How many times, how many ways, could we tell the force and effect of the cultural-political winds throughout the years not by simply reading the news or the trends on social media, but by observing, and feeling, what is going on with PopMatters’ contributors? Let’s just say 20 years’ worth of ways.
This year we are utterly exhausted by Brexit, Trumpism, violent racism and violent misogyny, the ‘phobes and the trolls and the all-around haters, the relentless inequality, environmental decline, economic devastation, willful stupidity, the very real threat to
PopMatters existence — to which so many of you, who were able in these extraordinarily difficult times, graciously responded (thank you). And through our exhaustion we “realized” the quiet but looming presence of COVID-19.
Some among us fell ill to the virus. At least one among us died — just days after a series of email exchanges. Indeed, many among us lost loved ones and dear colleagues to COVID. And jobs.
At some points this year, I wondered what it was within us that kept reading, writing, and publishing. Some people we’ve worked with on the magazine for years drifted away in 2020. They had other needs in these times. We understand. We will be there when they’re ready to return.
Meanwhile, books sent to PopMatters for consideration slowed drastically, ARCs became a rarity. Release dates were pushed back, and back again. Emails to publicists I’ve worked with for years bounced back “invalid email address”; the custom of the occasional “I moved on” and “here’s where you can reach me” auto reply no longer observed. They’re gone, nowhere.
Fortunately, those sinking moments in 2020 were rare and short-lived. Of those who felt they could keep writing, we commiserated, we cracked jokes, we cried, we swore about all this bullshit, and we carried on with it. Of course, it’s imperative that we — meaning our incredible contributors and you, our readers — carry on. This magazine is something we create and experience together. And wow, do we need to be together in these times even though we don’t dare go near one another.
This year we didn’t turn to fiction for those much needed periods of escapism. Some of the music
we loved in 2020 proves better to provide that catharsis. Nor did we turn to fiction for answers, because of course, the best fiction doesn’t provide “answers”. We turned to these works of fiction in 2020 for the questions they raise. Questions like:
• At what point do imperfect laws and the structures developed to enforce them do more to oppress than to protect?
• How can we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it?
• Can we set needed boundaries? How might we dismantle cruelly restrictive boundaries?
• How might we handle distance relationships? Our loneliness?
• What demands should we make of another? Of ourselves?
• What happens to people who live inside their heads? Inside their phones?
• What is important in this world, in our brief lives?
• How does one carry on?
We didn’t find answers, but we found some extraordinary fiction that helped us think through 2020. Good fiction puts things in perspective, and makes one realize that they’ll get through their own difficulties, their own way. We hope you find these books help you think through it, too. ~ Karen Zarker, Mng. Ed.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins [Flatiron Books]
The first big literary controversy of 2020 erupted in January when Flatiron released American Dirt in a torrent of publicity (Oprah pick, blurbs ranging from Stephen King to Sandra Cisneros, big splashy interviews) that signaled it as the year’s first Big Important Novel. Some critics denounced what they saw as a cultural appropriation from a non-Mexican writer. Tweets were tweeted, death threats hurled, Jeanine Cummins‘ tour was canceled, and publishing insiders noted that if Flatiron had just released the novel with less literary hoopla as a topical thriller, the whole mishegoss could have been avoided.
In any case, American Dirt is an old-school page-turner, starting with an Acapulco cartel’s sicarios gunning down the family and friends of Lydia, a bookstore owner whose husband’s journalism riled the wrong people. Somehow surviving the assault and not trusting her luck to continue, Lydia takes her son Luca and flees to America.
Cummins’ style can read flatly at times, particularly when rendering dialogue, and a running subplot about Lydia’s unusual relationship with the cartel boss leans toward soap opera dynamics. But the story’s propulsive speed, wrenching pathos, and at times effectively Steinbeckian social realism overcomes enough of those deficiencies to make this an imperfectly pulpy yet exceedingly empathetic and rewarding piece of work. — Chris Barsanti
Read Shaun McMichael’s article about American Dirt.
The Beauty of Your Face, by Sahar Mustafah [W.W. Norton]
The Beauty of Your Face celebrates Sahar Mustafah‘s voice as part of the Palestinian-American literary movement. Her debut is an emotional and rich journey, laden with awareness and intrigue. The Beauty of Your Face testifies to shared humanity, one derived from schisms and connections. Throughout the novel, Mustafah dismantles stereotypes about Muslim women. Her subversion is subtle and nuanced, circumventing an essentialized image of Muslim women and girls. The addition of Mustafah’s voice to the conversations shaping Muslim identity is refreshing and thoughtful.
