God's Mercy and more...
In 1916 Hillevi Klarins, a 25-year-old midwife from Uppsala, Sweden, applies for a position in northern Röbäck, in the rural Blackwater region. She is entering an unknown world, where tensions between native Lapps, Swedes, and nearby Norwegians run high. Though the area has electricity and plumbing, Röbäck remains a place haunted by little people, folk medicine, and a profound distrust of the medical instruments Hillevi carries. Though much happens in God’s Mercy, only a few instances are of the “novelistic crisis” variety. Rather, the book moves slowly through the lives of these people in Blackwater, Sweden as they acclimate to an increasingly modern world. Books like God’s Mercy aren’t big sellers. With their small publishers—here, the excellent University of Nebraska Press—and even smaller promotional budgets, the serious reader must be a sort of detective, ferreting out the great literary works that still exist, albeit out there somewhere along a very long tail. There is an irony in using the Internet—this harbinger of endless twitters and blogs and bytes—to promote the sort of slow literary beauty found here. But there is also the chance to recommend you log off and take the time to read this lovely book. Diane Leach
The Humbling centers on Simon Axler, a stage and screen actor of near legendary stature, who, now in his 60s, has earned the “reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors.” The novel begins: “He’d lost his magic.” Simon is suffering from extreme self-consciousness, which has robbed him of his spontaneity and intuition on stage, leaving him revealed on the boards as a fake, apparent to critics and audiences alike, as well as himself. Back at home, Simon resists the efforts of his agent to get back to work and is one day visited by “lithe, full-breasted” Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of two actors he’d worked with years ago. She is gay and 40 and on the rebound from a long-term relationship with another woman, who has left her to go through a sex-change operation. From the beginning, we understand that she is going through her own mid-life crisis. She stays for dinner and they are lovers before dinner is over. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Pegeen’s failed attempt to find the heterosexual within is a mirror image of Simon’s professional psychological trauma. While she attempts willfully to challenge what is innate and natural in her makeup, and fails, Simon has lost his innate abilities, his natural talent, and he can do nothing to regain it. His pursuit of Pegeen is his pursuit of his lost genius. In the end, his failure to convert Pegeen not only confirms her own true nature to herself, but, in stark contrast, reveals Simon’s own loss of what has made him most alive and most truly himself—and with devastating consequences. Christopher Guerin
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin was raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and Elroy, Wisconsin, and practiced law in New York for a few years before deciding to reside on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region. This geographical mix to his background is certainly prevalent in the emotionally lavish and densely interconnected pieces gathered within In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, one of the more exciting short story collections of recent years. In these tales (many previously published in The New Yorker), the characters scrabble for some form of comfort and security in the quasi-medieval hugger-mugger of modern-day Pakistan. Servants vie for a sinecure in the grand households of the region’s aristocracy (such as the wrenching title story) and foreigners try to find a sense of how they fit into this land’s customs (as in “Our Lady of Paris”, where the American girlfriend to the scion of a wealthy Pakistani family tries to make a good impression on his parents). Sometimes the fight for survival is even more basic, as with “Nawabdin Electrician”, whose title character is set upon by a thief while motorcycling between assignments. Mueenuddin’s voice is empathetic yet distant, retaining a sense of the land’s great and dusty history even as he plots out the emotional turmoil of its present-day inhabitants. Chris Barsanti
In 1990, 17 years after the appearance of the godlike Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon published Vineland, a distinct departure from the dense surrealism and PoMo high jinx to be found in his earlier books. Quite readable and relatively linear, Vineland evoked a post-‘60s hippie hangover that seemed plausible in its vibe if not the details, and fraught with paranoia. The book was a hell of a lot of fun. Few Pynchon admirers would agree with me that it’s his best book, and most of the reviews at the time trashed it. Pynchon’s latest, Inherent Vice returns to the same hippie milieu, this time in Southern California, and combines elements of The Big Lebowski, Dashiell Hammett, John Garfield’s movies, and the TV cop shows and Hollywood movie bikinis-and-surfboards grooviness of the early ‘70s. Inherent Vice is not a novelization of a screenplay, as Denis Johnson’s recent foray into the hardboiled genre, Nobody Move, appears to be, nor is it an important author taking a literary vacation by genre-slumming. The ‘a-ha’ moment is in a glimpse of a raving, fascistic Richard Nixon on TV. This moment, and others less overt, clue us in to the novel’s darker heart. Christopher Guerin
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a novel in two novellas. This structural feature, in which the whole is its parts and each part is the whole, will resonate throughout the book. JIV, DIV (from here on) is about how a thing is no different from its opposite, how love is how we love and where we love as much as the object of that love itself, and how to “Let be be the finale of seem”. Such enfolded language populates JIV, DIV in abundance. It’s one of the book’s many charms. Side by side, the two novellas in JIV, DIV achieve a resonance, and resolution. Neither stands entirely on its own, the first lacking drama, the second almost too fraught with incident and spiritual significance—a man carrying his huge, diseased testicles in a cart, a dead body left for days to be devoured by dogs. But together, they’re like a railroad track, its two rails stretching off, never touching, but each entirely dependent on the other. Christopher Guerin