Fiction - the year in review
by Charles Taylor
The Human Stain, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). Towards 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."
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
cultural explosions -
film culture -
local punk and metal -
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
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.
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 Salon.com.