Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Christopher Hitchens, Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Published eight months after his death, this collection of observations about what Hitchens called “living dyingly” are drawn from the Vanity Fair pieces that he wrote throughout his illness. John Lloyd, writing in the Financial Times, observes that “Hitchens’ wit doesn’t desert him till the last few fragmentary notes made in the last few sinking days; nor does his sense that he has, after all, been somebody, made it big in the most competitive arena of the most competitive country in the world.”

In the New York Times, Christopher Buckley calls the first seven chapters of the book “diamond-hard and brilliant” and offers a poignant description of the fragmentary jottings which make up the eight and final chapter: “they’re vivid, heart-wrenching and haunting — messages in a bottle tossed from the deck of a sinking ship as its captain, reeling in agony and fighting through the fog of morphine, struggles to keep his engines going.”

In the Guardian, Colm Tóibín calls the memoir “sad and oddly inspiring” and adds that Hitchens “writes with a calm and searching honesty about the idea that “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” He concludes with the claim that Hitchens “does everything to make sure that his voice remains civilised, searching and ready to vanquish all his enemies, most notably in this case the dullness of death and its silence.”

A review will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

The title of Chabon’s first novel in five years refers to the famous Telegraph Avenue that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, California. The jacket refers to it as a "Californian Middlemarch".

Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times that “[Chabon] draws an extraordinarily tactile, Kodachrome-crisp picture of the Bay Area world that his characters inhabit… while conjuring the music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that [they] love so much and that has given them their vocation. The result is a novel with the grooviest soundtrack since High Fidelity.” She goes on to say that “although the novel gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, it soon achieves escape velocity, demonstrating that Mr. Chabon can write about just about anything… and write about it not as an author regurgitating copious amounts of research, but with a real, lived-in sense of empathy and passion.”

“In keeping with a novel full of jazz, the prose glimmers with accidentals, chromatic flats and sharps and syncopated rhythms,” says The Scotsman, “this stylistic virtuosity would nevertheless be meagre unless it was harnessed to specific ethical and empathetic ends. And Telegraph Avenue is a big book in an almost 19th-century manner; it has births and deaths, separations and reconciliations, the loss of virginity and the loss of friendship, moments of madness and sudden clarities. It is, above all, about consequence and forgiveness. The final pages are genuinely remarkable in their ability to create closure without compromising on emotional complexity.”

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Catherine Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, describes McEwan’s latest novel as “a genial, if flawed, foray into John le Carré territory – a wisecracking thriller hightailing between love and betrayal, with serious counter-espionage credentials thrown in.” Eileen Battersea in the Irish Times simply calls it a “glib beach read, marred by stagy dialogue,” and “a middlebrow spy spoof stuffed with self-regard.”

A review in the Economist declares that it is “not Mr McEwan’s finest book” and adds that, despite being “clever”, it is also “curiously forgettable. What it lacks is not so much an animating spirit, as a heart”.

Leo Robson, writing in the New Statesman, notes that the book “contains a certain amount of reflection on reading and writing, offered in the form of an ongoing argument between Serena and Tom which follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic . . . The couple disagree about modern fiction 'at every turn', and always for crass, gender-essentialist reasons.” Robson writes that “[Sweet Tooth] is a riddle, or perhaps a joke, in which a number of baffling, even boring, elements are clarified and justified by a final flourish. It rewards rereading, but not reading.”

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage