Elaine Blair is a regular contributor to The New York Review. (June 2015)

Looking After the Knausgaards

Karl Ove Knausgaard, New York City, 2012
Time is the medium of Karl Ove’s intimacy with his children, and time, as expressed in number of pages read, is the medium of our intimacy with Karl Ove. We reach the newly translated fourth volume having spent many hours in Karl Ove’s company as a husband and father, as a young adult, an adolescent, and a child.

‘The Smallest Possible Disaster’

Félix Vallotton: Cinq Heures or Intimité, 1898
You can read Jenny Offill’s new novel in about two hours. It’s short and funny and absorbing, an effortless-seeming downhill ride that picks up astonishing narrative speed as it goes. What’s remarkable is that Offill achieves this effect using what you might call an experimental or avant-garde style of narration, one that we associate with difficulty and disorientation rather than speed and easy pleasure.

Hilton and Love

Hilton Als, New York City, 2005
Hilton Als is a theater critic for The New Yorker, but the two books he has written are not simply, or even primarily, works of criticism. His characteristic form is a kind of essay in which biography, memoir, and literary criticism flow into one another as if it were perfectly …

Love Objects

Rooney Mara as Catherine in Spike Jonze's film Her

Spike Jonze’s film Her is a story about machines and humans and human-like machines. Skin is important. The unnatural appearance of Catherine, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the hero, makes her seem something other than a flesh-bound fellow human with Theodore.

The Making of Susan

Moe Angelos as the young Susan Sontag in the play Sontag: Reborn, with an image of Angelos as an older Sontag at right, projected onto the scrim in front of the stage
Like many avid readers, Susan Sontag had a lifelong habit of keeping lists of books that she planned to read in the near future. One of these lists appears early in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963*; at age fifteen, in 1948, she names seventeen titles that are “just a …

Single Women and the Sitcom

Mindy Kaling, right, creator and star of The Mindy Project

Because of the conditions of their production, sitcoms tend to have something in common with life itself: no one knows in advance when they’re going to end. The full arc of a TV series is not usually mapped out in advance, the show is subject to abrupt cancellation, and there is no artistic consensus on how to handle its conclusion even when writers know that the end is coming; a television series might have an elaborate finale or simply finish out a given season without fanfare. All this gives most sitcoms a certain sense of indeterminacy—we’re bound for no obvious destination—that also applies to the characters’ relationships. As long as each episode has its own tidy, reassuring little ending, audiences tolerate a great deal of open-endedness when it comes to the hero or heroine’s romantic life.

A New Brilliant Start

David Foster Wallace, New York City, 2003
That clichés contain truth might not seem like a startling observation in itself, but it’s a startling thing for a novelist of the first order to make a point of telling us—especially this particular novelist. You don’t have to read Infinite Jest for very long to appreciate Wallace’s sophisticated grasp of all kinds of colloquial, visual, pop cultural, and literary clichés. In one offhand clause he can disassemble some familiar phrase or image, draw attention to it, show us its component parts, implicitly chuckle at its silliness, yet also acknowledge its inescapable importance as a mental reference point for his readers.

American Male Novelists: The New Deal

John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1985
While spending several weeks reading and writing about Michel Houellebecq, a loose thought kept rattling around in my mind.* In American novels, we have a tacit set of conventions for writing about romantic losers. Houellebecq squarely violates them. This is one reason that The Elementary Particles (2000), his first …

The Loves of Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in Girls
There are many reasons to love Lena Dunham’s HBO television show Girls, and some of them have nothing to do with sex, but I’m going to begin with the sex scene in the second episode that most critics have mentioned and described with some amount of repugnance or lament. It’s one of the most complicated and intelligent sex scenes I’ve seen. The fact that it’s part of a funny, winsome, half-hour television show makes it all the more astonishing and exhilarating a thing to see.

Great American Losers

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world. The loser’s worst—that is to say, most important—problems are with women. His relationships are either unrequited or, at best, doomed. He is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.

Coming Attractions

Nicholson Baker, South Berwick, Maine, 2008
The wit, the utopian vision, and the pornographic utility of House of Holes all arise from the same fact of its fictional universe: no one is ever really shocked. Obscene declarations of desire are met with unsurprised calm. Sex is never so far out of mind as to be startling or unwelcome. A man, for example, sees a woman browsing in a novelty shop and begins to pant. “When I see someone with a certain kind of beauty,” he tells her, “I can come just looking at her. Would you mind?” Mind? “No, go ahead…. I’ll just be browsing around the store,” she replies.

Post-Soviet Pastoral

St. Petersburg, 2008

You often hear the Putin era described as one of exhaustion and resignation on the part of the Russian electorate. Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika, about the fall of the Soviet Empire as recalled by three men and two women now in their forties, fairly pulses with depressed resignation—pulses weakly, of course, resignation not being much of a stimulant. The film, which follows the five Muscovites as they go to work, feed their children, watch TV, and mull over their memories of the late eighties and early nineties, culminates on the day of a presidential election: it is May 2008 and Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor, is about to be elected president. None of the interviewees is in suspense about who will win, none of them believes it is a fair election, none of them, as far as we can tell, votes for Medvedev, and at least two of them don’t vote at all.

The Big Joke on You

The bad news about our near future, as Gary Shteyngart imagines it in Super Sad True Love Story, is that young people do not read books. At most they might have “scanned” some European classic “texts” in college; now they only read the data that pop up on their smartphones.

The Short Happy Life of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov

From the recent American edition of Oblomov; photograph by Stephen Parker
Ivan Goncharov worked on Oblomov for about ten years, from the late 1840s until 1858, but a reader is left with the impression that the hero was born to him in a single vision, and that the five-hundred-plus pages of the book are an attempt at novelistic elaboration of what …

Axler’s Theater

Philip Roth, Connecticut, 1979
One of the rare funny moments in Philip Roth’s recent novel Everyman (2006) takes place when the unnamed hero visits his parents’ graves in Newark. His health has been poor, his colleagues and friends have been dying, and though he has no reason to think that his own death is …

I Am Not Steve Martin

John Haskell, Long Island City, New York, July 2008
John Haskell’s new novel has what seems a comic premise. A man meets and courts a woman while pretending to be the comedian Steve Martin. Pretending is perhaps the wrong word; Jack, the narrator, is not assuming a fraudulent identity, but simply imagining, when he goes on dates, that he …

In Search of the Outrageous Past

Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel begins in a state of doubt. One of its main characters, Vladimir Brik, is struggling to write a novel about Lazarus Averbuch, a nineteen-year-old Jewish immigrant in Chicago who was killed by the chief of police in 1908 on suspicion of being an anarchist. But Brik …

From the Other Shore

Alyosha Kamyshinskiy came to Pittsburgh from Leningrad some years ago with his wife, two teenage daughters, an advanced degree, and a love of art museums and “gentle poetry” (“a sleigh, a moonlit trail, the melancholy trot of a troika”). In America he put together a fragile life for the family …

New World Blues

For much of the twentieth century, Russians, especially those living in cities, tended to have small families. Even during the relative political and economic stability of the Brezhnev era, space and food and goods remained scarce. Many families had only one child, few had more than two, and even those …