The novel’s secondary focus details a school-shooting targeting a Muslim school for girls. The author understands the power of the internet as a radicalizing tool as the shooter finds solace in an online community built on xenophobic extremism. His hatred is palpable, manifesting into the violence targeting Palestinian-Americans. Intertwining instances of racism and radicalization against resilience and strength, Mustafah’s writing is impassioned. Her representation of the violence and hatred is brutal, certainly uncomfortable yet profoundly necessary. As Mustafah fully considers the ramifications faced by the Palestinian-American community, The Beauty of Your Face inserts an essential voice into contemporary narratives. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
Read Elisabeth Woronzoff’s article about The Beauty of Your Face.
Big Black: Stand at Attica, By Frank “Big Black” Smith and Jared Reinmuth, Illustrated by Ameziane [Archaia / Simon & Schuster]
Big Black: Stand at Attica was written by Jared Reinmuth, whose stepfather, Daniel Meyers, led the Attica Brothers Legal Team in the 26-year legal battle for justice. Smith, described by his co-author as “a wonderful storyteller”, became friends with the family. He shared his story with Reinmuth in the late ’90s; the aspiring writer, actor, and director initially thought it could provide the basis for a screenplay. Following Smith’s death in 2004, Reinmuth continued working with his widow, Pearle Battle Smith, to chronicle Big Black’s story, which has finally emerged in graphic novel format. The book also features a moving introduction by Meyers.
Big Black: Stand at Attica is a superb graphic novel, excelling well beyond the standard fare of the now ubiquitous bio-pic. Written by contributors with personal ties to the events, the story it tells is vitally important to remember. The narrative, illustrated with Ameziane’s lush and magical artwork, is a stirring tribute to the strength and courage of those who died and a powerful call to action in the ongoing battle against the systemic curse of white American racism. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Big Black: Stand at Attica.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami [Europa Editions]
Fearless in its demand for accountability, transcendent in its honesty, Mieko Kawakami‘s Breasts and Eggs breathes life into feminist literature and throws down a gauntlet for other writers to aspire toward. What renders this work magnificent is its detailed attention to the inner voice, a focus Kawakami shares with other well-known contemporary writers from Japan. A host of bestselling authors — Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Kazuki Kaneshiro, Yu Miri, Sayaka Murata, Hiromi Kawakami, and others, all of whom have work translated into English — have grappled in different and rewarding ways with this perspective. While Murakami’s work probes more fantastical terrain, it often takes as its point of departure the banality of the everyday, elevating protagonists’ experience of the every day into otherworldly fantasias.
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Breast and Eggs.
Breathing Through the Wound, by Víctor Del Árbol [Other Press]
In a Madrid populated with wounded artists and collectors turned criminals, the implicating commodity in Víctor Del Árbol’s Stieg Larson-esque novel, Breathing Through the Wound isn’t sex or illicit drugs, but fine art. Boléros scores the torture scenes, and the bludgeoning weapons used are thick collections of poems by Rimbaud.
Readers stagger through Dostoyevsky-dark alleyways along with grief-stricken portraitist Eduardo on a misguided quest to paint shady real estate mogul, Arthur Fernández. Like Eduardo, readers are propelled by characters and situations so vivid and intricate, they won’t realize they’re reading a who-done-it until it’s too late. As dizzying as Del Árbol’s philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is positively vertiginous. — Shaun McMichael
Read Shaun McMichael’s article about Breathing Through the Wound.
Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora [Penguin Random House]
Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women is a vivid exploration of the bondage and power of women. A work of historical fiction, Atakora adroitly unpacks the nuances of interbellum society, the influence of spirituality, and the power of superstition. For instance, Atakora’s characters provide medical treatments to enable women to control their reproductive systems, especially after surviving sexual violence. Their ability to heal is often conflated with magic. Here, Atakora unequivocally states their abilities are not magic but agency.
Yet, it is the novel’s reiteration of the current calls for racial justice that positions Conjure Women as an unadulterated masterpiece. Its second branch of systematic violence is experienced by the male characters. Their youth, vitality, and of course, blackness presents an imaginary risk. To cull the threat, white slave owners command brutal acts of violence, often culminating in death.
Atakora’s writing draws a direct line to modernity, specifically the calls for racial justice in the wake of state-sanctioned police brutality. Despite the era, the novel displays the violence as mostly unchanged other than the mechanics of the killings. As such, Conjure Women makes it clear that unless systematic racism and violence are dismantled now, it will remain in control through the future. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
Read Elisabeth Woronzoff’s article about Conjure Women.
Cuisine Chinoise: Tales of Food and Life, by Zao Dao [Dark Horse]
There are few books of which it can be said they’re worth buying for the art alone. Zao Dao‘s Cuisine Chinoise is one of them. The graphic novel is packed with “tales of food and life” but with its compelling combination of lush painted pages and unsettling, fable-like storytelling, it’s the eyes and brain which get the true feast here. Each panel is literally a feast for the eyes; each page a multi-course meal, each image worth savouring slowly and appreciatively before moving on to the next. It’s rooted in Chinese art styles, but with an experimental avant-garde twist. Classic images are stylized in innovative and gorgeous ways and deposited into the narrative in creative fashion. One also detects influences of manga and bande-dessinée.
Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao’s stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise. – Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Cuisine Chinoise:Tales of Food and Life.
Fiebre Tropical, by Juli Delgado-Lopera [Feminist Press]
Juli Delgado-LoperaJuli Delgado-Lopera‘s debut novel Fiebre Tropical opens with a bang. “Buenos días, mi reina.” Wrapped in those four words is an open-handed greeting that sets an intimate tone, a snapshot of the playful formality that characterizes Colombian Spanish and a glimpse of budding queerness by establishing the reader as a ‘queen’ from the first page.
The Spanglish voice of narrator Francisca is brimming with self-awareness, stubbornness, and humor. The “Mayami” she inhabits is far from the glamour of South Beach. It is the sweaty, grimy boredom that greets the countless migrants that step into a disorienting unknown through Miami International Airport. The narrative alternates between a small apartment brimming with the desires and sadness of three generations of headstrong women, and one of the countless evangelical churches that attract Colombians grasping for the promise of stability. Interlaced are the adolescent stories of Francisca’s mother and grandmother and the ways that they too struggled against the constraints of an orthodox society that forces women into narrow, flashy boxes.
In Fiebre Tropical, Delgado-Lopera delivers a fabulous and bold coming-out while coming-to-America tale that never stops pushing the limits around identity and belonging. — Derick Gomez
Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie [Dutton]
Nothing about Nori’s life is simple. The product of infidelity, Nori is abandoned at the gates of her mother’s ancestral home left to suffer the consequences of shame her existence brings to the family name. Fifty Words for Rain, the debut novel from Asha Lemmie, begins in post-WWII Japan and ends at the same doorstep after a lifetime of abuse and sacrifice.
Lemmie’s opus centers on the limited choices available to women in Japan during the 20th century. Nori must confront the barriers imposed on her because of her multi-racial background. Although Nori is a strong and talented woman, her opportunities in Japan are predetermined by her politically-connected family. Forced to hide in the shadows, Nori’s freedom hinges on her invisibility.
While the challenges Nori contends with are beyond her control, it’s her choices especially at the conclusion of the book that proves most shocking. Lemmie’s novel explores the illusion of choice for women in a preordained societal structure and the powerful pull of independence. — Megan Palm
F*CKFACE And Other Stories by Leah Hampton [Henry Holt and Co.]
Leah Hampton‘s F*ckface is a piercing debut. The collection of 12 fictional short stories are affecting in their portrait of the human condition. Interweaving humor and critical commentary, Hampton champions the voice of rural Appalachia. Her strength is characterization, with each short story fully developing empathy and honesty. Hampton’s stories predominantly feature intelligent women who live non-normative lives. Whereas these characters embody the other, they don’t subvert dominant paradigms nor are they marginalized. Hampton portrays them as normalized, valued, and accepted individuals, thereby dismantling any stereotypes defining the region’s peoples.
F*ckface‘s vibrant descriptions of the woodlands, the smoky mountains, and rural landscapes strengthen Hampton’s narratives and temper the bleak subjects she undertakes. Ecoanxiety is a prominent theme throughout the collection. Hampton contextualizes the dire effects of big-industry on the region’s environment but also on the individual. Whether it’s due to mountaintop removal mining, anti-environmentalism, or industrialized meat production, the impact is disastrous to all aspects of life. Throughout the collection, F*ckface‘s realness provides a picture of a community while engendering the voices of its denizens. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
Read Elisabeth Woronzoff’s article about F*ckface and Other Stories.
Heathens, by Natasha Alterici [Vault Comics]
if you only have time for one set of Vikings in your life, make it Natasha Alterici‘s graphic novel series Heathen. The third and final volume of this brilliant series, which centres on a lesbian Viking who’s got it in for Odin and the patriarchy, is a fitting and action-packed ending to a gorgeously produced series.
There’s a clear hint at the dilemmas of contemporary life – at what point do imperfect laws and the structures developed to enforce them, do more to oppress than to protect? And at what point do those committed to serving them decide that it’s a higher calling to overturn outdated laws and replace them with untested but more progressive alternatives? This is the dilemma grappled with not only by Heathen’s human protagonists but by its pantheon of deities as well, who also find themselves divided by the increasingly oppressive outcomes of impartial justice. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Heathens.
Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar [Little, Brown and Company]
Studded with footnotes, digressions, and lucidly fierce argumentation, Ayad Akhtar‘s brilliant and intoxicating Homeland Elegies is as thoughtful as it is hard to put down. An interrogation of America in the post-9/11 era and his own place within it as the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, as well as a roustabout family drama rife with theological and cultural complexities, the story weaves enough details of Akhtar’s real life and self-aware commentary into the story to give it all a gleaming metafictional gloss.
