The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Chicago, Dublin, The House of Fiction

February 19, 2016 | by

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I watched Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, last weekend, and although I agree with some reviewers that it’s an occasionally messy affair—one that pushes beyond the bounds of its source material, Aristophanes’s rowdy comedy Lysistrata—the film aims both to be capacious in subject and to speak to a wide audience, so how could it be anything but fulsome and exuberant? Lee and his cowriter Kevin Willmott set the stage in gangland Chicago and address gun and police violence, institutional racism, poverty, masculinity, and sexuality. If this sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Lee wants to show how these elements are inextricably linked, and he spares no one in indicting America’s self-perpetuating culture of violence. There is a lot to like about this film, not least its hopeful ending (fantastic but not naive) and its fully realized depiction of women as intellectual and sexual beings. (Really, the female characters are incredible. Pay attention, Hollywood.)  —Nicole Rudick 

I’ve spent the last weeks under the spell of the Australian novelist Gerald Murnane. Readers of the Review will get to sample Murnane’s newest work in our Summer issue; in the meantime, I recommend his 2014 novel/treatise/manifesto A Million Windows, which comes to the U.S. this spring. Inspired by Henry James’s remark that “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million,” Murnane leads us through a rambling country estate where various narrators struggle to uncover the “true fiction” that underpins their existence. They also debate the legacy of previous tenantsJames, Hardy, Proust, Woolf, Carver, et al—and spin fragmentary stories within stories, all the while elaborating a subtle and passionate argument about what fiction is and ought to be. It sounds like a lot. It is a lot. Murnane is a writer of such precision and irony that one hesitates to describe A Million Windows except to say that it will fascinate (and amuse and provoke) anyone who has driven past that house “of two, or perhaps three, storeys,” and wondered what exactly was going on inside. —Lorin Stein

Robin Wasserman’s first adult novel, Girls on Fire, is one of the finest I’ve read in a while and has quickly become a vital resource in my growing appreciation of the nineties. The book (due out in May) is something between an elegy for that decade and a celebration of it—oversize flannels, satanic insurgencies in suburban high schools, and Kurt Cobain worship provide the backbeat to the story’s march. And yet, Girls on Fire avoids nostalgia overload; rather than treating the era’s icons with reverence, the novel casts a cold light on their power. Hannah’s, Lacey’s and Nikki’s obsessions with Nirvana and The Real World drive them to violence and rebellion—the high school girls slaughter cows and eat shrooms during church services—but the sincerely powerful moments, as when two characters stand at the shore of a lake, hold hands, and scream into a thunderstorm, balance the novel and lend it real emotional weight. Wasserman reminds us that sometimes even the most toxic relationships possess a raw tenderness that, like Cobain’s voice, leaves us spellbound.  —Daniel Johnson

One of the things I’ve realized I miss about going into an office is the built-in subway book time—well, when you can get a seat! On my commutes this week, I’ve been reading Belinda McKeon’s second novel, TenderIt’s a good book. (I don’t think people just come out and say that enough.) It’s a also a fun, absorbing read: the story of two friends coming into their adult selves and sexualities in a Dublin that isn’t so far in the past but—in terms of mores—was a different world. It’s sad, sweet, funny, and, yes, tender—utterly worthwhile without being overly worthy. —Sadie O. Stein

If you’re thinking of going to the movies this weekend, try to catch Anomalisa, Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s bizarre stop-motion film. Beautifully sincere and comfortably awkward, Anomalisa is not your typical animated picture: don’t bring your kids—it’s rated R, with good reason. You’ve probably never had the urge to watch puppet cunnilingus, but then, I’m sure you’ve never had the opportunity before now. David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, an inspirational speaker and groundbreaking new voice in the field of ... customer service. Michael is in the midst of something of a crisis; everyone in his life has, literally, blurred together: besides Michael, every character is voiced by a droning Tom Noonan. Michael’s attempts to recapture life’s spark lead him to Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the eponymous anomaly in a world of Tom Noonans. The film is far from uplifting. And yet for all its pessimism, it manages a touching and undeniably human intimacy.  —Ty Anania 

If Evelyn Waugh and Tom Wolfe had a baby, one who wrote sensibly about the subset of people that Dave Eggers has written about whimsically, that baby would probably be Tony Tulathimutte and the book would be Private Citizens, a satirical comedy  of manners peopled by overeducated San Francisco millennials circa 2008. Private Citizens is a truthful melodrama of exhausting identity politics, idealism, and anxious self-awareness: the generational malaise and the cast of bleeding-heart masters-carrying idealists, burdened by their privilege and self-loathing, will feel familiar to many readers in 2016. “I set out to write with as much love, empathy, hope, and imagination as hate, spite, pessimism, and self-indulgence,” Tulathimutte wrote in an essay for The Atlantic, and it shows in this hilarious portrait of youthful self-centeredness. I’m frequently turned off by young writers who try to capture contemporary speech patterns because they so often miss the mark, but Tulathimutte’s old-school social realism gives his characters an enduring, three-dimensional verisimilitude that makes me inclined to forgive them nearly everything, including how obnoxious they are. —Jeffery Gleaves

At a time when politics seems hardly more than a circus of hotheadedness and buffoonery, I’m grateful to Christian Lorentzen for his essay “Driving Through a Postcard” in the London Review of Books. It comprises vignettes from the New Hampshire campaign trail—there’s Portsmouth, for Trump; Exeter, for Sanders; Concord, for Bush; Peterborough, for Cruz; and so on. And it’s good. Lorenzten serves it to us straight: he shows the campaign in all its filth and glory—touching on everything from abortion to immigration to Hillary’s “ugly pantsuits”—and all the characters that people it. His magic, though, is in the smallest of details, nuggets of wit or irony or even pure sentiment: the little boy who says that if he were old enough, he’d vote for Sanders; the waitress who cards Rubio for not looking of age; Lorentzen’s own confession to being a flip-phone user—and the antidemocratic implications of Fiorina’s plan to hold national referenda via smartphone. Lorentzen not only takes us into the rallies with him but into the cars and into the bars as well. If only all campaign coverage was this smart and sharp-tongued. —Caitlin Youngquist