The Boston Phoenix
December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Book Reviews]

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Tall stories

Fiction - the year in review

by Charles Taylor

The Human Stain, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). RothTowards the close of Philip Roth's novel, a character says "with every passing day, the words that I hear spoken strike me as less and less of a description of what things really are." Roth's response to that writers' nightmare, where words have become euphemism, is to write with precision and focused rage. This conclusion to his trilogy of what he calls "the indigenous American berserk" takes Bill Clinton's impeachment, the late writer Anatole Broyard's passing for white, and the lingering atmosphere of political correctness -- on the left as well as the right -- as the latest example of America's penchant for "the ecstasy of sanctimony."

Zadie Smith The Book of Revelation, by Rupert Thomson (Knopf). A book that might have been expected to start inumerable arguments and instead sank without a trace. The gripping, and ultimately haunting tale of a male modern dancer kidnapped by three women who use him as their sexual slave, Thomson's novel opens with an erotic, distressing showpiece and becomes even more fascinating in the aftermath that makes up the book's second half. Along the way it calls into question all assumptions of desire, gender, and victimization. When so many books flout their "transgressiveness," this eerily confident novel possesses the power to disturb.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith (Random House). Writers like Hanif Kureishi have given us the turmoil that resulted from the changing racial face of Britain. In this dazzling debut, Zadie Smith gives us the comedy of that intermingling. A large-scale family saga, White Teeth runs down a bit towards the end, but its good humor and compassion never waver.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

Make Believe, by Joanna Scott (Little, Brown). Playing with the conventions of melodrama, Joanna Scott shows how easy it for child-custody cases to turn into just that. The book is a masterful rendering of narrative point-of-view including, in its most wrenching and amazing sections, that of the three-year-old at the center of the case.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic). Pokier and longer than it's predecessors, the fourth entry in J.K. Rowling's sublime fantasy series is, by the conclusion, the most intense and upsetting. As Harry and his friends grow, so does their capacity for feeling pain, loss, and horror, and so do the stakes of Rowling's tale. She is providing her readers with the gamut of what reading can be -- the narrative fascination that gets us reading and the emotional resonance that keeps up reading. Forget the hype -- the reason why readers of all ages are so fascinated is between the covers.

The Happiest Days by Cressida Connolly (Picador). This collection of stories is the debut from the daughter of the great English literary critic Cyril Connolly. The characters blur the line between the ordinary and the fantastic. You might say that Connolly is writing mysteries, not whodunits but disarming investigations of the mysteries of everyday life.

Sick Puppy, by Carl Hiassen (Knopf). One hilarious, p.o.'d book. Carl Hiassen's lunatic scenarios of political corruption and environmental rape in the Sunshine State appear to be merely the logical extension of the shenanigans Hiaasen has seen while a columnist and investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. Hiaasen puts his sleazy politicians and lobbyists and developers into the most scurrilous situations he can imagine as a way of showing exactly the depths of cravenness of which they are capable. The satisfaction of Sick Puppy is that the scoundrels receive the richly deserved fates we all know they elude in real life. And with the Supreme Court saying "fuck you" to democracy, it couldn't come at a better time.

Joe College, by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press). Tom Perrotta's modest novel nonetheless manages to be a thoroughly convincing potrayal of college life, and a dead-on account of how strange it was for working-class kids to experience the zenith of the Reagan years -- when people like Perrotta were told they didn't matter -- from inside the cocoon of higher education. The hero, the first in his family to go to colleges, undergoes a stinging mixture of pride and shame, the suspicion that he is betraying his roots by wanting to do better than his parents did; ultimately, he's unable to feel comfortable in either world.

Afraid to Death, by Marc Behm (No Exit Press). Finally in English (translated from the original French) the latest (1991) novel by maybe the most wildly talented genre writer alive (best known as the screenwriter for Help). Behm, whose great Eye of the Beholder is again available in paperback here (get it now), writes noir inversions in which the conventions of the form stretch like elastic to encompass comic-poetic nightmares. In this, a career poker player spends his life winding around the country fleeing the beautiful blond always in pursuit of him. Did I mention that she happens to be death? Behm writes the novels that Jim Thompson has been praised for. If there's poetry in pulp, he helped put it there.

Lightman The Diagnosis, by Alan Lightman (Pantheon). In the virtuoso nightmare opening of Alan Lightman's novel, a suburan businessman loses his memory during his morning commute. Recovering his memory, the man finds his body gradually overtaken by a spreading physical numbness. Lightman makes his point early on -- in a world insulated by cell phones and faxes and e-mail, we're losing touch with ourselves -- and keeps on making it. There are reservations to be made about the book, which is singleminded, relentless, and depressing. But Lightman works out his vision so thoroughly that the book feels scarily complete, a buggy vision of technology triumphant.

Charles Taylor is a contributing writer to


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