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Larceny

Adam Mars-Jones, 24 March 1994

The Fermata 
by Nicholson Baker.
Chatto, 305 pp., £14.99, January 1994, 0 7011 5999 5
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... The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy ...

Howl

Adam Mars-Jones, 21 September 1995

Fullalove 
by Gordon Burn.
Secker, 231 pp., £14.99, August 1995, 0 436 20059 7
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... When novelists tell us that the world is made of God’s love or the same green cheese as the moon, we expect them to dramatise their perception – to force their philosophy on us as a magician forces a card – so that we can see how it feels to share it, if only for as long as it takes to read the hook. The same expectation holds good when a novelist proposes, as Gordon Burn does in his new novel Fullalove, that not green cheese or God’s love but black pus – meaningless suffering, and an appetite for meaningless suffering – is the basic building-block of the universe ...

All your walkmans fizz in tune

Adam Mars-Jones: Eimear McBride, 8 August 2013

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing 
by Eimear McBride.
Galley Beggar, 203 pp., £11, June 2013, 978 0 9571853 2 6
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... To go on a starvation diet in terms of the comma (including the inverted ones that designate speech), as Eimear McBride does in her remarkable, harshly satisfying first novel, may not seem a particularly drastic discipline, set beside such feats as eliminating the letter ‘e’ (Perec’s La Disparition, Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) or telling Ophelia’s side of the story using only the words Shakespeare allots her (Paul Griffiths’s Let Me Tell You ...

If it’s good, stay there

Adam Mars-Jones: ‘Ghana Must Go’, 4 July 2013

Ghana Must Go 
by Taiye Selasi.
Viking, 318 pp., £14.99, April 2013, 978 0 670 91986 4
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... If Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was as fascinating as its acknowledgments pages the book would be a triumph. Acknowledgments in books have gone the way of Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, with ever more exhaustive tributes – though in the case of a book no prize has yet been awarded. Selasi’s list contains more than 150 names, and begins: ‘I am so very grateful to God, and (in alphabetical order, from the bottom of my heart) Andrew Wylie …’ It’s an unusual version of alphabetical order that gives Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie pride of place and the proper proximity to God ...

Sight, Sound and Sex

Adam Mars-Jones: Dana Spiotta, 17 March 2016

Innocents and Others 
by Dana Spiotta.
Scribner, 278 pp., £17.95, March 2016, 978 1 5011 2272 9
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... Long before​ electronic media came up with the phrase, literature had been relegated to the status of preferred ‘content provider’ for films. Bestsellers achieve special ontological status on the screen, and the classics get retrospective plastic surgery, so that Jay Gatsby receives the looks first of Robert Redford then Leonardo DiCaprio. Anne Hathaway’s blandly pretty mask is tied with cinematic ribbon over Jane Austen’s blurry features – a criminal defacement however photogenic the impostor ...

Did you hear about Mrs Binh?

Adam Mars-Jones: Viet Thanh Nguyen, 18 May 2017

The Refugees 
by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Corsair, 209 pp., £12.99, February 2017, 978 1 4721 5255 8
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... These eight stories​ , by the author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathiser, are clear-eyed and effective, uniform in length, evenly pitched in tone. Viet Thanh Nguyen dedicates the book to ‘all refugees, everywhere’, but his focus is on those who came from Vietnam and settled in California. There are nuances of displacement, and in some ways the Vietnamese experience of exile was a special case ...

Such Genteel Flaming!

Adam Mars-Jones: ‘The Boat Rocker’, 13 July 2017

The Boat Rocker 
by Ha Jin.
Pantheon, 222 pp., £20, October 2016, 978 0 307 91162 9
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... There’s​ a strange moment in Ha Jin’s new novel when the narrator, Feng Danlin, an expatriate Chinese journalist writing on culture and politics for an independent news agency based in New York, is asked by one of the organisers of a festival of Chinese culture, held in Berlin, to assess a dozen or so translated novels that have been chosen as representative of modern writing in China ...

The Love Object

Adam Mars-Jones: Anne Garréta, 30 July 2015

Sphinx 
by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan.
Deep Vellum, 120 pp., £9.87, April 2015, 978 1 941920 09 1
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... In Lord Dunsany’s​ 1936 novel, Rory and Bran, a fantasia on Irish folk themes, Rory’s parents worry about whether he can be trusted to take the cattle to market on his own. They decide that Bran should escort him, and feel confident that their rather dreamy boy will be well looked after. And so the pair set off. An English reviewer at the time remarked that Bran was rather taciturn for an Irishman, and it’s true that Bran isn’t explicitly identified as a dog ...

