From The Week magazine, a digest of news from around the world —J.S.
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1. Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
Denis Johnson’s 600-page novel about the Vietnam War is “something like a masterpiece,” said Jim Lewis in The New York Times. Many of its key characters are figures we’ve seen before—a naïve CIA officer, a commander who fancies himself a god. But Johnson’s book feels essential anyway. His marvelous sentences “roll like billiard balls with weird English on them,” and his crowded, sweeping story conveys with rare power both the horror of war and the possibility of individual redemption. If particular scenes feel unoriginal, said Laura Miller in Salon.com, it’s because Johnson is intentionally borrowing from Joseph Conrad and Hollywood movies to argue that history is circling, not moving forward as the book’s American characters expect it to. The plotting of the novel underlines this point: Its “daring” double-mirror-like structure is “what makes it exceptional.”
A caveat: Johnson’s widely praised prose is annoyingly mannered and hopelessly imprecise, said B.R. Myers in The Atlantic Monthly.
2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz (Riverhead, $25)
Junot Díaz’s vibrant, playful, and panoramic first novel is “impossible to categorize,” said Susan Straight in the Los Angeles Times. Ostensibly the story of an overweight Dominican-American “ghetto nerd” who can’t get a girl, the book is, at one level, a recasting of the classic immigrant novel for a bilingual, media-obsessed generation. But there’s a satisfying, unexpected love story in it, too. The voice of Díaz’s narrator is “a triumph of style and wit,” said Oscar Villalon in the San Francisco Chronicle. Slangy, profane, and sometimes bookish, that voice belongs to a weightlifting Lothario who only gradually reveals the depths of his feelings for Oscar, for Oscar’s headstrong sister, and for their voluptuous mother. Not just “a book in which a new America can recognize itself,” Oscar Wao is “a kick-ass work of modern fiction,” a “one-of-a-kind” work.
A caveat: This isn’t the first time that critics have embraced a “fresh” voice simply because they want to feel edgy, said Carlin Romano in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
3. The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño;
translated by Natasha Wimmer
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
Nine years after its initial appearance, “the best Mexican novel of the last 50 years” finally can be enjoyed in English, said Ilan Stavans in The Washington Post. The Savage Detectives was one of two long narratives that Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño produced in the last decade before his death, at 50, in 2003. By itself, it “should grant him immortality.” The novel’s brisk first section, narrated by a 17-year-old poet who has joined a gang of literary guerillas in 1970s Mexico City, could have led into much intellectual preciousness, said James Wood in The New York Times. Instead Bolaño mixes comedy and pathos masterfully. Three of his poet gangsters are being chased by a pimp when they quit town to hunt down an obscure artistic forebear. The next 400 pages then offer scores of first-person testimony about what became of these poetry outlaws. Odd as the tale’s structure may be, it makes for a “wildly enjoyable” performance.
A caveat: Some might argue that the more concise By Night in Chile is Bolaño’s finest work, said Wood.
4. Then We Came to the End
by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, $24)
Joshua Ferris’ wry, poignant portrait of a downsizing Chicago ad firm emerged this year as “the book a hundred million people working in office hell wish they had written,” said Barbara Liss in the Houston Chronicle. Written in the first-person plural, it’s consistently “wicked and incisive” about gossipy cubicle culture and its enervating effects, said Karen R. Long in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But as the pages pass and the layoffs mount, the corporate types we meet in the opening pages “deepen into characters,” and those characters “become capable of surprising us.” A sharp office comedy would have been rare in itself, said James P. Othmer in The Washington Post. But to categorize Then We Came to the End as anything less than “an original and inspired work of fiction” is to do it “a great disservice.”
A caveat: The book “sags in the midsection” of its 387 pages, said Long.
5. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, $27)
Michael Chabon’s inventiveness can bowl you over, said John Podhoretz in The Weekly Standard. The more ambitious of his two 2007 novels creates a teeming Jewish metropolis in Alaska, packs it with eccentric details and a semi-comic history, then lets a hard-boiled detective story open into a vast international conspiracy. Without doubt, the 44-year-old Chabon now stands as “the best writer of English prose in this country, and the most interesting novelist of his generation.” Not surprisingly, his mystery plot satisfies its genre requirements completely, said Dorman T. Shindler in The Denver Post. “Like all good genre novels,” Chabon’s latest offers a “twisted, fun-house mirror gaze into the heart of our troubled times.” But because this novel also depends upon an alternative history in which the world could only find room for a Jewish state three hours north of Vancouver, it also supplies “a wild journey through the back streets of America’s past.”
A caveat: Running through the story is a deep contempt for Zionists and other Jews whose beliefs don’t match Chabon’s own, said Podhoretz.
How the books were chosen
We tabulated critics’ choices from The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the National Book Critics Circle, New York, The New York Times, Salon.com, The Seattle Times, Time, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post.