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Archive by tag: Rob DoyleReturn
Jun 13, 2022

Plot plays second fiddle to humanity’s primal urges in Moshfegh’s charged and outlandish latest novel set in a medieval fiefdom

There’s something encouraging, and perhaps telling, about Ottessa Moshfegh’s success. Her abject, pervy, excremental fictions carry a whiff of deviance and nihilism into a squeaky clean mainstream that comforts some while alienating others. Although it was set before the horrors of web 2.0, her hugely popular novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation seemed to reflect something of the medicated, desolate, anaesthetised now. While our era’s ruling cultural-literary tone decrees “It’s the end of the world – no laughing”, Moshfegh’s stuff is comically weird, amoral and antisocial.

Lapvona is not her first novel to eschew the contemporary world – her debut, McGlue, was set aboard a 19th-century pirate ship – yet its blurred medieval setting, like a recounted dream of a half-forgotten past, feels like a bold swerve. As I began reading I kept asking myself: “What’s she up to? What skin has she got in this game?” Three hundred pages later, I still didn’t fully have my answers, though by then I’d realised that the (pseudo) historical setting wrenches us out of history and into a timeless, interior landscape of drives, impulses and cravings. A crowd of first name-only characters trace the play of instinct and appetite amid a cheerfully undignified, infantile realm wherein morality either operates in some alien manner or isn’t there at all. Lapvona’s grotesque, shameless world shows us not how it used to be, but how it’s always been.

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May 29, 2022

The Frenchman’s account of his descent into depression and treatment in a psychiatric hospital is an amazing feat of ‘self-cannibalisation’

In a sense, writing a book is easy. You just keep putting one interesting sentence after another, then thread them all together along a more or less fine narrative line. Only, it isn’t easy – in fact, it’s famously difficult, a daunting and arduous labour that can frequently leave you in a state of utter nervous exhaustion, reaching for the bottle or the pills. Since his creative breakthrough with The Adversary, published in 2000, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère has done something doubly amazing: he’s pioneered a unique and captivating new way of telling a true story, and he’s made it look easy. Or at least, he makes it go down easy for the reader. His fiendishly personal “nonfiction novels”, which encompass subjects such as dissident Russian literature or the story of early Christianity, unfold in a condition of perpetual climax, locked to a point of fascination from first page to last.

As his new book Yoga begins, Carrère is “in a good way”, enjoying what has been a 10-year run of glory, marital happiness and all-round good fortune, which he finds remarkable considering how miserable his inner life had previously been. Carrère, as anyone who’s read his books will know, is a great pornographer of his own torments, a champion sufferer who writes from a pitch of exhibitionistic anguish even though his life – rich, Parisian, glamorous – looks conspicuously appealing. “As far as neurotic misery goes, I’m second to none”, he tells us, characteristically. Basking in the sunny uplands of his late fifties, he decides to write “an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” but lets us know on the very first page that neither life nor the book would play out like that.

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May 04, 2022

A man haunts his previous existence in this laser-sharp novel that raises heady existential questions


What if the afterlife is no glamorous inferno, celestial paradise or reincarnation lottery but a bureaucratic nightmare, overfull and under-resourced, where you remember your death but have a second one to look forward to after a fresh round of ageing and disease? Worst of all, what if you had to get a job there – manufacturing umbrellas, say – in order to pay for basic goods and drink away your woes as it dawns on you that nobody in this realm knows what’s going on?

Steve Toltz’s fabulously impressive third novel, following the 2008 Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole and 2015’s Quicksand, cannonballs straight into heady existential questions, magicking up a vision of human life at once generous and absurd while wearing its considerable ambition lightly. Very lightly. A few pages in, realising that the story is told in a compulsively jokey, determined-to-impress voice with even the dialogue consisting entirely of well-timed one-liners and off-the-cuff aphorisms, I groaned: “Oh Christ – 400 pages.” But a headstrong novelist sets the parameters of their own realism, and soon the style clicked. Once it did, I struggled to keep track of how much there was to admire in Toltz’s relentlessly lively sentences, offbeat insights and unfaltering narrative energy.

