Despite every theoretical contortion to the contrary, it's what a novel tells you about the novelist that still seems to count with most readers. That's why reading a first novel is always a very different experience from reading an umpteenth.
Native Speaker (Granta, #163;9.99) is Chang-rae Lee's first novel. It is also one of the best first novels I have read in years. It deals with a community and a culture unfamiliar to most of us, and currently said to be one of the most problematic in the United States: the Korean-Americans.
Henry Park works undercover for a freelance branch of the intelligence community. Henry thinks American, is currently negotiating a rapprochement with his estranged white wife, but is still aware of ancestral tugs and a profound ambiguity of self when he is called upon to subvert from the inside the campaign of a rising Korean-American politician called John Kwang. Treachery towards a man who trusts him compounds Henry's loss of personal focus and drives him to question his entire existence.
This isn't a philosophical book, but a novel about language. For all his sophistication, Henry is forced back to the childlike lettering of new immigrants, reading flashcards with his wife's class of slow learners and disturbed kids. Special needs, but no special pleading. Wonderful stuff.
Philip Roth has put his signature to more than 20 works of fiction, which of course we all like to think aren't really fictional at all, just aspects of himself. In Sabbath's Theater (Cape, #163;15.99), he tries to move as far away as possible from the unapologetic autobiography that has been his stock-in-trade since Portnoy's Complaint. Travels far, in order to reach the same point. Mickey Sabbath is a squat, ageing puppeteer, pulling sexual and psychological strings, overseeing the multiple tragedy of a vanished wife, a dead, cancerous lover, and a shocking emotional cyst of self-loathing. This is Roth's blackest, bleakest book for years; it's also his funniest since Portnoy. It's not to be recommended to the prudish or the short-winded, but one look at life through Mickey's biliously-tinted spectacles and you're with him all the way.
Irish Murdoch does write philosophical books, and often her narrative language seems almost carelessly subordinated to some larger-scale concern.That is eminently true of her 26th book (Chatto amp; Windus, #163;15,99) Jackson's Dilemma, which even sounds like a philosophical quiddity. Unusually for Murdoch, the opening chapters have a quiet, sardonic, Austenish quality, as a wedding is prepared for that will link two feuding great homes, both reduced to the slenderest continuity of lineage. The characters are no more fully inflected than usual, suggesting types and humours rather than rounded psychology. Overseeing the wedding feast is the ageing philosopher Benet; overseeing him is the enigmatic figure of his butler Jackson, a man plucked from obscurity, but remaining obscure, a man who almost passively, fatalistically, governs the lives of others.
As with Sabbath's Theater, the voice is instantly recognizable, but this has all the marks of "late masterpiece" about it. One of her best ever.