You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit punchy, hence the radio silence last month. A life-threatening medical crisis on the part of a loved one forced me to spend most of this bitter winter in hospitals and doctor’s offices, not to mention spending the worst Valentine’s Day ever in a surgical waiting room.
Taking care of someone who’s not well turns out to be as hard on the brain as I imagine raising children to be, although I would never trade you for one of the little monsters. But the lack of sleep, stress, fatigue and borderline insanity have led to some strange reading habits. So here, I suppose, are the books that reflected my own madness during the horrible last few months.
Some time ago, I was asked for my two cents on Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, a mutant literary novel that might make for a great crime novel if only there were one well-meaning cop (or even a whole human being) in it. It hangs on the disappearance of twelve-year-old Newell Ewing and a lesser novelist would have focused more on the absence of the boy rather than his lingering presence in the world. As it is, Bock brings every shattered bulb, every dirty hotel room and every askew glance from a lost child in Las Vegas to bear in a story that is very nearly fetishist in its view of 21st-century America and its cheap thrills.
There are plenty of stories in it that are worth reading, not least the uncertain encounters between Newell, his closeted friend Kenny and a band of feral runaways with names like Lestat, or “Danger-prone Daphney,” a pregnant urchin whose sole treasure is a milk carton with her face on it. “It was gonna be cool as fuck, ‘cause I’d be giving my baby milk from the cartons with my own face. Get it? How cool is that? Cool as fuck, right?”
These intertwined stories of compulsion and abandonment will bottom out your soul and that’s without even getting into the head-spinning, cyclical details that expose the tangential relationship between a predatory low-life named Ponyboy who tricks out his girl to make dirty movies and Newell’s father Lincoln, addicted to the very movies that feed the burgeoning industry. Bock has already been celebrated and vilified by more insightful minds, but I suspect that if he can continue to tap into the bottomless grief that lies underneath places like Las Vegas, where even spectacle becomes mundane after a while, he might be onto something.
Our second mind-fuck of the month comes from the blithely unpredictable Charles Baxter, who takes one part Patricia Highsmith, one part Dostoevsky, and stirs in a retro sensibility to create a thought-provoking depiction of just how easy the world can slip away on you in The Soul Thief.
Admittedly, Baxter’s protagonist Nathaniel Mason is no Dickie Greenleaf. A socially subterranean graduate student suffering the wilderness years of the 1970s in frigid Buffalo, Nathaniel finds himself the apex of an odd triangle of subversives who are more dynamic and with it than he could ever hope to be. There are his women, the beautiful but ultimately counterfeit Theresa who peppers her speech with French to demonstrate her political awareness and lesbian sculptress Jamie, who ridicules his passion and mocks love as a futile game.
These two temptresses pale in comparison to the enigmatic Jerome Coolberg, the campus wunderkind and rabble-rouser whom the fragile Nathanial seems to find more attractive than either of his bed mates. He narrates the details of their outlandish bond to his sister, mute for reasons no one but she understands. Coolberg, meanwhile, begins adopting an odd set of personal characteristics and actions that push Mason ever closer to the void, such as the moment Coolberg pushes him suddenly into the Niagara River. “Life is a series of anticlimaxes until the last one,” Baxter writes, but it’s Coolberg’s intimidating mea culpa that resonates.
“I wasn’t finished,” Coolberg says. “You should let me finish. If you had disappeared, if you had died, we would have… we would have become you. We would have taken you on. We would have turned into you. You would have lived in us. When a person dies, the survivors take on the features of the deceased. The most eccentric traits are acquired first -- tics, stuttering, shakes of the head. That’s how grieving works. The living reimagined themselves as the one who has gone missing. I would have taken you over. That’s what we would have done. I guarantee it.”
There’s a trick ending that would have M. Night Shyamalan shaking his head but otherwise it’s a devious bit of storytelling that deserves its place alongside the best of Highsmith’s predatory novels.
A more obvious intersection between double crosses and doppelgangers emerges in Will Lavender’s debut novel Obedience, which plays the absurdity of academia against a convoluted murder mystery. Set on the fictional college campus of Winchester University, the first day of Logic and Reasoning 204 presents its ambitious students with a quandary. All their Googling brings no hard information on their mysterious professor, Leonard Williams, not as much as a photograph. Not to mention the fact that his class surrounds a single assignment: solve the murder of a girl named Polly by the time the six-week term is over.
