It might seem a little presumptuous for a novelist to publish a collection of essays and reviews when he’s only published two novels, but wait a minute. Firstly, these articles – most of which originally appeared in the Dublin Review of Books and the Sunday Business Post – are good enough to guarantee us what TV advertisers called “another chance to see”.
Second, for admirers of Kevin Power’s fiction, these occasional plays were quite frequent, representing most of what he did when he should have written his second novel. (White City finally appeared in 2021, 13 years after its A Bad Day at Blackrock debut.) We know this from the opener article, The Lost Decade, which appeared in this newspaper last year.
This piece is a compelling read, explaining how Power made the – not unusual – mistake of believing that writing a novel makes you a novelist. On the contrary, it was learned slowly, it is a work that is learned by doing, and a brilliant first novel is rarely more than an example of very good luck.
So what was he spending his time doing when he should have been kneeling? Above all, read and write about it. The written world consists of what we might call 13 features and 22 shorts – essays and reviews respectively.
Most are about writers and writing, with an occasional swerve into politics. For example, Power writes with admirable ease — on second thought, it might be the only option — about the apocalypse mindset, the belief shared by 29% of Americans that an apocalyptic disaster will occur within of their lives, and which he identifies as a “secret dream of revenge”.
Or there’s an amusing, perhaps overly amusing piece (it’s like shooting a gray-eyed fish out of a barrel), about Jordan Peterson, where Power calls him “one of the most complete and the most tragically conceived ever created” – although the feature rests on the liberal consensus that Peterson is obviously stupid and does not seek to understand his celebrity success.
More representative, and generally more satisfying, is the book stuff. Power’s touchstones as a critic are mostly established monuments of literary culture, which we could divide into dead – physical and of reputation – (Norman Mailer), almost dead (Martin Amis) and contemporary (Zadie Smith ). It is no coincidence that these three are novelists whose criticism is sometimes worth more than their fiction. The power could belong to their company.
Even if you don’t agree with them, reviews are hugely entertaining – and you’ll only agree with them if you think, as Power seems to think, that most contemporary fiction isn’t very good. .
Friends deserves credit: he and his words appear throughout Power’s essays as a source and a checkpoint. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read White City, which in places was so dedicated to the Friends model that it was less of an homage than a pastiche. (Friends: “In these three brief sentences we sketch a Mahabharata of pain.” Power: “In these four sentences I sketch an Iliad of error and illusion.”)
In his longer essays, Power provides this outstanding service offered in 4,000-word articles typically found in publications called the [Location] Review of Books, to detail and extract the juice so effectively from the book in question that we no longer feel the need to read it. See for example Benjamin Moser’s biography on Susan Sontag. Spoiler: she was arguably “a terrible person”, although “it’s the hard work, if it lasts”.
Stylistically, it’s in the shorter pieces that Power shines the most. His book reviews are crisp and readable, with a knack for the killer opener. “Booker’s shortlisted new novel by Will Self is unreadable in two respects: it’s hard to read and it’s almost insanely bad.” “Annie Proulx’s new novel apparently took five years to write. It takes about five years to read too…”
Even if you don’t agree with them, they’re hugely entertaining – and you’ll only agree with them if you think, as Power seems to think, that most contemporary fiction isn’t very good. Out of 22 brief crits here, only two dodge either a skilled boost or an outright attack. (Both are by James Wood, whom Power reveres almost as much as Friends, and Sally Rooney.)
Again, these criticisms are amusing – Arianna Huffington is “an expert on nothing who has an opinion on everything” – but there’s a risk that the energy created by a chop will bring judgment in its wake. (I can’t, for example, believe that a good reader like Power really thinks Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is “religious kitsch.”)
Perhaps the best piece of all in The Written World is A Perishable Art, where Power considers the state of contemporary literary criticism, wading through the subject by reviewing reviews of the novel Acts of Despair by Megan Nolan. A review of critics – how self-indulgent is it? But who are you to complain? You just finished reading one.