A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
Another week (or, in this case, weeks), still more Tournament of Books contenders read. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! had a fantastic opening, but — for me — lost its way a little bit in the middle, as Russell fused a surreal sense of wonder with a grittier narrative. As the ending loomed, I grew worried; she seemed to be bringing together two parallel threads in a fairly contrived way. I shouldn’t have been concerned: though the two plotlines did dovetail, they did so in a messier, more satisfying way than I’d expected. Teju Cole’s Open City was a much more subdued, realistic work. I liked a lot; Cole’s way of generally revealing information about his narrator felt naturalistic without trumpeting that naturalism, and there’s an excellent payoff to said narrator’s distance from nearly everyone around him.
Percival Everett is a writer whose work I’d never read before this week, despite the fact that the man’s champions include numerous literary types whose opinions I respect greatly. So this week I read Assumption: a taut crime drama that gradually becomes more surreal, as plot points and images slowly repeat to a steadily unsettling effect. Without giving too much away, I’d say that this would fit nicely beside Evenson’s The Open Curtain on a bookshelf; each plays with some genre tropes before taking huge risks — risks which, I’d argue, pay off dramatically well.
Right now, I’m reading J. Robert Lennon’s Castle (thanks to Ed Champion & Stephanie Anderson for the recommendation). So far , there’s an emotionally remote narrator and hints of numerous sinister histories and mysterious properties. In some ways, I’m getting a Patricia Highsmith vibe from it, which is not a bad thing at all.
Next up, I’ll be tackling Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You and Ali Smith’s Hotel World. (Abundant thanks to Michele Filgate for the latter.) And I’ll also have reviews in these pages of a couple of books I’ve also read in this span of time, including Amelia Gray’s Threats and Jarret Kobek’s Atta.
And I should put in a quick note here that I’ve also recently finished Edie Investigates, Nick Harkaway’s prequel to his upcoming Angelmaker. It’s a fine, concise piece of work: Cold War legacies and sinister agencies and mysterious crimes, all delivered in a spry, witty tone.(Reading it, I was reminded a bit of Warren Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein and the excellent comic book The Winter Men; needless to say, I’m very excited to delve into the novel that follows.
I’ve been busy going through Ellen Ullman’s work in preparation for something for Vol. 1. Her memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents makes me feel like no one has said anything original about the internet for the last decade. Ullman said it all. I want to ask her about everything that has happened in the last decade. Has she read Remainder by Tom McCarthy? Did she hate The Social Network? I’ll have more intelligent questions to ask her, hopefully.
Other than that, I saw 3 Women on Netflix Instant and didn’t like the plot so much. It distracted from all the stuff that should have been pure bait for me. I love the California desert, I loved the opening sequence in the geriatric center, and I love Sissy Spacek more than words can express. But to paraphrase the words of Margaux Williamson, as told by Sheila Heti in How Should A Person Be, Robert Altman’s script felt like just another man who wants to teach me something. You mean a woman can be a virgin, a whore, AND a mother? That’s crazy talk, Bob!
For actual parchment I’ve been loving Saul Bellow’s Herzog, widely considered his magnum opus and well worth that hype. It is both a sadder and funnier book than my most recent shot of Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, with a less bombastic hero at the forefront who is thus less safe from ridicule, and from looking pathetic. But both characters are equally adept on the subject of delusion: how men of a certain age get by behaving badly, and how they perceive it to be not a deficiency of something internal, but of nature’s forces working against them.
Yet in spite of all its dark matter (and the somewhat intensified turn the book takes in its final third, executing a level of mad desperation that’s until then only implied) – it is also about confronting one’s delusion, and parsing what can be transferred into useful optimism. Moses Herzog’s habit of writing expository, often epiphanic letters to both the people closest to him and people famous and normal whom he’s never met is wonderful, and there’s something about reading these impassioned letters that binds you to him as a reader. In a book that is about making tough changes and confronting one’s deepest fears – not horror movie fears, but real fears like loneliness and inadequacy – and Bellow admirably gives us the feeling of not only having true internal-headspace access to Moses, but at times being stuck with him, forced to unpack his baggage and help him paint his walls.
On the e-tip I liked George Packer’s piece on poor white Republicans, but found it much too short (it is, to be fair, a blog tidbit in response to someone else’s book). Its best and most useful idea is that many Americans may recognize the need for government, while also knowing that they resent that need. A simple idea that clarifies something about our crossroads, and something we should get back to in our next national therapy session.
For Fashion Week coverage – I thought my friends in the biz on Instagram did it better than anyone. Elle was too clean and the Times went backstage and merely took bar mitzvah snapshots. One of those fields where for better and worse, dispatches from the field are outclassing the professionals.
Finally, in a week of Jeremy-Maud-Lin-San-Pity, who’d have thunk that the best basketball story of the week would be about the Sacramento Kings as the simplified, semi-marketed Bro-safe archetype of a middling basketball team? Only those who give the mighty, perfectly named Bethlehem Shoals his due.