Akhtar is aware enough of his fame as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Disgraced) to make that as much a running theme as his artistic anxieties and desire to wrestle honestly with what that fame means. The world that Akhtar conjures is filled with people whose ideas about what it means to be an American are so fixed to one degree or another that it leaves no room for an artist like himself, who hates nothing more than unthinking uncertainties. — Chris Barsanti
Jillian, by Halle Butler [Penguin/Random House]
The struggle between individuality and capitalism’s enforcement of conformity is the crux of Halle Butler‘s Jillian. Originally published in 2015, then reprinted in 2020, Butler offers a stinging portrait of two discontented women clashing with the social systems built to oppress them. Butler slyly deconstructs the dominant understanding of happiness and success to conclude it is all malarkey. Jillian is a subversive illustration of how contemporary detritus leads individuals to cycles of delusion and self-destruction.
The inability to reject conformity is a central theme throughout Jillian. Butler’s characters’ struggles stem from an inequitable and unsympathetic society. One character’s mental health struggles are marginalized while another’s economic hardships are censured. Their problems are shrouded by falsities delivered by conformity, hyper-consumerism, and gendered expectations. Ultimately, they fail to see their troubles as evidence that capitalist society is failing them, and almost everyone. Jillian is a frank account of discontent. Evoking both sarcasm and empathy, Butler’s characters are harbingers of a relatable alienation. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
Read Elisabeth Woronzoff”s article about Jillian.
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam [HarperCollins]
The apocalypse never begins so nicely as it does at the start of Rumaan Alam‘s subtly terrifying and undercutting novel about a family vacationing at a tasteful rental home on Long Island with a bed “so massive it never would have rounded the stairwell to get into their third-floor apartment.” But the upper-middle-class Whole Foods consumerism (note-perfect descriptions of grocery shopping, the blue corn chips, and recycled paper coffee filters, go on for pages) is only the background hum to the coming disaster in Leave the World Behind. A satirical yuppies-in-peril narrative starts once a husband and wife show up at night begging for refuge in a blackout and claiming to be the house’s owners, but veers sideways once it appears that there may be larger reasons for the power outage.
Working an end-times seam with more elegance and impact than Don DeLillo’s recent The Silence (a similarly-themed effort) Alam amplifies the chill of the vacationers’ unknowing by inserting asides with little glimpses of the larger calamity rippling through the larger world, suggesting that it was only the latest stage of an ongoing disaster: “Theirs was a failure of imagination…the information had always been there waiting for them.” — Chris Barsanti
Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson [Scribner]
How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson‘s Lie With Me is a tribute – to first love, especially those first loves which prove immutable and enduring. It will resonate with anyone who has felt love, which is to say all of us. And it’s a tribute to the 1980s, which this autobiographical novel conjures in all their awkward, awful innocence.
The innocence: florescent hair, Cyndi Lauper, the ineffable need to escape small towns for anywhere else, bars that serve minors and everywhere the numbing halo of cigarette smoke. And the awful: the mystery of AIDS, the hiding from family and friends, the repressive closet as a societal institution.
It’s also a warning about the perils of the closet. Repressing elements of one’s sexuality (or other identities) may seem, to a teenager of the ’80s with their whole life ahead of them, like a legitimate choice in response to a homophobic world. Lie with Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Lie with Me.
Likes, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
It’s worth noting that a third of the stories in this sharp and exacting collection end with the word, “gone”. The mostly female characters in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s stories approach the things that their own lives are missing (time, patience, empathy, and—in more than one instance—a child) with a sort of detached curiosity and resignation, as though that which is gone was impossible to hope for in the first place. And yet, the stories in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum‘s Like resist the dismissive taxonomy of “women’s fiction” by working within and often skewering the myths that frame so many of our narratives.
Take “The Bears” for example, in which a woman who is working at an artist’s residency while grieving a miscarriage becomes infatuated with a particular property nearby. It’s a compelling reimagining of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, though the narrator is quick to remind us that, “over time, the trespasser turns from curious fox to bad old woman to bold little girl: a girl who is at the start called Silver Hair but who eventually gets saddled with the cloying name she hasn’t been able to shake since.”
Myths aren’t meant to suffocate, Bynum seems to be saying; rather, they’re ours to shake and rattle, picking what we need from what falls and leaving the rest for others to mine. — Erin Saldin
The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel [Henry Holt and Co.]
At the beginning of this final volume in Hilary Mantel‘s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which started with Wolf Hall (2009), she describes her protagonist as being much the same as he was at Anne Boleyn’s execution which concluded Bring Up the Bodies (2012): “Though he is a commoner still, most would agree that he is the second man in England.” The first man in England, of course, is Henry VIII, whom Cromwell serves with total dedication. At the same time, he is trying to finish his grand project of modernizing the kingdom: More bureaucrats and laws; fewer impetuous untouchable aristocrats.
The tragedy in Mantel’s gloriously immersive story is that no matter how much she wants us to admire Cromwell’s cool wit, touching loyalty, and elephantine knowledge (law, trading, gardening, military tactics; there seems to be nothing his mind cannot grasp), the book is forced by history to trace the missteps that lead to his fatal downfall. More mired in digressive detail than her previous books and not quite as escapist as some might prefer during a quarantine (“The plague is in Kingston and Windsor. Movements are restricted”), The Mirror & the Light is still a grand finish to one of the great historical fiction series of our time. — Chris Barsanti
Miss Iceland, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir [Grove Press / Black Cat]
It’s useful that books like this exist to remind us of the bigotry and harassment lurking beneath the surface; the micro-aggressions perpetuating sexism and homophobia which lie not far beneath the civilized facade of even the most progressive-seeming nations. Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Miss Iceland is at once a poetic, light-hearted narrative and a sharply edged social critique that is caustic and righteous in its portrayal of the enduring nature of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Miss Iceland is set in the 1960s, but much of the sexism experienced by its protagonists will be sorely familiar to contemporary readers. The period setting allows its author — award-winning novelist, playwright, poet, and art history professor Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir — to achieve a delicate and clever balance. The story pokes fun at the past in that wry manner that reminds readers that yes, men’s behaviour has been ridiculous through much of history, and now that we’re all in on the joke it’s hard to take the men of the past seriously. But this is a double-bladed in-joke; if modern men were truly honest, many of them would recognize themselves in these pages as well. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Miss Iceland.
The Mountains Sing, by Nguyen Phan Que Mai [Workman]
The first work in English of lauded Vietnamese poet and journalist, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, The Mountains Sing tells the saga of the Tran family as it endures a century rife with conflict. A family of middle-class farmers from Vietnam’s middle region, the prosperous but unassuming Tran family finds itself the victim of assaults by colonialists, famines, mobs, and, greatest of all, the war between the Communist North and American-backed South. The story drops in just as the last bombs of the war rain down upon war-torn Ha Noi, where the Tran family has settled after decades of misfortune.
Not since 2017’s Pachinko have readers been given a family saga as sumptuous and compelling as The Mountains Sing. Through a tumultuous century of conflict, the Tran family plummets from life as middle-class farmers to refugees on the run in their own country, a war-torn Vietnam. While colonial powers terrorize, and political ideologies divide, Granddaughter Huong clings to Grandmother Dieu Lan’s words, stories, and culture as ballasts for her journey differentiating into adulthood out from a landscape of loss. — Shaun McMichael
Read Shaun Michael’s article about The Mountains Sing.
Never Anyone But You, by Rubert Thomson [Other Press (paperback)]
Sometimes real life offers the best canvas for imaginative storytelling, and while the portrayal of actual historical figures in fiction ought to be taken with a grain of salt, one can still appreciate and enjoy that depiction. Rupert Thomson‘s Never Anyone But You is an inspiring tale of surrealists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, who defied homophobia, Nazis, and gender norms while pushing the boundaries of art and love. Cahun was a writer, poet, and photographer; Moore was an illustrator and photographer. Both were active in the surrealist movement in early 20th century France. They became friends and artistic collaborators as teens, and then lovers who eventually lived together in a vaguely veiled lesbian relationship (their widowed and divorced parents eventually married, allowing them to present themselves with some degree of veracity as step-sisters).
Never Anyone But You is a superb accomplishment, bringing to life not only two remarkable artists who deserve to be remembered but animating in beautiful and vibrant detail the period in which they lived. Most of all, it is a beautiful story of a love that withstood myriad challenges and grew and adapted in spite of all the barriers thrown in the couple’s way. — Hans Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Never Anyone But You.
People of the City, by Cyprian Ekwensi [New York Review of Books Classics]
Cyprian Ekwensi‘s People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism’s reign. First published in 1963, People of the City is an illuminating account of individuals’ lives in an unnamed West African city. A coming-of-age story overlapping with a vibrant portrait of a titular cityscape, People of the City is a recognizable narrative of how identity construction is often jeopardized by the specters of colonialism.
People of the City is an unrelenting critique of colonial ideology and praxis. The city, often considered to be Lagos, is emblematic of the struggle for African independence from British colonial rule. From the novel’s depiction of exploitation and sociocultural marginalization, readers witness the subjugation of colonial identity. As part of this consideration, Ekwensi adroitly establishes the insidious connection between colonialism and capitalism.
Ekwensi’s critiques are electric, his narrative is mesmerizing. As such, People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism’s reign. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
Read Elisabeth Woronzoff’s article about People of the City.
Romance in Marseille, by Claude McKay [Penguin Classics]
Claude McKay has long been considered one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, yet some of his best work is only now appearing in print, more than 70 years after his death. McKay’s Romance in Marseille — only recently published — pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity — all in gorgeous poetic prose. A combination of homophobia, fears around obscenity, and doubts about the book’s commercial viability led to its being shelved during McKay’s lifetime.