A Town Called Mørk

Adam Mars-Jones: Per Petterson, 6 November 2014

I Refuse 
by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett.
Harvill Secker, 282 pp., £16.99, October 2014, 978 1 84655 781 1
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... Per Petterson​ makes a small detour in the course of his latest novel’s action, as he steers one of his characters into a bookshop to pass comment on the major Scandinavian cultural export of recent years: All the new fiction, I didn’t know any of the authors’ names, and on two long tables there were three stacks of fat crime books next to each other, most of them Norwegian, and I hadn’t heard of these authors either, apart from maybe a couple of them, who were selling sensationally well, I had seen them in the newspaper, they were given a full-page spread on the arts pages in Dagbladet, and in the financial section at the back, because they earned serious money, but actually I didn’t much like crime novels ...

Draw me a what’s-it cube

Adam Mars-Jones: Ian McEwan, 13 September 2012

Sweet Tooth 
by Ian McEwan.
Cape, 323 pp., £18.99, August 2012, 978 0 224 09737 6
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... A penis in pickle, and a dreadful wife made to vanish into another dimension by means of an esoteric yoga pose. A narrator who rapes and murders his wife, gratified that the two climaxes coincide (‘I came as she died. That much I can say with pride. I know her death was a moment of intense pleasure to her’). When he wakes up he vomits on the corpse, a reflex of horror and remorse that amounts to a further assault ...

Micro-Shock

Adam Mars-Jones: Kazuo Ishiguro, 5 March 2015

The Buried Giant 
by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Faber, 345 pp., £20, March 2015, 978 0 571 31503 1
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... It’s typical​ of Kazuo Ishiguro’s low-key, misdirecting approach to the business of fiction that, although the book contains such creatures as dragons and pixies, the buried giant of his new novel’s title should be an analogy explained only a few pages before the narrative ends. The revelation comes as a micro-shock or nano-coup, a slow burn converging on a fizzle ...

Reality Is Worse

Adam Mars-Jones: Lydia Davis, 17 April 2014

Can’t and Won’t 
by Lydia Davis.
Hamish Hamilton, 304 pp., £16.99, April 2014, 978 0 241 14664 4
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... In her approach​ to story-writing Lydia Davis might almost have taken a vow of chastity, of the aesthetic sort publicised by the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers. Dogme principles included shooting on location, recording the soundtrack at the same time as the images (so as to exclude music other than what the characters could hear), using natural sources of light and a hand-held camera ...

Room Theory

Adam Mars-Jones: Joseph O’Neill, 25 September 2014

The Dog 
by Joseph O’Neill.
Fourth Estate, 241 pp., £16.99, July 2014, 978 0 00 727574 8
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... If the first page​ of a novel is its front door, then the epigraphs that some writers like to install on the approach to it correspond to value-adding features such as carriage-lamps or stone lions, often having more to do with the resident’s self-image than with the architecture. Grandeur has its obligations: if your three epigraphs are from Antigone, Bunyan (Grace Abounding) and Goethe (Faust Part Two), you’d better follow through with something formidable – as Under the Volcano does ...

A Little Village on the Edge of the World

Adam Mars-Jones: Mike McCormack, 30 November 2017

Solar Bones 
by Mike McCormack.
Canongate, 272 pp., £8.99, May 2017, 978 1 78689 127 3
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... Mike McCormack​ , the winner of last year’s Goldsmiths Prize with Solar Bones, could seem to be redressing a balance by making his book a single undivided utterance. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the novel by Eimear McBride that won the inaugural prize in 2013, was prodigal in its use of full stops: there were often three or four in a line of print ...

Constellationality

Adam Mars-Jones: Olga Tokarczuk, 5 October 2017

Flights 
by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft.
Fitzcarraldo, 400 pp., £12.99, May 2017, 978 1 910695 43 2
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... Olga Tokarczuk’s​ novel Flights could almost be an inventory of the ways narrative can serve a writer short of, and beyond, telling a story. The book’s prose is a lucid medium in which narrative crystals grow to an ideal size, independent structures not disturbing the balance of the whole. Thirty pages seems to be the maximum dimension for her purposes – only one story element goes beyond that length, and is split in two, with one instalment in each half of the book ...

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