Megan Abbott is another consummate crime writer who deals with this feminine underside, putting women’s relationships at the center of what has always been a manly genre. Her neo-noir creations, published between 2005 and 2009, are flawless ’40s period pieces, two in the Los Angeles we know so well from The Big Sleep and The Black Dahlia. Her brand-name decor, the snappy, wise-cracking dialog, the endless twists of plot and descent into ever bleaker and lower social worlds, are all done to perfection. But where classic noir insisted on a kind of deadened sheen, a callous stupor in the face of unending corruption, Abbott gives us women who are fully alive to the evil broth they stew in. Far from being objectified creatures of male desire, Abbott’s women talk, feel, and relate to each other with great depth. The passion and complexities of women’s friendships motor these books. Women have all along been part of the noir novel, yet to find them vivid and at the fore disturbs, as if these long-legged blondes had been mute animals who now address us.
Restless Books, an independent press dedicated to publishing diverse international literature, has launched a new series of novella-length essays exploring the biographical, philosophical, racial, gendered, and aesthetic dimensions of one’s own face. At first blush it sounds like a marketing gimmick, an attempt to translate celebrity culture into literary style or to leverage the current confessional fad. It also risks the boredom of the 17th-century portrait gallery, over-burdening writers to be interesting without pandering;, reflective without navel-gazing. Which is why it’s no small feat that, for the most part, these first three installments in the “Face” series are so effective—and more so when read together.
Contemplating Green’s body of work more closely, however, reveals that even to the extent that Green was willing to work loosely within the confines of this important mode of English fiction, his novels simultaneously seek to escape, enlarging the scope of the “manners” portrayed, expanding the formal range of the scenic method, disturbing assumptions about the role of “voice” in fiction. If Green’s fiction finally doesn’t entirely leave the formal ambit of the novel of manners, it does stretch and reshape its conventions. This use of the form to alter its own usual habits, to determine possibilities not yet realized, is what most warrants considering Green an “experimental” writer. Literally Green’s novels explore new ways to test the limits of the presumed norms that novels must observe for them to be fully intelligible.
The insufficiency of our genre distinctions is a preoccupation of one of the more interesting editorial projects published in the last several years, John D’Agata’s three-volume, 2,000-page anthology A New History of the Essay. D’Agata is the author of three books, an editor at Seneca Review, and the director of the graduate Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His book The Lifespan of a Fact, co-authored with former fact-checker Jim Fingal, was the subject of controversy years ago because of what some considered to be his flippancy about facts when writing nonfiction. Perhaps some of the people who objected to that book will find a similar presumption and flippancy in this anthology’s challenge to previous generic classifications, as works traditionally known as fiction and poetry are included here as “essays” alongside classic examples of the genre.
Meanwhile, Szymborska’s legacy since her death has been tended by her former assistant, Michał Rusinek, head of the Wisława Szymborska Foundation. Every year, the Foundation administers the Szymborska Prize, Poland’s leading poetry award. Rusinek has more of a taste for theatrics than his old boss, and the Prize ceremony is a glitzy, televised affair—a rare moment in the spotlight for an often-overlooked art form. The Prize got a double-dose of publicity this year when, at the ceremony on June 11, Jakub Kornhauser was announced as the winner. Kornhauser is the son of one of Poland’s leading poets and critics. A passionate cyclist and outspoken progressive, he is of Jewish descent.
One of my premises, when I started writing the novel, was to see how far could I get with an extremely passive and unambitious character. In a way, it’s Bartleby’s premise too, and Melville’s character was one of my principal references for the first part of Among Strange Victims. I think that life is so fundamentally absurd and nonsensical that if you let yourself be carried along by the circumstances, without opposing any will, the resulting actions will be interesting, rather than tedious. Especially in Mexico, passiveness can take you to strange places, because of how bizarre everything is.
