TONE | Kirkus Reviews


A fresh perspective on an elusive element of literature.

A focused study of literary tone.

Samatar, author of The White Mosque, and Zambreno, author of The Light Room, offer a lyrical, erudite meditation on the enigmatic concept of tone in literature, drawing on responses from readers in the self-designated Committee to Investigate the Atmosphere. In the eclectic works they examine, tone can take on qualities of fog, dust, rot, snow, and light; color, temperature, or sound. The tone of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, for example, seems to their students as “gray.” The authors assert that “tone, as in sound, stands for the oral, the presence of the speaking body. It indicates what is absent from writing.” It stands, as well, for “something like a collective mood.” In a translated novel such as W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, tone becomes “something like a communication of voices.” Samatar and Zambreno consider a wide range of texts, including Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and pieces by Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Borges, and Bolaño; criticism by Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, and many others. The committee members also provide glimpses of their own lives. They are teachers; one is a nursing mother; one is furnishing a home; one has a young daughter “currently in the stage of liking to draw animals but not feeling confident as to whether she can draw animals in a realistic way.” They are tired of being quarantined and of communicating on Zoom. At a conference, they were buoyed by meeting others interested in tone. When a graduate student remarked that “a professor once told them that Tone was a window,” they were greatly pleased at the aptness of the image. “If tone concerns ecology,” the authors write, “then it is about making a space for relation, and it seems clear now that for us, in the end, our studies in atmosphere have been about making a space where certain things can be said.”

A fresh perspective on an elusive element of literature.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2023

ISBN: 9780231211215

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2023

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