Imagine: a hyper-intelligent book about hyper-intelligent people that still tells a real story, an engrossing, funny, unique, and moving story about the perils and pleasures of raising the young into rounded human beings. No novel so searingly indicts the assumption that some studies are too advanced (this book makes learning ancient Greek seem shockingly approachable), yet no novel captures the loneliness of these introspective pursuits so well. After a decade out-of-print, Helen DeWitt’s magnum opus has returned to shelves, and the cult adoration it’s accrued over the years is wholly earned.
Any time a foreign author makes a splash in the U.S., you always think, "There has to be more where that came from." If Han Kang's The Vegetarian broke your heart in a deep way, as it did to the hearts of so much P&P staff, then which book will open up the richest path into the rest of contemporary Korean literature? Try Recitation by Bae Suah, a collection of cyclical episodes in the life of Kyung-hee, a globe-trotting actress. Her book makes a serendipitous pairing with the latest Han Kang release, Human Acts: both told in seven loosely interlinked episodes, both brought to English with the same translator's delicate touch, both haunted by central characters that become increasingly spectral presences as the pages turn. Recitation is the shaggier book by far, but its drifting nature finds a permanent layer under your skin. From its first page, it's a book about the feeling (if not the fact) of homelessness, about eternal wandering in search of something new. Whether the characters are from Korea or Japan, Vietnam or Austria, they are always meeting in waystations: theaters, boarding houses, Starbucks. Calling this "alienation" doesn't capture the warmth that builds throughout the book, made from large chunks of human conversation, human storytelling – talking about the little things in such fanciful detail that they suggest the big things. It leaves you wanting to know more, to see how the many pieces of Kyung-hee's life fit and don't fit together. The only solution is to dive back into the book from the beginning.
This pocket-sized essay from Ben Lerner reads much like his fiction: effortlessly beguiling, even when touching on topics that threaten to appeal to the most esoteric appetites. The subject should be obvious from the title, but the argument is far more egalitarian than it sounds. In his last novel, 10:04, Lerner hoped that his blend of memoir and fiction could become a kind of poetry, and this new writing only furthers his pious but pragmatic hopes for the form and for humanity. As much as he’d contest it based on his arguments here, I’d call his writing one new manifestation of Walt Whitman’s spirit, yearning for work can speak for the vastness of the present moment and finding that art’s inevitable failure to do so doesn’t truly diminish it.