My 2017 in Reading
I’m always struck by the passage of time, how fast it moves as we age. I know it’s a trite observation, that it’s universal, especially as years come to a close. In middle school, the time between November and March (Spring Training) used to seem eternal, generations passing under a dismal, gray winter’s sun. Now I look up from my laptop and 2017 is over. Wasn’t I just doing this list?
At the end of 2015 and 2016, I wrote my year-end reading lists — the books I had read, my brief thoughts, and a grade assigned. I am going to do this once again, though I am a bit more pressed for time now and my commentary may run on the thin side. Running for office is thrilling, but robs you of all kinds of moments you once took for granted. I hope, against the odds, to read as much next year.
What I love most about doing a list like this is igniting discussion. I am not arrogant enough to presume I have any particular literary insights that are galvanizing to people. Rather, what I think lists like these do — like any lists on a range of subjects — is gather a community around to share their own experiences with books. As the smartphone age continues to shred our attention spans, reading only becomes more important. The act of picking up a book, the discipline and energy required to marshal your imagination and shut out the screen, the decision to embrace the solitary mind —these are necessary skills for our chaotic age. We can be our best selves with a book in hand. We are patient and reflexive. Our fingers are off the Twitter triggers. We are thinking.
For the journalists out there — and those aspiring to enter the field — my advice is always to read. I made myself a half-decent writer by reading. I read and I wrote. Fiction in particular, but read whatever strikes your fancy. I’m not as much of a book snob as you think. If your nose is in a book, you have my respect.
This year, I read 30 books, heavier on fiction than nonfiction, which is typical for me. My favorite new writer I came across was Jarret Kobek. I didn’t read any truly terrible books — or books I assessed terribly — but Paul Auster’s latest tested my patience. Without further ado, here’s my list, in the order of when I read the books, from January until now.
The Vegetarian- Han Kang (B/B-) I find it hard to judge books in translation. No matter how good the translator is, there is always the fear, for me at least, that something is being lost: a spark that only the native, reading in the tongue he or she knows, can divine. So Han Kang’s novel, which is now an international sensation after appearing in her native South Korea, didn’t haunt me in the way it was perhaps intended to, though its indictments of an unfeeling, and often misogynistic, culture rang true. One day, after a horrific dream, a young woman stops eating meat, enraging her husband and family. She withdraws from them as they pressure her to resume her old ways; she ends up in a mental hospital. As others lose their humanity around her, she too distances herself from the vibrant flesh and blood body she once had.
Hillbilly Elegy- J.D. Vance (B) I fully expect J.D. Vance to run for office someday. He’s all of 33, he’s written a much gabbed about bestseller, and he’s conveniently relocated to his Ohio home — great for Republicans with sympathetic liberal followers! —to build a life. I like Vance and there’s plenty to respect about his memoir growing up poor in Ohio and West Virginia. Think pieces have been penned on Hillbilly Elegy galore, so I won’t do too much of an exegesis here. What I’ll say is that Vance is a breezy writer who makes many apt observations about the shame of poverty, cultural failings, and why progressives can’t write off the people who voted for Donald Trump. East and West Coast elites sneered at their livelihoods and politicians of both parties left them behind. That being said, Vance, as a conservative, severely discounts the role an effective, robust safety net can play in alleviating poverty. He is right that family matters. But so does access to free healthcare, good schools, fair housing, and meaningful work. The capriciousness of capitalism helped hollow out his hometown. Culture alone doesn’t tell the story.
Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus- Matt Taibbi (B-) Taibbi, despite recent controversy, is an important journalist on the left, and he comes from the no bullshit, no false balance school I’ve always admired. A strong Taibbi column whirls and crackles, sending the reader into fits of laughter and rage. The collection of columns he wrote about Donald Trump, published to coincide with his inauguration, simply doesn’t function as a coherent, standalone collection, despite the obvious thematic linkage. Read in succession, the columns belabor the same points and the present tense, employed repeatedly, loses it effectiveness in book form. Some of Taibbi’s over-heated declarations — that Trump’s ascension meant the destruction of the Republican Party — haven’t held up well.
