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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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood