I’m so bad about posting (and linking to) my reviews. Links below to reviews 27 through 36.
The landscape of the American novel is changing, and if it goes the way of NW and A Visit from the Goon Squad, I think I’ll be okay sticking to the old American novel, kthanks. Both previous mentioned books have a disjointed, half-finished feel about them. NW is a story about a girl named Leah Hanwell, whose life is turned upside down by a girl who comes to her door and begs for money. Leah gives her 30 pounds and sends her away in a taxi but then realizes (or realises, as this is London, after all) that she got scammed. Her mother, her husband, her friends tease her mercilessly for being such a “Mother Teresa” and the worst part is that Leah sees the girl around town later and harrasses her about paying back the money. But really, that’s not what the story is about…
The story is more about Leah and her lifelong friendship with Natalie (formerly Keisha) Blake. But that’s not what the story is about either. Maybe the story is about Leah and her struggles with her husband as he really wants kids and she is too afraid to have them. Maybe it’s about Felix, a man from the same neighborhood as Leah and Natalie but with a totally different life. Maybe it’s just about a random group of people living in the same geographical location whose stories connect sometimes but mostly don’t, how some of them came up out of poverty and some didn’t, how Natalie tried to get out of NW but ended up right back where she started and how Leah never left.
I couldn’t really tell what the book was about. All I know is that while the writing was engaging, I felt like the book wasn’t really going anywhere… and it was hard to keep paying attention or really caring about these people who were increasingly being described as more and more shallow and uninteresting.
I read White Teeth for a class last spring and absolutely fell in love with Zadie Smith’s writerly voice. Since she has only four novels out so far, I thought I might have a fair shot of getting to read all her books. So, I thought The Autograph Man would be a good place to go next.
The novel’s prologue begins with Li-Jin Tandem taking his son Alex and two other friends to a wrestling match, one that will set the tone for the next several years. There, Alex will meet Joseph Klein, an autograph collector, an occupation that he will take up when the novel continues, 13 years later. Li-Jin will not survive past the prologue, but his spectre will surround Alex, Adam, Joseph, and Mark Rubinfine. While the novel surrounds Alex’s quest to obtain an autograph from Kitty Alexander, the reclusive Russian-American movie star, it also focuses on Alex’s relationship to Judaism, his father’s religion and that of his friends (especially Adam and Rubinfine, who has become a rabbi).
This second book does not have quite the same energy that White Teeth does, but it manages to interconnect several demographics across contemporary England, nonetheless. If you’ve never read Zadie Smith, I highly recommend her, but you should start with White Teeth. I’m definitely going to read her other two works.
You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.
Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was fascinating because it read like a classic novel, except modern. The story focuses on the Belsey family, an interracial family living in a small town centered around a liberal arts college just outside of Boston. Howard, the white, hyper intellectual, almost unfeeling patriarch married his intelligent, political, passionate African American wife Kiki and gave birth to three children, struggling to find their place in the word. The story spirals out to include the Kipps, the family of Howard’s academic rival. As the Belsey increasingly interact with the Kipps, they slowly fall to pieces. Watching them crumble really highlights the pressures and constructs placed on individuals by gender, race and intelligence.
It’s modern because it acknowledges technology exists. Cell phones. Emails. Googling. It’s surprisingly rare to see a novel that squarely fits into the literature category acknowledge that technology is pervasive in our lives. And that it shapes our interactions. It wasn’t fully integrated into the novel, not at all. But it was there, and it struct me as notable because I so rarely read a modern novel that receives this type of literary attention that acknowledges that times have changed.