The Plot Against America- Philip Roth (B/B+) Roth will always be my father’s writer, not my own, but he is an unquestioned master when operating at his peak, blending humor and pathos and sparkling language like few other writers of the English language. As a fellow Tri-State Area kid and Jew, I’ve been naturally drawn to him, and novels like Sabbath’s Theater and The Counterlife remain touchstones. Like many Americans, I first read The Plot Against America after Donald Trump was elected president. The parallels are easy to see. In 2004, Roth published the novel, an alternative history of his childhood where the celebrity aviator (and audacious anti-Semite) Charles Lindbergh is elected president of the United States, defeating Franklin Roosevelt as he seeks a third term. The novel is written in the barer style of Roth’s later work; a narrator looks back at his dark childhood, relaying in stark detail how Lindbergh allies himself with Nazi Germany, emboldens anti-Semites at home, and begins to relocate Jews to rural areas to “Americanize” them. From Lindbergh’s sudden rise to power — he seizes the nomination, against all sober prognostication, at the 1940 Republican Convention — to the way he leads, through the force of personality, a populist movement that has its origins in rural America, there’s more than enough here to send a shiver or five down the spine of any reader in Trump’s America. The Plot Against America suffers from a somewhat implausible deus ex machina that (spoiler alert!) returns America to its pre-Lindbergh status quo, and I couldn’t help but feel the book was rushed to its conclusion. If you want to read a more unnerving, and ultimately effective, novel about 1940s America, I suggest Roth’s final book, Nemesis.
Amiable With Big Teeth- Claude McKay (N/A) Read my Village Voice review
Tender is the Night- F. Scott Fitzgerald (B+) Like a lot of kids in high school English class, I was intrigued by The Great Gatsby. It never reached the pantheon of favorite books, but I’ve been haunted by Fitzgerald’s life and the lost world he conquers, a New York that was younger and rowdier and on the cusp of a greater magnificence — and abject disaster. There are a fair amount of critics who consider Tender is the Night, the final novel completed during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, his best. I haven’t consumed enough Fitzgerald to judge. You see and feel Fitzgerald’s psychic pain here, in a novel that can be disjointed, bloated, and beautiful all at once, summoning his years of youthful paradise on the French Riviera, his downfall with Zelda, and an affair with an adolescent actress that brought him another moment of fun, not peace. Sadness drips from each page. You know, as Fitzgerald slogged through this manuscript over the course of a decade, he was aware of all he was losing — his money, his talent, his wife’s sanity. He did not know he was guaranteed literary immortality. He only knew he was once the most celebrated writer in America, now grappling with the ghost of his glittering former self, his days soaked with alcohol. Six years after the novel’s publication, he would be dead.
Against Everything- Mark Grief (A-) I had missed Grief in n+1, since I only became a subscriber this year and mostly knew the literary magazine from reputation alone. This collection of essays grapples with culture high and low, and makes clear Grief is a youngish intellectual worth taking seriously. On Octomom, the absurdity of gym workouts, Thoreau, and Radiohead, Grief is incisive and shockingly fluent, a writer with striking range. His indictments of America’s 21st century melding of capitalism and spectacle, where excess alone becomes a virtue, are handed down by a critic who has clearly considered his arguments with great care. What’s refreshing about Grief, when you get past the collection’s intentionally provocative title, is how humanistic a writer he actually is, how he can shed easy cynicism for a more meaningful probing of the basic assumptions that undergird existence today: Grief is for many things — a saner government, a truer individuality, and liberation from absurdity.
Living Well is the Best Revenge- Calvin Tomkins (B+) Reading Tender is the Night made me curious about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life and the setting that inspired the novel — a glamorous couple’s artistic retreat on the French Riviera, where a great party was always waiting. Tomkins, who is still alive, profiled Sara and Gerald Murphy for the New Yorker in 1962. The Murphys are mostly forgotten today, but were integral to the careers of Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — they were mentors and confidants and fascinating characters in their own right. Living Well is the Best Revenge takes Tomkins’ wonderful profile, completed several decades after the most luminescent period of the couples’ lives, and extends it into a slight book. Readers of the profile won’t find much more in book form, but that’s okay. Sara and Gerald Murphy were wealthy American expatriates, artistically inclined and longing for adventure. They settled in Paris in the 1920s, making the French Riviera fashionable and cultivating a social circle of artists and writers of dizzying stature: intimates included the aforementioned novelist heroes of the Lost Generation as well as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Cole Porter, and Archibald MacLeish. Nicole and Dick Diver, the protagonists of Tender is the Night, were modeled on Sara and Gerald Murphy, though the characters later morphed into tormented reflections of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (The Murphys were far more beloved than the Divers, “masters in the art of living,” in the words of Dos Passos.) Gerald Murphy was a quietly brilliant Modernist painter in his own right, though he stopped producing art after the death of two young sons. The couple eventually returned to America. Speaking with Tomkins, Sara summed up their glittering era best. “There was such affection between everybody. You loved your friends and wanted to see them every day, and usually you did see them every day. It was like a great fair, and everybody was so young.”
All the Light We Cannot See- Anthony Doerr (B/B-) There are novels that unsettle me because they feel written for the screen — you can almost imagine, in real-time, how the words were intended for a screenplay to be sold to Scott Rudin for a barge of money. I don’t think that was actually Doerr’s intentions with his Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling novel, the type of smashing critical and commercial success that doesn’t come along very often. A historical novel set in Vichy France, All the Light We Cannot See follows two protagonists: a blind French girl hiding during a bombing and a young German soldier — a highly intelligent, well-meaning mechanic who is forced to fight for the Nazis — and twines the two threads in heartrending fashion. Doerr is a fluid writer who knows how to write a page-turner. At times, his use of symbolism and motif feels heavy-handed, and his book feels too much like a screenplay. We have scenes, but not always depth.
The Handmaiden’s Tale- Margaret Atwood (B) There’s not much I can say about The Handmaiden’s Tale that hasn’t be said already. 2017, Year One of Trump, made this 1985 dystopian novel by the pride of Canada the book of the year, and it’s easy to see why. When Atwood imagined a theocracy where women are forbidden from reading and writing and exist simply to bear children, she was extrapolating on the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Untied States. Haunting and well-paced, Atwood’s novel captures the terror of women imprisoned in cultures predicated purely on misogyny. Like The Plot Against America, the novel doesn’t quite seem to know how to end itself, and it left me wanting on the last page. I won’t give anything away. Despite Mike Pence’s best attempts, we aren’t quite Gilead — though plenty of repressive regimes around the world are doing their best to outdo Atwood’s nightmare.
Political Fictions- Joan Didion (A-) I haven’t read as much Joan Didion as I would have liked. No Slouching Towards Bethlehem, no White Album. I’ve come across her essays over the years and learned well enough to respect the legend, but it wasn’t until reading her collection of political essays — first published in 2001 — that I understood just how sharp her eye was for the absurdities of American life. Didion’s essays here are from the 1980s and 1990, covering the breadth of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years, and little of it, remarkably, is dated. Highly recommended is “Insider Baseball,” her account of the 1988 presidential election, which flays the worst conventions of campaign reporting. Didion, as a political outsider taking on D.C.’s incestuousness, understood what plagues the culture most: journalists too infatuated with access and power, breathlessly cataloging palace intrigue that has little relevance to the working class folk beyond Capitol Hill; pundits obsessing over the horse-race; and these insiders, knowingly or not, colluding to shape the reality of politics for the masses, a stage play with “winners” and “losers” observed at a safe remove. Politics is a game only for those who have nothing at stake.
4 3 2 1- Paul Auster (B-) The grade may be generous, but is its own ode to Auster’s ambition here. 200 pages in, I was ready to build an altar to Auster, or at least tell a lot of people I was reading a really remarkable book. An autobiographical novel with Auster’s usual existential flourishes, 4 3 2 1 asks a rather simple question: what if? What if you grew up somewhere else? What if a random accident horribly altered your life forever? Auster’s stand-in is Archie Ferguson, another New Jersey Jew born in 1947. In successive chapters, Archie’s life evolves in four distinct ways. There are four Archies, four universes — in one, he’s a young baseball star, in another an aspiring poet, in yet another his father is dead, and so on. 4 3 2 1 takes on the tumult of the 1960s head on, and we’re thrust into the apartments of student radicals, shaggy bohemias, avant-garde cinema, and all those things that matter to erudite Baby Boomers Looking Back. Auster is often likened to contemporaries like Roth and Don DeLillo, but I don’t think that’s right. The trouble with this novel, which clocks in at nearly 900 pages, is that it too often devolves into plot summary and the prose, increasingly unadorned to the point of tepidness, can’t sustain such an effort. Archie’s various lives no longer feel lived. An omniscient narrator bloodlessly recites facts from afar, and we’re left to peer out at these four lives and wonder, eventually, how much we really care.
