Striding Forward: Fall Fiction
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In fiction, the fall will be a season not of bright debuts or treacherous sophomore efforts, but of crucial mid-career landmarks.
Of course, John Updike will have a new novel, and Philip Roth will publish what might be his best novel in years, “Indignation.” And Toni Morrison will publish her slimmest novel yet, “A Mercy,” set in the 1680s.
But the real interest will be novelists who are only now peaking, who have established reputations but who are publishing their most ambitious work right now. The most anticipated of these is “Home,” by Marilynne Robinson. Ms. Robinson came out of nowhere to publish an eerie, unforgettable classic, “Housekeeping,” in 1980, but didn’t deliver her second novel, “Gilead,” until 2004. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Fans like me would have been happy to wait another 25 years for a third novel of similar quality from Ms. Robinson. But with the success of “Gilead,” she seemed to walk confidently onto a more public stage, regularly publishing essays of notable excellence. A renovated understanding of America’s intellectual history, and particularly a defense of Protestant liberalism, seemed to be her mission. I was shocked to hear she had already written a new novel, and the fact that it uses the same community as “Gilead” — centered on Midwestern preachers — sounded risky. But a highly successful excerpt in Harper’s has raised everyone’s expectations. “Home” rewards those expectations–a third, consolidating triumph for Ms. Robinson.
Roberto Bolaño is the most ardently admired foreign writer in America since W.G. Sebald, and “2666,” Bolaño’s posthumously published epic, will make a loud noise when it lands on bookshelves in November. It tells the story of a reclusive German author and his connections to the unsolved murder of hundreds of women in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, modeled on real-life Juarez. At 912 pages, Bolaño’s last book was meant to be published as five separate books, appearing at one-year intervals. But after his untimely death, his Spanish-language publishers decided to bring the book out at once, and it won every literary prize for which it was eligible. But Bolaño’s other major novel, “The Savage Detectives,” was only translated here and published last year, at 592 pages, and having “2666” now is a bit like having “Finnegan’s Wake” the year after “Ulysses.” Expect reviews to begin to probe the relation of Bolaño’s fiction to real-world events and authors.
Bolaño at first appeared to be a miniaturist, the author of mesmerizing short stories and novellas. And he was a poet before he was a fiction writer. New Directions, Bolaño’s initial publisher in English, will bring out a volume of Bolaño’s poems, “The Romantic Dogs,” also in November. The unstudied swagger and tenderness of his poems may appear to fans to have distilled, ahead of time, the essence of his longer prose works.
Readers looking for a less demanding adventure will always find it in the 19th century, and that is where Amitav Ghosh sets his new novel, “Sea of Poppies.” The first in a projected trilogy, it has been getting raves in Britain, and has been compared to the best of Sir Walter Scott. Set on the Ibis, a large sailing vessel that is bound for China and is crammed with Indians and Englishmen from all walks of life, “Sea of Poppies” looks to be a lively panorama of South Asian life at the time of the Opium Wars. Mr. Ghosh is always an excellent novelist for doing his research, and for this undertaking he has even posted a 35-page “Ibis Chrestomathy” online, defining for the would-be immersed reader the many terms — bachao, budmash, baksheesh — that spice his tale.
Language games take a saltier stance in the work of James Kelman, the Scottish novelist who considers himself a postcolonial writer. Winner of the Booker Prize for “How Late It Was, How Late,” Mr. Kelman is nonetheless considered an underdog, a mandarin vulgarian and an inspiration for popular writers such as Irvine Welsh, and his contempt for the queen’s English is reviled by some English critics. But response to his ambitious new book “Kieron Smith, Boy” has been positive, with most critics amazed by Mr. Kelman’s honest approximation of a young boy’s voice and worldview, complaining only that a child, unaided by a storyteller’s standard tricks, can become a tiresome narrator. Nonetheless, “Kieron Smith, Boy” will probably prompt readers to take Mr. Kelman more seriously than ever before.