Plot Tanks as Characters Speak in Foreign Idioms

September 24, 2005 | ,

On Beauty
By Zadie Smith
Viking Canada. 400 pages. $34.

In September, 2002, Zadie Smith, the British novelist, went to Harvard. She was 27, and had published her first novel, White Teeth, not long after graduating from Cambridge to acclaim and huge sales on both sides of the Atlantic. A follow-up, The Autograph Man, appeared a month after she moved to Boston, where she was offered a fellowship at Harvard University to write a collection of essays, The Morality of the Novel. The book does not appear to have been published.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, describes a year in the life of the Belsey clan, who orbit a university called “Wellington,” which may not be Harvard but looks, smells and sounds a whole lot like the Ivy League school. (more…)

The World According to Oskar

May 26, 2004 |

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $34.95.

Our great authors were once the ultimate parents. Starting with the Bible and on down to the grand tradition of the realist novel, narration and knowledge have gone hand in hand. Writers such as Honore de Balzac and Jane Austen felt they understood the world and, as good fathers and mothers, considered it their duty to instruct us in its ways.

Jonathan Safran Foer might be the first great writer of our new century, and he represents the opposite notion of authorship. (more…)

Telling It Like It Is By Telling It Like It Ain’t

May 25, 2004 |

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 400 pages.

Philip Roth can write anything. And he can write it very well. He’s an unparalleled humorist in Portnoy’s Complaint, The Great American Novel and My Life as a Man, displaying comic exuberance that is the literary equivalent of Woody Allen channelling the Marx Brothers. He’s also a moral historian. His finest portraits of American life — Goodbye, Columbus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral and The Human Stain — capture the sounds, stories and ideologies of the 1950s, ’70s and ’90s with striking precision.

And in yet another set of novels, Roth is a master fabulist who delights in telling tales that are deliberately and disturbingly unreal. The Ghostwriter contains a haunting fantasy about Anne Frank riding out the Second World War in her cramped bunker and appearing, years later, in rural Massachusetts. What if, Roth asks, Anne hadn’t perished? Who would she have become? The Counterlife presents five mutually exclusive iterations of the lives of its characters, and Operation Shylock introduces a doppelganger Roth who advocates the transfer of Israeli Jews back to Eastern Europe. Spinning out these unbelievable stories, Roth exhibits fiction’s power to reveal truth without being true. He tells it like it is by telling it like it ain’t. (more…)