Startup- Doree Shafrir (B) This satire of media and tech culture, which was released earlier this year, may age especially well in the era of #metoo. Shafrir, an editor at Buzzfeed, is a New York Observer alum like me, and she has that gimlet eye for satirizing a world I know too well. Any current or former 22-year-old — overworked and underpaid, of course — will instantly recognize Shafrir’s New York, where a tech reporter desperately chasing clicks stumbles upon a sex scandal at the hottest startup in town. Shafrir ably portrays the instability, narcissism, and not-so-subtle misogyny of the tech world, and dives headfirst into a digital media company that isn’t much better. Shafrir’s novel can feel a bit too tidy at times — events aren’t quite allowed to unspool, a conclusion is rushed — but these are quibbles in a bright, energetic debut work.
October- China Miéville (N/A) Read my Village Voice review
Meet Me in the Bathroom- Lizzy Goodman (B+) When I arrived in college in 2007, I knew almost nothing about music. Sure, I listened to a Simon and Garfunkel greatest hits album on repeat (still a fan!) and trawled for Beatles songs on YouTube (still a fan — but those songs have long been removed), but my awareness of music was severely limited. A high school friend of my freshman year roommate wore a Velvet Underground t-shirt and I wondered why he liked having a banana going over his stomach. Two of my best friends in college, both musicians, told me about rock n’roll bands out there that didn’t even exist on the fringe of my consciousness. They started with the Strokes. I still remember that first winter break, looping songs like “Someday” and “The Modern Age” and “You Only Live Once.” A new world had been opened to me — of electrifying New York rock n’ roll that owed plenty to the 60’s I understood better, but was thoroughly modern. Lizzy Goodman, a longtime music journalist, published an oral history this year of that once brave new world: the rock scene of New York in the first decade of the 21st century. Goodman interviews members of bands like the Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and tracks down just about every other major and minor player of the time. You’ll get your share of insane rock stories, the on the road bacchanals, the drugs and sex any rocker invariably stumbles into. But Goodman’s interviews create wistful collage of an era that, in terms of mere years, wasn’t very long ago but can already feel like it happened in another lifetime — when the internet was new, no one had a cellphone, the music industry hadn’t cratered, and New York City, in the ashes of 9/11, was a far more fragile place, foreboding and cheap, bearing little resemblance to the gentrified colossus to come. Artists could snag apartments in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, easily find DIY spaces to perform their music, and party without the intrusion of social media. I found myself wishing I was a little older, getting the chance to wander into a Strokes show at the Mercury Lounge and hear the tunes that were then so new, so young.
Couples- John Updike (B+/A-) History may not be kind to the midcentury, great white male novelists who loomed so large over that age. Heroes of their day, many of them are now increasingly forgotten. How many Norman Mailer books make a high school or college syllabus? How many literary mavens today call William Styron their favorite author? In this class, at some point, may go John Updike, rapturously celebrated when he was alive, less venerated in death. Updike was a marvelous prose stylist, though I’ve concurred with detractors who’ve wondered what these meticulous, intimate descriptions amounted to, if it were all some degree of window dressing papering over books that, in some way, lacked cores. Updike was a great talent. And in Couples, a novel published 50 years ago next year, you can find his gifts on full display, his painterly eye for the suburban middlebrow and his evocative descriptions of the cultural and physical architecture of the period — as well as sex. If it isn’t quite the seminal work that earned Updike a Time Magazine cover when such an honor was any American’s most prized cap feather, it is stil a very good book. A series of portraits of adulterous couples in suburban Massachusetts, Couples renders the 60s in sultry, minute detail, down to a humorous episode where one party-loving couple goes on with their drunken soiree after the Kennedy assassination. If Rabbit, Run is more quintessential Updike, Couples is more the joy ride.
The End of Eddy- Édouard Louis (B-/C+) Published in 2014 when Louis was just 21, this deeply autobiographical novel was a best-selling sensation in France, where Louis is from. Translated into English, it hit American shores this year at a particularly opportune time: evocative descriptions of working class life, especially of bigots, has real cache in the age of Trump. Louis’ backwater voted for Marine Le Pen and his family, fictionalized here, displays all the prejudices the aghast liberal imagines: they hate Muslims, they hate gays, and they hate anything that doesn’t have a whiff of macho-nationalism. Louis, who is gay, was tormented as a child, and he renders plainly the savagery of his childhood. As I said when reviewing The Vegetarian, it is difficult for me to assess works in translation: something, I feel, is always missed. And may be this is why The End of Eddy felt too trim to me, too much a screed and not enough a book. Characters felt like caricatures. The thinness of the text hints at greater talent, but doesn’t quite deliver.
City for Sale- Wayne Barrett and Jack Newfield (B) This is one of those books I probably should’ve read years ago, as a political journalist and columnist in New York and a Village Voice contributor. I still need to read the late Barrett and Newfield’s other books, including Barrett’s investigation of Donald Trump. City for Sale is the legendary duo’s exhaustive account of Ed Koch’s downfall, opening at the kickoff of his triumphant third term and ending with the corruption scandals that would embroil City Hall and Koch’s prized allies. Three decades on, the lurid suicide of Donald Manes, the powerful Queens borough president and Koch backer, after his central role in the parking violations bureau scandal came to light remains shocking. City for Sale profiles all the major players of the era, including Koch and his nemesis Jimmy Breslin; the former Beauty Queen and Koch pal Bess Myerson; the Bronx Borough president and Donald Trump pal Stanley Friedman (the future president gets a few cameos); and a hard-charging U.S. attorney named Rudy Giuliani. At times, the book is too thorough, and there are details that the authors could’ve left on the cutting room floor. Barrett and Newfield also have a habit of too readily casting heroes and villains; Giuliani, the white knight busting corruption, can do no wrong, while Koch is the emblem of power corrupting absolutely. The unvarnished celebration of Rudy hasn’t aged well.
From Rockaway- Jill Eisenstadt (B-) It’s hard to beat the Bennington College lit scene of the 1980s. By sheer coincidence, several future major writers ended up in college together at the same time, and some of them even became good friends. Brett Easton Ellison, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem — who between them have a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a few culture-defining best-sellers — all made their way to the little Vermont liberal arts college in the mid-80’s. In that class too was Jill Eisenstadt, a Queens girl who would publish her own first novel at the precocious age of 24. From Rockaway was reissued this summer in tandem with the publication of a sequel, Eisenstadt’s first novel in 26 years. I have a soft spot for New York books, especially those that get out of the environs of Manhattan and the Brownstone belt to tell the stories of the working class kids who call it home. Eisenstadt, a Rockaway native, writes about a girl who, like her, leaves behind the blue collar peninsula for an elitist liberal arts school in the country. Meanwhile, her love interest, a lifeguard named Timmy who is going nowhere fast, carouses with his pals back home, longing for the girl who got away. The beach kids drink, have sex, and smoke pot to kill time. Eisenstadt, at least in her early twenties, wasn’t a particularly audacious writer, and an occasional flatness creeps in. But Of Rockaway is worth a peak, at least for a certain slice of New York.
Dear Cyborgs- Eugene Lim (N/A): Read my Village Voice review
Moving Kings- Joshua Cohen (A-) There are few writers living today as daunting as Joshua Cohen, who is some kind of inheritor to the Roth/Pynchon throne, if his trajectory — he ain’t yet 40 — holds. 2015’s Book of Numbers was dazzling, and if Moving Kings, which was released this summer, can’t quite match it in force and heft, it stands alone as a very witty and poignant novel. Cohen tackles the outer boroughs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the foreclosure crisis, and immigrant striving with equal fluency, stretching and sculpting the English language in new and prodigious ways. Here’s Cohen on Northern Boulevard traffic: “He turned onto Northern Boulevard heading south. The cars seeped like spread tar and hardened into traffic.”
