. By making the stakes of its ideas so cheekily high, The Seventh Function of Language drains them of their actual excitement. Binet gives us theory as melodrama, but he doesn’t give us theory as drama — that is, as a source and subject of real significance.
RaveThe Boston Globe...[a] wild and spectacular new novel. It’s a book that strips away civilization’s fripperies in an attempt to discover the savagery beneath and beyond. Kingsnorth wants us to see the world not as we’ve been habituated to see it, through the lenses of technology and capital, but as it is in its primal form ... Beast reads like Samuel Beckett. It’s hard and lean: lean in plot, lean in character (the narrator, Edward Buckmaster, is the only human we encounter), and lean in style. All the fat has been stripped away; only the bones and sinews of language remain ... Walter Pater famously declared that all art aspires to the condition of music. This book suggests that all great art aspires to the condition of theology: It longs to speak of that which exceeds human speech. 'It is so hard to put into words into these clumsy words that say nothing,' Buckmaster laments. But words are all we have, and Kingsnorth’s Beast uses them, clumsy as they are, to get at the nothing and the everything that lurks beneath.
All We Shall KnowDonal Ryan
RaveThe Boston GlobeAll We Shall Know is a dwarf star of a novel: small, dark, impressively dense. This isn’t to say that it’s difficult. This is the Irish writer Donal Ryan’s third novel, each a work of literary fiction — structurally intricate but not experimental; linguistically alive but not distractingly so — that goes down easy...Rather, All We Shall Know is dense in that its few pages (under 200) contain great richness. The novel displays a narrative and thematic compression that is even more impressive given the novel’s disorderly melodramatic content ... Ryan examines the deadening compulsion and sick pleasure to be found in intimate sniping, where hatred of self is projected outward only to boomerang back, creating a Möbius strip of cruelty. Terribly bleak yet terrifically done ... Remarkably, All We Shall Know makes a novel about the heaviness of existence into something that is even, and easy — and, at times, perfect, and right.
The AnswersCatherine Lacey
RaveThe Boston GlobeSuch an inventive setup isn’t merely an excuse for Lacey to show off her considerable inventiveness. It also allows her to dig into some fertile philosophical ground, raising questions to which the novel, against its title and like all good art, offers no final answers: Is love merely a script, provided to us by biology and culture, that we follow unthinkingly? Or is it the most singular experience we ever have? Or is it somehow both? All too often books with a killer premise languish at the level of the sentence, where great fiction really lives. The Answers succeeds at this level, too ... Love is a strange, strange thing, and so is the self. No one in contemporary fiction does a better job of showing us these facts than Catherine Lacey.
The Essex SerpentSarah Perry
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction ... It’s a sign of Perry’s narrative elegance that she’s able to weave into her story’s Gothic frame two very different aspects of 19th century cultural life: the burgeoning field of natural science, with Darwin’s evolutionary theory spurring interest in paleontology and geology; and the fraught arena of Christian belief, which seemed challenged by such scientific developments. The Essex Serpent is a remarkably good novel of ideas. It’s also remarkably well written, with fine descriptions of both the natural world and the human body, as in this crystallization of stunted marital intimacy.
House of NamesColm Tóibín
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThis exquisite novelistic control shouldn’t surprise. As readers of Brooklyn and Nora Webster can attest, Tóibín has done this before. But it’s striking given the new work’s decidedly messy, violent plot ... despite the obvious craft, House of Names drains the original tragedy of much that makes it so strangely powerful. Rereading Aeschylus’ Oresteia, I was struck anew by just how unlike us the Greeks were. Their thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are their ways our ways. In Tóibín’s version, we lose the chorus, which means we lose the Greek sense that the self might be as much communal as it is singular. We also lose the sense of tragic inevitably, of a largely deterministic cosmos in which, when one domino goes down, the others must as well. For Tóibín, it’s individual subjectivity and agency all the way down.
Tóibín is of course free to re-create ancient figures in our own image. Who would want to say such an artistic appropriation, especially one done so well, is off limits? So let’s instead acknowledge Tóibín’s brilliant version of this story — and then go back to the weird brilliance of the original.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeIn Augustown, characters look at place, and they see time. They look at their scarred hills and see 'the dark shadow of history': colonialism, slavery, structural racism. Yet they also look at their land and see the future, a time when justice will reign and tears will be wiped away ... Miller’s poetry provides memorable line after line: 'every language, even yours, / is a partial map of this world.' In Augustown, Miller is more interested in a good story than in obvious lyrical brilliance ... If anything maps the way to Zion, Miller suggests, it’s this continued witness to untold history, this attention to how the glimmer of the future might be seen in the past.