Certain works gave me a base: those of Claude Simon, in particular, or Joseph Brodsky, for their firm nonalignment, their rigor, and for their fine irony tinged with tenderness, or the work of Elizabeth Bishop—a master in the art of traveling light. Much like the documentary material, echoes of these writers have made their way into the novel, wittingly or not, along with other reminiscences. Here and there, I incorporated short excerpts. I hesitated to provide a list of these appropriations, since they seemed to be poetically more effective under cover, so to say. Still, I found a way to weave into the book’s fabric an allusion to the source of fragments I used deliberately.
After the operation, my fever soared, I was told, and among the three viruses called virulent viruses, my virus was the worst. A real rascal, only one antibiotic could help, and it penetrated from the belly to the lungs, and they collapsed. Dr. Szold, who was both our family doctor and the head of the ICU in Surgery B, didn’t give up. A giant man, Szold. An outstanding doctor. It was Friday night. The one pharmacy that was open didn’t have what he was looking for. The hospital pharmacy was closed. Szold yelled at a nurse, they said, to go find the sleeping pharmacist. The nurse woke him up and he came, the poor man, he opened up and found that rare serum, Szold gave me an injection, and two pneumonias were struggling in me at the same time, I couldn’t breathe.
Fifteen years after its first publication, Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai is back in print. Its long absence has owed to the messy legal history of Miramax Books, rather than lack of interest from readers: many have remained devoted to the novel, which is still a fresh and startling work. In the intervening years, DeWitt has published a good deal of other writing, including two novels (one co-authored) and a book’s worth of short prose. The republication of The Last Samurai provides a useful occasion to assess this body of work as a whole.
These continuities are at the heart of Constantine’s novel The Life-Writer, published in the U.K. in 2015 and just released in North America by Biblioasis. It begins abruptly, as Eric is dying—his identity and circumstances only gradually come into focus. Eric’s is a good death, as far as that is possible; he and his wife Katrin are able to spend the necessary time focusing “on where and who they were and what they were doing in the present tense.” Eric’s strongest wish is to leave nothing “that still needed to be mended or forgiven” between him and Katrin. “Was there any such thing?” It seems not. But there are gaps in her knowledge of him, and very near the end he is overcome with the urgency of filling them in.
Born in 1955, Tulli is one of Poland’s most original contemporary writers. She has received three nominations for the prestigious Nike Prize, and four of her novels translated into English to date, including In Red which was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award. Recently re-issued by Archipelago Books in paperback (they published a hardcover edition over a decade ago), Dreams and Stones truly defies simple classification. From the opening passages, the contemplative poetic imagery reads like a re-invented Book of Genesis, sketching out the life cycle of the metaphorical tree upon which a fruit ripens, falls to the ground, and germinates; it holds in its core the seeds of a great city and the parameters of the human system that surrounds it.
To say that Pascal Quignard’s words are a meditation or an exploration is too simplistic—there is a philosophical stream of consciousness in his writing that has a realism both enlightened and carnal which attempts to grasp the essence of human nature in a handful of grand themes. While these are revisited (and often together), the nuances of the subjects in which he finds connections ensure that an originality is retained: sex, whether the act itself or the analysis of its echoing effects on the psyche; art; mythology; books; and death, as found in Sex and Terror, The Sexual Night, and The Roving Shadows, among others. These are his themes, and memory is always present in what links them. Reading Quignard, one is struck by the feeling that they are witnessing someone transcribing his thoughts, pure and fresh as they form in the mind, or to use a fitting mythological connection, Athena springing from the head of Zeus.
After the suicide of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes wrote what he considered to be his most important poetic work, Crow: From the Life and Times of the Crow. At the book’s center is Crow, one of folklore’s iconic figures. Hughes uses this feathered symbol of death to take on mythology, Christianity, and conventional poetry. This is more or less the same Crow we find in the pages of Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Except that here, in a slim novel barely more than 100 pages, Crow is given the space to grow beyond his folkloric origins.