In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Turner, Andrew Adonis on LBJ, John Gray on Victor Serge and Helen Lewis on the science of the breast.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our Critic at large is Craig Raine, who writes about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of late Turner, Monet and Twombly. The show, Raine argues, “passes the kleptomania test with ease. There are many, many works here that one would steal without compunction were theft possible with impunity.” Of Turner’s painting of the salute in Venice, Raine says “There is something candidly magical at work. The same applies to Monet.” As for Twombly, Raine maintains he is a “great painter, the equal of Turner and Monet”.

In Books, former Labour Cabinet minister Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson. This book, which deals with the first year of LBJ’s presidency, shows, Adonis writes, that “Lyndon Johnson left behind the second most substantial legacy of any US president of the 20th century, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. The “compass” of Johnson’s presidency was set, Adonis argues, within days of his assumption of it following the assassination of John F Kennedy. “Within weeks, its triumphs and its disasters were equally foretold.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews a new edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary; Guy Dammann on Soul Music by Candace Allen; Olivia Laing reviews Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’s Antigone; and Helen Lewis on Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Lynn Shelton’s slacker comedy Your Sister’s Sister; Rachel Cooke on Armando Ianucci’s Veep; “The many moods of Marilyn, à la Andy Warhol”, a poem by John Kinsella; Andrew Billen on The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre; Antonia Quirke on The Cave on Radio 4. PLUS: Will Self’s "Real Meals".

Power play: President Lyndon B Johnson in 1965 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge