Christian Lorentzen is a book critic for New York Magazine/Vulture and an Editor at Large for the London Review of Books. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Movieline, the Hartford Courant, the New York Journal-News, the RBS Gazette, the New York Sun, BlackBook, TimeOut New York, Tar, and the National. He can be found on Twitter @xlorentzen
Dear CyborgsEugene Lim
RaveVultureDear Cyborgs is a novel of ideas, small, elegant ideas about art and protest, and one of the most striking literary works to emerge from the Occupy movement ... The possible futility, complicity, and co-optation of protest are the ideas Dear Cyborgs circles around without ever giving up on the idea that resistance is essential ... I had expected the decade’s wave of protests to yield a raft of conventional social novels — some earnest, some satirical, perhaps not a few reactionary — but in Dear Cyborgs Lim has delivered something far more idiosyncratic, intricate, and useful: a novel that resists and subverts conventions at every turn.
The AnswersCatherine Lacey
PositiveVultureIn her ruthless self-liberation and her willful ignorance of the world she’s entered, Mary blends cynicism and innocence, the rival spirits that govern The Answers, managed by Lacey to woozy and disquieting effect ... Kurt is a hodgepodge of Hollywood clichés dipped in a batter of solipsism. As such, he’s perfectly designed for the elegantly executed plot that drives The Answers, but he’s a drag on the novel when it enters his head ... Lacey pulls off a diverting and provocative satire, studded with episodes of real gravity, without engaging in slapstick. The ironies are buried deep in the novel’s symmetrical structure and never played for laughs, though there are enough deadpan comic revelations to qualify Lacey, as some critics have already suggested, as an heir to Don DeLillo in White Noise mode. (A nearer precursor is Tom McCarthy’s recursive simulation novel Remainder.) But The Answers spends a lot of time in each character’s head pondering the nature of love and gets clogged up with trite false epiphanies.
So Much BluePercival Everett
RaveVultureThere are echoes in So Much Blue of Don DeLillo’s The Names, with the shadowy doings mingling with the story of a failed marriage, and of Alberto Moravia’s Boredom and its jaded painter-narrator. Americans dabbling in politics, drugs, bloodsport south of the border; an American indulging in faithless love in Paris; class posturing among Americans in Rhode Island — Everett has blended these disparate strands of an imagined life into a quietly beguiling novel. That he’s constructed it on an edifice of clichés, sanded down and transformed into combustive elements, is a sign of his mastery of the form.
The Dinner PartyJoshua Ferris
PanVulturePut a one-dimensional jerk at the center of a story and it dies on the page. The Dinner Party is a parade of such jerks who march by one by one, usually onto a punishment neatly arranged to show just how bad their author knows them to be. Occasionally he spares them, a testament to the mercies of their virtuous and similarly one-dimensional wives ... The stories in The Dinner Party that don’t take a preposterous turn tend instead to pile on the clichés. This might work if the clichés were ironized or if the characters had inner lives, but the stock scenarios are deployed in earnest, and inside the characters’ heads we find bundles of pat insecurities ... In short, they’re charmless, Which is the worst way to be an asshole. John Cheever is rolling in his grave.
Pretentiousness: Why It MattersDan Fox
PositiveVultureFox’s book is an elegant and convincing defense of this idea, and I understand the loyalty he feels to the adolescent pretentious enough to grow up to be the author of this book. I think he’s right in that what we tend to call 'authentic' can usually be revealed to be a perfected form of pretentiousness, and that a pretentious creative individual is at worst an endearingly innocent, 'tragicomic' fool who might someday turn into what he or she aspires to be. But in trying to reclaim pretentiousness from its pejorative uses, Fox weights the scales too heavily on the side of pretentiousness as the larval mode of creativity.
The Schooldays of JesusJ. M. Coetzee
RaveVulture…it’s likely that his move to Australia — where he emigrated from South Africa in 2002 — informs his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, and now its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus. These books follow set of refugees, settling in a strange land … austere narratives, elemental in their treatment of daily life, with the barest tissue of realistic detail … Many scenes have the qualities of miniature Socratic dialogues … The novel’s action centers on David’s enrollment as a boarder in the Academy of Dance and the murder of his teacher…novel’s intellectual poles are passion and rationality … Simon’s growing apathy and sense of his own uselessness turns out to be a source of the novel’s power. It makes him a neutral interlocutor in the dialogic framework, and a perfect foil for the volatile elements in play …there’s a stark beauty to these novels of ideas and the haunting images that infuse them.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
MixedVultureIt’s a premise loaded with pathos but thin on dramatic tension. Of course, there’s the noise of history just outside the frame, the war raging beyond the Potomac. But what provides the novel with its action, with most of its characters, with its moral weight, is the bardo itself. There are rules that govern this spiritual interzone, but in effect it’s a free range for Saunders’s imagination ... Whether Willie Lincoln will leave the bardo is something of a MacGuffin, however. What, then, is this novel about? In whole, it’s Saunders’s Old American Book of the Dead. The novel belongs less to the Lincolns than to the ghosts who tell the story ... The effects of this polyphonic approach can be dizzying. It’s also disappointing. Saunders is one of the most thrilling prose writers alive. Across several collections he’s reinvented his style many times, but many of his classic stories we hear the voice of a good-hearted and fucked-up American loser...I can’t be alone in having hoped to hear some version of that voice blown out and sustained over the course of a novel ... [a] visionary and suspenseful but also sentimental and cartoonish novel.
PositiveVultureEach of Homegoing’s chapters centers on one character from either line in the successive generations and bears the burden of conveying the lived feel of a mini-epoch of history. They have the feel less of linked stories than of compressed miniature novels. This is a lot to ask of passages of around 20 pages, but there are some payoffs. Each chapter is tightly plotted, and there are suspenseful, even spectacular climaxes. Their echoes ring throughout the book when formerly central characters reappear as diminished or resilient parents or grandparents of new protagonists...From a distance of three centuries, this can have an overdetermined ring, even a taste of contemporary liberal projection, but Homegoing repeatedly enacts one of the the novel’s classic missions: to dramatize the struggle of the individual soul, with its local yearnings and heartbreaks, against the unjust social forces of the modern world.
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, FineDiane Williams
RaveVultureThough Williams eschews psychologizing and we only see her characters in flashes and hear their voices in a handful of sentences at most, there is a cumulative power across the book; a unifying spirit that’s desperate at times but never despairing, and once in a while joyous, even exuberant, like a veil lifted up to reveal an exclamation point.
What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursHelen Oyeyemi
MixedVultureOyeyemi’s talent is evident on every page — a talent so obvious that it invites critics to throw both hands up and say 'Flawless!' — but it can also seem as if every page introduces three new characters, and a lot of them are disposable. Of course, that very disposable quality is certainly part of the point, and the pleasure, of Oyeyemi’s fiction...Oyeyemi is a prodigious and idiosyncratic talent finding her form in public, and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is something more interesting than a flawless or coherent book.
PositiveVultureKleeman’s scary stories have a gentle comic edge. She has a gothic imagination and a wit keen to the absurdities of American culture — particularly its dietary vices and media horror shows. She can do realism, but not without a few screws coming loose ... There’s some stunning imagery, but the logic at work can be hard to detect ... The final sequence of stories is as eclectic as the first but more successful...and Kleeman strikes the perfect combination of comic and macabre.
Tenth of DecemberGeorge Saunders
MixedThe London Review of BooksThe new stories give the impression of imagined worlds pared back until they’re not too different from our own, just a little uncanny. Most of the mayhem transpires within families or between neighbours, and class conflict is often the animating force. The settings are only glimpsed, and language does the job of making the goings-on strange … The rescues and escapes in a few of these stories run along clear moral lines: the trapped should be set free; the drowning should be pulled out from under. All that’s needed is for a hero to come forward from the cast of sad sacks … There’s no shortage of brutality in Tenth of December. To hold a few happy endings against Saunders or to suggest he makes his characters too sympathetic, as I’m inclined to do, is churlish: a comic writer can kill off only so many of his characters.
