In January of 2014, I rode a train from New York to Chicago, then back again. My little cabin had been provided by Amtrak: a “test run” of what later became the Amtrak Residency. In an essay for The Paris Review Daily, I tried to explain — that is, explain to myself — what trains offer writers, and, particularly, me. I arrived at the sense of containment I felt, bound by the train car and, even more so, by the little private bedroom that ensconced and held me.
What I didn’t say in that essay is that, when I began the journey, I was very, very lonely. On the overnight train trip to Chicago, I rotated between crying, reading Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (which, by absorbing and distracting me, would make me abruptly stop crying), talking on the telephone, taking notes for my essay, and frantically researching a last-minute freelance assignment. When I got to the hotel in Chicago — my plan was to stay over that Saturday night, then take another overnight train back the following day, to arrive back in New York on Monday — I called my mother, forlorn. She suggested I go home early. Instead, I took myself to dinner and people-watched. But it wasn’t until the next day that I was lifted out of my loneliness and into delight, or maybe peace.
“Flights,” by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (Riverhead), is exciting in the way that unclassifiable things are exciting—that is to say, at times confoundingly so. It is intermittently a work of fiction, but it is also an exercise in theory, cultural anthropology, and memoir. The narrator, an unnamed Polish writer with a hungry eye and an unappeasable need to travel, presents an omnium-gatherum, a big book full of many peculiar parts: there are mini-essays on airports, hotel lobbies, the psychology of travel, guidebooks, the atavistic pleasures of a single Polish word, the aphorisms of E. M. Cioran. Some of these riffs, which themselves tend toward the aphoristic, are as short as a couple of sentences. They are interspersed with longer fictional tales, set all over the world and in different epochs, as if they were found objects and Tokarczuk merely an itinerant gatherer: a Polish man, on a Croatian island for a holiday, searches for his wife and child, who have gone missing; a classics professor, hired as a star lecturer for a Greek cruise, falls on board the boat, and dies in Athens; a Russian mother, long tethered to the care of her severely sick son, walks out of her home and her life, and experiments with a new, perilous existence, riding the Moscow metro and spending time with the homeless; a German doctor, obsessed with body parts (he keeps photographs of vulvae in cardboard boxes), travels to a conference to speak on his paper “The Preservation of Pathology Specimens Through Silicone Plastication.”
At its heart, The Third Hotel is a novel about precarity — the fragile nature of memory, sanity, and how the reality we perceive constantly changes. Clare’s unease in Havana bears striking resemblance to the political state of our world now, where reality changes almost daily, twisting to fit new logic, new thought, new flesh. Financially, politically, socially, environmentally — we live in precarious times, walking along the edge of a knife. Like Clare, we must try to reaffirm the realities we can, lest we fall prey to the uncertainty that waits patiently for doubt to weaken us. Is it only a matter of time before we become like her — chasing her husband down unfamiliar streets, her thoughts aflame with the certainty of the thought: “You are dead. How could you have forgotten?”
The heavy coverage of North Korea’s missile program has managed to gloss over a crucial aspect of the story — the awful reality of nuclear war. It remains in the abstract, perhaps because any magnitude of the deaths of millions is too much a statistic to truly comprehend.
Jeffrey Lewis’s new novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, is the gut punch everyone needs. The author is one of the world’s foremost nuclear arms control experts, but instead of the usual wonk’s work, he has chosen to write what he dubs “a speculative novel,” an imagined report investigating how nuclear war happened, along the lines of the task of the real 9/11 Commission.
Ovitz is in his 70s, and claims that he’s trying to make peace with his rivals and amends for his terrible reputation. He’s written this book hoping to accomplish that, but the memoir defines him better than he might like. Who is Michael Ovitz? A killer turned would-be sage. A visionary who won’t look inward. A guy who can’t get over who he used to be.
With Norton’s wry sense of humour throughout, A Keeper is a gripping, thoughtful tale about the search for identity, belonging and self-possession.