Restraint, it turns out, is a highly effective critical strategy. In Talk Stories
, her collection of New Yorker
"Talk of the Town" pieces dating from 1974 to 1983, Jamaica Kincaid writes prose as bare and bright as a light bulb. Her sentences are so clean that she seems to know exactly what she's talking about. And that's what allows these morsels of reportage to transcend their genre and become small, pointed, thrilling judgments on the world. In "Romance," a piece on a conference of Harlequin romance writers, Kincaid writes, "The women, each of whom looked freshly coiffed, sat at tables in the middle of which were large bowls of yellow and gold chrysanthemums. The women seemed very excited." There we have subjectivity in the cool guise of objectivity. On the other hand, when Kincaid is for
something, she comes right out and says it. The oddity is where these hosannas land. A knitting shop in Connecticut, for example, is "perhaps the nicest store in the world, because it is run and owned by perhaps one of the nicest women in the world--a woman named Beatrice Morse Davenport."
In her introduction, Kincaid writes: "All sentences, all paragraphs about this part of my life, my life as a writer, must begin with George Trow." The latter, who discovered Kincaid, wrote the kind of dry, clever occasional prose that flourished in the New Yorker in the 1970s and 1980s. Kincaid's Trow-like writing is the weakest, most attention-hungry in the book. "Party" is written in the style of a Nancy Drew mystery, "Two Book Parties" is written as a quiz, and "Expense Account" is just that--an expense account of a press breakfast, including the coy entry, "Cost of clothes other reporters wore to press breakfast (too complicated to make even a wild guess)." These pieces too closely resemble her mentor's work--clever but not actually, you know, funny. The structural fanciness seems cheap next to Kincaid's fine, goofily opinionated reporting. Still, after these wobbly forays into experimentation, she began to write the fiction that made her famous, so her fooling around seems to have paid off in the end. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
Fans of the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column will rejoice with the publication of Kincaid's new book, a collection of 77 short pieces she wrote at the magazine between 1978 and 1983, when it was under the stewardship of William Shawn. Preceded by an adoring foreword by former colleague Ian Frazier, the book opens with Kincaid's modest description of her evolution into a star writer, the realization of a dream she held as a young girl on the West Indian island of Antigua. Following a chance meeting with New Yorker writer George Trow, Kincaid was hired to contribute to the "Talk of the Town," which she quickly made her own with a spare, highly innovative narrative style. Approaching her assignments as "little stories in themselves," Kincaid experimented with the form and substance of each piece. From her richly detailed account of New York City's West Indian-American Day carnival to a wry tale about a late-night party at the fashionable eatery Mr. Chow's, her exceptional ability to record events and conversations never fails her. Shawn's "Talk of the Town" had many restrictions; Frazier recalls that writers couldn't use curse words or write about sex or about the journalistic topic of the week. Within these constraints, Kincaid moves through a wide variety of subjects: the slick soul of R&B pros Archie Bell and the Drells, the First International Soap Opera Exposition, Gloria Vanderbilt's regal greetings at a book signing, the manic wit of Richard Pryor, a mock expense account for a luncheon for Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman and his wife. This collection is more than a chart of Kincaid's maturation into an accomplished writer; it's an astounding display of early literary skill and youthful daring.
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