The Town by Sean Prescott review – a powerfully doomy debut

Australian towns are disappearing in a thought-provoking novel that ranges from the banal to the apocalyptic

The sense of some deeply melancholic encounter haunts the pages of Australian writer Shaun Prescott’s winningly glum debut novel, aided by elegiac musings on belonging and estrangement, growth and decay, places and voids, portals and dead-ends. An unnamed writer arrives in an unnamed town, rents a room, finds a congenial cafe and a tolerable pub, and starts to write a treatise on “the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales”. Like much about this simultaneously realist and absurdist novel, that word “disappearing” hovers at the line between the figurative and the literal. Are these towns merely in decline or are they literally vanishing? Both, it would seem, and before long, circumstances suggest that the one the writer has settled in is itself disappearing. He adjusts his focus accordingly, chronicling the local ...

Census by Jesse Ball review – a moving portrayal of radical innocence

A father and his son with Down’s syndrome go on a road trip in this remarkable novel about the nature of empathy

Two very different literary impulses collide in Jesse Ball’s new novel: old-fashioned memoir and modernist fable. One might think they were incompatible, given their allegiances to the separate truths of experience and imagination, but it’s a testament to the skill of this talented writer (on the Granta best young American novelists list in 2017) that they end up enhancing each other in all kinds of unexpected, often remarkable ways.

An opening note states the author’s intention to write about his brother, Abram Ball, who had Down’s syndrome, and whose life (he died aged 24) was “something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down’s syndrome boy ...

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson review – wild and wonderful

Mortality, hallucinations and hotdogs in a cult American author’s posthumously published collection of short stories

Well before his death from liver cancer last May, Denis Johnson had attained something approaching cult status among American writers and readers. Like David Foster Wallace before him, he had a combination of obsessions and personal experience that positioned him to tackle what has arguably become the representative tragedy of life today in the US, namely the drama of addiction and rehab. For where else are the culture’s destructive passions, dysfunctional politics and disconcerting faith in miracles present in such concentrated form? It wasn’t the only subject Johnson wrote about, but it lent itself peculiarly well to his gifts: his tender eye for the grotesque, his gallows humour, his ability to articulate the intense inner lives of the variously desperate types who form the cast of this particular narrative; above all his interest in the ...

Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel review – a profound hermit? Not really

The story of Christopher Knight living in solitude in the wilderness for 27 years is remarkable. But this account tries too hard to give it real significance In the summer of 1986, a young man returning home from a road trip impulsively drove past his house without stopping and continued north on smaller and smaller roads until he reached a forest trail in northern Maine, where he abandoned his car, stepped out into the wilderness, and disappeared for 27 years. He didn’t have a plan, nor project, nor even a conscious motive other than a fondness for solitude. He set up home in a small tent below a camouflaged tarpaulin in a secluded spot in the woods. There, through the ferocious winters and mosquito-ridden summers, he remained unseen, though not unnoticed: every week or two he would break into one of the many seasonal camps and cabins dotting the shores ...

Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel review – a profound hermit? Not really

The story of Christopher Knight living in solitude in the wilderness for 27 years is remarkable. But this account tries too hard to give it real significance In the summer of 1986, a young man returning home from a road trip impulsively drove past his house without stopping and continued north on smaller and smaller roads until he reached a forest trail in northern Maine, where he abandoned his car, stepped out into the wilderness, and disappeared for 27 years. He didn’t have a plan, nor project, nor even a conscious motive other than a fondness for solitude. He set up home in a small tent below a camouflaged tarpaulin in a secluded spot in the woods. There, through the ferocious winters and mosquito-ridden summers, he remained unseen, though not unnoticed: every week or two he would break into one of the many seasonal camps and cabins dotting the shores ...

Zero K by Don DeLillo review – the problem of mortality

Sinister scientists and cryogenic pods: one of our leading chroniclers of contemporary reality turns his attention to life after death One doesn’t think of Don DeLillo as a religious writer, exactly, but there has always been an atmosphere of divination and prophecy about his work; a tendency for his plots to take their characters through successive portals of initiation, often into vaguely cultic mysteries. His prose, too, has always had a distinct bias toward the state of rapture, whether he’s observing a grungy streetscape or a desert sunrise. His last novel took its title, Point Omega, from the Jesuit thinker Teilhard de Chardin, who coined the phrase for the end-state of transcendent consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving. From Point Omega to Zero K would seem a short distance, conceptually, and the books certainly share an interest in Last Things. The main difference is that while ...

