Spanish writer Javier Marías’s newest novel, The Infatuations (352 pages; Knopf)—wonderfully translated by Margaret Jull Costa—is a heady, noir-tinged trip deep inside the consciousness of María Dolz, a book editor who finds herself dragged into the dangerous drama of a couple she is obsessively observes from afar. When the novel begins, María describes how she has come into the habit of watching Miguel and Luisa, “The Perfect Couple,” as she terms them, while she eats breakfast near them in a café. She quickly finds herself dependent on the couple’s presence for her happiness; she needs their stability and the perfection of their distance in order to bear the repetition of her own mundane life. One day, though, Miguel (whose surname alternates between Desvern and Deverne, starting in the very first clause of the novel: “The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time his wife, Luisa, saw him”) is violently and apparently randomly killed, stabbed in the back by a “gorrilla,” a homeless man who helps park cars for tips. Soon after, with the sole source of contentedness in her life stripped away, María decides to speak to Luisa. Thus, she enters into the lives of those who were previously held in the hermetic space of the observed, and slowly learns the secrets behind Miguel’s death.
Poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum’s newest book, My 1980s & Other Essays (320 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), brings together a wide range of enthralling and intellectually daring texts, ranging from rigorous critical explorations of Susan Sontag and John Ashbery to a diary-style look at the life and work of Lana Turner. The essays vary wildly in length and subject, but are grouped together, vaguely, by theme: the first section contains the closest thing to traditional “personal essays”; the second section tends toward literary critique; the third one toward cinema, celebrity, sex; and so on. Each section feels like a well wrought, carefully tended representation of some part of Koestenbaum’s thought, some edge of his oeuvre, but taken as a whole, the collection appears captivatingly off-kilter. My 1980s is a work in motion, unstable, to be read in tight, short bursts or languorously, as a long, ruminative drift through the work of a powerful creative and intellectual force. But Koestenbaum himself—his voice, his language, his particular blend of sarcasm and seriousness, his “I”—is always at center, lending a delicately tied sense of self to a collection that is quite purposefully against absolute cohesion.
Japanese crime writer Natsuo Kirino’s latest novel, The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate; 312 pages) translated by Rebecca Copeland, is a revenge-filled rethinking of an ancient Japanese creation myth. As the latest entry in The Canongate Myths series, Kirino’s novel reinterprets aspects of the Kojiki—a collection of myths initially assembled in eighth century Japan—to tell the story of two powerful deities, Izanami and Izanaki, and the beginning of the world.
This origin story is not a happy one: the world produced by Izanami and Izanaki is born of conflict, through an infinite cycle of betrayal and payback. For every one thousand people killed daily by Izanami—the female goddess of the dead—Izanaki attempts to produce fifteen hundred new lives in fifteen hundred “birthing huts.” This infinite conflict between these former lovers comes about because Izanaki abandons Izanami after her death, leaving her trapped forever in the realm of the restless dead. The Goddess Chronicle relays this complex tale in sparklingly clear—if at times too spare—prose, rendering a dark story into a surprisingly lively read.
Jaspreet Singh’s second novel, Helium (Bloomsbury; 290 pages), is an intricately layered, meditative journey through recent Indian history. Raj Kumar, a professor of rheology at Cornell, returns to India, his birthplace, to visit his father, who is recovering from an unnamed surgery. Our narrator, however, finds himself quickly sidetracked by the figures and places of his past, and the story turns accordingly backward—and inward. Raj visits his former university at the request of one-time colleagues, and eventually reunites with Nelly, the widowed wife of Professor Singh, an influential figure in Raj’s life, intellectual and otherwise. The memory and image of Professor Singh, murdered during the 1984 Sikh Massacre, haunts Raj and drives him in his quest to find the truth behind one of India’s—and his family’s—biggest tragedies.
His investigations lead him, eventually (or inevitably), back to the figure that initially spurred his return visit: his father. Raj’s examination of the past is not simply that of the historian or detective; it is one characterized by the dedication to cohesion and ruthless exactitude of the trained scientist. In Helium, Singh brings a scientist’s calculating eye to the description and interpretation of events that prove impossibly distant, apparently imperceptible, clouded by the double mists of myth and memory.
In his latest film, renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar returns, at first glance, to the light-hearted style of comedy that marked his early career and established him as the central figure in the post-Franco Movida Madrileña. I’m So Excited! (released in Spanish as Los Amantes Pasajeros, meaning, literally, either “The Passenger Lovers” or “The Fleeting Lovers”) takes place almost entirely aboard an airplane that is revealed early on in the film to be destined to circle above an airport in Spain until a runway opens up for a crash landing. This is the extent of the “plot,” as such, in the film. With I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar has pared down his usually byzantine narrative style to really only feature one major digressive break from the dominant narrative. In other words, the camera only once leaves the confines of the airplane while it’s in flight. Compared to Almodóvar’s recent spate of complexly plotted explorations of obsession, sexual substitution, and trauma, I’m So Excited! seems simple. The effect of this stripping down, of this forceful spatial and thematic confinement, however, is not a feeling of claustrophobia or lack. Instead, the limited scope engenders a kind of focus: I’m So Excited! is Almodóvar clarified. Despite the occasionally manic energy behind it’s canted cinematography and the seemingly panic-inducing source material, the film exudes a kind of calm born out of the satisfaction of a journey completed, even if it is not the journey one set out to complete.
After a big-top production of Othello performed in a dilapidated, almost apocalyptic Chicago, Bruno Korsawski poses a strange question to his uneasy companion: “I wonder which one of us is more scared of the other.” Bruno’s inquiry reflects a mood that runs through much of The Complete Stories of James Purdy (Liveright/Norton; 724 pages)— that of universal paranoia, distrust, and fear, coupled with an intense sense of personal interdependence.
Purdy (1914-2009) was admired by a wide range of authors and readers for his transgressive and often hilarious fictions, and produced an immense body of work that includes plays, poetry, novels, and short stories. Collected in their totality for the first time, Purdy’s Complete Stories contains fiction spanning his entire career, from “A Chance to Say No,” written in 1935, to 2003’s “Adeline” (both of which were previously unpublished). Filmmaker John Waters introduces the volume by way of a loving, appropriately uncomfortable essay in which he refers to Purdy as “a drug one can never get enough of.” Purdy’s talents are apparent throughout this mammoth story collection, which feature a panoply of unusual outcasts moving through equally off-kilter environments, from a would-be heirloom collector trapped in a gothic mansion to a “retired” cannibal (“not through age, but by law and regulation”) named Mud Toe who cavorts through the cosmopolitan labyrinth of Manhattan.
Travis Nichols’ hard-to-describe second novel, The More You Ignore Me (Coffee House Press; 211 pages), takes the form of a single, rambling blog comment—a decade-spanning, bitterly confessional manifesto written in response to a recipe posted on the fictitious BrendaCookingFun.com. Its author, the narrator—who goes unnamed except for two screen names: Linksys181 and Linksys157—resorts to commenting on a cooking website only because he’s been banned from doing the same on Charlico.com, a website dedicated to a wedding the narrator is deeply consumed with preventing. The reason for this obsession, and the nature of Linksys181’s relationship to Charli Vistons, the female half of the soon-to-be-wed couple Charlico, are only two of the mysterious and engrossing narrative threads winding and unraveling through this strange and digressive Internet thriller.