Bookseller in Rome
Sjon’s From the Mouth of the Whale has a Herman Melville quality to it, or perhaps evokes Mark Twain. Sjon isn’t American, like these two are, but his prose has the kind of “good for you” feeling that Melville’s and Twain’s do. Kind of medicinal. As I read From the Mouth of the Whale, I kind of struggled against the tide of Sjon’s sentences, but I knew they were classic, historically significant, and I knew that at the end, I’d be glad I read this book and fought against the waves of his construction and resolution.
From the Mouth of the Whale has unicorns, ghosts, healers, banishment, tragedy, and a self-assured, bewronged protagonist. Sjon’s novel seems ancient and magical, which is interesting considering it’s also written in a dry, matter-of-fact style. It’s an intricate, Icelandic fable that can fully trick someone into thinking they’re reading some sort of long-lost manuscript from an ancient Icelandic mystic.
It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur IN the world, but not OF the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.
A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is stunning. Not since reading Infinite Jest have I been so extremely focused on every sentence of a long, long book. Donna Tartt’s and David Foster Wallace’s grand opuses have some superficial things in common, like recurring themes of addiction, parental negligence, and deeply troubled young men. But it’s the velocity and force of their language and the masterful way both writers weaved their intricate, intelligent, and consistently fascinating tales together that struck me. While Infinite Jest strikes a philosophical, even existential chord, The Goldfinch reads more straightforwardly. Tartt’s ability to create complexity within this simpler fictional paradigm is her greatest strength.
The Goldfinch is a twisty book about one boy, Theo Decker, who grows into a man. The growing is painful and stunted for many reasons, the two biggest of which are the death of his mother in a terrorist attack, and the dubious morals of his father. Theo’s life is maze of overcoming internal and external demons, and Tartt has rendered his becoming in an almost ghostly way. Ingeniously, logically, every action Theo takes reverberates through every aspect of his life, and even though, as in real life, circumstances can feel coincidental, every event is the culmination of the experience that precedes it. Theo’s friendships, deep and immersive, shape who he becomes, as throughout his violence-fraught life he thirsts for companionship and someone to influence him. His mother’s death leaves him in a vacuum, and he fills it first with quixotic male bonding, then with drugs, and then with an obsession with a girl who experiences loss that mirrors his own. But one thing that continues to loom over him is his fear of being discovered, as the thief he accidentally became, the furtive lover, the drug addict, and the fraud.
The Goldfinch impressively straddles many types of book (thriller, bildungsroman, to name two) and anticipating Theo conquering his fears is the connective tissue that brings all of the disparate parts of the novel together. Throughout the trauma, the intrigue, and the loss, Tartt’s language inspires a deep optimism, hope that Theo will thrive and heal. Reading The Goldfinch, even though it’s long, a doorstop book, was easy because of this fusion, a deep perception of disturbance spurred by surety of impending redemption.
Tartt’s language, ambition, and empathy all shine exceedingly throughout The Goldfinch.
Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain was fragmented and wistful, and reads like an elegy. It’s technical, episodic, and feels hyper-contemporary. If you are in the mood for something that is the perfect cross-section of Roberto Bolano and Jennifer Egan, pick this book up!
Speedboat is one of those books all your friends can (and do) talk about. Their glowing recommendations and comments make it easy for you to make reading it a priority, not only because you trust their taste, the book sounds amazing, and you’re intrigued, but because you want to be able to join in the conversation when someone brings it up next time. There’s something special and different about the enthusiasm surrounding this book, and I’m happy to share in it.
Renata Adler is the literary grandmother we have all been on the look-out for. As original and forceful a presence as her writing, Adler has become a touchstone for today’s writers and readers. Speedboat is timeless, a work set in a certain time and place but accessible from any. It’s sharp and fragmented, smart and insightful. The characters, while defined in admirable brevity, could be walking around Manhattan today as easily as they do in Speedboat’s 70s.
One of the things that makes Speedboat such a pleasure to read is its accessibility. It’s full of youth’s follies, ambition, and artistry, and focuses on a woman who can encompass the inner and social struggles that intelligent women face to this day in New York City. Adler’s writing enables us to observe a character, Jen Fain, who slowly clarifies what we feel and experience in our own lives. Jen shares herself with us, her queer experiences, her uncertainties, her eerie relationships, and Adler’s prose exalts her, lending her a legendary sheen.
