Book Review

An online-only review of books and arguments about books.

Sad and Boujee

Sad and Boujee

The radical and perpetually unpredictable voice of Percival Everett

Neglect is a fate all experimental writers risk, but if they happen to be black it can seem almost impossible to avoid. Everett always intended to chart his own course. He picked the novel up where Ishmael Reed had taken it, but pivoted away from Reed’s zaniness toward a prismatic allegorical realism, a constant reinvention of form designed to grapple with the vertiginous ends of America’s violent and often contradictory racial, economic, geographic, and sexual epistemologies—a project consonant in many ways with Wallace’s—but evidently not one that could generate the same kind of popular appeal.

A Monument, A World of His Own

A Monument, A World of His Own

Berger’s closeness to the material led again and again to revelation: the only way to get to the universal was through the material.

Unlike most public intellectuals, Berger gives hope to the precise degree that he excoriates almost everything in our world. Throughout his work, he performs that rare—that tragically rare—Marxist trick of transforming the idea that the world is horrible into a source of deep comfort, of energy, of action but also of peace.

Contemplating Customs Forms and Hotel Service

Contemplating Customs Forms and Hotel Service

Andrés Neuman has written a guide to the literature of an entire continent in the guise of a travelogue.

“Our generation,” recounts Hans, the protagonist of Traveler of the Century, “was a borderline, we were the last to study before Metternich’s repression began, but we were also the first to lose faith in the Revolution.” Though Neuman himself is too young for this description to be a tidy analogy for him and his peers, it nicely sums up the position of his predecessors in Bolaño’s generation. Where the writers of the Boom had the example of the Cuban Revolution to give them hope, no comparably utopian project was available by the time their followers came of age.

Primal Forces

Primal Forces

Jane Jacobs cast her campaigns for urban justice as bids to restore an underlying common sense, not as transformations of the social order.

You might call Jacobs a Democratic Schumpeterian. Though she believed in the dynamism of markets and their propensity to push new, innovative work to grow, she wanted to stoke the egalitarian possibilities of this process within a society that favored established interests.

Night’s Nirvana

Night’s Nirvana

On Norwegian Black Metal

A lot of the posed photos are about what you would expect: pig heads set on fire, shrouded band members looming in churchyards at night, or wielding chainsaws, or covered in prop blood. It’s either extremely silly, or very morbid and unholy, depending strongly on whether you also are a teenage boy.

Something That Might Be Happening to Me Now

Something That Might Be Happening to Me Now

It’s a strange thing to read about women ending pregnancies when you’re squarely in the middle of one.

This way of looking at the past tricks us into thinking the problem of human life is simpler than it is. It makes grotesque pain seem like the product not of individual or general cruelty, or the difficulty of being housed in a body, but of too little social awareness, of not enough light shone on secret lives.

Ways of Staying Home

Ways of Staying Home

At its best, Facsímil has the air of something written quickly and playfully in the heat of a second try.

Facsímil reveals—more clearly than Alejandro Zambra’s earlier work—that the self-conscious writer of metafiction needn’t shy away from history and the polity. The inward and the outward gazes can coexist.

Doing Philosophy Better

Doing Philosophy Better

Human depth isn’t Square Wave’s focus at all: people are present in the novel to direct us toward meaningfully original orchestrations.

Mark de Silva’s debut novel Square Wave uses fiction as a space to foreground philosophy. The result is a novel that can be maddening in its refusal to gratify through plot, character, or even theme, focusing instead on corresponding shapes of thought and social organization.

Why Not Say What Happened?

Why Not Say What Happened?

On Days of Rage

The later pages of Days of Rage, though perhaps more relevant to the study of cults or mental illness than American radicalism, make for fun reading. The suicidal ineptitude of the second generation underground is complemented at times by their occasional picaresque escapes. The reader is supposed to be struck by how incompetent the radicals are, but it’s impressive that they managed to do anything at all. The lawyer for the SLA’s semiofficial spokesman remembers spending his trial getting high in the courthouse stairwell at his client’s insistence—“the finest marijuana I ever had . . . I remember it so clearly—literally floating into court.” He won the case.

The South African Novel of Ideas

The South African Novel of Ideas

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which talk about African writing centers on how to talk about African writing. The most common topic of debate is the Caine Prize, a high-profile short-story competition based in London and open only to authors of African descent (earning it the derivative and slightly patronizing epithet “the African Booker”). Each summer when the shortlist is announced, there is a flurry of op-eds and interviews with African writers who decry the neocolonial hold of British institutions on their careers. Many writers go on to question the very idea of a prize designated for “Africans,” arguing that it threatens to impose false geographical and thematic restrictions on a vast range of writers.

Barbering for Freedom

Barbering for Freedom

Segregation, separatism, and the history of black barbershops

I went to that black barbershop for the reason millions like me have done so before—to feel at home. But for years, as Quincy Mills’s fascinating Cutting Across the Color Line reveals, black barbershops in America were unavailable to people of my lineage and color. Though they became a stereotypical image of a black social institution, crystallized best in Barbershop, they began as institutions of segregation and white supremacy. In the antebellum era, but also well into the period of Reconstruction, black barbershops—predominantly in the South but often in the North—only served white men.

