Proxies: Twenty-Four Attempts Towards a Memoir by Brian Blanchfield review – 21st-century Montaigne

From an owl’s face to canteen food to tumbleweed, this collection of essays is a thing of wonder

With its roots in the Latin “exigere”, to examine, and in the Middle French “essaier”, to attempt, to put something to the proof, the essay form, from its inception, has been peculiarly alive to the interrogative relationship it has with the self that writes it. Montaigne, held to be the progenitor of the form with his Essays, published in 1580, asked the question “Que sais-je?” (“what do I know?”) in his essay “Apology for Raymond Sebond”. Proxies is award-winning American poet Brian Blanchfield’s first book of essays, and it returns the form to “Que sais-je”? The short introductory note outlines what might be seen as the book’s USP, “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources” while composing it.

The single-subject essays were written with the internet off and ...

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer review – after the biotech apocalypse

Flying bears and diagnostic beetles: a thrilling vision of life in its most radical forms explores the question of non-human sentienceJeff VanderMeer’s deeply strange and brilliant new novel extends the meditation on the central question of non-human sentience in his earlier work. The alien intelligence that infected Area X in the Southern Reach trilogy was capable of such a profound biochemical mimicry that it shone a harsh light on the primitive nature of human cognition. Now, splicing together the DNAs of Godzilla and Frankenstein, VanderMeer gives us Borne. In a world laid waste by a biotech company called, simply, “Company”, Mord, a massive flying bear more than five storeys high, is terrorising survivors. These include humans, mutants, animals and hybrid creatures which are revealed to be failed or aborted biotech experiments. Biotech spans a huge spectrum. Diagnostic beetles can enter a human system and heal illnesses and wounds. ...

The Visiting Privilege: New and Selected Stories by Joy Williams review – masterful

If you don’t yet know Williams, an enthralling discovery awaits: she easily takes her place among the ranks of Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant and Flannery O’ConnorTheories of the novel abound, but have you heard of any for the short story? The form is slippery, defiant, uncategorisable, the best examples making something new of the surplus in which the form trades. A successful short story, after all, is greater than the sum of its parts; an unsolvable equation, if you will, where there will always be at least one variable that cannot be pinned down. This core of absence is everything in the form, its very meaning. That the general British readership is unaware of perhaps the greatest living master of the short story, the 72-year-old American writer Joy Williams, is a matter of some shame – but also cause for exultation, because an enthralling discovery awaits. The Visiting ...

Our Young Man by Edmund White review – sparkling and steamy tale of a male model

A beautiful young man ascends the dizzy heights of the fashion world in White’s playful and profound 11th novelEdmund White’s 11th novel seems, on the surface, to be a rewriting of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. A gorgeous young French model, Guy, arrives “from Paris to New York in the late 1970s when he was in his late 20s but passed as 19”. Throughout the novel, this agelessness – even when he is pushing 40, people take him to be at least 15 years younger – is an inescapable note, sounded over and over again. Even Guy, not the most intellectual character you’ll encounter in a novel, is aware of the literary allusion: towards the very end, in a rare moment of feeling sick of his “eternal” beauty, he thinks, “What if he were stripped of his looks, if he stabbed the grotesque painting in the ...

Patience by Daniel Clowes review – a deeply affecting graphic novel

An attempt to journey through time goes spectacularly wrong in Clowes’s visually intricate tale of love, murder and revenge

Would you go anywhere near a book described on its back cover as “a cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love”? Yet, while it may have its tongue firmly in its cheek, the blurb is not an inaccurate precis of Daniel Clowes’s latest graphic novel.

The book opens in 2012, with its eponymous heroine discovering that she is pregnant. Patience, who thinks of herself as a “white-trash piece of shit”, has had a rough life, marked by abuse, neglect, poverty. Her relationship with Jack Barlow, the only man who has ever been nice to her, and the pregnancy, are her lifelines. Jack, too, thinks of their love as his salvation, but very soon inside this threshold of a new, better life, he comes home to find Patience ...

Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne review – edgy, gripping and beautifully written

An English schoolteacher begins a new, dangerous life when he escapes rural Sussex and discovers the omens, dreams and spirits of Cambodia

With the first two of his three elegant, stylish and ambiguous novels – The Forgiven in 2012, The Ballad of a Small Player last year, and now Hunters in the Dark – Lawrence Osborne elicited comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, James Salter, Paul Bowles, among others. He seems to be a revenant from a species that has, paradoxically, become almost extinct following the triumph of globalisation: the traveller (or travel-writer)-novelist. Indeed, Osborne describes himself as having led “a nomadic life”, living in Paris, New York City, Mexico, Istanbul and Bangkok. The novels reflect this: The Forgiven is set in Morocco, Ballad in the gambling dens of Macau, Hunters in the Dark in Cambodia; all feature westerners running up against, or adrift in, cultures that remain opaque ...