Reading Roundup: July 2019

It was an absolutely blazing July, with temperatures approaching 100 in Philly, so how about some HOT TAKES? Hot in terms of opinionatedness, not in terms of timing–July’s Literary Hot Takes twitter thread has cooled down by now. I never like to participate in those, though, because as strong as my opinions are, there’s always a notable exception. Just look at some of the books I read this month.

Take 1: Most writers don’t have the chops to pull off different character perspectives in every chapter. I call this “doing the police in different voices” after T.S. Eliot, who almost gave “The Waste Land” the title “He do the police in different voices”–an appropriated bit of dialect that was too much even for Eliot’s problematic editor Ezra Pound. Books that do the police in different voices tend to lean on dialect or stylistic idiosyncrasies such as choppy sentences to differentiate the thoughts of different characters. The result is usually pretty embarrassing.

That said: I just finished and was blown away by There, There by Tommy Orange, a book that introduces a dozen characters who speak in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd perspectives in short chapters, occasionally interspersed with an omniscient narrator’s reflections on Indians in history and popular culture. (I say Indians because the novel does, although it also queries itself and makes it clear that individuals have different relationships to the term as well as the term Native Americans.) Instead of feeling choppy and self-conscious, all of these points of view flow as smooth as silk and carry each character inevitably toward the novel’s cataclysmic event, where the chapters got even shorter and I turned pages frantically to find out what had happened to the characters I had come to care about. While I’m sure that a closer reading would reveal some subtle variations in sentence structure that help the reader perceive each voice as distinct, the real difference is that each character is motivated by their own complex web of identity, ambitions, and fears, and they stand apart from one another in action and intent without the need for exaggerated stylization. I admire this novel for its craft, and was shaken to the core by my own ignorance of history and present-day Urban Indian communities.

Take 2: If your story takes place in an MFA program or anything of that nature, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get me to read it. I spent a full decade of my life in grad school; I sat in those seminars and I went to those parties and I contorted myself into shame spirals over my work–and I have to tell you, it just wasn’t that interesting.

But Bunny by Mona Awad caught my attention–first because of the title (a nickname I have given and received as a young adult); then because the excerpt I read was creepy as hell. The Bunnies are a Stepford-esque clique of grad students who embody every cliche of the basic bitch: they love sweet and cute things (including pumpkin spice lattes, of course), they are beautiful and white and rich, and they express their love for one another in infantile hyperbole. The main character, Samantha, seems to be a little in love with them despite her professed horror: the Bunny scenes are festooned with doting descriptions of their scents, their clothes, their shiny hair and eyes, and their affectionate displays. Her obsession with and fear of their hyperfeminine performance is a little misogynist, to be frank, and I kept waiting for the curtains to part and reveal some justification for it. (I felt similarly about the narrator’s shallow revulsion for the college town’s residents and supposed crime problem.) There is a little self-aware wink when Samantha’s fiction is critiqued as being “in love with its own outsiderness”–also true of Samantha’s narration–but I wasn’t really satisfied that the tension was ever resolved between despising Bunnies and wanting to be like them.

That said, it’s an engrossing story with some truly surprising twists and turns, and if you’re not put off by the blood and guts, there’s a delicious horror in its extremities that make it a fun summer read. I also think it will make a great, if gross, TV series.

Take 3: If there is a prologue, it better be amazing–or at least somewhat consistent in tone and style as the rest of the book. My reasons for this are mercenary: if I’m deciding whether or not to buy your book, I will read the first few pages and see if I want to continue. Those first pages are essentially the sales pitch for me to read the rest of your book.

I know, I know. As a former academic and longtime bibliophile, I also want to believe in the sovereignty of The Book as a work of art. If the author wants to tack a misdirecting prologue onto the front of the book, perhaps that should be their artistic prerogative. On the other hand, consider how many of the sprawling literary classics we celebrate were shaped by mercantile concerns–Joyce and Dickens publishing chapter by chapter and paid by installment, countless authors pushing out short stories until they could afford to write a book. Literature doesn’t exist outside of capitalism. Sorry.

As it turns out, an offkey prologue is the reason I was reluctant to read Severance by Ling Ma when I read the free sample months ago. The prologue introduces us to a “we”, a group of characters who band together when a pandemic decimates the world’s population. In the early days after the apocalyptic event, “we” relied on the internet to learn how to do things like start a fire; the prologue seems critical of how dependent “we” are on the internet for knowledge-sharing. Was the entire book going to be critical of the things we do to keep alive today? I didn’t want to sign up for that.

But it was getting so well-reviewed by trusted sources that I picked up a copy at the library and read on. The novel is narrated in the first-person perspective by a character who, as it turns out, has a complicated relationship to the prologue’s collective. She reflects on her life in New York before the pandemic and her life with the “we” group afterward; the chapters are intimate, immediate, and sympathetic. It’s not my first literary zombie novel–I really liked Zone One by Colson Whitehead too–but Severance brings its own beauty and pain to the zombie apocalypse and I am still haunted by some of its language.

I stand by my take: it would have been a shame to miss this gorgeous, melancholy book due to its odd beginning, and it truly stands on its own without a prologue.

Take 4: There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Just pleasures. Read what you want! Love what you love!

If I did have a guilty pleasure in reading, though, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mossfegh might qualify. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book: it’s got a big concept, but that doesn’t always pan out with good storytelling or prose. This novel, however, is studded with beautifully constructed sentences, and in the spaces between there are other pleasures: ecstatic lists of brands and foods and medications, unapologetically ungenerous imaginings of other characters’ interior lives, and the deliciously disgusting bad behavior of its main character. (And a smattering of white girl racism which I could do without–it’s not needed to make the point.) Making the main character an absolute unsympathetic wreck of a human is an interesting and in some respects necessary choice: you have to be kind of a jerk to completely forfeit all your quotidien obligations such as doing your job and being somewhat pleasant to the men who run your neighborhood bodega; for another, you have to be relatively privileged and sheltered to choose a life of disengagement. Who’s to say what came first: the narrator’s privilege or her bad attitude? But she is surrounded by characters who are so much worse that you end up rooting for her year of oblivion. What else is she doing do–spend time with her vapid and cruel older boyfriend? go out and meet new, equally horrible people? Work for an art gallery that celebrates animal cruelty and facile “shock” art? (The art gallery is particularly, terrifyingly on point for the pre-9-11 era when this novel takes place.) But I felt on edge when I enjoyed this story: the desire to opt out of the human race, to cocoon until you wake up to a better world or a better you, are relatable but not the impulses I wish to cultivate in myself.

Finally, this is not so much a take as a preference. I love the idea of historical fiction, but I’m often a little disappointed by reality of historical fiction. We can’t all be Hilary Mantel, deploying meticulously researched historical detail along with intelligent writing and probing psychological depth. I only recently read the excessively hyped Song of Achilles and the author’s short ebook “Galatea,” and I liked them, but I did not love them. However, I ate up Circe by Madeline Miller in about two days. Some of the stylistic tendencies that fell a little flat for me in Achilles–the purplish and occasionally overwrought prose, the jarring weirdness of divine beings–take on an entirely different tone in Circe, a tale of gods mucked about by humans instead of the other way around. If your favorite parts of Achilles were the scenes with sharp-toothed Thetis, then you’re going to love Circe’s family members bleeding gold and swanning about in elaborate gear like residents of Panem’s Capital.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I wouldn’t say that I compare myself unfavorably to the youthful protagonists of the novels I read, as this author reflects, but I do find myself vaguely irritated at everyone in books for being so young. Show me the 35-and-up protagonists who have more interesting conflicts in their lives than extramarital affairs!

Happy to hear about Carmen Maria Machado’s take on Pennsylvania’s atmospheric potential:

For fun, she and her friends would drive to Centralia, PA where a fire has been burning in one of the coal mines since 1962, the fumes so toxic that all but seven residents have fled the town and those who remain do so at special dispensation of the state. “We used to watch the smoke coming out of the ground,” Machado told me. “I’ve always been interested in Pennsylvania as a gothic setting…in the way industries like coal and steel have chewed up the landscape in this horrifying way but it’s a really beautiful place…”

I’m intrigued by Austin Walker’s idea that we should use first-person accounts of gaming experiences to fill out their histories, and I love that he used Elder Scrolls: Morrowind as his example. I have a friend who has gotten really into Elder Scrolls Online but hates the Morrowind region; everything in it is ugly, he grouses. But I can’t separate the shiny new Morrowind from my experience of discovering it on my old Xbox for the first time. Morrowind was the first game I got obsessed with. I replayed it many times, making up challenges for myself: play as a vampire, as a smooth talker who rarely fights, as a Nine Divines devotee who is terrified of the occult and frankly devastated to learn that Daedra are real. When I hear music that sounds remotely like the game’s ambient orchestral arrangements, I visualize the southern swamps and what it felt like to stumble upon Dwemer ruins for the first time.
It’s hard to put all that into words, though, and I can’t blame my friend for not feeling convinced.

I was also obsessed with Final Fantasy 7, although I never played it myself–just sat on the floor of my brother’s room while he played. Despite the many hours I spent watching this game like it was a movie, I internalized very little of its plot and was surprised to read, via this thoughtful Sidequest reflection, how anticapitalist the game is.

Slate: Why an Award for Books Without Violence Against Women Is So Controversial

This is charming, and evidently spearheaded by an employee at the press where I used to work: SEPTA is offering Books in Transit for riders to read for free.


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