His Way: ‘Bartleby & Me,’ by Gay Talese

by Paul Wilner

“When I joined the Times in the mid-1950’s, I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies,’’ Gay Talese states in his delicious new collection, Bartleby & Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener (Mariner Books; 320 pages). The ghost of Melville’s famous refusenik haunts these pages, as Talese—the chronicler of everyone from deaf printers in the Paper of Record’s composing room to Southern California nudist colonies—takes a farewell lap. At the ripe old age of ninety-one, he hasn’t lost a step. You can read herein about his first New York Times piece—unbylined, but published on the editorial page, no less—about James […]

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Blood will out: ‘Not Forever, But for Now,’ by Chuck Palahniuk

by Kian Braulik

“There exists a heaven for the carnal,” writes Chuck Palahniuk in his most recent novel, Not Forever, But for Now (Simon & Schuster; 256 pages). An ultimately lackluster addition to what was once a biting oeuvre, Not Forever makes the reader wonder whether the author’s tendency toward excess was once a project in well-executed theatrics, rather than one in purely over-compensatory irreverence. Although it’s in his nature to render carnality ad absurdum—whether through Fight Club’s battle between split personalities or Choke’s setting at a colonial theme park—Palahniuk’s previous renditions are stylistically tight and thematically straightforward. Victor Mancini chokes himself in […]

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Out of the past: ‘The Postcard,’ by Anne Berest

by Laura Cogan

Many stories are, in a sense, mysteries, asking some version of the same question: what is this life, and how are we meant to live? There are, of course, no definitive answers to these questions—only a multitude of responses, from which we seek to make the meaning and beauty that connects and sustains us amid persistent uncertainty. One such story is The Postcard (Europa Editions; 475 pages). Written by French author Anne Berest and translated by Tina Kover, the novel frames the true story of a family—nearly eradicated by the Holocaust—as a fictionalized memoir. Nestled inside a simple and concrete […]

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All too human: ‘After the Funeral,’ by Tessa Hadley

by Yastika Guru

Reading After the Funeral and Other Stories (Knopf; 240 pages) by Tessa Hadley is like watching a magic show. There is suspense, but it is not the stressful, nauseating sort of a horror movie or domestic drama—it is the sweet suspense of enchantment. The reader has some sense of the hidden techniques being employed, but the final effect is still eye-widening and gasp-inducing. Each story is about a complicated marriage or family and involves divorce or death or infidelity. Although the characters are in wobbly, anxious situations, the prose is never mawkish or emotionally fatty. Instead, it is light, plain, […]

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New York stories: ‘Witness’ by Jamel Brinkley

by Margot Lee

Jamel Brinkley’s second story collection, Witness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 pages), records glimpses of lives across New York, disparate but proximate—as though looking at people in lit windows across the cityscape. Lingering in the worlds and heads of his protagonists, Brinkley’s stories elongate these moments into chasms of psyche and memory. They remind us that whatever we see in the window, observation alone is superficial. To witness is a full-body experience, affecting the mind as much as the eye. New York is a familiar setting for Brinkley, whose debut, A Lucky Man (2018), also features stories set in the […]

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Crisis mode: ‘Emergency’ by Kathleen Alcott

by Margot Lee

In Kathleen Alcott’s Emergency (W.W. Norton; 208 pages), the tales of seven women whose lives come undone create haunting depictions of desire and harm. Alcott’s first story collection following three novels, Emergency is permeated by a sense of disaster lingering in the wings and about to unfold. Her protagonists are typically clever and have ascended by their tenacity to the middle or upper-middle classes. Yet even in these stations they are endlessly reminded of the boundaries that do not get erased by their bank account balances. Several of them leave their homes, but often become trapped in their escapes. Sometimes […]

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A Small Life: ‘The Librarianist,’ by Patrick deWitt

by Margot Lee

The name “Comet” evokes the fiery and dramatic path of a celestial body, the kind that might portend the end of the world, or at least make for good cinema. But a comet is also a solitary thing, moving silently through the solar system. In Patrick deWitt’s new novel, The Librarianist (Ecco Press; 352 pages), Bob Comet is the curiously quiet carrier of this name. Bob is a protagonist out of step with time and life. On deciding to become a librarian, his mentor tells him that “librarianism doesn’t hold up in our society’s real time … the language-based life […]

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Follies of youth: ‘The Rachel Incident,’ by Caroline O’Donoghue

by Yastika Guru

Autofiction is usually accompanied with disclaimers and explanations, shame and caveats. Caroline O’Donoghue’s new novel The Rachel Incident (Knopf; 304 pages), too, is bookended with disclaimers. It opens with, “It was never my plan to write about any of this” and closes with the protagonist saying, “It’s not my story.” Though it is unclear how much memoir this confessional novel actually holds, this conceit of autofiction is marvelously executed—the details of memory feel preciously excavated, the plot clicks in place in that inevitable way of real life. Even at its most alarming—the protagonist extorts an older couple to fund her […]

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White Tears: ‘Yellowface,’ by R.F. Kuang

by Margot Lee

With her fifth novel, Yellowface (William Morrow; 323 pages), R.F. Kuang promised a departure from the speculative genre work of her fantasy Poppy Wars trilogy and science fiction Babel (2022), winner of the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Yellowface is a biting satire about the publishing industry, informed by Kuang’s own experience as a Chinese American writer who regularly tops bestseller lists. It follows the publication of protagonist June Hayward’s second novel, a historical drama titled The Last Front about Chinese laborers who fought for the Allied Forces in World War I. Kuang writes for a wide audience, and […]

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Double time: ‘August Blue,’ by Deborah Levy

by Yastika Guru

There are many routes to be introduced to British novelist Deborah Levy’s August Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 208 pages). It is a book about being shadowed by a “double,” so one thinks of Dostoevsky and Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner.” It is a book about a child prodigy’s intense and complicated relationship with her mentor, so one is reminded of movies like Whiplash and Black Swan. It is an Odyssean story of exile and return home. It is also a sort of “governess story”: as Elizabeth Hardwick writes in The Brontes, “Most governesses in fiction are strangely […]

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Costs of art: ‘The Late Americans,’ by Brandon Taylor

by Margot Lee

The characters in Brandon Taylor’s The Late Americans (320 pages; Riverhead Books) are poets, dancers, painters, students, and townies, lovers, and exes, “upright beasts, walking on their hind legs, baying at electric moons.” Except for a few, they are in their twenties and on the brink of proper adulthood. There is an engaging urgency in their lives and in Taylor’s new novel, his second after Real Life (2020), a Booker Prize finalist. The book, a novel-in-stories, deftly weaves the lives of students from the university with the community around it—Obama-era Iowa City—depicting where the two collide and recoil back into […]

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Down a hole : ‘Kappa,’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

by Charlie Barton

A writer’s last work, the mere fact of it, ineluctably changes its meaning. Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa (96 pages; New Directions; translated by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Allison Markin Powell), is one such finale, the coda of a brief yet prolific career, a novella first published in 1927, months before this acclaimed author would kill himself. What does this book divulge about his psyche? Can this most condemned act be made legible? And it’s even more grotesque—but unavoidable—that one wonders if this work, written by the namesake of Japan’s foremost literary prize, is significant only because it’s his last. Akutagawa’s narrator, No. […]

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