The titular protagonist of Meiselman: The Lean Years has at the age of thirty-six had an epiphany: he’s been a pushover ever since he can remember, and he doesn’t want to be the good guy who finishes last. He is neither a hero nor a celebrity, neither likeable nor engaging though he tries valiantly to rise to each description. Alas, yeast is wanting.
Blake Bailey's Philip Roth biography has something for everyone: it satisfies the reader who wants to relive the rapture of reading Roth at his best, the literary dilettante who wants to bone up on dinner table banter about notable priapic penpushers, and aspiring heirs to Roth’s ballpoint sceptre.
Novices and accomplished writers alike seem to agree that writing is hard. One would be a fool, then, to pass up on hard won insights from an author of twenty…
In "Crossroads" Jonathan Franzen flaunts his complete abandonment of any pretence to style; substance and form have fought each other, and substance stands undefeated, gloating, on the corpse of form.
For her meteoric rise to be a satisfying story the rags-to-riches-heroine needs to start from a position of complete destitution. Put her in a middle class home with its usual opportunities, joys, disappointments, and brushes with tragedy, and then even her rise to the presidency of the United States is immediately less interesting. This story arc can only be rescued from narrative indifference if she’s a colourful personality, someone perpetrating incredible hijinks, always getting into capers which strain our moral muscles but from which we come away with her stronger rather than broken. None of this true of the story of Indra K. Nooyi’s life; it has neither a rags to riches trajectory nor the emotional heft of a tale worth the telling. It is fitting that this stylized ledger of Nooyis deeds, personal and professional, is delivered in a monotone, grocery list, register. The troughs and peaks are equally unremarkable in the treatment they receive, and the ending is clear right at the start. Indra Nooyi was born, she worked hard, and with a little luck she succeeded.
Are some writers so morally unsavoury that their novels, however admirable, are incapable of being lovable? Amy Hungerford, Ruth Fulton Benedict Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, certainly thinks so. In her polemic against Wallace in general, and Infinite Jest in particular, she opines that Wallace’s zealous defence of the length of his doorstop against a condescendingly described Michiko Kakutani’s protestations can only be evidence of his misogyny.
In a world dominated by social media book reviews and ratings, critics still have a place and continue to offer readers a discerning response to the books of their day.
Charlie Kaufman’s (2020) Antkind has been described as unsummarizable. Though he has offered an intelligible gist in several interviews, it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t want readers to think that’s that. Is this novel worth reading, and should you read it? These are questions a review is obligated to answer, though literary criticism might elide them. In advertising this piece as a review I am committed to answer. So, I’ll say it absolutely is worth reading. As to whether you should read it, it depends on whether or not: you are okay with reading words like hebetudinousness, and pulchritudinous in fiction; you are willing to let the central plot meander without resolution; you are fine with metafictional political and cultural commentary that is becoming stale even as you read this. This piece also is a small serving of literary criticism, and like Kaufman I think criticism ought to deliver more than a vote or veto. Accordingly, I’ve spent some time zooming in on aspects of Antkind’s modus operandi qua shaggy dog story, its use of free association, its formal innovation, and its literary register. If you come away thinking you’re likely to find this book to be deserving a 3.5 out of 5 then I’ll have succeeded in my project. That’s my rating in any case.
Rating: 3/5 Pitched as a self-help book, Nilima Chitgopekar’s (2019) The Reluctant Family Man: Shiva in Everyday Life draws lessons for personal development from Hindu mythology pertaining to Shiva. At a slender 132 pages the book is brisk, the tone conversational, and the choice of stories interesting. A few stories are mined deeply at various points in the book, giving the discussion a continuity which will provide an easy point of access to those unfamiliar with Indic mythology.
Kunzru is clever and modest enough to recognize that his protagonist would be readily, and appropriately so, categorized as a Soyjak with his “eyes wide” and his “mouth hanging open in an idiotic ‘o’” of outrage (p.182) and has some groypers depict him that way in a meme. The humanely painted characters fail to make much happen in their lives or the narrative given the soaring ambition of the novel and relative sparsity of the plot. In a better novel the loss of the fundamentally decent to the vagaries of time and chance would've been less pathetic, perhaps even galvanizing. In the novel as it is, however, one sees that the world is unfair but delights in the abasement of the Soyjak. Read it for the lyrical prose, and abandon all hope if you yearn to see neoreaction effectively satirised. It is deserving of a respectable 2.5/5.