Age of Quarrel

Age of Quarrel

On New York Hardcore

Regrettable trends and eccentricities, which ought to have been lethal, instead became defining and enduring aspects of the scene. And some of the most noxious elements of New York hardcore—its reactionary ideology, the awkward mingling of skinhead and straight-edge versions of male aggression, the detours into religious mysticism—were not symptoms of decline but present from the beginning.

It’s So Great Coming Home To Your Message

It’s So Great Coming Home To Your Message

On Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark.

Each email is timestamped, with Acker and Wark’s nerdy ‘90s email addresses repeated over and over again, page after page. They map the unwinding and rewinding and unwinding again of tension, attention, and affection, telling the story-about-nothing of the first truly great collection of electronic love letters.

In Praise of Vulgar Feminism

In Praise of Vulgar Feminism

On Kim Gordon and Courtney Love

Faced with a choice between the bassist of Sonic Youth and the nihilist nymphet Lana Del Rey and her army of Twitter defenders, the highbrow music fan knows whose side she’s on. And it’s not as if Gordon is wrong about Del Rey, whose embrace of American rock and roll myths, shot through with a cartoonish sense of female desire, really is infantile. The appeal of Kim Gordon is completely different.

Love or Money

Love or Money

On Claudia La Rocco

To take art as seriously as La Rocco does in her criticism is taxing. When “reality” intervenes—economic reality, social reality, the tedium of competing egos—the fall is hard, which leaves her wondering: What’s the point? In her poems and creative essays, uninhibited by the demands of speaking as a disinterested authority, La Rocco takes on the big-picture questions that trouble her—What’s the use of art and criticism? How can any of it survive? Why do we care?

Sad and Boujee

Sad and Boujee

The radical and perpetually unpredictable voice of Percival Everett

Neglect is a fate all experimental writers risk, but if they happen to be black it can seem almost impossible to avoid. Everett always intended to chart his own course. He picked the novel up where Ishmael Reed had taken it, but pivoted away from Reed’s zaniness toward a prismatic allegorical realism, a constant reinvention of form designed to grapple with the vertiginous ends of America’s violent and often contradictory racial, economic, geographic, and sexual epistemologies—a project consonant in many ways with Wallace’s—but evidently not one that could generate the same kind of popular appeal.

A Monument, A World of His Own

A Monument, A World of His Own

Berger’s closeness to the material led again and again to revelation: the only way to get to the universal was through the material.

Unlike most public intellectuals, Berger gives hope to the precise degree that he excoriates almost everything in our world. Throughout his work, he performs that rare—that tragically rare—Marxist trick of transforming the idea that the world is horrible into a source of deep comfort, of energy, of action but also of peace.

Contemplating Customs Forms and Hotel Service

Contemplating Customs Forms and Hotel Service

Andrés Neuman has written a guide to the literature of an entire continent in the guise of a travelogue.

“Our generation,” recounts Hans, the protagonist of Traveler of the Century, “was a borderline, we were the last to study before Metternich’s repression began, but we were also the first to lose faith in the Revolution.” Though Neuman himself is too young for this description to be a tidy analogy for him and his peers, it nicely sums up the position of his predecessors in Bolaño’s generation. Where the writers of the Boom had the example of the Cuban Revolution to give them hope, no comparably utopian project was available by the time their followers came of age.

Primal Forces

Primal Forces

Jane Jacobs cast her campaigns for urban justice as bids to restore an underlying common sense, not as transformations of the social order.

You might call Jacobs a Democratic Schumpeterian. Though she believed in the dynamism of markets and their propensity to push new, innovative work to grow, she wanted to stoke the egalitarian possibilities of this process within a society that favored established interests.

Night’s Nirvana

Night’s Nirvana

On Norwegian Black Metal

A lot of the posed photos are about what you would expect: pig heads set on fire, shrouded band members looming in churchyards at night, or wielding chainsaws, or covered in prop blood. It’s either extremely silly, or very morbid and unholy, depending strongly on whether you also are a teenage boy.

Something That Might Be Happening to Me Now

Something That Might Be Happening to Me Now

It’s a strange thing to read about women ending pregnancies when you’re squarely in the middle of one.

This way of looking at the past tricks us into thinking the problem of human life is simpler than it is. It makes grotesque pain seem like the product not of individual or general cruelty, or the difficulty of being housed in a body, but of too little social awareness, of not enough light shone on secret lives.

Ways of Staying Home

Ways of Staying Home

At its best, Facsímil has the air of something written quickly and playfully in the heat of a second try.

Facsímil reveals—more clearly than Alejandro Zambra’s earlier work—that the self-conscious writer of metafiction needn’t shy away from history and the polity. The inward and the outward gazes can coexist.

Doing Philosophy Better

Doing Philosophy Better

Human depth isn’t Square Wave’s focus at all: people are present in the novel to direct us toward meaningfully original orchestrations.

Mark de Silva’s debut novel Square Wave uses fiction as a space to foreground philosophy. The result is a novel that can be maddening in its refusal to gratify through plot, character, or even theme, focusing instead on corresponding shapes of thought and social organization.