Tag Archives: novel

Outside and Inside the Revolution All at Once: ‘Mrs. Engels’ by Gavin McCrea

In his first novel, Gavin McCrea accesses the intricacies of Marx and Engel’s Communist revolution through the ordinary magic of fiction. Mrs. Engels (Catapult; 368 pages) explores the subtleties of a historic movement through the vantage of Lizzie Burns, Frederick Engels’ longtime companion and eventual wife. Lizzie, an illiterate Irish woman, is both an outsider and part of Frederick’s inner circle in London—at once the closest to the proletariat and the furthest from Marx and Engels’ ideals. Her position allows the story’s perspective to refreshingly shift from observing Engels and Marx’s work life and ideals to registering the domestic decorum …Continue reading

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Lori Ostlund

Lori Ostlund (whose story “Clear as Cake” was published in ZYZZYVA No. 97) is the author of two books—the story collection “The Bigness of the World” (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Edmund White Award, and a California Book Award), and most recently, “After the Parade,” her first novel. Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, “After the Parade” tells the mostly funny but also unhappy story of Aaron, a man who feels compelled to leave his older partner and stable life in New Mexico for a new start in San Francisco. As he teaches English to …Continue reading

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The ‘Choice’ Between Freedom & Security: ‘The Heart Goes Last’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood knows a thing or two million about the dystopian novel. Atwood’s latest, The Heart Goes Last (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 320 pages), begins familiarly: in the midst of a dire economic and social depression, a young couple chooses between freedom and chaos or comfort and constraint. As The Heart Goes Last develops, though, the form evolves from sociological study to fable. People and places turn out to not be what they seem, offering complexity but also dream-like distortions. Stan and Charmaine, the couple at the center, discover that the pressure for them to choose between good and bad, right …Continue reading

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Blind Faith in the Power of Beauty: ‘The Prize’ by Jill Bialosky

For Edward Darby, the meaning of life can be found in the curve of a well-crafted watch, in an antique table’s warm weight, or in the balancing stroke of paint on a chaotic canvas. The protagonist of Jill Bialosky’s new novel, The Prize (Counterpoint; 325 pages), lives his life according to the principle of cultivating beautiful things. Edward believes structure, attention to detail, and erudite emotion will bring him happiness. He looks to art to reveal the importance of ordinary life, but also as a means to transcend it. Over the course of the novel, the lacquer of Edward’s curated …Continue reading

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Making (and Making Sense of) a New Life: ‘After the Parade’ by Lori Ostlund

If it’s true that a good man is hard to find, Lori Ostlund’s first novel, After the Parade (Scribner; 352 pages), demonstrates that leaving one might be just as difficult. As the book opens, Aaron Englund has finally worked up the nerve to break up with Walter, his older lover/Henry Higgins of 23 years, with whom he long ago fell out of love. Having packed his possessions, Aaron steers his U-Haul away from the security of their home in Albuquerque toward San Francisco. Not because he wants to join the city’s famous gay scene, but because Taffy, a colleague, lives …Continue reading

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A Long March, Both Taxing & Fascinating: ‘The Dying Grass’ by William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series traces the history of the colonization of North America, beginning in the ninth century and stretching into the twentieth, focusing on the bloody conflicts between the continent’s native inhabitants and its settlers. The fifth volume, The Dying Grass (Viking, 1,356 pages), chronicles the Nez Perce War of 1877, a series of skirmishes that took place over the course of several months, and more than 1,000 miles, between the eponymous Native American tribe and the United States military, and which resulted, predictably, in harsh sanctions and the relegation of the Nez Perces to a reservation. …Continue reading

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Trapped in a Town Without Pity: ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen (260 Pages; Penguin Press), the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, examines the moment of change in a life marred by self-hate, servitude, and isolation. Eileen Dunlop is a twenty-four year-old woman who plays caretaker to her alcoholic father, for whom “the worst thing [Eileen] could commit … was to do anything for [her] own pleasure, anything outside of [her] own daughterly duties.” A gun toting retired cop, he is harassed by imagined “hooligans” day and night. The gun thus established in the first act, we await its discharge in the third. But in the meantime, Moshfegh ekes out the …Continue reading

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Always More Stories to Tell: Q&A with ‘Landfalls’ Author Naomi J. Williams

Naomi J. Williams’s first novel, Landfalls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 336 pages), follows the Lapérouse expedition, whose two ships and nearly two hundred sailors left France in 1785 on a global trek to explore and fraternize in the name of science, God, and country. Although they never made it back, vanishing in the Pacific several years later, firsthand accounts and historical scholarship of the voyage remain. From the available facts, Williams has fashioned a smart, surprisingly hilarious, unusual, and moving story less concerned with maritime adventure—although Landfalls is an exciting and enjoyable read—than with carefully imagined dynamics of petty squabbles …Continue reading

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The Self-Deceptions of Nostalgia and Addiction: ‘Black Hole’ by Bucky Sinister

“The moment you buy your drugs, they start to run out.” Such is the dilemma of Chuck, the middle-aged, rundown narrator of Bucky Sinister’s first novel, Black Hole (Soft Skull Press; 181 pages). Perpetually strung out on all manner of narcotic, former punk rocker Chuck is dismayed to find himself “the freak in the corner” at parties where everyone is half his age. He inhabits a San Francisco much like our own—rapidly changing, driven by a booming tech industry—but ever so off-kilter. Bucky Sinister draws influence from the work of visionary science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick in crafting an alternate …Continue reading

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A Fevered Vision in the South Seas: ‘Imperium’ by Christian Kracht

In the early twentieth century, a young German named August Engelhardt sailed to Kabakon, a small island in the German territories of the South Pacific. His goal was to establish an outpost from where he could promulgate his ideas, chief among them the belief that the proper way to live, spiritually and practically, was to be naked, to worship the sun, and to eat nothing but coconuts. From Kabakon he managed to disseminate frugivorist and utopian literature to Europe, and to entice to the island numerous followers, some of whose travel he funded. By the end of his life, though, …Continue reading

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A Family’s Struggles Mirror Its City’s: ‘The Turner House’ by Angela Flournoy

Set primarily in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s riveting and acrobatic first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages), flips among several points of view and timelines: principally between the Great Migration of the mid-1940s—when Francis Turner leaves his young wife, Viola, and their infant son behind in Arkansas to prepare a new life for the family in Michigan—and 2008, when Viola is near the end of her life and about to lose the family home. This spells potential tragedy, as both mother and house are the last points of connection among the couple’s thirteen children. In the story’s central …Continue reading

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Note of Grace Among an Unhappy Family: ‘The Loved Ones’ by Mary-Beth Hughes

Even if Tolstoy was right about happy families, unhappy families in Western literature often bear striking resemblances to one another. The unfaithful, existentially-tormented husbands; the beautiful, unfulfilled wives; the precocious yet emotionally unformed children caught up in family affairs far beyond what they are capable of properly assimilating into their senses of self—we recognize these tropes partly because they are, sadly, representative of many actual families, but mostly because, also sadly, they make for instantly recognizable and compelling dramatic structures. It is, perhaps, unfair to levy such a generalization against the many writers who choose to tackle dissolute spouses and …Continue reading

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