Tao Lin has a reputation for being caustic, awkward, somewhat rude, and trendy. That goes for his personality and his writing, which to a casual observer, have become one and the same. Many people who would otherwise eagerly read his work are put off by the “idea” of him, the idea being a new-bohemian writer who flagrantly self-promotes his work and who writes his novels solely in Gchat.
Close readers, though, will see that Lin’s work itself is studied and meticulous, following in the tradition of Hemingway, another hardworking writer whose personal life rather influences the way people read him. While Hemingway wrote of European expatriates, Parisian artists, and the machismo and violence of the 1920s, Lin’s work is resonant of the time we live in now, with all the good and bad things associated with the digital age that you can read about on The Atlantic.com. His newest book, TAIPEI, is his most fully-realized to date, and achieves much of what his previous worked strived towards.
Lin’s protagonist, Paul, is a young writer living in Brooklyn. TAIPEI follows a year of his life, bookended by trips to Taipei to visit his parents. Not much happens, it’s true, but, Lin has managed to instead convey the tenacity necessary in his young writer to produce actual writing, along with the way tenderness must fight its way through distracting bullshit nowadays, especially in the lives and work of young artists. When Paul thinks,
“It would take her thousands of steps to get anywhere, but she would get there easily, and when she arrived, in the present, it would seem like it had been a single movement that brought her there. Did existence ever seem worked for?”
it seems as though he’s talking about the ideal form of progress in work and relationships. Paul is romanticizing and bemoaning existence at the same time, but he’s also lying to himself. He is cultivating a jaded mindset that the reader has to work hard to see through. The artifice in his lament becomes increasingly clear as he creates art that he admits is meaningless with little to no effort, and as he ceases to value relationships he doesn’t have to fight to maintain. Paul intentionally belittles his writing, calling it “working on stuff,” something he is almost constantly “doing” throughout TAIPEI.
This can be seen as an ironic twist on the denial exhibited in popular culture nowadays—Paul pretends to miss hard work, structure, and dedication to craft while in fact he’s actually a disciplined writer, as is Lin. On the other hand, he often encounters people who spurn visible effort, whose writing is done, or wishfully done, in announcement and self-definition only. So TAIPEI ventures into cultural criticism in a roundabout way, making a statement about what should be necessary in the formation and definition of a writer: humility, wryness, and almost silence about curiosity and intelligence:
Paul grinned uncomfortably as he stared at one person, then another, thinking he had “absolutely nothing” to say, except maybe what he was currently thinking, which didn’t seem appropriate and also kept changing.
These observations are sweet and befuddled on Paul’s part, cunning and purposive on Lin’s.
Lin’s Paul often betrays a fine sensitivity to the world and his place in it, which can be seen to reflect on Lin personally. Many readers see Lin’s male protagonists as stand-ins for Lin himself, even going so far as pondering if Lin is as emotionally abusive to his partners as Haley Joel Osment is to Dakota Fanning in RICHARD YATES. Lin is proving to be a writer capable of extreme empathy and observation, not only when writing about people like himself, male writers living in Brooklyn, but also when he writes about teenage girls, young women, and distraught parents.
Lin’s writing has always been sneakily funny, and I often found myself smiling while reading TAIPEI, on the train, or wherever it was I was reading TAIPEI.
"On average," said Paul through his hands. "Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in."
Lin’s humor is deadpan and so cultivated that it feels off-the-cuff. His Twitter account, which he assiduously works on, has become widely emulated and the basis for almost all the Twitter-related comedy that pops up in my feed. But Lin’s originality and his funniness don’t ring as true when other people do it. Lin recently started riffing on the song title “Living la Vida Loca” on Twitter, producing such gems as “Livin la vida coleslaw,” and it quickly caught on. Paul is less of an imposing cultural presence as his creator, Lin, but he still seems to amass followers and admirers, characters I imagine would take up the torch of his jokes on Twitter. Paul has an uncanny ability to attract attraction, a nuanced version of the attention that Lin receives on the internet and the strange fascination with him in literary circles.
This fascination centers on misreading the deadpan humor that some people quickly assimilate as cynicism. This is problematic because, at least in TAIPEI, Lin’s protagonist is uniquely optimist in art, in his ability to exist in the world, and in love:
Maybe she would roll toward him, resting her arm across his back— they’d both be stomach-down, as if skydiving— in an unconscious or dream-integrated manner she wouldn’t remember in the morning, when they’d wake in a kind of embrace and begin kissing, neither knowing who initiated, therefore brought together naturally, like plants that join at their roots.