There is a playfulness to his tone and style, an unselfconscious ability to weave between literary styles in a manner that transcends genre and politics. A chapter may open with the omniscient symphonic power of a literary classic; but mere paragraphs later McKay turns back on himself, allowing his characters to dally in self-abasing and obscenity-laden humour.
Romance in Marseille is deeply satirical, but the double-edged nature of its satire is subtle. Part of its satire is directed toward the conventions of genre itself. By weaving between styles, by dancing along the line between dirty humour and literary high art, political intrigue and candid sexuality, it’s as though McKay is showing off a talented capacity to toy with multiple approaches to writing the complex lives of his marginalized characters. His correspondence with friends, scornful of his editors, reveals someone who derided the stilted constraints of his too-conventional, profitability-conscious, race-sensitive editors, yet was forced to balance a tough line between pleasing them (in order to get published) and poking fun at the gateways of the literary convention they guarded. — RheasRollmann
Read Rollmann’s article about Romance in Marseille.
Serenade for Nadia, by Zülfü Livaneli [Other]
Zülfü Livaneli‘s Serenade for Nadia is the latest in a wave of English-language translations of Turkish bestsellers. Delightful as it is to finally have access to literary classics that have long been available in languages other than English, it comes at a trying time for Turkish writers. The growing repression under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian regime has seen tens of thousands of Turkish writers, journalists, intellectuals, and other potential critics of the regime rounded up and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Erdogan’s repressive rule has transformed one of the world’s most beautiful and creative nations into a fearful, sterile prison camp. – Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmanns’ article about Serenade for Nadia.
Shirley Jackson: Four Novels of the 1940s & 1950s, Ruth Franklin, ed. [Library of America]
We’ve lived intensely interior lives this year, locked away in our homes, and locked away in our minds. It’s the terrain of Shirley Jackson, the master of the ambiguous zones between reality and psychology. So, the timing of the Library of America’s latest collection of her work could not be more deliberate and devastating. Jackson’s work exhibits an uncanny capacity to evoke the strangest qualities of the world—little moments that creek, that flutter disturbingly ever so out of place or against the grain—and suggest the subjective reactions to seemingly concrete moments. When reading her work you find yourself slipping backward to re-read some sentences or even the main clause of a single sentence in an effort to find some bearing on the developments of the story, such is the ambiguity of her artistry, and such is its resonance with our moment, when days drain away in seeming isolation and our habits and actions echo an earlier time that we slip into in our memories but yet seem to be only pastiches in our current actions.
Ruth Franklin edited and wrote the introduction to this edition, a perfect choice considering her phenomenal and definitive biography of Jackson, an exemplary template for any aspiring literary biographer. The earlier LOA collection netted some of Jackson’s best work; but this edition still captures the insularity of her worlds and the comfort and captivating aspects of family and homes running through Jackson’s work. Indeed, Jackson’s agoraphobia, which increased later in her life, clicks with our present moment. 1958’s The Sundial, included here, features a cryptic family gathering that turns into a retreat as they become convinced the world is about to end and only those who remain in their house will escape. Reading it today you experience slippage as if her prose reached out to the moment and folded you back into the story. – Tom Kemper
The Silence, by Don DeLillo [Scribner]
Paradoxes abound in Don DeLillo‘s The Silence. Its subject—the end of contemporary life as we know it—is huge. Its size is small, barely over 100 pages. Its premise is high concept: on Super Bowl Sunday, 2022, all technology—a word that one character in DeLillo’s masterpiece, White Noise, calls “lust removed from nature”—suddenly stops. Its delivery is not what the concept promises. It’s less, and more.
Nothing happens in The Silence. But in keeping with Existentialist philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jerry Seinfeld, being about nothing is fraught with meaning, with something. The Silence is less about a 2022 catastrophic event than the catastrophic event we are currently living in. On the surface, it gets the particulars of our apocalypse wrong – it is the bars and clubs that are empty during the Covid-19 pandemic, not our screens.
However, it’s the lingering question, “What happens to people who live inside their phones?” that will haunt readers, but not because their screens are blank, but because they are full. It’s our lives that are empty.
DeLillo’s 16th novel appears to be his first that is neither late nor early to the uncanny prediction of current events but arrives precisely on time. — Jesse Kavadlo
Read Jesse Kavadlo’s article about The Silence.
The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud, by Kuniko Tsurita [Drawn & Quarterly]
Kuniko Tsurita, born in Japan in 1947, grew up in the aftermath of World War II and the early years of manga’s tenacious spread. Despite the male-dominated nature of early manga magazines, she devoted herself to the craft and was already submitting work to contests and magazines before the age of 15. She and a friend skipped their high school graduation ceremony to catch a train to Tokyo, both determined to make it as manga artists in the big city.