“There’s been a murder,” he says. “Not a real murder. No. This is a murder that may happen in the future. A… a hypothetical. A potential murder. Murder in the future tense. Because, you see, many things have to happen before this murder is to occur. Many things that you, if you are clever enough, can keep from happening.”
With the clues doled out in intriguing dollops week by week, it’s a very clever, absorbing setup that props up the book even when its Abercrombie-esque students flag in interest and William’s multifarious scenario becomes so complex that the urge to follow along wanes after a while. But anyone who’s suffered through lazy spring afternoons in a classroom and laments their bizarre professors will definitely find its notions familiar, no Cliffs Notes needed.
For our last entry in our delusional sweepstakes this month, you’ll have to wait until June but it’s well worth it. Getting a big push from those sages at Farrar, Straus and Giroux is Atmospheric Disturbances by an incredibly articulate debut novelist, Rivka Galchen, and it’s one hell of an accomplishment. Within the novel’s 250 pages, she manages to shake her science-minded protagonist to his core, concoct a secret agenda on the part of the Royal Academy of Meteorology, employ the unusual term simulacrum with abandon, and resurrect her dead father, no less.
Our fractured narrator is Dr. Leo Liebenstein, who’s convinced that a most dire falsehood has been perpetrated upon him -- that his wife, Rema, has disappeared and been replaced with an impostress who looks, talks and acts almost like his wife. To unravel this conundrum, the good doctor enlists the help of a psychiatric patient named (and I laugh hysterically every time I type this) “Harvey,” as well as a shadowy meteorologist named Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, who just happens to carry the exact name of the author’s late father, who passed away suddenly over a decade ago.
With that tease firmly in place, I’ll leave you to discover the pleasures of Atmospheric Disturbances for yourself, but leave with a few thoughts from the author, who was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of her time before things here went all to hell. With the caveat that she often considers herself to be an unreliable narrator (especially when she’s talking to herself), she offered a few thoughts on the origins of her unusual book.
“For me, half the pleasure in any text is that dizzying sense of looking through, well, a glass darkly,” Galchen said. “I think that at least one element of what I was playing with was something like this: there’s this idea that character is something that gets revealed in extraordinary situations, and then there’s this alternate idea that character is something revealed best in very ordinary, everyday -- even boring -- situations. And so I wanted Leo to be in a simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary situation -- the radically strange situation of having a wife (at least seemingly) replaced by a double, and the radically ordinary situation of being, well, in the day to day life of his marriage, his neighborhood, his habits. He’s a very habit-y man. And so just to have those habits made strange, and feel portentous. All of which has to do with my 'favorite' aesthetic experience, the uncanny -- the sense of something seeming at once radically foreign and deeply familiar.”
To put oneself in the mindset of a character suffering a potentially life-threatening break with reality seems like it would be a stretch, but for Galchen, who earned an M.D. from Mount Sinai and is well-schooled in the mechanics of mental health, it actually came down to a more common experience.
“Yes, well, I’ve been in love, which I think of as a kind of madness,” she said. “Proust has this description of how he feels as a child when he turns on the magic lantern and the figures dance across the wall of what was previously his familiar room: ‘I cannot express the discomfort I felt at this intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality until I thought no more of it than of myself.’ I think of love as a kind of intrusion like that, and in that way it has the ‘otherness’ of psychosis. (It always broke my heart to see psychotics in the ER who would cover their ears, as if that would mute the voices… that’s something people often don’t understand, that hallucinations don’t feel like they’re inside your head at all… they feel like an external assault.) There you are, trying to pour the milk for your cereal, or stand in line at the drugstore, and suddenly these tasks become very challenging because some image of another person keeps intruding into your mental space. So love -- love and also ridiculous anxieties, anxious repetitive thoughts -- those are the experiences I turned to in order to imagine what it might be like to be consumed by erroneous conviction.”
With those sleep-interrupting thoughts firmly in place, I’ll bid you farewell for the month. If in fact, you were ever there at all.