by Martin Amis
After an eight-year dalliance in the demimondes of memoir, the ghettoes of journalism, and the shtetls of short-story collections and crime novellas, Martin Amis, the world's last literary celebrity, has returned with a "work of unalloyed fiction." This new novel, Yellow Dog (which was published last month in England and will be published in America later this month), employs all the trademark Amis chestnuts: a tripartite, pan-class plot structure with three sub-stories hurtling ineluctably toward one another; a bushel of very funny, terribly cruel punishments leveled against all the characters--everything from a small penis to a massive head wound--not so much by the other characters as by the disapproving author; and at least once every page, a beautiful word that sends the devoted reader hurtling toward his or her American Heritage.
It comes as no surprise to Amis fans or Amis haters that Yellow Dog didn't make the shortlist for the Booker. It's not going to win any prizes. As novels go, it's a fine, occasionally hilarious piece of comic fiction that nonetheless gets muddled in a kind of crackpot double-reverse moralism and cops out right where it should kick ass. The book is concerned with pornography, violence, tabloid culture, and the royal family, but the author is concerned with feminism, science, highmindedness, and the real family. Virtues all, but Amis' fealty to seeming, his desire to make sure we know that the author is describing and not endorsing the ugliness on the page, gets right in the way of the author's unarguably greatest gift: the talent for converting ugliness into laughs. It's been a conflict in all Amis' post-Money books--literary conscience vs. literary cruelty--and a symptom, I think, of the kind of literary success only he has achieved.
Martin Amis is a great writer, but it's been a long time since he's written a great novel. SEAN NELSON
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon
What is it with the breakout literary books of the last couple of years, and their gimmicky adolescents: Life of Pi (about a 15-year-old boy stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger), The Lovely Bones (about a 14-year-old girl watching her family and friends from heaven after her rape and murder), and now The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon's unanimously embraced debut, in which the novel's 15-year-old autistic narrator investigates the murder of his neighbor's dog.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for its part, is very well done. If the autism of young Christopher John Francis Boone seems at times less like a human condition than a literary conceit of the sort the Oulipo folks might have come up with--like writing a novel without using the letter "e"--it is true, as the Oulipos well know, that those sorts of restrictions make excellent engines for fiction. Christopher's limited understanding of the world around him makes the novel a classic of show-don't-tell technique, encouraging us to come to our own conclusions about the evidence he provides, and his lack of empathy for others makes for a surprisingly empathic book--it's moving to watch him and those around him struggle against the wall his condition puts between them. The novel doesn't quite match Life of Pi's imaginative verve, though, and the characters around Christopher could have been given more dimension without sacrificing the integrity of the narration. The standard for recent novels about a misfit child savant trying to solve a parental mystery remains Helen DeWitt's complex, brilliant The Last Samurai. TOM NISSLEY
by Barbara Gowdy
(Metropolitan Books) $24
"It is possible she loved and cherished me; she never said. She liked me, I'm fairly sure of that." So says Louise Kirk of her mother, a former beauty queen who has abandoned her and her father. Or is that "left"? "Leaving" and "abandoning" are words whose differences are worth parsing in Louise's world. The Romantic is a ghost story, in the sense that abandonment and absence are forces that haunt the characters. All of them are missing someone or longing for something that is gone or will never be theirs; absence makes the heart.
The novel gives us a vivisection of unrequited love, from its first gossamer missteps to its dead weight. After her mother leaves, young Louise fills the void by focusing on her new neighbors. First she is smitten with Mrs. Richter, and then, with the lightning speed of desire, Louise's crush moves on to Mrs. Richter's son, Abel. Their first, stumbling interactions and Louise's neediness are perfectly realized with elliptical, dead-end verbal exchanges, and their ricocheting misfires replay in Louise's infatuated mind long after Abel moves away.
The novel follows the digressive stop-start of a wayward love as it grows over years and miles, interrupted by moves, reunions, and disappointments, into a sweet sickness. Disappointment becomes synonymous with love--an unquiet ghost that doesn't seek rest--and the refracted ache of this story has as strong a pull on the reader as Abel has on Louise. Instead of taking a small story and making it universal, Gowdy takes the universal--love--and makes it small, demonstrating its power as the organizing principle in people's lives. NATE LIPPENS
Frankie & Stankie
by Barbara Trapido
In Barbara Trapido's Frankie & Stankie, as in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a child comes to love language like a writer, moving from instinctive delight to a more tuned-in awareness to sudden realization of its power. Dinah de Bondt, the artist as a young woman, is no snob, though; she's as moved by the characters in Lorna Hill's girls' books as by Pride and Prejudice, from which she learns "how dialogue can lift and dance on points, how sentences can shine and crackle with concentrated energy and a sharp crystal intelligence... It's like walking on air."
And like Portrait of the Artist, Frankie & Stankie is a lightly fictionalized memoir that doesn't hew to expected novelistic shapes; this is not one of those books that waxes lyrical about the cruelty of childhood and resolves it with steely regret. Dinah is the younger daughter of liberal white South Africans, a German mother and a brilliant and strange Dutch mathematician father, growing up in post-World War II Durban. As Dinah grows, she also grows into politics, from accepting her parents' weird radical views as part of the landscape to feeling her own plain horror when an admired teacher lightly mentions seeing South African Bushmen in a cage at an agricultural show.
History and Dinah's life intersect, because that's what lives and histories do. The triumph of the Afrikaners over the British and the progressive tightening of the racial laws are narrated both as a series of distant, abstract events and very near realities, as when a classmate of Dinah's is "reclassified" as colored and disappears from the school. It is as much the story of a country as the story of a girl's artistic and political evolution; what you learn from Frankie & Stankie is what you learn from the best kind of novel. Trapido's telling is sensible and musical and enchanting. EMILY HALL
The Light of Day
by Graham Swift
Graham Swift's new novel operates much like a guided tour of Hearst Castle or the Winchester Mystery House or the catacombs of Rome. Just as visiting one of these sites inserts one into another, preexisting narrative, this book starts in medias res, on the anniversary of a murder. What murder? Well, follow me out to the garden, please, where you'll hear more.
The details about the murder at the center of this novel unfold in a kind of plot-striptease, with our narrator offering a little information about this day in question, then falling into backstory for a few pages, then lurching forward again--20 pages and he buys flowers, 100 more and he's made it to the cemetery--all of it held together by a delicate network of imagery, repeated lines or images that strike the reader as similar, if not exactly the same ("a sea of glittering yellow leaves" and then, later, leaves as "yellow as lemon peel"). This is a fantastically crafted novel--no getting around that--and Swift is meticulous in making every word or image suggest more than itself. But in the master-craftsmanship of the novel also lies a great failing: It's labored and overwrought, thick with meaning, sterile, and a tad too focused, like the worst kind of tour guide--those who go through the motions mechanically, perfectly, without accident or passion. KATE PREUSSER