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Mar 27, 2022

The award-winning historical novelist does justice to a sombre examination of a soldier’s shame and guilt in the decades since his army service in Northern Ireland

At the beginning of Andrew Miller’s ninth novel, a letter arrives. The narrator, a 51-year-old recovering alcoholic named Stephen Rose, is being summoned to Belfast from his home in Somerset by a body known as the Commission. The letter assures Stephen that this is not about bringing anyone to trial, but giving those involved in an incident that took place 30 years ago an opportunity to tell their side of the story. In short, the past is being dragged into the light. We know something terrible happened during Stephen’s service with the British army in Northern Ireland as a young man; the promise of learning the grisly details is what entices us through this sombre examination of shame, guilt and the long aftershocks of trauma.

Set in 2011, The Slowworm’s Song takes the form of a lengthy confessional letter that Stephen is writing to his 26-year-old daughter Maggie. While inching up to the tragic event that has blackened his life and led him to ruinous drinking, we hear about Stephen’s past and present. He works at a garden store named Plant World and fitfully studies English literature on an Open University course. He comes from a family of Quakers and is semi-estranged from Maggie and her mother Evie. At the tail-end of an adolescence marked by alienation and aggression, he enlisted for the army; his father, a devout Quaker, was startled, but quickly became supportive of his son’s choice.

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Mar 14, 2022

The young Marxist has yet to turn into a monster in this intriguing tale of sexual slights and political squabbles set in London in 1907

In the vocational struggle to hold the reader’s attention, the writer of historical fiction has an advantage. Whereas non-historical novelists must coax us into caring about nobodies, those who portray famous characters can assume our automatic interest: we relish the chance to see up close and intimately the great men and women of the past. For his fifth novel and first foray into historical fiction, Stephen May, whose prior work includes the novels Stronger Than Skin and Wake Up Happy Every Day along with a number of plays, has selected a particularly glamorous cast and setting. It’s London, May 1907, and a gathering of Marxist revolutionists including Stalin (known here as Koba, his self-chosen name after a heroic figure from Georgian folklore), Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Maxim Gorky have convened at the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party.

It’s a decade before the revolution, and Stalin is a young buck of 29 with a dialectical-materialist dream in his heart and a twinkle in his eye. No sooner has he stepped off the boat in an England whose degradations are evoked with Hogarthian relish than we mark a flicker of the dark personality that will wreak unquantifiable terror on the future Soviet Union: perceiving a slight from one of his comrades, he logs the transgression while silently vowing revenge.

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Jan 30, 2022

The Argentinian provocateur turns her cynical gaze on the literary world itself in her third novel – with mixed results

You sometimes hear it said, usually by those looking in from outside, that the literary world is a cosy, circle-jerking kind of place. Oh, if only they knew! Like any human zone where access to power is to be had, the book world is rife with cut-throat careerists, mafia-like cliques, group hierarchies, herd opinions, playground politics, backstabbing, arse-licking and all the other shades in venality’s rainbow. Indeed, it offers up so plump and unguarded a throat, it’s a surprise more blade-wielding satirists don’t lunge in and slit it right open.

Going by her latest novel, the Argentine Pola Oloixarac is a writer whose default mode of interpreting the world is cynicism. While this carries some obvious limitations, it positions her well to dissect her industry’s pretensions and poke fun at its pieties. The success of Oloixarac’s first novel, Savage Theories, propelled her into the arena of world literature with its international festivals, prize committees, calculated postures and erotic intrigues. Her third novel, nimbly translated by Adam Morris, trains its satiric sights on this rarefied milieu.

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Jan 23, 2022

Modern mores and a certain type of twentysomething male energy clash colourfully in the vibrant voice of this debut novel

Lately, the prospects for young, straight, male American novelists of unruly talent who aspire to more than underground recognition haven’t looked particularly bright. Stateside culture war partisanship has narrowed the bandwidth of permissible literary expression, with the heterosexual white male regarded as inherently suspect. To get along under the new order, ambitious young Americans might be tempted to walk on eggshells while presenting themselves as paragons of virtue – and dissent could spell career suicide. (If the general point seems exaggerated, recall that Americans elected Donald Trump as their president, then ask yourself how many pro-Trump literary novelists you can name.)

Into this vexed monoculture steps Sean Thor Conroe, with his winningly titled first novel, Fuccboi. The challenge he confronts is a real pickle: how to update the tradition of the American male autobiographical novelist, writing about the concerns of a twentysomething on the make (which naturally include wrong-think and that notoriously problematic condition, lust) without censoring himself into insipidity. To pull it off and remain credible, he may have to play both sides: writing neither as simpering literary beta-cuck, nor as obtuse and toxic reactionary. Magas to the left of me, wokists to the right!

Rob Doyle’s most recent book is Autobibliography

Fuccboi by Sean Thor Conroe is published by Wildfire (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jul 05, 2021

You’ve seen the film, now read the director’s own novelisation. And it turns out that his way with words is infectious and fun

Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, seemed to split audiences along generational lines. Despite its charms and Tarantino’s customary flair, I came out of it frustrated and a bit bored, wondering if it was finally time to divorce this film-maker who’d shaped the sense of cinematic possibility of anyone who grew up in the 1990s. Tarantino’s essential shallowness, which in the past he has alchemised as aesthetic vitality, and his adolescent moral outlook had come to seem dismayingly inflexible: I didn’t feel he could surprise me any more. But everyone a couple of decades older than me, who remembered the late 1960s televisual and cinematic golden-age Hollywood so lovingly elegised, seemed to adore the film.

Now Tarantino has surprised us all by turning his hand to writing books, beginning with this novelisation. It’s far better than I expected it to be. Anyone who admired the movie will have a great time with this spin-off work. Interestingly, it is not a straightforward translation of the events in the film. The two versions of Rick and Cliff’s story do share a number of scenes, but even those are altered and lengthened and there numerous new scenes and characters, some of them real-life figures (Steve McQueen has a cameo).

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Jun 03, 2021
St. Aubyn’s new novel, “Double Blind,” examines a wide range of scientific thought, with detours into sex, drugs and venture capital.
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Apr 12, 2021

The Japanese author’s prose remains wildly popular, but complacency tarnishes his new story collection

Reviewing a book by Haruki Murakami is to some degree a redundant act. Whatever the phenomenally popular Japanese writer knocks out will sell by the truckload – the reviews just notify his throng of devotees that it’s time to buy a new Murakami. All of which loosens my natural hesitancy to lay into a septuagenarian (Murakami was born in 1949) so that I can divulge up front that his latest, First Person Singular, is not very good. (For proof that a birthdate in the 1940s needn’t correlate with poor writing in the 2020s, see Martin Amis’s amazing Inside Story.)

Murakami’s 22nd book is a collection of eight short stories, some of them more obviously fictional than others, all narrated in the first person by an elderly writer (who in one story is explicitly named Haruki Murakami). Among its themes are nostalgia, music and erotic reminiscence. The book is not without its charms and Murakami’s mild and affable authorial persona will please his fans. While his novels tend towards the baroque and the fantastical, First Person Singular works best when Murakami keeps it simple in stories that resemble memoir and recount affairs, friendships or one-night stands from bygone decades. The enjoyable second story, On a Stone Pillow, tells of a teenage night spent with a poet who yells another man’s name when she comes. Carnaval recounts a music-based friendship the narrator enjoyed when he was 50 with “the ugliest” woman he has ever known (her name, for some reason, is given as “F*”).

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Feb 15, 2021

A young woman grapples with selfhood in the social media age in the combative American critic’s sharp debut novel

A danger for the debut novelist who makes her name writing combative book reviews is that, when it’s time to step into the arena, her targets’ friends, fans and flatterers will line up to throw rocks. Lauren Oyler, a critically active young American, comes bearing a reputation for shanking celebrated millennials in the likes of the New Yorker, LRB and Guardian. Her antipathy towards the “moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction” – a consistent pulse in her essays and reviews – seemed promising with regard to the fiction she was gearing up to produce. Rumours that her novel concerned a young woman’s relationship with a man from the wrong side of the internet led me, wishfully, to envision a foray into online cultures usually shadow banned from fiction’s ideologically monochromatic mainstream.

