Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Foster Wallace and David Bezmozgis.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

"Perversely thrilling", the Guardian's James Lasdun remarks of David Foster Wallace's unfinished posthumous novel. Perhaps an unlikely description for a story which consists of "one extended first act" set in a tax processing office in the desolate outskirts of 1980s Illinois. At the heart of the novel, observes Lasdun, sits "boredom and its various effects on the spirit, ranging from suicidal despair... to a transcendent power of concentration."

It's a novel that doesn't "go in for understatement" he writes "or charm for that matter" but one which is peppered with "rather wickedly dulled down prose".

Hari Kunzru writes in the FT that Wallace takes precise language "to comic extremes". "[It] is one of the great pleasures of his writing".
"He discourses on the niceties of the US tax code, on the exact hardware configuration of the computer systems that implement it. 'Suffice it to say that I know more about the chemistry, manufacture and ambient odors of instant coffee than anyone would voluntarily want to' remarks faux-authorial Wallace, in a footnoted digression about a billboard near the entrance to the IRS facility where most of The Pale King takes place."

The New Statesman's Jonathan Derbyshire applauds Wallace's attention to morose detail. "Few novelists have taken as seriously as Wallace the obligation to write truthfully about the way we live today. And as Pietsch says, even in an unfinished novel such as this, the products of that seriousness are spectacular."

The Pale King is reviewed in this week's New Statesman

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

"David Bezmozgis projects a sense of ease that is very rare in first novels," The Telegraph's Leo Robson remarks of the Lativan author who was last year lauded in The New Yorker as one of the world's most promising young writers. "He does everything well," writes Robson, "Though economy in characterisation is his strongest gift."

Colin Greenland for the Guardian does not quite agree. He argues The Free World, a novel of emigration from the USSR in the mid-70s, is a story "without much of a plot". Yet to Greenland this does not detract from the novel's potency, which is "heavy with the consciousness of time, the inevitability of crises . . . Bezmozgis has the knack of ending scenes, chapters, especially, at the perfect reverberant moment, plangent or ironic."

Melissa McClements for the FT calls The Free World "a multi-generational family saga". The result of which she believes is "colourful, sharply funny and deeply moving".

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories