Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Imagine Me Gone: A Sobering Look At Mental Illness

Adam Haslett's new novel, Imagine Me Gone, is not a cheerful book. Far from it. But it is an incredibly well-written, sobering, and insightful look at how mental illness can turn a normal family to a dysfunctional one.

But this isn't your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family story — it's more about the dysfunction itself, and how it affects each family member differently, both in terms of their relationships with each other, and also with others.

John, a Brit, and Margaret, an American, meet and fall in love in London in the 1960s. Despite John's warning signs — including a stay in a "facility" — Margaret decides to marry John anyway. She thinks she can change him or cure him or at least help him live with his mental illness, an affliction understood in far less detail then than now.

The story unfolds from there, as they have three children, Michael, Celia, and Alec, and move back and forth between a small town in Massachusetts and England. Michael, we soon learn, carries on his father's legacy (when Michael's a kid, there's a bunch of foreshadowing and hints about how Michael and his father are inextricably tied) — afflicted with acute anxiety. Michael is a fascinating character — he loves music, using it as a way to reconnect with the world that he has so much trouble with, and becomes an activist and crusader for black rights and reparations.

Michael is something of a tortured genius — the tools are there for success, but he can't seem to arrange them properly to use them to be successful. That's especially true as he grows increasingly dependent on an increasingly huge cocktail of medications.

One of the more fascinating themes of the novel is how mental illness skews empathy. Michael is certainly capable of empathy, but not necessarily for the people he should care for. And it's increasingly difficult for his family to understand this. His mother, for instance, who also sees him as her dead husband's proxy, enables him in the wrong ways, paying his bills and encouraging the worst of his bad habits, especially after his periodic unrequited-love-related breakdowns.

His siblings, meanwhile (each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character), go about their lives with Michael sort of in the background. But it's clear their father's mental illness has messed with their heads in different ways — Celia is a successful social worker, but doesn't let herself fully trust her long-term partner. Alec, young, gay, and urbane, newly ensconced in New York City as a journalist, moves from hookup to hookup without ever forming any connections at all.

I was totally floored by this book, especially Haslett's observation and intuition for describing relationships and motivation for action. Simply put, he gets humans — and is extraordinarily skilled at rendering how we think and feel, and making sentiment relatable and readable. Again, this is definitely an uncomfortable novel, but one well worth reading. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Everybody's Fool: Russo's Gift To His Fans

In Richard's Russo's new novel, Everybody's Fool, we get to return to the down-and-out town of North Bath, New York, and many of the colorful characters from Russo's 1993 novel, Nobody's Fool. I really loved Nobody's Fool (as well as the movie with Paul Newman as Sully — a vastly underrated film), and so getting to visit these characters again was such a treat, a terrific unexpected surprise.

Not only is it rare in fiction to be able to get to reunite with your "friends" from a previous novel, but also it's exceedingly rare that a sequel lives up to its original. This one does. (By the way, to answer a common question: Yes, I do recommend reading Nobody's Fool before this one. You wouldn't be lost in Everybody's Fool, but Russo constantly references events in Nobody's Fool, and so it's a much better reading experience having gone through those events with these characters already.)

Everybody's Fool takes place about 10 years after the events of Nobody's Fool — so we're in about the mid-1990s now. The novel begins with a meditation on death, and then we see Douglas Raymer (last seen in Nobody's Fool getting socked in the face by Sully, and accidentally discharging his police revolver), who is now the police chief, attending the funeral of his nemesis, Judge Flatt.

Raymer (who was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie...sad trombone) is a bit of a nincompoop, but we immediately feel bad for him, as we learn that his wife, to whom he was hopelessly devoted, had been cheating on him, and then died in a freak accident — she fell down the stairs and he found at the bottom. Raymer's really the central figure in this story, as he has to deal with an escaped cobra, a hot shot young office from the rival town, and several other indignities that seemingly are only put in his path to make his life difficult. There's some silliness with Raymer — he develops a sort of voice-in-his-head alter ego at one point, which is a little...goofy. But just go with it. I mean, it's Richard Russo! 

While a lot of the story is Raymer's, Sully, Carl Roebuck (the shady contractor played by Bruce Willis in the movie), and Rub all feature prominently as well, and they're all up to their old tricks. Rub wishes he could spend more time with his friend Sully, who he worships. Carl may or may not be bankrupt, and is now living in the upper floor apartment where Sully used to live (a metaphor if there ever was one). And Sully, well, he's still exactly the same — pushing everyone's buttons, being generally cantankerous, and basically holding the town together by a thread. What's changed, though, is that Sully's been diagnosed with a heart condition and may only have a couple years left — a fact which  he's keeping secret from everyone. Even so, Sully is just as great here as he was in Nobody's Fool — one of favorite characters in all of literature.

Like Nobody's Fool (and many of other Russo's novels) the highlight of this novel is Russo's keen eye for small town life, "politics," and dialogue. Whether on a bar stool or a middle-of-the-night "grave robbing" expedition, Russo just gets people. And much of this is as funny as it is in insightful. As with many Russo novels, this also has its own inside jokes and repeated references. You feel like you're in on the jokes with them. I love this about how Russo tells a story — the reader feels included.

