I love it when this happens. The website “Short Form" found an excerpt of my story and reposted. So nice! Here’s the taste that they tasted:
From “Born Again”
After our fourth failed attempt in which Bosscat charged the front entryway and was deterred by a guard in navy blue, we headed to the Stakeout for a few rounds of Mind Erasers. Captain Rick footed the bill. Deborah was there with three guys up from Nellis; she kept stroking their shaved necks and pudgy cheeks. It had been my first venture away from Shelly in a week and I could breathe lightly; I played pool against the air force using straight geometry and Captain Rick fronted me a small smoke to share with Deborah in the alley beside the vat of grease. Come to think of it, that’s when the hotdog smell started. After our smoke, my fourth in as many days, the minutes at the Stakeout bubbled and popped quickly, leaving only the taste of Kahlua and salty sex in a crowded closet bathroom. I can just barely recall a square of yellow sunrise out a window the size of a fist.
We read it in The Collagist.
There is something insipid and annoying about the rave reviews Rachel Kushner is receiving for “The Flamethrowers,” a brilliant novel set in Nevada and New York and Italy in the 1970s. Yes, it is about art, and anarchy, and motorcycles. And yes, it features a gorgeous, young, lonely female protagonist. And people are surprised how much they love it. Surprised!?
What shocks me is the shock. Of course this book is brilliant. In person, Kushner is articulate and literate. On a panel with Jonathan Letham and Marisa Silver at the LA Book Festival, she compared today’s social novel to the work of Proust and Flaubert and Russians I’d never heard of. Yet still James Woods et al seemed stunned by her intricate prose, her ability to render historical settings so realistically. It was only this article on the New Inquiry, crafted by a clever undergrad, that points to the larger unnerving question. Is this book unexpectedly brilliant because it pairs the themes of revolution and violence with femininity and youth?
This is the difficult territory to navigate, particularly for reviewers. Can a passive character be revolutionary? Can violence be intelligent? Can a feminine character be complicit in that violence without being a victim?
Of course, the mainstream response is Gone Girl, the unfair thesis of which is “Women are Psycho." But there are far more generous novels to young female protagonists, even ones who make mistakes. In fact, ALL FOUR of the last novels I’ve read by women attempt the same combination of femininity and violence AND intellect. The contrast is difficult, unnerving, and somehow unique in each retelling.
This intense, dense novel by Ellen Ullman is an investigation of parentage: how attached are we to our blood ties? Set in the fiery San Francisco of the 1970s, a defamed professor accidentally listens in to a young woman’s therapy sessions on the other side of his office door. The young patient, a lesbian banker, wants answers about her mysterious lineage. The professor grows quickly obsessed, raking through her adoption history with a kind of scary intention. The listener is the narrator here, unreliable and insane, but the patient is the one who ventures into the very dark history of Holocaust Germany seeking answers. She is brave, smart, and willing to thwart our expectations completely. This plot is complex, and somehow manages to move forward using introspection as its driving force.
This Nevada novel is harrowing. Growing up in a trailer park outside of Reno can only be described as difficult, and yet somehow Hassman paints the degenerate setting with colour, wit, heart, and insight. Alcohol, predators, poverty, and social services all serve as antagonists. And somehow, despite the depravity, Rory Dawn, the narrator, is tough and gentle at once. She criticizes her bartender mother and needs her too; she loathes her trailer home and cares for it, both. The violence here is institutional and personal, and Rory Dawn is, despite her passivity, a brave a figure in a bleak, unforgiving setting. A poetic, perky debut.
This book is shocking, scary and totally hot. Winner of the Believer Book Award, published by Canadian risk-takers Coach House Books, this novel reads a lot like porn, or an intellectual treatise on slavery, or a coming of age novel. When a 16-year-old Canadian heads to Florida with her strained family, she encounters a dangerous pair, an African man and his pornographer wife. Their twisted love triangle turns awry when they follow her to Toronto and entrap her in a dangerous relationship. Insanely hot sex scenes are paired with terror in this commanding novel, proving that femininity and violence are too often intimate bedfellows. But our narrator here is not just a victim, rather, she is yet another example of a passive narrator who is, in her own way, revolutionary— smart, tough, and sexual— and only sometimes out of control.
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.