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing review – Warhol, Hopper, Garbo and the art of loneliness

Memoir and scholarship combine in an original exploration of New York artists ‘troubled by loneliness’

As its punning subtitle suggests, Olivia Laing’s new book is at once an investigation into works of art that arise out of the condition of loneliness, and the record of a more personal quest to master the difficult “art of being alone”. It belongs, in other words, to the fusion genre of scholarship-cum-memoir that has increasingly become the preferred way of doing cultural criticism. The setting is (mostly) New York, where Laing recently experienced a spell of acute loneliness after the relationship that had brought her there from Britain abruptly ended. In her involuntary solitude she became “possessed with a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited my state”, and began immersing herself in artists whose work seemed “troubled by loneliness”. The two sides of the resulting book – the curatorial ...

Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns review – Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin and the wonder of Woodstock

A kind of Lourdes for musicians – stories of songwriting brilliance, hipster shysters and extraordinary excess abound in this enjoyable study of the New York upstate village First things first: I live in Woodstock, I was interviewed for this book, and I know the author. I was at school with him, in fact, an establishment next to Westminster Abbey not generally known as a rock academy and yet in our day home to several incipient rockers, including Thomas Dolby and, in the brief period before his expulsion, my own teen bandmate, Shane MacGowan. The boarders all had record players and there was a constant current of rock music drifting down with the dope fumes from study windows over Little Dean’s Yard: Dylan, the Band, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Todd Rundgren … I didn’t know it at the time but much of it – perhaps even most of it – had been put together ...

Shylock Is My Name review – Howard Jacobson takes on Shakespeare’s Venetian moneylender

A bold retelling of The Merchant of Venice, set in 21st-century footballers’ Cheshire, subverts and enhances an appreciation of the original The figure of the unassimilated Jew, defiantly “other” in skullcap, gabardine and fringed garment, has been a source of Gentile unease for centuries. It is what fuels the main plot of The Merchant of Venice, and its corollary – Jew-baiting – is what gives the play its uncomfortable immediacy. We know this story; its ramifications are still playing out: the Holocaust, Israel, Gaza. Part of its disquieting power, in Shakespeare’s telling, is its unstable moral perspective: are we watching a play about antisemitism, or an antisemitic play? Unlike Malvolio, whose expulsion from the festive world of Twelfth Night is a cause for straightforward rejoicing, Shylock’s fall leaves us jangling with unresolved emotion. Yes, he was going to cut his pound of flesh out of Antonio, but he had ...

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes review – how Shostakovich survived Stalin

Barnes’s latest novel is a gripping fictionalised account of the composer’s life, and the anguished compromises he made under Stalin A bad review was not a trivial matter for a composer in Soviet Russia, especially if the reviewer happened to be Joseph Stalin. In January 1936 an editorial appeared in Pravda, with “enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one who could never be corrected”, describing Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “muddle instead of music”. The article was followed by a summons to the KGB headquarters where the composer was invited to denounce various colleagues: “You must recall every detail of all the discussions regarding the plot against Comrade Stalin.” Luck intervened: this was the height of the purges, and the interrogator himself was arrested before Shostakovich could come to any harm. But his music could no longer be safely played and, possibly worse, he ...

New American Stories edited by Ben Marcus review – a landmark anthology

Pre-9/11 US literature reflected a national self-image that was fundamentally benign. That era is over, judging from this collection

Two radical projects of reappraisal emerge as you make your way through the nearly 800 pages of Ben Marcus’s anthology of New American Stories. One has to do with what it means to be American; the other, at the risk of sounding grandiose (though a little grandiosity seems justified for once), with what it means to be human. I’m not sure how intentional they are: Marcus’s ambitions appear, rightly, more about providing intense literary experiences than making large editorial statements. He calls the book “not a museum piece” but (and note the careful wording) “a sampler of behaviours and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading”.

In a sense it is just that – a sampling of the last 10 years’ worth of books, magazines and small press ...