Okay -- "Halflead Bay" is dazzling, a 5-star story stretched some 50 pages (novellette? novella?) and I wish it had been more. I found myself immersed in the local, its own language and rhythms, the social and familial structures and struggles revealed with a confident, understated narrative structure. And writing that without razzle-dazzle dazed me, like a throwaway observation of trucks "ripping skins of water" off the roadway.
I enjoyed the last two stories, as well, yet found the other four stories merely okay, and--can we talk?--a bit aggravating. There's a kind of story that relies on literary ventriloquism, quickly sketching with occasional nuggets of another language and carefully-researched scenic and/or historical details. E.g., write a story about a kid in Vichy France: "The gendarmes
bicycled past the house, so we hid the menorah." Wait--even better -- London in the Blitz!: "The bobbies tapped their batons on our window, scowling in and pointing to the sky, reminding us to pull the shades, as the jerries
could show up at any time." Le is way, way better than this.... even as a story about Hiroshima could, if you were feeling ungenerous, fall all too squarely into this camp.
But unlike my ludicrous examples, Le is good at the ventriloquism; what bothered me about a few of these stories was that they seemed too literary
, ornately and precisely "real" in exact inverse proportion to how they moved and engaged me. That's unfair -- even the worst ("Hiroshima") was okay, and the others I'm complaining about were fine, if unexceptional. (Having just read Zadie Smith's critique of a certain kind of literary realism
I'm probably seeing evidence of her compelling complaints more than I would otherwise...) And, see above: at least one is a classic, and a couple others quite good. But when the narrative structure in the first three stories, even 'though ranging from workshop Iowa to barrio Columbia to Philip-Roth's aging-reprobate New York, is exactly the same present-past-present-past-presentclimaxsmallresolution, I get wary of trumpeting the range, too caught up in the template.
Still, recommended--you owe it to yourself to see where this guy is now, and did I say to read "Halflead Bay"? Read "Halflead Bay".