Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Davenport-Hines, Mark Binelli and George Saunders.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders

Acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders darkly satirises modern life in his fourth anthology, The Tenth of December..Through the eyes and minds of ten characters, it envisages the gulf between dreams and reality in suburban America.

For Joel Lovell, of the New York Times, it is the “best book you’ll read this year”. Other critics’ praise is more reserved.

David Wolf, writing in The Observer, applauds the author’s skillful storytelling and “the exhilirating explosion of slang, neologisms and fake product names”. Saunders’ writing is at once comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s “deadpan absurdism” and The Simpsons with his mix of “crude and sophisticated satire” and warm optimism. Nevertheless, Wolf criticises the inability of the MacArthur Genius Award winner to develop his writing style: “Saunders’ first collection for six years delivers all we expect but nothing new.” He added: “It seems like he’s stuck.”

In a review that charts Saunders’ backlash against his former idol and arch-rationalist Ayn Rand, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney welcomes the “sustained attack on the ideology of individualism.” For the Financial Times writer, it “overturns the belief that altruism is evil and instead suggests that helping others is the core component of our being”. The “blackly comic” book is only criticised for the tendency of the ten stories to seem formulaic because of Saunders’ distinctive style.

Alice Charles’ review for the Huffington Post UK, while commending The Tenth of December for its insight into characters’ minds, similarly criticises its repetitiveness. The habit of revisiting characters, themes and ideas “in a collection of just ten stories, feels like a bit of a cheat.”

 

The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli’s Last days of Detroit, soon to be reviewed in the New Statesman, tells the story of the boom and bust of what was once America’s fourth largest city. A former Detroit-native himself, the critics are divided on the perspective this brings for Binelli’s telling book.

Andy Beckett writes for the Guardian, and points to the author’s “busy, knowing prose” as the cause for the frequently quick and flippant tone; highlighted on one occasion where Binelli heedlessly skims over three decades of history exclaiming that “nothing much interesting happened in Detroit for the next thirty or so years …". Beckett is more critical of the beginning of the book, where he claims it reads more like a book proposal than a book itself, “authoritative but self-conscious, switching restlessly between past and present”, however he praises Binelli on his subsequent coverage of Detroit’s decline.

Rose Jacobs of the Financial Times finds that Binelli provides a charming narrative, managing to associate with the reader through personal asides and footnotes that show him to be “playing the tongue-tied non-expert”. As amiable as this may be at times, asserts Jacobs, the “ingenue’s approach” was also occasionally irksome. She concludes that the success of the book waivers, completely relying upon the subjects interviewed in each chapter.

Mick Brown’s review for The Telegraph commends Mark Binelli, deeming him “an assiduous reporter” and credits him with avoiding making the book an epitaph of Detroit. He identifies Binelli’s optimism amongst the ‘devastation porn’ that was the decline, but does query the lack of photographs that would have been so fitting in what is “otherwise an excellent book”.

 

An English Affair by Richard Davenport Hines

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Profumo affair, Richard Davenport-Hines bawdily retells how the war minister romanced the reputed mistress of a Soviet spy, Christine Keeler. In the throes of Cold War fever, politicians and the media convulsed at the idea of high-risk “pillow talk” that, followed by lying in the commons, forced resignation and framing, purportedly sowed the seeds of Macmillan’s demise.

The English Affair: Sex Class and Power in the Age of Profumo has divided critics who draw different lessons from the 1963 event.

Susan Elkin, writing in The Independent, praises Davenport-Hines as a “sparkling and compelling writer” and meticulous researcher. She draws parallels with the present: “it is hard to read his book without reflecting that we are still agonising over press freedom and the extent to which private lives are relevant to public office.”

By contrast, Vernon Bogdanor craves more context in the “racy read”. An English Affair re-runs a widely-told old story; “It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation.” The New Statesman writer speculates that the affair thwarted chances of a Conservative election victory in 1964 that may have forced Labour to modernise 30 years before Blair. “The consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport-Hines analyses.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison nonetheless welcomes An English Affair as “an antidote to the current nostalgia for the period”. It exposes the “double standards of the early 60s” in which the welfare state, far from banishing spivs, encouraged a new generation of merchant adventurers who “transformed the capital with brutal phallic modernity”.

“For anyone who imagines things were better in the age of ‘never had it so good’,” writes Morrisson, “this book should be compulsory reading.”

Detroit River during a race, the Detroit skyline in the background. (Getty Images)
DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit