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Room 6 at the Moonstone

Adam Mars-Jones: Bill Clegg, 5 November 2015

Did You Ever Have a Family 
by Bill Clegg.
Cape, 293 pp., £12.99, August 2015, 978 0 224 10235 3
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... mother’s house, and although there was some dispute earlier in the day about whether her father, Adam, would be allowed by June to stay there as a house guest, it was resolved in favour of a qualified welcome. But hours later everything turned to ash and ruin. The absoluteness of the blast makes it a disaster with some of the character of an apotheosis, as ...

Howl

Adam Mars-Jones, 21 September 1995

Fullalove 
by Gordon Burn.
Secker, 231 pp., £14.99, August 1995, 0 436 20059 7
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... When novelists tell us that the world is made of God’s love or the same green cheese as the moon, we expect them to dramatise their perception – to force their philosophy on us as a magician forces a card – so that we can see how it feels to share it, if only for as long as it takes to read the hook. The same expectation holds good when a novelist proposes, as Gordon Burn does in his new novel Fullalove, that not green cheese or God’s love but black pus – meaningless suffering, and an appetite for meaningless suffering – is the basic building-block of the universe ...

Such Genteel Flaming!

Adam Mars-Jones: ‘The Boat Rocker’, 13 July 2017

The Boat Rocker 
by Ha Jin.
Pantheon, 222 pp., £20, October 2016, 978 0 307 91162 9
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... There’s​ a strange moment in Ha Jin’s new novel when the narrator, Feng Danlin, an expatriate Chinese journalist writing on culture and politics for an independent news agency based in New York, is asked by one of the organisers of a festival of Chinese culture, held in Berlin, to assess a dozen or so translated novels that have been chosen as representative of modern writing in China ...

Sleepwalker on a Windowledge

Adam Mars-Jones: Carmen Maria Machado, 7 March 2019

Her Body & Other Parties 
by Carmen Maria Machado.
Serpent’s Tail, 245 pp., £8.99, January 2019, 978 1 78125 953 5
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... In​ the acknowledgments to Her Body & Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado strikes a note of respect for her predecessors that isn’t far from abasement: ‘Every woman artist who has come before me. I am speechless in the face of their courage.’ The stories in the book don’t really match this, their attitude being closer to a productive impertinence ...

Tomb for Two

Adam Mars-Jones, 10 February 1994

The Father 
by Sharon Olds.
Secker, 88 pp., £6, February 1993, 0 436 33952 8
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The Sign of Saturn 
by Sharon Olds.
Secker, 92 pp., £8, March 1991, 0 436 20029 5
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... Praise The Father. Praise Sharon Olds. Celebrate the autobiographical mode in American poetry, its risks and rewards. Praise directness cut with understatement, starkness with an obliquity that can still take the reader off guard. Salute, with unease, elegies that are also episodes of psychodrama, stages of a struggle that bereavement alters in key but hardly interrupts ...

Larceny

Adam Mars-Jones, 24 March 1994

The Fermata 
by Nicholson Baker.
Chatto, 305 pp., £14.99, January 1994, 0 7011 5999 5
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... The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first novel, The Mezzanine, consisted of the lunch-hour of a single working day, as experienced by an office worker, but time under the discursive microscope changed its nature ...

A Town Called Mørk

Adam Mars-Jones: Per Petterson, 6 November 2014

I Refuse 
by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett.
Harvill Secker, 282 pp., £16.99, October 2014, 978 1 84655 781 1
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... Per Petterson​ makes a small detour in the course of his latest novel’s action, as he steers one of his characters into a bookshop to pass comment on the major Scandinavian cultural export of recent years: All the new fiction, I didn’t know any of the authors’ names, and on two long tables there were three stacks of fat crime books next to each other, most of them Norwegian, and I hadn’t heard of these authors either, apart from maybe a couple of them, who were selling sensationally well, I had seen them in the newspaper, they were given a full-page spread on the arts pages in Dagbladet, and in the financial section at the back, because they earned serious money, but actually I didn’t much like crime novels ...

Micro-Shock

Adam Mars-Jones: Kazuo Ishiguro, 5 March 2015

The Buried Giant 
by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Faber, 345 pp., £20, March 2015, 978 0 571 31503 1
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... It’s typical​ of Kazuo Ishiguro’s low-key, misdirecting approach to the business of fiction that, although the book contains such creatures as dragons and pixies, the buried giant of his new novel’s title should be an analogy explained only a few pages before the narrative ends. The revelation comes as a micro-shock or nano-coup, a slow burn converging on a fizzle ...

All your walkmans fizz in tune

Adam Mars-Jones: Eimear McBride, 8 August 2013

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing 
by Eimear McBride.
Galley Beggar, 203 pp., £11, June 2013, 978 0 9571853 2 6
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... To go on a starvation diet in terms of the comma (including the inverted ones that designate speech), as Eimear McBride does in her remarkable, harshly satisfying first novel, may not seem a particularly drastic discipline, set beside such feats as eliminating the letter ‘e’ (Perec’s La Disparition, Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) or telling Ophelia’s side of the story using only the words Shakespeare allots her (Paul Griffiths’s Let Me Tell You ...

Sight, Sound and Sex

Adam Mars-Jones: Dana Spiotta, 17 March 2016

Innocents and Others 
by Dana Spiotta.
Scribner, 278 pp., £17.95, March 2016, 978 1 5011 2272 9
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... Long before​ electronic media came up with the phrase, literature had been relegated to the status of preferred ‘content provider’ for films. Bestsellers achieve special ontological status on the screen, and the classics get retrospective plastic surgery, so that Jay Gatsby receives the looks first of Robert Redford then Leonardo DiCaprio. Anne Hathaway’s blandly pretty mask is tied with cinematic ribbon over Jane Austen’s blurry features – a criminal defacement however photogenic the impostor ...

Reminder: Mother

Adam Mars-Jones: Helen Phillips, 2 January 2020

The Need 
by Helen Phillips.
Chatto, 272 pp., £16.99, August 2019, 978 1 78474 284 3
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... Helen​ Phillips’s disconcerting new novel starts on a note of thrillerish urgency. Molly, at home alone with her small children, hears footsteps in the other room. She clasps them to her, though she needs to move away from them if she is to defend them. Ben, the baby, is too young to feel a sense of emergency, but Viv, at three, is old enough both to co-operate and to do the opposite of what she’s told ...

Human Origami

Adam Mars-Jones: Four-Dimensional Hinton, 4 March 2021

Hinton 
by Mark Blacklock.
Granta, 290 pp., £8.99, April, 978 1 78378 521 6
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... Charles Howard Hinton​ was a Victorian mathematician and theorist of the fourth dimension, the scandal of whose conviction for bigamy led him to lose his job as a schoolmaster and to exile himself with his family, travelling first to Japan and then to America. Mark Blacklock’s novel shrewdly and even slyly manages to reflect Hinton’s theories without staking the success of the book on them ...

Room Theory

Adam Mars-Jones: Joseph O’Neill, 25 September 2014

The Dog 
by Joseph O’Neill.
Fourth Estate, 241 pp., £16.99, July 2014, 978 0 00 727574 8
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... If the first page​ of a novel is its front door, then the epigraphs that some writers like to install on the approach to it correspond to value-adding features such as carriage-lamps or stone lions, often having more to do with the resident’s self-image than with the architecture. Grandeur has its obligations: if your three epigraphs are from Antigone, Bunyan (Grace Abounding) and Goethe (Faust Part Two), you’d better follow through with something formidable – as Under the Volcano does ...

If it’s good, stay there

Adam Mars-Jones: ‘Ghana Must Go’, 4 July 2013

Ghana Must Go 
by Taiye Selasi.
Viking, 318 pp., £14.99, April 2013, 978 0 670 91986 4
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... If Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was as fascinating as its acknowledgments pages the book would be a triumph. Acknowledgments in books have gone the way of Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, with ever more exhaustive tributes – though in the case of a book no prize has yet been awarded. Selasi’s list contains more than 150 names, and begins: ‘I am so very grateful to God, and (in alphabetical order, from the bottom of my heart) Andrew Wylie …’ It’s an unusual version of alphabetical order that gives Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie pride of place and the proper proximity to God ...

Did you hear about Mrs Binh?

Adam Mars-Jones: Viet Thanh Nguyen, 18 May 2017

The Refugees 
by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Corsair, 209 pp., £12.99, February 2017, 978 1 4721 5255 8
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... These eight stories​ , by the author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathiser, are clear-eyed and effective, uniform in length, evenly pitched in tone. Viet Thanh Nguyen dedicates the book to ‘all refugees, everywhere’, but his focus is on those who came from Vietnam and settled in California. There are nuances of displacement, and in some ways the Vietnamese experience of exile was a special case ...

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