December 23, 2012
Books of the Year
James Wood in The New Yorker:
An end-of-year bouquet like this one offers a chance to pick some flowers that I didn’t get to this year. So in addition to re-recommending some of the fiction I reviewed in the last twelve months (namely, Hilary Mantel’s “Bring up the Bodies,” Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?,” Edward St. Aubyn’s “At Last,” and Per Petterson’s “I Curse the River of Time”), I want to mention two books of fiction that I wish I had written about. The first is “Four New Messages” (Graywolf Press), a collection of stories by Joshua Cohen. These were a revelation. I’d never read anything by Joshua Cohen, and I fear that I have no better excuse than laziness: his last book was an enormous, challenging, eight-hundred-page novel called “Witz” (Dalkey Archive). I was attracted by that novel’s title—Italo Svevo, one of my favorite novelists, was addicted to Witze, witty paradoxes and jokes, such as his response to Joyce’s apparently smug comment that he never used coarse language but only wrote it: “It would appear then that his works are not ones that could be read in his own presence.” But “enormous” and “challenging”—especially “enormous”—too often mean, alas, in a life with young children and teaching and writing, skimming the first few pages and replacing said book on the shelf with an embarrassed sigh… some day, some day.
...The second work of fiction that stood out was Zadie Smith’s “NW” (The Penguin Press). As everybody has commented, Smith has a restless, continuous relation with the novelistic tradition, and appears to be trying out different styles and forms in this new, Joycean / Woolfian / Dos Passos-ish work—first and third person, stream of consciousness, free, indirect style, dialogue written out like a screenplay, numbered vignettes, and so on. This seems to me pretty brave, because it risks alienating former readers who have just gotten comfy with her last work; and there is indeed something wonderful about encountering baffled responses to the book on Amazon, like this one: “I loved ‘On Beauty’ but could not get into this book… the writing style is so difficult it makes it not worth the effort.” The decentered and interrupted form feels right here, because this novel is trying to bring home a whale of a city, and to number the days of people who do not necessarily feel that they themselves possess an ordered internal calendar—who may feel, like Natalie, one of the protagonists, that they lack a continuous sense of self.
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