Most people consider Donald Trump to be a gratuitous self-promoter, a somewhat charismatic actor, a clown, a demagogue, a misogynist, or a racist. But what everyone needs to understand about him is that what he considers himself, first and foremost, is a builder. In his latest book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again—the third book that he has written as a politician, after The America We Deserve (2000) and Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again (2011)—he repeats the same gesture that he also makes in the other two, namely that he constantly cites his building accomplishments as qualifications that make him better suited than any career politician imaginable to be President of the United States.
Umberto Eco’s first new novel in five years, Numero Zero, weighs in at 192 pages, versus 400+ for his previous efforts. I’m pretty Eco-friendly—The Name of the Rose was a lot of fun, if a bit overlong—so I was looking forward to something like Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum, except shorter, tighter, and brighter. Instead, readers of Numero Zero will find a little mystery, a bit of fantasy, some humor, and a lot of explanation: for better or for worse, this is a change of pace for Eco.
So often, when we look back on our formative years, the memories which scream loudest are the ones marked by fear, death, and adolescent angst. Some of these memories are grounded in reality while others, we’re told to believe, are pure fiction. Yet for many of us, the scary stories we encountered in the books of R.L. Stine, Stephen King, Alvin Schwartz, Anne Rice, and H.P. Lovecraft, among other authors, haunt us still.
This week saw the release of the first major, large-scale biography on one of pop music’s biggest and most guarded stars: Beyoncé. The product of hundreds of hours of interviews from dozens of sources, J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Becoming Beyoncé aims to be the definitive chronicle on the creation of an icon. It also suggests that virtually everything Beyoncé has told the public checks out. You won’t find any credence given to pregnancy conspiracy theories or Illuminati affiliations. Beyoncé is portrayed as someone who was deeply secretive from the time she was a child (as one of her elementary school classmates attests), and a shrewd business woman who severs ties not out of vindictiveness but for the sake of her career. If you go into the book thinking Beyoncé is perfect, you will find your suspicions confirmed.
Like real women, fictional women are often seen as wish-fulfillment. The “strength” that we look for in a female protagonist is often there for sentimental purposes, and rarely resembles the iron, irradiated accountability that matters in real life, a type of strength that’s like the desert—unsparing and mercurial. Blessedly, this is the milieu of Claire Vaye Watkins, born in Death Valley, daughter of Charles Manson’s chief lieutenant. Her heart-stopping 2012 collection Battleborn opens with a character named Razor Blade Baby, the product of a Family orgy, born when Manson sliced her out. Another story, “Man-O-War,” features a hermit scavenger picking up unused fireworks on the 5th of July and finding, instead, a pregnant teenager, bruised and half dead of heatstroke; what pair could possibly be more feeble, you think at the beginning, and then by the end, you wonder who could ever be so strong.
Belarussian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich became the 14th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. A synthesis of reportage and literature, her work has centered on the Soviet Union through the lens of everyday citizens. “She’s devised a new kind of literary genre,” the Swedish Academy said.
Upon the publication of Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People in 1999, the New York Times asked, “Is There a Black Upper Class?” On the surface, it was a foolhardy question—of course there was, and is, a black upper class—but if you were to peel back its exterior, as Graham did in his book, underneath revealed a world of race leaders: men and women and children who were in a constant “state of self-enhancement.” Here was a place, a land, very few Americans knew about.
I blew through the last quarter of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in the wee hours, gasping. Surprise is rare in literary fiction, which is snobbish with its pleasures, generally picking meditation over movement; surprise is even rarer in novels that run on language as flush, wild and glinting as Groff’s. “Goodness, he would lick her crown to hallux,” thinks teenage Lotto, just before fucking his teenage crush (“hands blistered to blood,” Groff writes; “her eyes overflowed the liner”) in the actual middle of a house fire. Romance, to Lotto’s wife, is like “corn rammed down goose necks, this shit they’d swallowed since they were barely old enough to dress themselves in tulle.” The style is wrought heavily but carefully, and its force is like water—pulling you under, letting you float.
On the day the calendar officially turns to fall, the only thing that needs to be said about the state of the novel is this: E.L. James’s Grey—from that time-honored genre of English letters, the shot-for-shot rewrite of an erotic fanfic of a series of young adult vampire novels—was the book of the summer. Which isn’t to say it’s good.
Wednesday night, before a national audience, presidential candidate and part-time comedian Jeb Bush—son of George H.W., brother to George W., and father to George P.—told a funny story. “There’s one thing I’ll tell you about my brother,” he said, referring to W’s tenure as president from 2001 to 2009,“He kept us safe.” Good one, Jeb! I’m still laughing.
“FALL BOOKS ARE HERE” screams a banner hanging from your local bookstore. “READ THESE HUGE 700 PAGE NOVELS” implores a website. The fun thing about reading is that you can do it at any time of the year; fall is just the time when big authors with big names release their Great Works for everyone’s consideration. This fall, you could read Purity (don’t) or you could read any of these fine offerings instead.
It is obvious from its first page that Purity is a worthless novel and its author, Jonathan Franzen, a worthless writer. Even the very first line, spoken by one of Franzen’s “characters,” is unbelievable: “Oh pussycat, I’m so glad to hear your voice”—the voice that of no human who has ever walked this earth, except an inept and pretentious novelist.
I first read Joan Didion as a senior in high school. When you’re a teen with literary ambitions, Didion is who you turn to for inspiration. My copy of Play It As It Lays is well thumbed and dog-eared. On the inside of the front cover, I wrote my name along with the date I purchased it—an affectation left over from when I thought I’d turn into the kind of woman surrounded by books and great swaths of fabric covering slightly dirty windows, a tumbler of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette slowly going to ash in the other, gazing at city lights through the window.
Ottessa Moshfegh is comfortable with discomfort—especially yours. After running laps around the competition on the short story circuit and catching praise from the likes of Rivka Galchen for her drunken sailor novella McGlue, she’s making her debut as a novelist with Eileen, out this week via Penguin.
Here is a joke I found on the internet that seems appropriate given what’s transpired this week. Question: What do politicians and diapers have in common? (No, not that!) Answer: They should both be changed regularly—and for the same reason. And with that, onto our favorite stories from the past week.