States of Change
New American Writing
We continue to be in love with the American novel. Just when it seems the form has had its say, when the Franzens of this world have managed to sum up a generation in the pages of one volume, somehow we can always be surprised all over again.
Change has of course swept across America and it seems fitting that we have five lauded new texts to feast on, each looking at the contemporary American experience in an entirely different way.
4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster
First: the return of a true master. A straw poll amongst the online team revealed we had all read at least one Paul Auster, a one or two of us his entire canon. 4 3 2 1 – his first novel in seven years – is a brazen, multi-strand ‘what if’, as protagonist Archibald “Archie” Ferguson lives four parallel lives, each timeline tossing in haphazard fates and incident: it succeeds brilliantly, as both a formal exercise and a cunning meditation on serendipity and desire.
The Nix - Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill, by contrast, sits at the outset of his career: his debut The Nix is an atom-bomb of a book, so up-to-the-moment with its dissection of contemporary tropes, and yet so intuitive in its exploration of personal history. A sometimes properly funny - and sometimes properly sober - narrative of a hapless writer’s interrogation of his mother’s past, The Nix is a novel so encyclopaedic and panoptic it threatens to run off the rails. Hill holds his nerve, however, and the result is utter gold dust.
The Blot - Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem is a hyper-bright cultural magpie, happy to flicker between genres and forms; he’s probably the only recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”) who has also written a ten-book series for DC Comics. The Blot deliriously charts the tale of Alexander Bruno, a semi-psychic, jet-setting backgammon hustler, who – after a terrible discovery – finds his powers and personal circumstance much weakened, forcing him to return to the Bay Area of his youth. Anyone who has grieved for the splendour of Lethem’s text or his sheer, tragicomic invention will walk away perfectly sated: The Blot is a firestorm of cultural reference.
The Fall Guy - James Lasdun
The Fall Guy, meanwhile, is a literary Swiss-watch of a thriller: James Lasdun (English by birth, but someone by now surely synonymous with the American vanguard) presents a life of privilege and unsettling, burning resentment, as two cousins almost tangentially vie for the affections of the same woman. The critics’ comparisons to Patricia Highsmith are apt – Lasdun maintains a clinical, steady gaze – and the sense of foreboding, of the plot elements almost audibly clicking into place, is deeply satisfying. Lasdun has been around, but you feel this is his breakthrough work.
Moonglow - Michael Chabon
We close with Moonglow. Corner a bookseller and ask them for their desert island book: there are reasonable odds that book will be Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, seen by some as a near-perfect depiction of a certain kind of American odyssey. Chabon’s latest similarly picks its way into the past, becoming a quasi-autobiography of Chabon’s own grandfather. If we could find a word, it would be spellbinding - putting it bluntly, it’s a book that rewards the very act of reading. ‘Ultimately what matters for the reader is that the grandfather is a terrific character: difficult, complex, admirable,' noted the New York Review of Books. 'Audacious and accomplished, Moonglow is a four-hundred-page love letter.'