Gun, With Occasional Music- Jonathan Lethem (B-) Like Lethem, I enjoy soft science fiction and comics, but not nearly as much as he does. I don’t worship at the altar of hard-boiled detective fiction. I like Philip K. Dick, but not enough to write under his spell. So Lethem’s debut here, published in 1994, didn’t appeal to me like his later works, particularly Motherless Brooklyn and Dissident Gardens. Set in a nebulous, West Coast future where animals can talk, everyone’s on drugs, and babies can not only speak in sentences but act like full-fledged, cynical adults, Gun, With Occasional Music is, at its core, detective fiction with sci-fi window dressing. The mystery never hooked me and the world never seemed to leave the realm of parody. For novels of this period of Lethem, I recommend Amnesia Moon instead.
The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York- Joseph Viteritti- (N/A) Read my Village Voice review here
Patrimony- Philip Roth (A) Earlier, I said history may not be kind to the midcentury, great white male novelists who ruled the roost. I do believe Philip Roth will be the exception. As a prose stylist and chronicler of American life, always through his New Jersey Jewish lens but always too with the zest and world-historical brilliance to make it universal, Roth has few equals. Patrimony is a departure, a rare work of nonfiction from a novelist who plumbed the depths of his own life to typically render fiction. The story of his beloved and overbearing father’s struggle with, and eventual death from, a brain tumor, Roth twines pathos and dabs of humor in a memoir that will resonate with anyone who has had to, in one form or another, confront mortality. Usually, I read Roth and laugh (or occasionally shake my head) but here he brought me to tears. The failure of a body, the robbing of life — death is no less bewildering or unfair, no matter how many times we read about it or watch it occur. “…I would live perennially as his little son,” Roth writes, “with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father as the father, sitting in judgment on whatever I do. You must not forget anything.”
The Future Won’t Be Long- Jarrett Kobek (A-) Jarrett Kobek, a Turkish-American writer in his 30s, is my favorite new writer I came across this year, as I said before. Though writers tend to be jealous people and I’m no saint, I am genuinely excited by talented contemporaries. It means there is more good work to look forward too, that the ouevre isn’t frozen in a capsule. It means, someday, you can event meet them! The Future Won’t Be Long is actually Kobek’s sequel to a novel (or novel-like work, or not really a novel at all) that appeared a few years ago, I Hate the Internet. Both books feature the characters of Baby, a gay science fiction writer who came from poverty, and Adeline, a bohemian comic book artist born into a wealthy family; The Future Won’t Be Long is something akin to the story of their friendship in New York in the 1990s, while I Hate the Internet takes place in San Francisco in 2013. (I review it just below.) But describing either book through the scope of plot or narrative does it a disservice. Like another favorite of mine, Henry Miller, Kobek toys with the novel as a form, interjecting his own cerebral, acidic critiques of high and low capitalism, technology, pop culture, art, New York, and the comic books industry. Read one way, The Future Won’t Be Long is a capsule of a lost New York: burned out, downtrodden, but fertile for anyone who wrote, painted, or played music. But it’s also, in Kobekian fashion, an indictment of what we’ve become — a culture lost to the artificiality of social media, militarized capitalism, and gentrification run amok.
I Hate the Internet- Jarrett Kobek (A-) At its core, as the title suggests, this book is an indictment of the internet — not as technology unto itself, but the way in which it has been wielded and how people, particularly those on the left, live hypocritical lives in the embrace of Big Brothers Google and Facebook. I Hate the Internet, appearing in 2016, established Kobek as a writer to watch, and is set in San Francisco, as opposed to New York. Adeline is a central character, now a semi-famous artist who is as far-sighted and brainy as she is peculiar, never abandoning the Transatlantic accent she adopted as a California teen in the 80’s. Adeline, as an unconventional figure with viewpoints that defy easy and safe categorization, becomes the subject of an internet controversy after delivering a filmed lecture at a college class. Kobek uses this story to tell a greater one about the tech industry’s colonization of San Francisco, the exploitation of artists (Jack Kirby in particular) and people of color, and the irony of so-called radical leftists taking to corporate platforms like Facebook and Twitter — and wielding smartphone tech manufactured by de facto slave labor in China — to propagate their views. It’s difficult for me to even sum up all the currents, threads, and luminescent observations Kobek makes, so I suggest just getting a copy yourself.
