Norman Rush’s most recent novel is Subtle Bodies. (January 2016)

Very Evil Guys in Africa

Richard Mosse: Triumph of the Will, 2011; infrared photograph of Congolese soldiers standing on a Belgian commando training structure at Rumangabo military base, North Kivu, eastern Congo
The Laughing Monsters is a curious novel. Denis Johnson describes it as a “literary thriller,” which it technically is. A tale of derring-do, chicanery, and treason, it feels particularly apposite in the immediate geopolitical moment. Its main characters are parasites on the frenzy accompanying the current scramble for Africa. But …

A Utopia of Friends

Caleb Crain, Round Pond, Maine, June 2013
One of the rarer pleasures that comes with reviewing works of fiction is happily losing one’s place, falling inadvertently into reading for personal pleasure and not as a proxy for potential readers. That’s what happened to me as I got into Caleb Crain’s debut novel, Necessary Errors—a bildungsroman, very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed.… What gives Crain’s novel its appeal and force as a work of art? The question is worth asking, because certain qualities of the book stand counter to fashions prevailing in successful contemporary literary fiction.

The Evil Flies in Africa

From Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River
Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, is set in contemporary Malawi. It’s a notable creation, but one that sits oddly in the Theroux oeuvre. At this point in Theroux’s long and prodigious literary career, each new work necessarily arrives against an established backdrop displaying familiar scenes from the author’s …

Naipaul’s Mysterious Africa

A sangoma, or traditional healer, with her apprentices, Soweto, South Africa, 1981
It’s hard to be fair to V.S. Naipaul. Fans who have gotten pleasure and enlightenment from the work of this supremely gifted literary artist face a daunting prospect. Here’s a new book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, the latest of his exercises in forensic tourism in the …

Fever Dreams of Your FBI

James Ellroy, 1990s; photograph by Richard Mildenhall
James Ellroy’s astonishing creation, the Underworld USA Trilogy, is complete. Its concluding volume, Blood’s a Rover, has just been published. The three long thrillers that make up the trilogy (American Tabloid, 1995; The Cold Six Thousand, 2001; Blood’s a Rover, 2009) present a brutal counterhistory of America in the 1960s …

Vietnam: Portraits from a Tragedy

Tree of Smoke is an ambitious, long, dense, daunting novel sited at the heart of a great American evil, the Vietnam War. It’s unusual—a gripping yet essentially plotless novel consisting of intercut segments of the lives of people caught up in the war, concentrating on four American men and a …

The Devil in Africa

The world’s biggest drama is not found in Europe or the Middle East or North America—the world’s biggest challenges and dramas are found in Africa…. The way it is now in Africa cannot continue because at the moment we are getting more new crises faster than we are solving old …

Heart of Darkness

Tropic Moon (Coup de lune)[^*] is the first of Georges Simenon’s novels to be set outside Europe, and it is also among the first and best of his serious novels, those he called romans durs in order to distinguish them from the hundreds of genre fictions he produced, the romans …

The Last Word on Evil

“Snakepit” is right! Moses Isegawa, author of Abyssinian Chronicles (1998), has set his strong new novel in Uganda between 1970 and 1979, the precise period of Idi Amin Dada’s ghastly reign of terror in that country. It is more a study in ethical blankness than it is of active, absolute …

Apocalypse When?

We are our omissions. Or, to put it more precisely, we—ultimately and alas—become our omissions. At least, if we are writers of serious fiction, we run that risk. Because literary biography and criticism, already strongly inclined to forensic approaches, are now operating well beyond the familiar territory of the standard …