Tsurita was among the early ‘intellectual’ manga artists, integrating concepts drawn from high literature and philosophy into their manga in both content and style. Unlike many of her colleagues, who privately derided the lofty intellectualism they injected into their work, Tsurita seems to have taken it more seriously, drawing on influences as varied as the Marquis de Sade, Lovecraft, Nietzsche, Russian anarchism, Christian eschatology, Audrey Beardsley, and more.
The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud is a superb and beautiful collection, one worth repeated readings for pleasure and reflection alike. The Anglophone world owes thanks to those involved in its production that English speaking audiences will finally get to encounter Tsurita’s powerfully innovative and provocative work, which resonates with meaning for manga historians and contemporary audiences alike. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud.
Spring Rain, by Andy Warner [St. Martin’s Griffin]
Andy Warner‘s style of narrative in Spring Rain is evocative of those visual puzzles that require the viewer to look beyond the image in front of them, letting their eyes relax into an indirect gaze, in order for the hidden picture to reveal itself. It’s a graphic memoir of a semester he spent in Beirut as a 21-year-old college student studying Lebanese literature. It was 2005 – the same year mass protests led to that country’s ‘Cedar Revolution’, toppling its pro-Syrian government.
By chance, Warner wound up hanging out with a mostly gay circle of Lebanese and international students. The intense partying they engaged in – raves, orgies, pervasive drug use – is likely at odds with many people’s image of the Middle East. But that’s precisely why it’s such a compelling image – it’s real, it grasps at the broad diversity of the country (as seen through foreign eyes).
Spring Rain is a superb portrayal not just of a vibrant and beautiful country and the vicissitudes of politics, but also an apt exposition of the vagaries of mind and memory. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Spring Rain.
Summer, by Ali Smith [Penguin]
Scottish author Ali Smith‘s final entry in her seasonal quartet, Summer, deftly documents the soul of a chaotic age with exuberance, wit, and some hope. It’s a rapid-response artwork whose mazy narrative oscillates between direct authorial address and interior perspectives of her new and recurring characters whilst hopping between time frames. Richly allusive, conversational and genial, Summer reads pleasurably and generously, with a plethora of volleys of smart dialogue between the story’s players, forming a fluid and tonally playful tapestry of the Smith’s overarching themes: generosity, incarceration, enlightenment, transience, forgiveness, the effects of art and the eponymous season (viewed here as an idyllic if slippery state for which we all yearn and anticipate but which never lives up to its hype).
Smith’s multi-generational audit of our summer of discontent pulls together strands from the previous books in the sequence without trite tidiness and insinuates that we might accrue deeper connections from these strange and unprecedented times: light emerging from darkness and engagement from lethargy. Indeed, Summer proves to be the first important Covid-19 novel. — Michael Sumsion
Sweet Time by Weng Pixin [Drawn & Quarterly]
Though the art of Sweet Time is by definition comics art, it stands impressively far above most of the conventions and genre expectations of the medium’s mainstream publishing history. In terms of form, Weng Pixin is a comics artist—because she is composing sequences of juxtaposed images—but the visual impact of her artwork escapes the norms of most other graphic literature.
This is true despite her working with traditional panels and gutters. But how often does a comics artist carefully construct and layer strips of paper to form gutters that are as visually engaging as the content of the images they frame? How often does a comics artist focus attention on the qualities of her brushwork as her impressionist dabs widen into the thick swaths of an expressionist? How often is a comics viewer able to appreciate the texture of the paper absorbing the watercolors? It might be more accurate to simply call Pixin an artist, one who happens to be working in the comics form. — Chris Gavaler
Read Chris Gavaler’s article about Sweet Time.
Temporary, by Hilary Leichter [Coffee House Press]
If Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even is this year’s clear-eyed examination of the horrors of late capitalism, Hilary Leichter‘s Temporary is the sparkling adventure story set in its ruins. Temporary follows its protagonist through a series of placements from her job agency–CEO, pamphleteer, and pirate, to name a few—on her quest to find the elusive steadiness. It’s set in a slipstream-y world that could have been the result of an all-night slumber party with George Saunders, Kelly Link, and the first year or so of Welcome to Night Vale.
“You can turn a phrase only so many times until it turns into something else,” Leichter’s protagonist observes at one point. It’s an apt description for her style, energetic and alive, with lines that make abrupt turns into laughter or melancholy. Temporary achieves the particular literary double-whammy of feeling both utterly strange but familiar. It’s the story of the way you’re living, the way we’re all living: “fill[ing] your days,” as one manager directs our protagonist, “until none are left.” — Billy Hallal
They Say Sarah, by Pauline Delabroy-Allard [Other]
To read They Say Sarah is to understand what it means for a novel to be ‘breathtaking’. By the time I’d consumed the first half of the book – in under an hour – I felt like I had barely come up for air. It’s only partly due to the vivid sexual passion around which the book is crafted. French writer Pauline Delabroy-Allard has created, in her literary debut, a deeply impressionistic novel that thrusts the reader from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. The impact is stunning; from the opening chapter the momentum doesn’t let up.