Fake Accounts is not that book (closer to it would be Hari Kunzru’s superb Red Pill). What it is, instead, is an unexpectedly playful portrait of a spiky, sceptical young woman grappling with questions of selfhood, narcissism and duplicity in the social media imperium. The seemingly Oyler-like narrator – more on her in a moment – does fall for a guy who, she discovers, secretly maintains a popular Instagram account pushing inane conspiracy theories. But that’s as far as it goes in terms of behind-enemy-lines internet incursions. The boyfriend’s second life is a MacGuffin that allows Oyler’s narrator to expatiate on her true theme: the amount of time she spends on her phone, and how bad this makes her feel.

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Feb 08, 2021

The Chilean writer’s posthumous novellas may be the most autobiographical fiction he wrote, but the uninitiated should seek out his two masterworks first

The executors of the Roberto Bolaño archive have us right where they want us. Like pushers who know we’re hooked enough to keep buying product of diminishing quality, every couple of years they staple together something new from the notebooks, loose papers and computer files Bolaño left behind when he died in 2003 and tack it to the end of his oeuvre. It mightn’t be long before we’re presented with Bolaño: The Complete Shopping Lists or Gauchos at the Forgotten Library: Selected Email Drafts. Not that this scraping of the seemingly bottomless barrel is unwelcome. Like virtually everything the incomparable Chilean wrote, a newly excavated trio of unarguably minor novellas, Cowboy Graves, is companionable, exotic, witty and glamorously suggestive.

One drawback to the continued publication of posthumous works, some of them in a clearly unfinished state, is that the newcomer might take them as a starting point and, not seeing what the fuss is about, thereafter steer clear of Bolaño. In lieu of a colour-coded schema marking out the canonical from the supplementary, we ought to diligently steer the Bolaño-curious towards the two masterworks, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, or the short story collections, or the better non-posthumous short novels such as Nazi Literature in the Americas or Distant Star. Once addicted, they can rummage deep in the barrel like the rest of us.

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Jan 04, 2021

With a few exceptions, the acclaimed Norwegian novelist’s musings on literature, philosophy and the cosmos too often drift into abstraction

The essay collection is having a moment. Weariness with the 20th-century novel’s puppet-show contrivances – to which Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series was itself a response – has incited new interest in a hitherto marginal genre. Many are having a go at it, fewer are doing it well. Knausgaard’s new collection, which covers literature, contemporary art, photography, nature writing and loose cosmic musings, does not show him to be a first-rate practitioner of the form.

In the Land of the Cyclops heightens the suspicion that Knausgaard fulfilled his authorial project with the completion of his six-part autofictional epic in 2011. Everything since then has had the feel of an addendum or miscellany – not least his 400-page collaborative book of emails about football, Home and Away. The Seasons Quartet, in which glum Knausgaard considered a different concept or object each day (Pain, Buttons, Labia), left the impression that his worldwide acclaim had, as we say in Ireland, given him notions. Indulged as a wide-eyed sanctifier of the commonplace, at times he resembled the laughable writer in Martin Amis’s novel The Information, who, beneficiary of sudden success, takes to gazing performatively at apples and stones, the better to project the childlike wonder befitting a literary sage.

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Jul 11, 2020

Flashes of vulgar energy and trademark cynicism enliven an overlong finale of ageing French rockers

When the first volume in the punk-feminist writer Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex trilogy appeared in English in 2015, it was a cause for excitement. Here was a big, brash, enjoyable slab of French recession fiction, a social novel full of ageing rockers and party-worn broads who drink cans of lager, DJ in scuzzy clubs and kip on their mates’ couches – the sort of crowd usually refused entry to Parisian literature. Despentes, whose inaugural notoriety was the spree-killing road novel Baise-Moi (she also directed the banned film adaptation), appeared to have matured into a more expansive view of class, gender relations and power dynamics. Vernon Subutex looked as though it might become the kind of generational group portrait that Roberto Bolaño gave us of Mexican youth in The Savage Detectives. The question was whether Despentes, accustomed to snarling her truths over the fictive equivalent of three distorted power-chords, could sustain a project that, by the trilogy’s end, would amass 1,000 pages.

On reading the second volume, I had doubts. Despite the three-page index of main characters (Vernon Subutex 3 has one too, and I needed it throughout), Despentes kept introducing new ones, splitting off into intensity-draining subplots. The gig was in danger of becoming an interminable encore that no one wanted to hear. Still, there were bursts of entertainingly caustic social comment, and insights on contemporary Parisian life.

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