4 3 2 1Paul Auster
PanVultureHis thematic grammar remains intact, but he’s invented a new prose style. Gone is the short, Hammett-like line, and in its place are long twisty sentences that pile clause upon clause on joints of sinces, becauses, whens, whiles, whos, thats and whiches. There’s an ambition here that has a whiff of both 'Proust' and 'Nobel' ... The concept and its resulting structure is intriguing, but Auster has stacked the deck against himself. There’s a reason why long, encyclopedic novels have multiple sets of characters who may or may not know each other, multiple settings and disparate time frames: Variation helps hold the reader’s attention, the more drastic the better. The variations in 4321 are decidedly minor key ... These B-movie twists are entertaining to a point, less so is the lavish attention paid to the various Fergusons’ childhoods. (The book never truly achieves escape velocity into adulthood.)...Many passages sound like prolix outtakes of the voice-over to The Wonder Years ... what really defeats Auster in 4321 is his decision to write against his strengths. His B-movie plots and narrative sleights of hand thrive on elision, and this book is overstuffed. The one thing he always seemed to know was the power of brevity.
MixedVulture...the novel’s faux-memoir style is so thoroughly executed that it often lacks the shape of realism as Chabon goes for the shapelessness of the real ... for much of the time I was reading Moonglow, Chabon had me convinced I was reading a lightly embellished memoir. The rigor of his mimicking memoir is impressive but the metafiction is misbegotten. Part of the trouble has to do with the stiflingly nostalgic tone Chabon strikes by referring to his two main characters as 'my grandfather' and 'my grandmother' ... The paradoxical result of all this is an intermittently brilliant work of fiction buried under what reads like a bloated and often turgidly written memoir. Moonglow has pushed Chabon’s project of fusion to a breaking point. He invented a rocket of a story, but the book he put it in never achieves escape velocity.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
MixedVultureIt's the first novel she’s written with a single first-person narrator, and that narrator’s sullen personality has a lot to do with the novel’s melancholic cast ... Could this celebrity intervention go any way but wrong? Of course it goes wrong, and in tedious detail ... Parts of Swing Time, particularly the narrator’s account of her brief phase as a high-school goth, reach this level [of her best writing], but long stretches are marked by a joylessness previously alien to her work.
What Belongs to YouGarth Greenwell
RaveVultureWhat Belongs to You is a humorless novel, and I’ve rarely come upon a book, like this one, about which it can be said that humorlessness is not a defect but an aesthetic necessity.
My Name is Lucy BartonElizabeth Strout
PanVultureStrout has been praised for her restraint and called 'a writer bracingly unafraid of silences.' But although she does a lot of withholding — to the point of tedium — My Name Is Lucy Barton is an entirely unsubtle book.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PositiveVultureInnocents and Others is an asymmetrical novel told in fragments, and frustrating readerly expectations is part of Spiotta’s intentions (in this she’s like her heroine)...That it ends with an artist all but renouncing her art — a new self founded on notionally altruistic self-negation — is puzzling, but the lives of artists don’t tend to be neat. Innocents and Others is Spiotta’s strangest, darkest, and most mature work.
Private CitizensTony Tulathimutte
PositiveVultureTulathimutte is a slapstick curmudgeon who goes hard on his characters, setting in store for them sufferings that run to extremes of physical disfigurement. The novel is as funny as it is dark, and things get very dark, indeed ... We know millennials as bogeychildren of alarmist trend pieces and the catchall hand-wringing of an aging commentariat. Tulathimutte is on the front line of writers showing that they’re also worthy heroes and heroines of the American novel.