If you're a Russo fan, this is a must read — as Janet Maslin said in the NY TImes, "a delightful return to form." I couldn't have been more delighted myself to read this. Russo's one of my favorites, and this is vintage. Loved it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Expo America 16: Chicago Is My Kind of Bookish Town

I returned to Book Expo America for the first time since 2012 this week, and it was just as awesome as I remember it. I scored a metric butt-ton of yet-to-be-released, highly buzzworthy books, had a few awkward author interactions, and even some that weren't, and got to see a bunch of terrific bookish people. Here are some photos from my adventures the last two days.

Yeah, I'm with the band.
Man, I'm excited.
First stop: FOER! (This is the book I'm most excited about this year.)
This is Nicholas Sparks. If you can't say anything nice...
This book mobile thing is awesome!
The giant L. Ron Hubbard booth was...creepy.

Day 1 haul. 'twas a good day!
Day 2 started with Colson effing Whitehead. He is one delightful human.
So much early buzz for The Underground Railroad.
George Saunders! (I missed his signing to stand in line to meet Nathan Hill, author of THE NIX, which after HERE I AM, is the book I'm next most excited about this year.)
This is the BEA Buzz Adult Authors panel. Six books out later this year and early 2017, six books you're going to want to read! Here is more on the books and authors.
In my mind, Richard Russo is always this jolly.

(I know, jokes about BEA lines are too-easy.)

And finally, Day 2 haul.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Version Control: Fiercely Smart, Fantastically Engrossing

Every year, there's at least one novel that catches me unawares for how much I love, and for which I wind up being an un-shut-up-able evangelist. This year, that novel is Dexter Palmer's fantastic, fiercely smart, mind-bendingly fun novel, Version Control.

This 500-page story is brimming with ideas — about technology, authenticity, race, loyalty, causality, history, science, Big Data, and yes, even time travel. It's fascinating and fun and heartbreaking and hilarious and all of the other things that make great fiction great.

So the deal is this: Rebecca and Phillip are a mostly average middle class, middle-aged couple. She works for an online dating service, spending her days trying to upsell poor dateless saps to the Platinum level. He's a physicist who has spent the last decade or so working on what he calls a "causality violation device." Yes, what this really is is a time machine, but you won't confuse this thing with any time machine in, say, H.G. Wells or even Stephen King — the only goal here, with the physics to back it up, is to send a robot back to a pre-established Point Zero, have it stay there for an hour, and return with evidence (a clock that's an hour off) that it's worked. Sadly, it doesn't work, and Phillip's once-promising career is flagging.

And so we spend the first several hundred pages hanging with Philip and Rebecca, and their friends. We get the couple's backstory, how they met, how Phillip got into physics, etc. When Palmer is focused on plot, and building affinity for his characters, he's really entertaining. But where he's at his best is when he's mixing in frequent and profoundly insightful ruminations on things like Kant's categorical imperative, our relationship with technology, how we are not the sum whole of what all the parts of our data say about us, and much, much more. All through this novel, I kept thinking, "Man, I wish David Foster Wallace was still around to see this. He would've LOVED this book."

But really, the less you know about what happens plotwise after the "getting to know you" phase, the better off you are, and the richer your reading experience will be. Just know things happen you won't expect and you'll have to put down the book, think hard, and go "wow." 

This is truly a novel that deserves a wider readership. I was as totally engrossed by it as I was in awe of how smart it is, and how Palmer uses so many different elements of our modern world (even though this is set 10 years or so in the future) to explore his themes. I really loved it — a definite candidate for favorite of the year.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Nest: What's Money Between Siblings?

A great modern poet once wrote: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need." That's the theme of Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's terrific dysfunctional family story, The Nest. The questions of the novel: What happens when something you'd been counting on — in this case, a YUGE inheritance — is suddenly gone? How do you adjust? How do you extract the wrenches thrown in the works of your carefully laid plans?

What we have here is four New York City siblings, whose father died and left them all a trust. But the catch is that it could only be dispersed when the youngest sibling turns 40. The mother, Francie, a decidedly Lucille Bluth-like character, has resisted all requests from the four to borrow from The Nest...that is until only a few months before the money's about to be doled out, eldest son Leo wrecks his car with a 19-year-old-not-his-wife waitress, and some hush money is required.

So The Nest, a windfall all four siblings had counted on, is mostly gone. And though Leo, fresh from rehab, promises to pay them all back, they're all pretty skeptical he will. The story that unfolds is about how each sibling, to varying degrees of success, deals with the money being gone. They'd made plans. They'd kept certain financial indiscretions from their significant others. They'd lied.

This novel is just an absolute delight from cover to cover. It's funny, it's sad, it's chock full of social commentary and wickedly sharp observation. And these characters are so fully real — they're all empathetic, but the moment you start feeling badly for them, they do something that makes you just cringe.

I loved it! It's one my favorite novels of the year so far. Just so fun and scandalous — well worth the considerable hype!