cover image Tone


Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno. Columbia Univ, $20 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-231-21121-5

“What is tone?” ask novelists Samatar (The White Mosque) and Zambreno (The Light Room) in this dull meditation. They offer up vague observations about J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, and Franz Kafka’s short stories, but conclusions remain elusive. For instance, Samatar and Zambreno examine how in Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, the omniscient narrator and other characters perceive protagonist Helga Crane as aloof when she actually feels herself to be “horribly lonely and lost.” The authors argue that “this narrative gaze, porous and at tension between deep feeling and consciousness and physical exterior,” constitutes “something of tone,” though they don’t elaborate why. The meaning of tone becomes even less clear as the volume proceeds, with the authors suggesting at various points that tone is “a room that we inhabit and are inhabited by,” “the absent presence,” and “a window one looks out of and also a window one looks into.” The authors’ acknowledgment that they “do not possess anything like a conclusive statement about these matters” frustrates, and a recurrent thread attempting to elucidate a connection between tone’s interdependent nature (“What creates the vibe of a room? The other people inside it”) and collective narrative voice (the authors use first-person plural throughout, writing that this volume “began as a desire for the collective. For the us that is us and beyond us”) remains out of focus. This perplexes. (Nov.)