Delabroy-Allard’s use of language is magnificent (and Adriana Hunter‘s translation does a superb job of maintaining the effect). The accelerated sense of momentum is conveyed by an unfettered use of present tense. Long run-on sentences are coupled with staccato-like short, repetitive clauses. Time is condensed; seconds stretch into paragraphs and days merge in mere sentences. The sweeping emotional effect is a reminder of the potency of language. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about They Say Sarah.
Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell [Penguin-Random House]
Eight novels into his career, David Mitchell has clearly established himself. You can count on his fiction to take you into a multicultural space, a cultural clash, and (nearly always) a spiritual — or at least supernatural — encounter. Engagingly told by either first or third-person narrators, his plots unfurl to keep any reader turning the pages. Which can add up, given the heft of most of his tales speculating on the grey areas between this realm and other ones.
Woven into Utopia Avenue Mitchell stitches a subtle critique of the impacts of the pot-heavy, lysergic-immersed, and heady music’s ambitions on pop culture, moral choices, and even tripping itself. The way to a better world, he quietly emphasizes, demands that responsibility not be shirked and that cant or rhetoric fails to solve human loneliness or hereditary alienation. His composed, existential view may not please all, but his own Buddhist-inspired contemplation amidst the carnage and ecstasy of this romanticized era reminds us today of the caution needed when messages get blared. — John L. Murphy
Read John L. Murphy’s article about Utopia Avenue.
Year of the Rabbit, by Tian Veasna [Drawn & Quarterly]
Tian Veasna’s superb yet harrowing graphic portrayal of the Khmer Rouge regime, Year of the Rabbit, conveys what damage a living nightmare can do to a country and its people in a mere four years. The author and comics artist was born three days after the Khmer Rouge seized power. His father was a doctor (intellectuals and skilled workers, in particular, were targeted for execution under the regime’s twisted policies) and his family was forced to leave their home in the capital of Phnom Penh when the new regime ordered the evacuation of the entire city. For the next four years, the family struggled to stay together and survive, as they were forcibly relocated to work camps and rural villages. They eventually succeeded in fleeing across the border to neighbouring Thailand. The family’s story offers an apt representation of the experience of everyday Cambodians during this period, even if his family was probably luckier than others.
The capriciousness of political violence can emerge and spread with lightning speed. Year of the Rabbit is as much a vital moral lesson as it is a superb historical graphic narrative. — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Year of the Rabbit.
A Young Fair God, by Hugh Fleetwood [Amazon (reprint)]
Specializing in the kind of thrillers that explore the interstitial spaces that are moral dilemmas, Hugh Fleetwood has made a career out of consigning characters to a world of habitual anxiety. He lives on the margins of larger success and for reasons understandable; he skirts the conventions of his preferred genre with a determination and brio that can be every bit as admirable as it can be frustrating. Fleetwood is not a button-pusher, but a skilled and thoughtful writer who, noiselessly, rather calmly, leads his readers into grey, uncomfortable areas and leaves them there to sort out their ideas and feelings about the narratives.
Forcing the reader into the dark, emotional quandaries that suggest some kind of logic (though indeed skewed) behind certain European perspectives on entitlement and cultural positions, A Young Fair God does its job as a proper pot-stirrer. A marksman with words, Fleetwood captures the calm of acquiescence and the roarings of hysteria with a balance that is narratively pitched between a meditation on racial inequity and a dark, psychological thriller. Under the nacreous polish of the writing lies the venom, blood, and dirt the author has so capably concealed – a feature perfected remarkably in the nearly 30 works he has published in his 50-year career. — Imran Khan
Read Imran Khan’s article about A Young Fair God.
Read Imran Kahn’s interview with Hugh Fleetwood.
A World Between, by Emily Hashimoto [Feminist Press]
Emily Hashimoto‘s remarkable debut, A World Between, is a finely constructed, impassioned, and touching love story between two women that spans 13 years and resonates powerfully along a variety of registers. Hashimoto has done a superb job of replicating the shifting emotional and psychological states of her protagonists over the nearly 15-year span of her story.
Hashimoto could have made this an easy story, and there were times when I yearned for her to do so–to let her protagonists stop having to struggle and simply live happily ever after. But life is rarely so simple. Instead, the author chose to explore the messy relationship dynamics that both bolster and challenge our emotional bonds with those we love. What boundaries should we set in a relationship’s sexual politics? How do we handle distance relationships? What demands can we make of the other when the expression or repression of their identity reflects upon us? What limits should we set in our lives when it comes to the role of family and cultural background? — Rhea Rollmann
Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about A World Between.