The One Minute Reviewer
Mini-Reviews of
Contemporary Fiction
SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS
by Marisha Pessl

This stylish debut novel from Marisha Pessl might
scare you away at first glance.   The table of contents
of the 500 page tome looks like the college syllabus
from hell.  Almost every page is strewn with
references to real and imaginary books.  The novel
even comes with a final exam in three sections at the
end.  The very title aims to intimidate.  But don't be
fooled.  Pessl's novel is -- in the words of my British
friends -- bloody good fun.  The prose is clever, the
characters fascinating and the plot artfully
constructed, with more than a few surprises along the
way.  Pessl has hit a home run in her first appearance
at the plate.


ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan

I like Keira Knightley as much as the
next guy.  But don't just wait for the
movie version of
Atonement -- read
the book first.   McEwan's poise and
control of his story are striking.   
This novel starts off like Jane Austen
and ends like Samuel Beckett, with a
dose of Erich Maria Remarque in the
middle, but the reader never feels the
gears shift, so subtly does the author work through
his changes.  McEwan is a masterful plotter, and the
even the perspicuous reader will constantly remain in
the dark, unable to guess what lies fifty pages
ahead.  He is also an indefatigable researcher and a
prose stylist of the highest order.  One of the finest
novels of the last quarter century,
Atonement shows
that experimental contemporary fiction can move as
elegantly and confidently as a Victorian novel.


THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem is the master of fallen heroes,
but in his case they often wear a cape
and fly through the air.  He finds
inspiration in comic books and science
fiction, but always rises above the
limitations of genre formulas.   (For
another example, see his marvelous
short story "Super Goat Man" available
online at The New Yorker
http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/cont
ent/?040405fi_fiction)   Lethem's
narratives are always tightly woven,
but there is always room for
experimental twists.  As a frequent
writer of music criticism, I was
delighted by his cleverness in inserting
detailed liner notes from a CD box set
of 70's soul music -- very artfully done
-- in the midst of the novel, without
losing the thread of the story.


THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections is the real deal – a
novel that works on all levels: plotting,
character development, prose style,
acute perspectives.   Its narrative
takes us on a wild trip – to collapsing
Eastern Europe economies, small town
America, cruise ships, the lousy office
job, shallow academia – but every
shift in the scenery makes sense,
contributes to the overall effect.   Here
is one of the finest novels of our time,
and a book not to be missed.  


EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
by Jonathan Safran Foer

Before Borat graced the silver screen, Foer gave us
his Ukranian narrator Alexander Perchov, a bumbling
translator whose malapropisms and ridiculous English
make for amusing reading . . . well, at least for a few
pages.   Perchov tells us all about himself.  "Many girls
want to be carnal with me in many good
arrangements" or "I have a girl who dubs me
Currencey because I disseminate so much currency
around her."  Foer intersperses his account of his
family's history which is as surreal as Perchov's tale is
ridiculous.  Despite the title, the book falls short of
illuminating, but some passages are brilliant and
laugh-out-loud funny, and the shift from over-the-top
comedy to tragic realism in the closing pages is
handled effectively.   Foer is a very skilled novelist, but
his debut book would have been more effective if he
had pared it down into a novella.  





THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Time O'Brien

A series of interlocking short stories
masquerading as a novel,
The Things
They Carried
has become a staple of
college courses -- a "relevant" war
story in this shell-shocked time. Did
Tim O'Brien's book deserve its ranking,
in the
New York Times, as one of the
best works of fiction during the last
quarter century? Perhaps not. But
the finest portions of this book will shake
you up. Try on the opening twenty pages
for size. If they don't grab you, go no further,
because this is as good as it gets.


THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY
by Michael Chabon

Like Lethem, Michael Chabon is
fascinated by the figure of the
superhero, and finds the fallible and
all-too-human elements hidden behind
the mask of omnipotence.  Chabon is a
brilliant story-teller and a skilled prose
stylist.   Yet his characters remain
mysterious, despite all his probing.   
Their actions constantly thwart our
expectations of their character and
drives.  Perhaps this is the flaw in
Chabon's own less-than-invincible
powers -- or perhap the sign of an
even deeper insight on his part:  
namely, that individual destiny is
always surprising, even to the
individual, and never an obvious
extension of past personal history.


HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson

Robinson is the master of intimate
fiction, building her dramas from the
smallest of human interactions.  We
can perhaps guess the painstaking
care of her writing from the fact that
she has published only two short
novels during the last twenty-five
years.   But the prose itself also
reveals an intellect that moves with
meticulous care through landscapes.   
A luminous quality, reminiscent of
Virginia Woolf, lingers over her
descriptions, and even the tragedies
that surround her characters always
hint at an elusive transcendence just
beyond their grasp.   


AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth

Much like Thomas Mann attempted in
Buddenbrooks, Philip Roth traces the
rise and decline of a family over the
course of several decades.  The main
protagonist of American Pastoral is
Swede Levov, the former star high
school athlete turned successful
businessman, who watches his world
collapse around him, as the turbulence
of society at large penetrates into his
secluded family life.   Roth artfully mixes
contemporary events from the Vietnam era
into his tale of generational conflict and social
turmoil.




HOUSE OF LEAVES
by Mark Danielewski

Mix in one part Pynchon with two parts the Blair Witch
Project
, and spice lightly with over-heated
deconstructionist rhetoric, and you might be able to
construct your own house of leaves.  But why bother
when Danielewski has already done such a brilliant
job.  This extravagant, quirky novel developed a cult
following when it was released in piecemeal fashion
over the Internet.  It was put into book form by
Pantheon in 2000, but this crazy quilt text tries to
subvert every convention of the publishing world.   
The typography is a labyrinth, and even includes
passages that must be read in a mirror -- for which I
cursed Danielewski heartily while I tried to decipher
them.  But beyond the surface flash lies an
extraordinary work, which both probes and parodies a
range of genres, from academic criticism to horror
stories.  The plot itself revolves around empty
hallways and rooms -- seems boring, huh?  But guess
again.  This is a must read for anyone involved in
creative writing, and even more essential for students
of literary criticism, who may never dare write a
footnote again.







ALL THE PRETTY HORSES
by Cormac McCarthy

I hate landscape novels.  Fiction is
uniquely equipped to probe the inner
reality, and it is a waste of its magic to
catalog the plants and trees.   Yet
McCarthy beguiles even me with his
intimate depictions of the Texas and
Mexican terrain.  But even better is his
dialogue, which possessed a coy skill
for both revealing and concealing the
hidden passions at the core of his
characters.  Like so many great
American novels,
All the Pretty Horses
describes an almost arbitrary setting
out on a journey that serves as a
litmus test for a restless man.   We
have seen it before with Huck Finn,
Dean Moriarty, Holden Caulfield, Tom
Joad and so many other   Here John
Grady Cole, a 16-year-old disinherited
Texan, who heads across the Rio
Grande at the close of the 1940s,
accompanied by his friend Lacey
Rawlins and an unstable young
sharpshooter named Jimmy Blevins,
who they pick up along the way.   
Among the many memorable scenes
and interludes, McCarthy’s description
of a struggle for survival in a Mexican
prison stands out as almost
Dantesque in its infernal bleakness.   
Cole’s saga continues in the remaining
two volumes of McCarthy’s
Border
Trilogy
: The Crossing and Cities on the
Plain
.  


WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith

Smith's debut novel skyrocketed her to
fame even before it was published.  An
unfinished manuscript spurred a
bidding war -- won by Hamish
Hamilton -- and Smith was the literary
darling of Britain.  She completed
White Teeth while finishing up her
degree at Cambridge, and the novel
was issued in 2000 to great acclaim.  
Smith writes with a light touch,
constructing a comic and intricately
plotted tale of multicultural currents in
modern-day England.  



UNDERWORLD by Don DeLillo

Underworld was lauded by the New York Times as
one of the best novels of the last twenty five
years.  (In fact, it finished in second place behind
Ms. Morrison's
Beloved.)  Do I dare criticize a clas-
sic?  Yes, I dare.  DeLillo is oh-so-clever, he writes
exquisite dialogue (in his next life he should be a
screenwriter) and some sections shine.  But the
underlying structure is too flimsy to hold together this
eight hundred page novel.  DeLillo builds his story
from isolated scenes, each one about two or three
pages long, and he layers these on top of one
another, like an artist creating a mosaic from hundred
of colored tiles.  But this work never coheres, and the
dozens of individual narratives resist the author's
attempt to achieve a larger whole.  Those seeking an
entry point into this author would be better served by
the shorter and tauter
White Noise.   


MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

As I strolled into Starbucks with
Eugenides award-winning tome in my
grasp, the barista asked me, "What's
that book like?"   I mulled over his
question, then brightly responded:  
"Best book I have ever read about a
hermaphrodite."   Funny, my barista
doesn't chat me up any more.  But
there is much more than ambiguous
genitalia in this romp through several
generations of Greek intermarriage
and its consequences.  The writing
never lags, and often holds to a
brilliant pitch for pages at a time.  
Highly recommended! [For full review click
here]


WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS by J.M. Coetzee

Page after page goes by without any metaphors,
clever turns of phrase, or interesting use of
language.  Finally the reader encounters a simile on
page 39:  "the sun is suspended like
an orange."  Then twenty more pages
of drab prose until we get another simile on page 61:
"the sun glows like an orange."  My friends,
I kid you not.  There is more colorful writing in a
single paragraph by Chabon or Franzen than in this
entire book.   We have only the plodding narrative.  
It is very subtle:  the hero loves the indigenous
people.  The villain likes to torture the indigenous
people.  While reading Coetzee, I kept wondering
who enjoys these types of books.  Then I figured it
out -- this is the kind of book that is assigned for a
class.   Of course it's not interesting to read.   That
would defeat the whole purpose.  


POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt

In The French Lieutenant's Woman,
John Fowles achieved a unique
combination of Victorian romance
and post-modernist psychological
depth.  Or at least I thought it was
unique until I read
Possession.  A.S.
Byatt has created a remarkable work,
in which a contemporary love story is
intertwined with a mysterious tale of
passion and secrecy from the
nineteenth century.  The way she
weaves these two narratives together
is fascinating, and provides much of
the fun of Possession.  Along the
way, we dip into Lacan, Freud and
feminist studies.  Finally, a Harlequin
romance for post-doctoral students!   


THE SPORTSWRITER by Richard Ford

Richard Ford's account of Frank
Bascombe's dispirited and aimless life
struck me as . . . well, dispirited and
aimless.   The narrator -- a failed
novelist -- remarks on page 76:  "most
people's minds, like mine, never
contain much worth reporting" -- and
then proceeds to prove the point over
the next 300 pages. Don't get me
wrong, there is plenty to chew over
here.  For one thing, the symbolism
hits you across the face.  The story
plays out over an Easter weekend, but
with a little too much death and too
little resurrection.  But symbols do not
a masterpiece make.   The
Sportswriter, for all its virtues does not
deserve the "modern classic" status it
has achieved in some circles.  

OBLIVION by David Foster Wallace

If you don't have the stamina for
Wallace's novel Infinite Jest -- 1100
dense pages and almost a half million
words -- tackle this brilliant short story
collection.  The stories are dense and
dazzling, with a double dose -- no,
make that a triple dose -- of irony.  
Wallace is one of the greatest writers
of his generation, and the strength of
his conceptions are marked on every
page, every paragraph.  Highly
recommended.  




KAFKA ON THE SHORE by Haruki Murakami

The strange plot twists never stop in Murakami's
imaginative masterpiece.  We encounter talking cats,
fish raining from the sky, Colonel Sanders working as
a pimp in a run-down back alley, and two Japanese
soldiers who have been lost in a forest since World
War II.   The danger of such surreal flourishes is that
they can overwhelm the narrative flow, and impart a
fractured, improbable quality to the plot line.  But
Murakami avoids these pitfalls, mainly by creating a
series of vivid, plausible characters -- Kafka the
runaway, Hoshino the blue collar truck driver, Nakano
the visionary old man, Miss Saeki the melancholy
librarian -- who capture the reader's heart and
maintain momentum to the story.   If you haven't yet
experienced the Murakami magic, Kafka on the shore
is the place to start on the journey.  


THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje is the master of fractured narratives and
troubled protagonists whose lives are presented in
vivid, splintered vignettes.  He has tried this approach
in presenting historical figures such as Billy the Kid
and Buddy Bolden, but has nowhere succeeded more
brilliantly than in his account of the English patient.  
The deathbed musings of the survivor of a plane crash
provides the connecting thread that justifies the
disrupted chronology and tattered storyline of this
tale.   One could hardly imagine a more passive
protagonist -- an invalid in the bed of squalid Italian
villa.  But Ondaatje creates a powerful aura of
mystery around his leading character and shapes a
tale of tragedy and romance around his final days.  
But even more the story is one of betrayals on many
levels, personal and political, in which almost nothing
is what it seems.  
Hold on to your seats -- here come 20 rapid-fire reviews . . .