Arguments against free will go back millennia, but the latest resurgence of scepticism has been driven by advances in neuroscience during the past few decades. Now that it’s possible to observe – thanks to neuroimaging – the physical brain activity associated with our decisions, it’s easier to think of those decisions as just another part of the mechanics of the material universe, in which “free will” plays no role. And from the 1980s onwards, various specific neuroscientific findings have offered troubling clues that our so-called free choices might actually originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even much longer, before we’re first aware of even thinking of them.
The narrator is familiar: a sharply observant writer in middle age. The themes are similar, too: art, literature, travel, fate, houses, physical beauty and its perceived fading, and parenthood, described here as “the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny.”
But much is different. Unlike the Outline novels, “Second Place” tells a single story and takes place in one household; it’s about a limited set of characters. More notably, this book has a swirling hothouse quality that’s new.
“Whereabouts” is like a photographer’s contact sheet. As our eyes move across the images, sensitive to each reframing, a loose narrative emerges of an Italian woman at a crossroads in her life. But narrative is not what this book is after. Each entry, most only a few pages long, stands on its own; any could be removed without leaving an absence. Or, as the writer puts it when discussing her therapist: “As if each session were the first and only time we met. Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.”
The joy of a Grisham novel is turning the pages as the plot propels you forward, so I’ll avoid revealing too much. Suffice it to say “Sooley” follows the familiar Grisham playbook — short chapters, plenty of foreshadowing, and a rapid-fire prose that’s easy to read and hard to put down.
The science is unsettled. Which is pretty much the point of Silber’s novel.
It’s in this way that Lebo carves out a thrillingly new, melancholy kind of food writing, which is alert to the postures of the food writer and less certain about the characteristic “knowing voice” and “imperative mood”. Her book is lyrical, wise, and crammed with knowledge, but it is also unafraid to stray into the spaces of hesitant reflection; the logic is associative, even as the traditional hallmarks of good food writing – the precise rendering of smell, taste and texture – also prevail.