Lately, I feel like reading books that address the fact that they’ve been written. By people. By writers, actually. Living in Los Angeles, finishing my first year of a PhD in Literature, working on a bit of writing myself, I feel like I want to write about writing all the time. But no one would find that interesting— right? No one would fucking care? Well, when these brilliant geniuses write about writing, I fucking care.
This debut novel by French genius Laurent Binet was called a masterpiece by the Rumpus. And it is! It’s plot charts the assassination of a high-level Nazi in occupied Prague. The two parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, would be heroes for generations to come; the dead Nazi, known as “The Blond Beast” or “The Butcher” is the type of terrifying Aryan psychopath Tarantino knows well. And the writer/narrator in this novel, the one putting the events down page-by-page, is totally thrilled by these characters, he’s devastated by their failure, impressed by their feats, and annoyed at himself every time he has to invent a bit of dialogue to put their mouths. A brilliant bit of writing about writing. Voted most likely to Nobel Prize.
It’s a weird kind of obsession, the “overshare.” Emily Gould is the New York genius who literally defined the over-share for Millennials. The literary editor-turned Gawker columnist- turned blog aficionado exposed her ex-boyfriend in a long and incredible New York Times Magazine cover story I have almost memorized by now. This is the book that came of it, a self-exposing nonfiction that charts the writer’s obsession with writing about herself. In the article, she admits, “It’s easy to compare the initial thrill of evoking an immediate response to a blog post to the rush of getting high, and the diminishing thrills to the process of becoming inured to a drug’s effects. The metaphor is so exact, in fact, that maybe it isn’t a metaphor at all.” In the book, she watches herself “rise and fall and rise” again using the melancholic essay as her medium instead of a blog. Her writing has that same addictive quality as her oversharing does. It feels a little scummy and totally pleasurable to read about her waitressing/dating/writing for Gawker/being 20 in New York days. Voted most likely to screenplay.
OK, this book feels old because it was written in the 90s. But Jonathan Dee knows something about New York, about writers, about emergency, about fame, and about how to flesh out characters so desperate they would do anything. During a (Rodney King-like) race riot in New York, a white guy is pulled from his car and beaten by a mob. Turns out the white guy is a failed novelist, the mob is led by a black man caught unawares by the violence— and each has a publishing company after them for the rights to their ‘stories.’ Dee’s voice is natural and assured, he deftly takes us through each player in the game: the lawyer, the film producer, the junior editor, the wife of the writer, the failed poet friend, the mother of the accused. But mostly, he takes us through the writer’s writing— how do you write a random act of violence? How the hell do you write that book? If you’re Dee, you write a novel about a memoir and you do it brilliantly. Voted most likely to win a Pulitzer late in life.
Not all speculative fiction is about space stations, rogue plagues and desertification. The ways in which we fictionalize the future depends on how we interpret the present. Margaret Atwood points to environmental meltdown. Orwell predicts a dictatorial thought-reading. Huxley leans hard on pharmaceutical solutions to doldrums problems. Terrifyingly, most of those predictions have come true— if only in the comparisons we draw to global warming, Facebook and anti-depressants. But when we read these novels, it’s hard to see our society in their over-wrought, depleted worlds.
Perhaps more relevant, and more difficult to write, are the small-scale dystopias, the novels that place only part of society in the future while the rest remains resolutely in the present. These three novels write a kind of future we could all predict, if only in its likeness to today.
Jonathan Letham’s Chronic City focuses on a former child-star Chase Insteadman and his stoner pal Perkus Tooth as they negotiate Manhattan’s perpetual state of crisis. A tiger is terrorizing the town. A parallel Sim-version of the world is occupying too much time and money. And Chase’s finance is trapped aboard a space station, paralyzed by Chinese space mines. The obsession with Marlon Brando is real, the medical-grade marijuana feels real, but the winter is endless, the snow lingers through August, the tiger turns out mechanical, and the millionaire mayor is terrifyingly behind it all. This novel attempts a version of the future that isn’t a warning call, so much a view into a counter culture that could already exists on the island that is NYC.
Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel Gods Without Men was reviewed by Daddy-of-them-all Doug Coupland in the New York Times. Coupland calls it Translit, genre of fiction that effortlessly pinballs between locations and eras as if on a smart phone of its own, accounting for our ability to synthesize multiple characters and story lines as easily as our fingers scroll a screen. In Kunzru’s world, we only need a location to tether us to the book; the narrative drifts around three pinnacles in the desert. The pinnacles serve as witnesses as burnt out London pop stars, Mormon miners, Franciscan monks and Iraqi war simulators interact with the desert in their own destructive ways. This novel is dystopian only in its intense vision of the present: the autism, the talk shows, the crystal meth and the general loneliness that consume us so deeply today.
Lauren Groff’s novel of past-present-future begins beautifully as a utopian novel— a small caravan of hippies stop on a river bank to establish a colony. A commune is born and named and nurtured in the era after the summer of love. Gardens are planted. A dilapidated mansion is renovated. Small but observant Bit is the first child born on the farm dubbed “Arcadia’ by its leader, and he is the best protagonist to witness the groups rise and inevitable fall. By Groff’s third section, which takes place in a near future, we witness the shattering effect that a community has on its most dependent members. A gorgeous, lyrical novel that is only dystopian in its thwarted, pitiful version of utopian gone wrong.
All things that were created during the year of the Dragon (2012) are magical amazing/still interesting to me. These four books, all from 2012, rocked seriously hard. CONSUME THEM ALL!!!!!
How perfect can you be Heidi Julavits? I mean, besides teaching at Columbia and marrying your super-smarty Ben Marcus and looking bomber in all author photos. You’ve got this cover??? This only proves your power as a super-genius that everyone wants to emanate/ball. This novel is also super hilarious and heartbreaking, about a psychics (living in a community not unlike a writers retreat) before they spiral into the totally wacky. Huge imagination. Voted best hair.
Jess Walter, I understand the desire to write something people will get behind, why after the merely moderate buzz over “the Financial Lives of Poets” you’re hitting us with the movie shit— Liz Taylor and Richard Burton shooting Cleopatra in Rome and the cute little starlet he’s knocked up hiding out in a picture perfect cinque terre town that is glazed in hot sun and long legs and swarthy Italian fisherpeople… I like this. I’m not going to write it, but I’ll see the movie. Voted most likely to succeed.
Are you into a terribly sad Jewish suburbs after all of your friends have gone to college and you left are alone to troll Whole Foods for MILFS and foie gras? What if you listen to your only friend, an elderly actor in a wheel-chair who may not just be “giving you” all of that free viagra and crystal meth? What if you sleep with the most depressed people on your block? Then imagine 30 different endings. Tadum! Adam Wilson wrote a filthy, funny novel a bit like Sam Lipsyte’s entire oeuvre, which I’m sure you’ll read in five seconds flat. Voted mostly likely to stay friends.
Junot Diaz is a puto who writes like he’s getting in serious shit from an ex-novia, like he’s got his balls in a vice, like he can’t always hide behind his school smarts, his MIT, his McArthur, his mega-huge Oscar Wao, his sucias, his huevones who cheat on their wives like everyone else, he can’t even hide behind his mother, or his hot neighbour, or the sweet old Dominicanas who are stuck cleaning the hospital sheets of New Jersey— This collection of stories is proof that Junot Diaz (or at least his writing) can still break a heart or two. Voted slut of the year, nerd of the year, culo of the year, genius.
May has been grim in Scotland: sideways rain, inside-out-umbrellas, hours in the library hiding from the drizzle outside. It has given me the opportunity to read, and read, and read. Of the dozens of books I gobbled up this past month, there were some winners. In order of very best to kind of great:
HOPE: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander is my kind of hysterical. For one, it is totally cringe-worthy: a paranoid Jewish father who finds Anne Frank, alive and geriatric, squatting in his attic. Auslander’s protagonist is riddled with Holocaust guilt; he simply never suffered enough, despite his mother’s PTSD from a war that ended before she was born. This novel is bitingly funny, crisply rendered, and impossible. Loved it.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a rich, sensual, serious novel about a small Mississippi family facing Hurricane Katrina. Like most National Book Award winners, this is a coming-of-age story; the 15-year-old protagonist is poor, pregnant, and desperate for the smallest sign of tenderness. That said, the girl-narrator is strange and bright, and brings Greek myth and a fierce setting into her narrative without a trace of self-pity. Gorgeous stuff.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion (pictured above) was not an easy read. This is a memoir about grief, whereby Didion, now nearing the end of her writing career, meditates on motherhood, mourning a dead daughter, and her own fragility. Harrowing accounts of waking up on the floor bleeding out of her head and watching her daughter die in four different ICU facilities are stitched together to fashion a kind of dreamy meditation. This book is slender and cryptic, but a testament to a Joan Didion’s prowess as memoirist numero uno.