Anything is PossibleElizabeth Strout
RaveThe Boston Globe...to see Strout as simply interested in regret is to ignore the simultaneous presence in her fiction of something very different: unbidden, shattering grace. Strout frequently shows us what Flannery O’Connor called 'the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace' into human lives. In these moments, a deeper knowledge of self becomes possible; radical change — from selfishness to selflessness; from bitterness to love — becomes imaginable...Anything Is Possible confirms Strout as one of our most grace-filled, and graceful, writers ... There’s a gift to be found in this simple sharing of pain. It’s the gift of grace, the place where this book finds possibility in a vale of tears.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleJulie Buntin’s excellent first novel, Marlena, emerges from two very different novelistic traditions. On the one hand, Buntin’s careful attention to place (wild, beautiful, meth-riven northern Michigan) and class (the working vs. the non-working poor) marks her as a realist in the David Means or Stuart Dybek mode ... Balanced against this class-attentive realism, though, is something very different: a wild, gorgeous evocation of the wildness gorgeousness of youth ... longing makes itself felt in the novel’s many lyrical passages, an intense shimmering that recalls Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. If Marlena has one foot in the world of Midwestern realism, then it has another in the world of visionary fiction.
White TearsHari Kunzru
RaveThe Boston Globe...what is most impressive about this truly impressive novel is how integrated these apparently disparate parts are, how White Tears reads less like a grab bag of Kunzru’s obsessions (a crucial word in this text) than a coherent, if disturbing, vision of what America has meant and continues to mean ... In leading us surrealistically toward the heart of the blues, White Tears offers a realistic, far-ranging analysis of how capitalistic accumulation depends upon exploitation and how frequently this exploitation has depended upon racial violence. This balancing of the nightmarish and the clear-eyed is superb, and White Tears is Kunzru’s best book yet.
A SeparationKatie Kitamura
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleKatie Kitamura’s A Separation should be added to the list of superb novels of romantic endings ... Kitamura, like Ferrante and Cusk, is interested in writerly passivity, in how the self-effacement called forth by the writer’s craft might complicate the writer’s life, especially the female writer’s life ... A Separation displays Kitamura’s stylistic control once again. The writing is lucid, cool, often muted, less prone to sentence fragments than Gone to the Forest was, more likely to bring simple clauses together into longer, rhythmic sentences. And Kitamura again creates an atmosphere of dreadful expectation ... Violence of all kinds, not just against other bodies but against other minds, remains Kitamura’s quarry. A Separation proves that few stalk such game more patiently or more powerfully.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
RaveThe Boston Globe...Whitehead gives us a grave and fully realized masterpiece, a weird blend of history and fantasy that will have critics rightfully making comparisons to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García-Márquez... Lovely and rare, dark and imaginative, The Underground Railroad’ is Whitehead’s best work and an important American novel.
Only the AnimalsCeridwen Dovey
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe collection raises serious philosophical questions, but it also exhibits, in every story, Dovey’s delight in meeting the imaginative challenge she has set herself.
The Hatred of PoetryBen Lerner
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor...[a] sharp, learned, and thrilling new book ... Lerner convincingly argues that the failures of individual poems – of all individual poems – also serve as the grounds for celebration. We only come to sense poetic perfection, Lerner argues, by measuring how far actual poems fall short ... Lerner is a fine critic, with a lucid style and quicksilver mind ... But perhaps most remarkable is just how entertaining, how witty and passionate and funny, The Hatred of Poetry is. The book is polemical, no doubt, but reading it is less like overhearing a professor’s lecture than like listening to a professor entertain a crowd of students over pints after class.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIt’s only January, but I doubt that I’ll read a better novel this year than Rachel Cusk’s Transit. Cusk writes in a cut-glass style that is elegant, austere, and disciplined — an important word in a novel about gaining control over the self and fate. Yet this cool, balanced style is used to describe the hottest of feelings and the most destabilizing of experiences ... Faye is more of a presence in this novel than in the last. She’s still an outline, but she’s a clearer one ... At this midpoint in Cusk’s series, Faye remains in transit. But under the beautifully composed surface, the plates of Faye’s self are shifting.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
RaveThe Boston GlobeSmith has written Swing Time in the first person, and this choice allows for an easy confidence and grace that hasn’t quite been present in her fiction before ... As always, Smith writes sharply about race and class ... The Aimee chapters, with their occasional bits on celebrity or Western do-gooderism, are interesting but a little less deeply felt, a little less original. Those sections where Smith carefully, almost phenomenologically portrays what it’s like to be poor, brown, female, and ambitious are among the most brilliant she has written in her already brilliant career.
A Gambler's AnatomyJonathan Lethem
MixedThe Boston GlobeIf you love Pynchon, then you’ll find all of this amusing. If you don’t, you won’t. A Gambler’s Anatomy is at its best not when presenting us with a tiring and tiresome Pynchonesque performance but when thinking about the nature of performance itself — the points at which performance and container, mask and face, meet and merge.
The Big Green TentLudmila Ulitskaya
MixedThe Boston Globe...messily plotted yet historically textured, sometimes flatly written yet always sympathetically imagined — a patchy, vibrant mass.
Forty RoomsOlga Grushin
MixedThe Boston GlobeThis is a flawed book. The novel’s structure, in moving from one moment and room to another without connective tissue, makes several decisions seem unmotivated. Grushin’s dialogue also often falls flat ... But this novel isn’t after perfection, either of life or work. Rather, it shows how life is built out of adjustment — dreams tempered and poetry transformed into prose.