Moments like this are willfully idealistic and sweet, sweet enough that they offset the inevitable devolution of Paul’s relationships. Instead of feeling anger or antipathy towards Paul’s romantic dysfunction, one can feel the poignant sadness that comes along with observing a loving relationship dissolve into ambiguity and carelessness, seeing the missed opportunities for possible reconciliation, and the touching moments of doubt and hurt that accompany all of that. As with all neurotic individuals, and Paul is neurotic, with his quick and resolute decisions and his set staunchness of his ways, Paul is difficult to be involved with.
But cynical, Lin and Paul are not.
Instead, Paul is a difficult person who exhibits signs of being shy and anxious, someone it’s tough to get to know and stick with. TAIPEI is kind of the same way, it can start to get bogged down in its own style and circular internality, but through its neuroses and difficulty, one can see flashes of understanding and beauty and purely human empathetic insight, making TAIPEI a book that can be tough to read, but easy to love.
When he heard laughter, before he could think or feel anything, his heart would be beating like he’d sprinted twenty yards. As the beating slowly normalized, he’d think how his heart, unlike him, was safely contained, away from the world, behind bone and skin, held by muscles and arteries in place, carefully off-center, as if to artfully assert itself as source and creator…
When I started reading The Purchase, I immediately had the sensation that I was reading something that had been published long, long ago. This book has a soothing, quiet, inevitable feeling to the prose; as events unfurl they do so assumingly and unquestionably. This isn’t to say that The Purchase is a quiet or internal book. No, it’s got a plot based on the delicate ecosystem of survival on the frontier on the cusp of the 19th century, and the infinitely fascinating inner workings of a broken family. The family at the center of this saga displays its strengths and weaknesses so endearingly and stubbornly, and so Linda Spalding’s prose takes their problems, pettiness, and redeeming qualities for granted, rendering stark, beautiful lives filled with strife and rare relief.
Edward St. Aubyn is quickly becoming one of my favorite living male British novelists. His Patrick Melrose novels are a stunning series of books centering on the superb character of Patrick Melrose, who is a real person to me at this point. The most recent of these, At Last, stands out because it passes Patrick’s prime, it passes his recovery, and rather than the sigh of release the title implies, there’s really a sense of restlessness, of “this is it?”
Patrick is kind of wearying at this point, wearying of the fast pace of life, wearying of his resentments, and wearying of the depression he’s never escaped. If you’ve read the previous books in the series, though, you are verging on happy for him- that he’s managed to settle into his life the way he has, overcoming obstacles that would be insurmountable to anyone less caustic, smart, and protecting as he is. He’s breaking a cycle, and one feels exactly how momentous this really is.
Fatherhood and its alleyways is really the subject that shines from At Last, despite revolving around the death of Patrick’s mother. Patrick is steadily learning how much he wants to be a good father, and fighting not to be so damaged it seeps onto his children. One gets the sense he doesn’t want to muddy the pure happiness of his sons’ childhoods, he doesn’t want them to hold on to the pain, neglect, and abuse that makes up his own interiority and have caused him so much harm. This struggle is powerful to observe, an example of the noblest in humanity. It’s a little disappointing that we won’t be reading more about Patrick, but heartening that St. Aubyn can now create another character from nothing, someone for us to follow and know as we have Patrick Melrose.
Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was one of the best books I’ve read recently, and her distinctive voice shines through Big Brother too. The plots and characters are completely different, but what remains is Shriver’s immaculate style, as well as her impeccable sense of characterization.
It’s so easy to be drawn into Big Brother- reading it is like having an in-depth conversation with someone who disagrees with you, but knows exactly how to engage you. Big Brother is fiesty and controversial, and for these reasons it’s really fun to read. The fiestiness emanates from Shriver’s main character, Pandora, who defies her own expectations in becoming a success in life, and who struggles with reconciling her desire to save her severely overweight brother Edison from himself and angering her husband Fletcher.
Despite being titled Big Brother, this book is about the little sister, fighting her own battles and shaping a life for herself. Pandora has lived in Edison’s shadow all of her life, the shadow of his coolness and expectation. Now that she’s succeeded on her own, Fletcher is quietly and acidly resentful of it. In the end, Pandora is able to flourish, the dominance of the two men in her life receding so far that is almost shows no results on her character, except in the strength and resilience she’s been forced to grow to overcome it.