Unpacking Granta 

Rushdie, Alarcón, and Ferris on Work

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GRANTA IS A LITERARY CONCERN out of London that bills itself as "the magazine of new writing." While a commitment to "new" work isn't reflected in their choice of contributors (the table of contents is packed with familiar names), a commitment to quality most certainly is—their winter issue is a ranging, thought-provoking collection of fiction, nonfiction, photography, and verse.

The issue's theme is "work," a subject that gets a largely literal treatment, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. (As Studs Terkel could tell you, people provide plenty of material when they start talking about what they do all day.) A few pieces stand out in their unconventional approach to the theme: Salman Rushdie manages to come across like a much smarter version of your drunken uncle, pontificating on the deadly sin of "sloth."

Julian Barnes' contribution, "Harmony," is a fantastic story about an 18th century doctor experimenting with the power of magnets, and of the blind girl he almost cures. It's a deliberately mannered, almost prissy little piece, a technique that only heightens the story's resonance. "The encounter between M— and Maria Theresia von P— took place in the imperial city of V— between the winter of 177- and the summer of the following year," Barnes writes. "Such minor suppressions of detail would have been routine literary mannerism at the time, but they also tactfully admit the partiality of our knowledge."

Another standout comes from Daniel Alarcón, a Peruvian writer whose "Life Among the Pirates" examines contemporary book piracy in Peru. Piracy costs the publishing industry millions of dollars, in a country where legally sold books are often priced so high that people can't afford them. Alarcón's study is fascinating and even-handed, as he investigates the many sides of the issue, from the pirates who don't read the books they're pirating, to authors who worry about declining book sales, but are secretly flattered when their books get pirated.

Notably, Granta's penultimate chapter is an excerpt from Joshua Ferris' new novel The Unnamed, an unsettling urban parable about a successful lawyer and father afflicted with a mysterious condition: He can't stop walking. Ferris will be at Powell's this week (see listing this page), reading from his novel—proof, if you needed it, of the range and relevance of this collection.

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