Books October 2006

New Fiction

More

Alice McDermott’s sixth novel, After This, returns her readers to the famil‑ iar terrain of Irish American Long Island and, yet again, to the combination of qualities—compressed, poetic prose allied with an unblinking, William Trevor–ish sympathy for the muffled spiritual adventures of the most middling members of the middle classes—that have earned McDermott her high reputation (and prizes: she has a National Book Award and two Pulitzer nominations to her credit).

book cover

After This

by Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This novel is distinguished from its predecessors, however, by its linear, saga-like structure. Episodically, we follow two generations of the Keane family from the parental marriage, in an America still shadowed by World War II, through to the era of Vietnam and haphazard sexual freedom that the four children must negotiate. The inevitable happens: the founding marriage (an economically and emotionally immobile union that can strike the wife as “an awkward pact with a stranger”) survives rather than thrives, and the kids flutter into the world on wings that, notwithstanding their parents’ best and most loving efforts, are meagerly feathered and can only transport them so high—wings that cannot, of course, fly them beyond the reach of tragedy.

Thus the novel embodies the tension between the climactic expectations we bring to books (and, indeed, to our lives) and truth’s anticlimactic tug. Characters brighten into glowing complexity and then, trampled by the “march of time,” are all but extinguished in terrifyingly casual flash-forwards that, within the space of a paragraph, effectively write off all the writing that’s been devoted to them. This is all a measure of McDermott’s difficulty, and melancholic strength, as a writer. Her true subject is her inability, in good conscience, to fully credit the significance of the human travails she describes with such care.

Joseph O’Neill is writing his third novel, The Brooklyn Dream Game.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Ghost Trains of America

Can a band of locomotive experts save vintage railcars from ruin?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In