Submission- Michel Houellebecq (B+) First published, coincidentally, on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Submission was predictably controversial. Satirical, but darkly so, Houellebecq’s novel tells the story of a near-future France where voters, faced with the choice of the Far Right Marine Le Pen or a vaguely left-leaning Muslim upholding very traditional, patriarchal values, choose the latter. In turn, a theocracy is established as the protagonist, a middle-aged, lazy literary scholar, struggles to adjust. Women begin to cover themselves in public. A university president takes on multiple wives. Like previous Houellebecq books, the target of the satire isn’t religion per se — the novel isn’t intended to indict Islam or feed into the right-wing’s fears of a changing Europe. Rather, as The Guardian points out, his scimitar is saved for the metropolitan academics who live with few convictions and lust simply for comfort — easier gigs, better pay, and pliant women. A new regime comes in and academia, supposedly built on the values of secularism and pluralism, happily welcomes it. All is good as long as luxury comforts are at hand.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter- Carson McCullers (A) A half century ago, Carson McCullers’ short, tragic life came to an end. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, she was an enormously talented, precocious writer who came from a far-flung part of the country to New York to make her name. She was a Southerner, not a Midwesterner, and published The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was only 23, in 1940. McCullers would struggle to write a comparable follow up work as a failed marriage, alcoholism, and various health maladies took their tolls. But for her debut work, she deserves to be placed among the first rank of American writers — at her best, she is as penetrating as William Faulkner and produced a novel that deserves immortality, quite frankly, more than To Kill a Mockingbird. A portrait of a small, lonely Southern town in the 1930s, the novel is remarkably layered and multifarious — McCullers touches on race relations, same-sex relationships, anti-Semitism, Marxism, and the spiritual longing of people who are imprisoned by circumstance, whether it’s a town or even a body. A boy shoots a young girl because he is jealous of her — of a beauty and femininity he wishes were his own. A deaf mute, John Singer, pines for a slovenly fellow mute who can never know the depths of his love. A young tomboy dreams of being a great composer — if she can ever get out of town.
The Nix- Nathan Hill (B-) Like City on Fire, The Nix was a zeitgeist-friendly big novel hyped for a fall launch. Dropping a year ago, in the heat of the Trump-Clinton campaign, it was immediately hailed as prescient for featuring a populist, right-wing presidential candidate, though Hill started writing the novel in the early 2000s. A decades-spanning saga, jumping between 2011 and the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention (where plot points come to a head), the novel is a display of admirable ambition and breadth. The prose, though, never achieved lift off for me, and none of Hill’s protagonists ever convinced me I needed to be invested in their fortunes. Dexterous but overheated, The Nix swings hard but doesn’t quite connect.
Wolf in White Van- John Darnielle (B+/A) Darnielle is best known as the front-man of a popular indie folk band, The Mountain Goats. I haven’t listened to them enough to say whether I am a fan or not, but I am an admirer of Darnielle’s writing after completing Wolf in White Van, which I finished on vacation in Michigan just a few days ago. A propulsive prose writer, Darnielle tells the story of Sean Phillips, a man who lives with a caretaker after horribly disfiguring himself at the age of 17. (Spoiler alert: after several ambiguous allusions, we learn Sean shot himself in the face.) Told in non-chronological order from Sean’s childhood and adolescence to his desultory present, the novel follows the movement of Sean’s mind, as he describes the circumstances of his life. Sean is also the creator of a mail-based role-playing game known as Trace Italian, which takes players through a post-apocalyptic landscape and serves as Sean’s shelter from reality. Midway through the novel, we learn that two players tried to play the game in the real world — one freezes to death, the other is severely injured. Despite the efforts of their family members, Sean is not held legally responsible but he is quietly tormented by these deaths. Struggling to have any kind of relationship with his parents or the outside world, Sean retreats into his game, a self-contained world that, for all its horror, is of his own making.