Corsair

Although Jennifer Egan had several novels under her belt by the end of the 2000s, perhaps most notably the slyly metafictional The Keep (2006), her 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, took the concern with the inner workings of contemporary culture and consciousness that wound its way through those earlier books, and translated it into something startlingly new and resonant. A meditation on time, loss, and possibility filtered through music and the music industry, it was as striking for its formal playfulness as it was for its acuity and countercultural savvy. In the decade and a bit since Goon Squad, Egan has produced only one book, Manhattan Beach (2017), a historical novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite its emotional richness and interest in the often-obscured wartime experiences of women and African-Americans, Manhattan Beach is an oddly subdued novel, its conventional surfaces at odds with the spiky energy that makes most of Egan’s fiction so exciting.

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‘Call me Ismail,’ it could plausibly begin: a screenplay not of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick but of the real-life relationship between two filmmakers renowned for their adaptations of a string of other classic novels. Ismail Merchant first met James Ivory on the steps of the Indian consulate in Manhattan in 1961. ‘Call me by your name,’ the Ivory character might wittily retort in this imagined biopic. That, of course, was to be the title of the film scripted by Ivory nearly a decade and a half after Merchant’s death in 2005, but it captures something of the symbiotic nature of their partnership.

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The Nile runs straight through the middle of Cairo, from south to north like a grand zip. In the middle of this citied stretch of river there is an island known colloquially by the name of the suburb that crowds it: Zamalek. Once the grounds of a summer palace, the island became a colonial stronghold in the 1880s, when an extravagant leisure club was built for British Army officers, replete with croquet lawns, a polo field, and pony stables. Now, Zamalek is a restless mix of affluence and decay: home to old money, new expatriates, and crumbling art-deco apartment blocks – the last gasp of Nasser-era rent control. Embassy gardens thrive behind concrete walls and razor wire, while national service recruits doze in the heat, chins propped on the barrels of their AK-47s. American fast-food chains rub greasy shoulders with antique stores full of French rococo and faux-Napoleonic gilt. The ponies outlasted the British Empire, and can still be booked for riding lessons, but the summer palace has been swallowed by a Marriott Hotel. And on the busiest street of this well-storied isle – where the everyday traffic is as loud as a rock concert – there is a bookshop.

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The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

by
March 2021, no. 429

Viet Thanh Nguyen arrived in the United States in 1975 as a four-year-old Vietnamese refugee. He is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a professor of English and of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and a contributing writer to The New York Times who has devoted much of his working life to Vietnamese-American history. A related topic that he writes and speaks about is ‘narrative scarcity’, the fact that if you belong to a minority group, none of the stories you read is about you or the importance of those groups being given the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words. That is just what Nguyen has done in his first novel, The Sympathizer, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and its sequel, The Committed. Though many American novelists have written about the Vietnam War, he is one of the first Vietnamese-American writers to do so.

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Louise Erdrich would never write again. The National Book Award-winning author was bereft of ideas and exhausted by a tenacious winter virus. She surrendered to sleep, heavy with the certainty that her literary career was over. ‘Hours later, I was jolted awake by some mysterious flow of information,’ Erdrich explains in the afterword of her new novel, The Night Watchman, a glorious rebuke to her fever-addled defeatism. A message beat in her brain: go back to the beginning. ‘I made myself a shaky cup of tea,’ she writes, ‘and then, as I’ve done so many times in my life, I began to read letters written the year I was born, my grandfather’s letters.’

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