Few writers have watched and captured women with such conspicuous pleasure as du Maurier — the way they walk and wear coats and unscrew their earrings. The way they pin up their hair and stub out their cigarettes; the way they call to their dogs, break horses, comfort children, deceive their husbands and coax plants from flinty soil. Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations.
A strange thing about novels is how often, and strenuously, they proclaim the dangers of novel-reading. Consider the fates of our most famous bibliomaniacs. Don Quixote succumbs to delusions, debt and sundry humiliations. Emma Bovary to debt, seedy affairs and protracted death by arsenic. Catherine Morland, delusions. Mary Bennet, insufferable pedantry. Jo March — unforgivably — marriage to an insufferable pedant and surrender of all creative ambitions.
The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” They are about “the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.”
Despentes’s understanding of rape shapes the feminism in her work. Her books aren’t much concerned with the material conditions of women’s lives — there’s only glancing acknowledgment in “King Kong Theory”: “Why didn’t anyone invent the equivalent of Ikea for child care or Mac for housework?” Her true subject is women’s physical vulnerability, the way the threat of rape is central in how the sexes are oriented toward each other and how women collude with men in shrinking themselves, bargaining away their power in order to be desired. She has punk politics — a sustained commitment to rage, which she believes is leached out of women too early and too easily. They’re schooled in docility (a favorite word of hers): “Hiding our feelings . . . and not listening to yourself. Not listening to what is wrong for you and smiling when you’re just destroyed inside.”
The figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful?
Rushdie wrote that the migrant had to discover new ways to be human. These books recognize what a task that is; they recognize that migration can be, for some, an almost posthumous existence, that it awakens not only the desire to succeed but also, sometimes, the drive to extinguish what little remains of the self. One wants to praise these novels as immigrant fiction not in order to marginalize them but to pinpoint how deeply and clearly they see across borders and into character and history (“vision” and “visitor” share a Latin root; the visitor is she who has come to see, she who notices). This is the bitter paradox regarding the grousing about immigrant fiction: that a genre with such a wide sweep, with such a vantage point on the contingencies of human and cultural behavior, can be derided for, of all things, narrowness.
“The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” doesn’t offer the same well-chewed conclusion that so many novels in the genre do: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” as Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises.” It posits more interesting questions. It wants to know what remains when you’re stripped of a name and possessions, your family and country. It wants to know where the self resides. It captures an anarchic, contradictory strain of the spirit: We may brayingly announce ourselves to the world and crave its notice, but we desire freedom from the self too, the freedom to be someone else or perhaps to be no one at all. We accumulate, but we also desire to master, as the narrator does, the art of losing, to learn to drift in the knowledge that, in Bowles’s words, “Eventually everything would happen.”
You don’t read Nell Zink so much as step into the ring with her. Every sentence is a jab or feint, rigged for surprise. Every word feels like a verb. The plot leaps will give you vertigo.
Her debut novel, “The Wallcreeper,” is a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance — rude sex comedy meets environmental tract. Tiffany, our narrator, a creature of almost profound indolence, marries Stephen, her senior colleague at a pharmaceutical company, within three weeks of meeting him. Imagining marriage as a kind of early retirement plan, Tiffany hopes only for a protracted break from work that would allow her to pursue a nebulous course in self-actualization — as well as discreet sexual adventures. She follows Stephen as he is transferred from Philadelphia to Bern to Berlin; they start to get to know each other but quickly think better of it. Soon they’re into birds, Berlin’s radical activist scene and sleeping with other people. Stephen dabbles in drugs, Tiffany in eco-terrorism. They are magnificently ill suited, and they cannot be parted.