The FlamethrowersRachel Kushner
RaveBookforumThe Flamethrowers is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art) … The story of the Valera family is told in discrete, occasional flashbacks—patches of what might have been an epic, if a novelist today could write an epic of capitalist triumph and keep a straight face … The social codes of Kushner’s ’70s Manhattan aren’t too far removed from those of today, except without the cell phones and with a bit more gun fetishizing than you find lately on Broome Street … [Kushner’s] most charming quality is a willingness to digress and to stage long set pieces, at parties and in bars, in which her more eccentric characters are allowed to talk, and talk, and talk.
A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara
PanSalonExcess seems to be the point. Yanagihara has said that she sees Jude as a survivor for whom recovery from abuse is impossible. As for sensationalism, it’s true that there’s a sterile quality to her descriptions of Jude’s abuse ... the only character in A Little Life who seems possessed of anything like “emotional truths” or a sense of irony, the only supporting player in this elaborately ethnically diverse cast who doesn’t seem like a stereotypical middle-class striver plucked out of 1950s cinema, is JB.
The ArgonautsMaggie Nelson
RaveVultureMaggie Nelson’s new memoir, The Argonauts, is diaristic, but its effect is that of a diary reconstructed in retrospect, its timeline jumbled. The book proceeds in fragments that veer from Nelson’s life, in particular her love and family life, into theoretical terrain that’s home turf for many educated in the ’80s and ’90s — the lit-crit equivalent of a well-curated post-punk jukebox ... There’s a stirring climax that alternates Nelson’s account of childbirth with Harry’s messages from her mother’s deathbed. 'All happy families are alike,' a straight man once said, and the Argonauts are a happy family, hyperintellectual, fun-loving, given to dancing. But that isn’t to say The Argonauts isn’t a singular book.
South and West: From a NotebookJoan Didion
RaveVultureBoth pieces are raw and clearly unfinished, but both are fascinating documents spiked with virtuosic turns ... Didion’s portrait of New Orleans is a vivid exercise in modern gothic ... Casting the South as a foil for the West, Didion is seeking out a counter-America unleveled by defense contractors, agribusiness, and corporate media ... It’s not uncommon for writers to publish work from the drawer when they reach Didion’s age — she’s now 82 — and these fragments would be of interest even if Didion’s sojourn in the South didn’t resonate with our moment of political reaction. They cast light backward and forward on her work, illuminating her reportorial process and the themes she would develop in later novels and nonfiction works ... South and West is a marvelous time capsule, and a reminder that sometimes even the great ones let themselves down. Didion wasn’t one to make a show of failure in her prime, but five decades on South and West is an act of generosity.
The GirlsEmma Cline
RaveVultureA 27-year-old graduate of the Columbia MFA program, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Tin House, she’s shrewdly reasoned that we’ve heard enough about Charlie. In the cult dynamic, she’s seen something universal — emotions, appetites, and regular human needs warped way out of proportion — and in her novel she’s converted a quintessentially ’60s story into something timeless...The Girls isn’t a Wikipedia novel, it’s not one of those historical novels that congratulates the present on its improvements over the past, and it doesn’t impose today’s ideas on the old days. As the smartphone-era frame around Evie’s story implies, Cline is interested in the Manson chapter for the way it amplifies the novel’s traditional concerns. Pastoral, marriage plot, crime story — the novel of the cult has it all. You wonder why more people don’t write them.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
PanVulture...can you hang a novel of nearly 600 pages on a no-fault divorce that doesn’t involve adultery, remarriage, or acrimonious rupture? Here I Am suggests not ... The novel’s crippling flaw is that Jacob's thoughts, as they come through in the narration, take the form of platitudinous psychobabble ... The result is something like a Philip Roth novel in the style of a Hallmark card.
RaveVulture...full of American contradictions and dense with brilliant sentences ... [her father] emerges with a vividity that will be familiar to the lapsed children of religious men given to reactionary grunting and voting for Donald Trump ... Lockwood’s chronicle of her homecoming at times lacks dramatic tension, but it’s consistently charming ... Moving from a place of light into darkness and then returning to light is something very rare indeed. It has the shape of salvation.
Bright, Precious DaysJay McInerney
PositiveVultureBright, Precious Days recapitulates the strongest and weakest aspects of Brightness Falls and The Good Life. Russell’s editorial activities are again a prompt for satire of familiar literary lore...Subplots about the infidelities and drug habits of those in the Calloways’ circle proliferate, and a couple of flashbacks to Corrine’s tryst with Jeff Pierce in the ’80s inject a needed bit of youthful juice ... willingness to dive toward the cliché as if it were Gatsby’s green light is a strange form of daring. History sometimes favors the least common denominator, and in this respect it may be on his side.
PanVultureThe emphasis in Nutshell is all on the stunt narrator. The murder story is thin to the point of parody — John is fed smoothie laced with sweet-tasting antifreeze, with props planted to make it look like a suicide — and the authorities unravel it in a matter of hours. The fetal narrator is the sign of a writer overcompensating for his own perceived conventionality ... In Nutshell McEwan hasn’t failed by risking formal originality but by stuffing his book with his own shopworn chauvinisms and not a few pervy bits ... McEwan’s prose is always smooth — you can almost see the sentences arcing like sine waves — yet there’s also something drab about it.
RaveBookforumHow seriously should we take this novel-about-my-book-deal metafiction? Ben is the sort of person intellectually curious about the systems of commerce but not much interested in (or capable of) writing commercial fiction … 10:04 is a novel of intensities, an unfolding present. Some of this present is personal … The way he writes about drug experience isn’t much different from the way he writes about art … This is a beautiful and original novel…10:04’s prime theme is regeneration, biological and artistic, and it signals a new direction in American fiction, perhaps a fertile one.
Conversations With FriendsSally Rooney
RaveVultureRooney has the gift of imbuing everyday life with a sense of high stakes, and it’s hard to imagine Conversations With Friends appearing without Elena Ferrante’s 'Neapolitan Tetralogy' and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series as immediate antecedents ... Somehow the entire novel manages to remain within the neutral territory of its title. Rooney can make the stakes seem high even when they’re obviously low, and she does so without resorting to Ferrante’s melodramatic swoops or Knausgaard’s existential freakouts. Partly this is a by-product of Rooney’s control of tone and her disciplined use of plain language even when she’s getting off her most charming lines ... A larger reason for the novel’s appeal is simply Frances’s youth and naïveté, her natural role as an object of sympathy, as well as the sense that we’re witnessing exactly what it feels like to be naïve in 2017. But a few times the spell is broken, and it’s usually because Rooney’s characters’ extreme politeness and eminent reasonability leap off the page, as glaring as a typo ... a novel of delicious frictions delivered at a low heat.
A Legacy of SpiesJohn Le Carré
PositiveVultureThe truth and reconciliation structure is a clever conceit on le Carré’s part, a plausible gambit for resurrecting dead characters and examining them with enlightened eyes ... It would be an exaggeration to say the Tulip story ranks with classic le Carré, in part because its suspense is mitigated by the reader’s knowledge that her story is only a lengthy footnote here. Tulip is a vivid character, torn up by her bitterness toward the men who mistreat her, her love of her son, her lingering loyalty to the communist cause, and her hatred of America. Spying for and defecting to Britain is a compromise she makes out of desperation. The adventure allows Leamas to flaunt his tradecraft through a series of cock-ups; Guillam to indulge in a memorable romantic dalliance; and Smiley to display his skill in cleaning up a mess and turning the tables on the enemy. There follow new details about Leamas’s mission and the machinations of Control and Smiley to enlist Liz Gold unwittingly in their double-double-cross plot to protect their own mole in East Germany. These bits are superfluous, since the issue of Smiley’s culpability in their deaths lingers unrevised. Reconciliation may be too much to ask anyway. As Jim Prideaux once told Smiley: 'They told me to forget it … and that’s what I’ve been doing. Obeying orders, and forgetting.'”
PositiveThe London Review of BooksA bit wobbly and lopsided by design, NW is a hotchpotch in five parts … This is less a plot than a set of hooks on which Smith can hang her portrait of North-West London and sketches of characters from various points on the class spectrum. She’s interested in the way people become estranged from their homes even when they stay put … Why have I been such a conventional writer? Smith seems to have been asking herself in the process of writing the novel. Her first move is to dip into the modernist toolkit … This is Smith’s grimmest novel, and may be her best.
Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan
PanVultureEgan has a reputation as an authentic chronicler of the present...But veering into the past, she applies a surfeit of artifice in Manhattan Beach that erases the authenticity effects she intends ... It soon grows difficult to think of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter as characters so much as bundles of good intentions subject to vaguely Dickensian plot twists and vectors springing from Egan’s historical preoccupations. Manhattan Beach is a novel that grabs the reader by the lapels forcefully and says, 'It’s 1942, and don’t you forget it!' ... Egan is constantly trying to write her way out of the tediousness of her subject matter, whether through heightened language or by lathering on the melodrama ... The word for what Egan is up to in Manhattan Beach — the heaping on of history, metaphor, and melodrama — is craft, and it’s surely in recognition of her technical efforts that Manhattan Beach has been long-listed for the National Book Award.
Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone MagazineJoe Hagan
RaveVultureHagan’s biography is a colossal achievement of reporting and synthesis, fast-paced, compulsively readable, and consistently insightful in its understanding of how and why Wenner was able to turn a modest fanboy tabloid into an iconic cultural force and, after its golden years were behind it, to convert its waning and increasingly nostalgic cultural cachet into a media fiefdom that nearly made him a billionaire.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankNathan Englander
PanThe London Review of BooksHe portrays characters from a narrow ethnic spectrum that most Anglophone readers never see from the inside, and he does so from the perspective of the sympathetic and nostalgic apostate. If anxiety about identity too often stands in for actual drama in his fiction, for some it may be a preferable substitute. Dressing all this up in Raymond Carver’s clothes offers the prospect of an accessible synthesis … Englander’s reaching for Carver exposes his own shortcomings as a storyteller. He has no ear for actual speech; his characters talk either in essay fragments or hammy bits of overdone dialect. He can’t portray something like drunkenness without having his characters constantly state that they are drunk. And his stories are all too often choreographed towards a schematic finish … When he isn’t shrink-wrapping history, Englander’s crude literary appropriations tend to spotlight the flimsiness of his plotting and the cautious plodding of his prose.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PanVultureForest Dark draws conspicuously on the works of Philip Roth — confession, writerly self-dramatization, metafictional communion with dead writers — but Krauss eschews Roth’s slapstick humor, self-lacerating irony, and libidinal impulses for a therapeutic model of redemption. It’s odd to see Roth marshaled to shore up a novel that reads like self-help ... The Epstein sections deliver some comic relief (not that they’re funny), a succession of dizzy epiphanies, and didactic digressions on art and Jewish tradition. But mostly they serve as a counterpoint to the Nicole sections ... This is the first time I’ve come across a work of autofiction that’s at heart an elaborate project of self-flattery ... Forest Dark suffers from the imbalance between the grandiosity of its conceits and the smallness of Nicole’s personal problems, at least in the way she discloses them.
Debriefing: Collected StoriesSusan Sontag, Ed. by Benjamin Taylor
PositiveVultureHer four novels split into two phases: a pair of experimental works of the ’60s (The Benefactor and Death Kit) more concerned with portraying consciousness than storytelling; and a couple of relatively conventional historical novels from the ’90s. The stories in Debriefing fit between these phases, and while I hesitate to call them essential, they are full of optional delights ... In Debriefing, the form proves supremely flexible: memoir, diary, allegory, documentary, and even science fiction are all present ... Several stories in Debriefing partake of the currents of experimental fiction that were going strong in the 1960s and ’70s...Any of these stories could fit neatly in anthology of the period. Without bylines, you wouldn’t necessarily peg them to Susan Sontag, but you can hear their echoes all around today, in the fiction of Lydia Davis and Lynne Tillman and Deb Olin Unferth, and they’ll keep ringing as long there are those for whom received forms and straitened ways of being a writer are never enough.