Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach”: Contribution to Review31’s “Best Novels of 2017”

I wrote about the novel that most intrigued and bemused me in 2017, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, for Review31‘s fiction round-up of the year:Image result for manhattan beach egan

“Jennifer Egan’s first novel since 2011’s A Visit From The Goon SquadManhattan Beach was trailed as its complete opposite, a ‘traditional historical novel’ set in the 1940s around the Brooklyn Naval Yard. That is partly true. The novel does bear certain hallmarks of historical fiction (it meets the 60-year test set by the Walter Scott Prize), but it’s also quite a strange book. It has a few postmodern-esque characteristics – switches of narrative perspective in the middle of a scene, acknowledgements of the opacity of the past – but those are not what make it strange.”

“Body Language” – Review of Arika Episode 9: Other Worlds Already Exist

My review of the most recent Arika episode, featuring Samuel Delany, is up on the Glasgow Review of Books site:

“Samuel Delany – known to everyone as Chip – was the Episode’s guest of honour, reading and chatting on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and meeting with local Glasgow science-fiction writers on Friday. His reading on Saturday offered a way of thinking about that distance, the tension between this world and the world we want to make. It presented an American South familiar from certain archetypes – working class community, barbeques, road-side bars – but divested of the hetero-masculinity associated with that world. It saw a familiar world differently, and in some ways maybe wrote a world into existence, but more than that it named and described a world that already exists. In this book, Chip was doing what he always does – talking directly. He’s been called a “sexual revolutionary” for the frank way he writes about sex, but that frankness is part of a larger commitment to direct treatment of the matter at hand. That insistence on directness is important, not least because ‘the world’ is as political a notion as any – what gets counted as part of it, and what doesn’t. As he reminded us, the phrase “other worlds” is a metaphor – “we have only one.””

Review of Alex Gilvarry’s “Eastman Was Here”

My review of Alex Gilvarry’s new novel, Eastman Was Here, is up now on The Millions:

“Is this satire? And is Mailer the target? He’s the inspiration, but it seems an odd choice to satirize a man not only easily satirizable but who’s also been dead for 10 years. The only way to make it work would be to use it to illuminate our current culture. I don’t think Gilvarry is satirizing Mailer per se, but I do think his book does some of the latter. Eastman craves attention but does not understand (or often even care for) people, and in this it’s hard not to see him as a prototype for the kinds of men that populate Twitter and currently inhabit the White House. Eastman, whose “urges were totalitarian,” is a man-child premonition of the Age of Trump.”

Review of Molly Prentiss’ “Tuesday Nights in 1980”

My review of Molly Prentiss’ novel Tuesday Nights in 1980 is now up on the Review31 site.

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-12-12-23“There is a great joy in reading about people falling in love with art. Such is this joy’s power that a writer need only offer the barest narrative outline – discovery, infatuation, transformation – and the reader will fill in the gaps with their own histories. Novels like Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 summon those romantic fixtures of artistic life – glamorous poverty, bands of outsiders, troubled geniuses – and these familiar tropes, like Roland Barthes’ ‘readerly texts,’ reassure us and reinforce our intuitions about the world. These are comforting narratives, and they sustain our love of art and of stories. Enjoyment, though, can be tricky for critics. Is an enjoyable novel necessarily a good or well-written one?

Tuesday Nights in 1980 covers the titular year in the lives of an interconnected group of characters – Raul Engales, an artist newly arrived in New York from Argentina; James, a synesthetic art critic; his wife Marge; and Lucy, the rural ingenue who, infatuated with the artistic life, becomes Raul’s lover. The novel is incredibly pleasurable, but this can obscure some of its problems, most of which are stylistic.”

Review of Hannah Kohler’s “The Outside Lands”

My review of Hannah Kohler’s debut novel, The Outside Lands, published by Picador, is up now on the Review31 site.screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-15-04-50

“The question of collective versus individual duty lies at the heart of Hannah Kohler’s debut novel and is present in both of its parallel, intertwined narratives. The Outside Lands tells the story of Jeannie and Kip, sister and brother growing up in 1960s San Francisco. Their mother dies in a freak road accident when they are both young; their father is a World War Two veteran. Jeannie marries a doctor, Billy, who picks her up at the diner where she works as a waitress. She soon has a child and moves out of the family home. Kip feels betrayed by his older sister, who he wants to replace his mother. This, along with his degenerating relationship with his father and falling in with a bad crowd, lead him to enlist in the army. He ends up in Vietnam, where, worn down by the humidity of the jungle, the ever-presence of death and the recklessness of his superiors, he lobs a grenade into the tent of his commander, Tom Vance, who barely survives. Back home, Jeannie has an affair with Lee, a teenage activist who works with an underground group forging exemption letters for draftees. When Jeannie learns of Kip’s arrest, she vows to defend him, certain that he is innocent. She slowly comes to terms with his guilt, and this process leads her to seek out Vance, recovering in a San Francisco hospital. She doesn’t reveal her identity, and they fall into something like love; it is only when they are on the verge of moving in together that she tells him who she really is.”

THE ENDURANCE OF LITERATURE: on “The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books” (edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee)

Here, with minor edits, is a piece written originally for the first iteration of the Glasgow Review of Books. It appeared online in April 2011, and as that version of the site has not been archived, I am re-posting it here. 

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-14-23-39In an entry on The Millions literature blog at the start of 2011, C. Max Magee, one of the editors of The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, ended a notice about the book’s release by appealing to both sides of an increasingly crucial line: “All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own.” The introduction to the book rewords it thus: “if you’re reading these words on a device that requires batteries, charge it up before you get too deep. If you’re staring at a dog-eared paperback, now’s the time to get yourself a cup of coffee.” This is the line – real or imagined – on which this book teeters, the moment of the uneasy cohabitation of print and digital books. Whilst its title and subtitle are concerned with times beyond our own, what The Late American Novel really captures is a snapshot of early 2011, as e-reader sales get bigger and bigger and bricks and mortar bookshops close left, right and centre. As such, this snapshot is kaleidoscopic and partial, and all the better for it. In this sense, Lauren Groff’s contribution, “Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future” acts as a representative for the entire collection: she imagines the future writer alternatively as elitist, robot, outcast and beggar, a celebrity or a kind of rockstar-monarch, a pawn of governments, a fashion accessory and conjurer. Each piece in this book seems like a place-holder, a compendium of thoughts set out on the page so as to be observable and reworked at a later date. What becomes evident is that no-one really has any idea what will happen. Will paper die a quick and miserable death? Who knows. 

Continue reading “THE ENDURANCE OF LITERATURE: on “The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books” (edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee)”

ABOUT TIME: on Masha Tupitsyn’s “Laconia: 1200 Tweets on Film” and Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”

Here, with minor edits, is a piece written originally for the first iteration of the Glasgow Review of Books. It appeared online in June 2011, and as that version of the site has not been archived, I am re-posting it here. (Image credit: The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.)


Take these notes as the continuation of a conversation. Tupitsyn’s tweets are a series of moments between 2009 and 2010. Marclay’s film is a series of moments from the beginning of cinema until now. Both form constellations from a time that extends both backwards and forwards. Tangents, reformulations, ideas followed up or discarded.


Don DeLillo’s Point Omega begins and ends with detailed descriptions of people in a gallery watching Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, where a nameless man has come back repeatedly, mesmerised by the elongation of action, his attention focused on the separation of each miniscule movement.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is currently screening at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It is a twenty-four hour film, a collage of cinematic moments featuring clocks, watches and characters checking, talking about, and running out of time, minute by minute. You are drawn in to an experience that recalls the “city symphonies” of the 1920s by Dziga Vertov, Walter Ruttman, and Alberto Cavalcanti, whose day-in-the-life of Paris was called Rien que les heuresNothing But The Hours or Nothing But Time. The one-day novels, too: UlyssesMrs Dalloway, DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

Johnny Depp is followed by William Klein’s Polly Magoo, who is followed by a crackly Japanese board room scene featuring a giant clock, which is followed by an agitated John Travolta. Despite their complexions and carefully lit profiles, stars too fall prey to the lure of the timepiece. Angelina Jolie stands on a wooden promontory overlooking a desert and checks her watch. Robert Redford waits for a contact in a diner’s booth, worrying about shifting sands. Jason Schwartzman realises the woman of his dreams isn’t coming to the event he’s laid on for her.


Humanity’s attention is focused on the miniscule movement of the hands of the clock. Continue reading “ABOUT TIME: on Masha Tupitsyn’s “Laconia: 1200 Tweets on Film” and Christian Marclay’s “The Clock””