The Sport of KingsC.E. Morgan
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleThe Sport of Kings marshals linguistic profligacy in order to approach reality’s extravagance. Morgan’s sentences often use a paratactic structure, linking clauses with a simple comma; long stretches read like litanies. This deeply cadenced structure, typical of the King James Bible, holds out the promise that if only one more item could be added to the list, the world might be captured in language. It is a sign of Morgan’s mastery that she almost convinces us that she can accomplish this impossible task...The Sport of Kings roils with anger and shimmers with beauty. It is a contemporary masterpiece.
The AbundanceAnnie Dillard
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorWhat a gift Annie Dillard’s The Abundance is. Over her 40-year career, Dillard has proven herself one of America’s most accomplished stylists and one of its most mesmerizing sensibilities. Her natural descriptions equal those of Thoreau, and her soul is as theological as Marilynne Robinson’s.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...supremely gonzo and supremely good...Hystopia often reads, strange as it sounds, like a Jamesian investigation of knowledge, albeit one fueled by amphetamines. To live in American history, Means suggests, is to negotiate continuously between knowing and not knowing, unfolding and enfolding.
The NIxNathan Hill
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe novel has real strengths, especially Hill’s ability to integrate historical detail smoothly into a well-orchestrated plot. But The Nix isn’t a complete success. It’s a cliché to say that a first novel could use a good pruning, but this one really could ... The prose also is uneven. When Hill strains after metaphor, he often fails ... The Nix is a good but not great novel.
The Magician King
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe Magician King is a more assured creation. In this sequel, there are still allusions to other works of fantasy, from Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Doctor Who to Highlander, but these seem to be less satirical jabs than a fanboy’s acknowledgment of his precursors ... This novel is largely about learning limits ... This is an idea familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, and it is a sign of Grossman’s growing strength as a novelist that he is willing to invoke in his revisionary work this most traditional lesson. The Magician King is a rare achievement, a book that simultaneously criticizes and celebrates our deep desire for fantasy.
The Angel of HistoryRabih Alameddine
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[an] excellent, lissome new novel ... While I’ve been describing the novel as a relatively straightforward narrative about poetry and loss, it also contains a fanciful (and not entirely successful) structural frame ... Alameddine intersperses Jacob’s narration with an ongoing conversation between Satan and Death...Lest this sound overly academic, let me say that Alameddine is able to make this intertextuality sexy ... The Angel of History suggests that to be alienated — from past love and from the past itself — is to open the door to memory and creation. To dwell within Jacob’s mind and to read Alameddine’s prose is to see loss, if not mastered, then at least made into lively and living art.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
RaveThe Boston GlobeThe best works of cultural history aren’t those that provoke a mere nod of assent, the sense that history was just so. Rather, they’re books that adrenalize and agitate, provoke a response, cause you to underline, argue, and curse. By this standard, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve is a good book indeed ... This book is frequently very good, as when Greenblatt examines Renaissance depictions of Eden ... Yet there are also stretches that had me sometimes literally shaking my fist — the long section on Augustine, in particular. All Christian theology is a footnote to Augustine, and Greenblatt rightly emphasizes the theologian’s centrality to later Christian thought on will and desire, human fallenness and divine mercy. Less convincingly, Greenblatt interprets Augustine’s theology as a working out of the guilt he felt over sexual desire ... All critics have biases. Greenblatt’s is a tendency to see all of history pointing toward, and finding its ultimate fulfillment in, Renaissance humanism ... Arguing with Greenblatt about these ideas is a pleasure, though, as is his clear prose and the fluidity with which he moves between paintings and poems and polemics. This is the kind of book — lucid and delightfully infuriating — that I wish more academic superstars would write.
Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but HereAngela Palm
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorAll of this is well done, though the story – a writer leaving home and finding herself as a writer – is also well worn. What differentiates Riverine, though, is two-fold. First, Palm is a particularly good observer of class...The second distinctive quality is Palm’s description of her relationship with Corey ... Unfortunately, Palm’s relationship with Corey drops away for long stretches, and the pages devoted to Palm’s struggles as a 20-something in Indianapolis and her decision to become a writer in Vermont drag considerably.
The Twelve-Mile Straight
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...to be fair, Eleanor Henderson’s excellent second novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight, possesses many Faulknerian elements ... In its early sections, the novel jumps between times and characters ...centers on a mystery — who are the twins’ actual parents? — that isn’t a mystery for very long. Early on, we know that Juke is at the center of it all. More specifically, we know that Juke’s sexual relationships with both Nan and her deceased mother will untie the knot of parentage. The characters in the novel know this, too ...a grander, meatier novel, as befits its subject matter. The tangled plot might be the stuff of melodrama, but so is American racial history. Besides, the writing is precise, not purplish ...such happenings aren’t just the stuff of the imagination, they’re the stuff of American history, and Henderson’s book gives this history, with all its ghosts and secrets and desires, powerful voice.