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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!


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Chicago: Novel of Broad Shoulders

Brian Doyle's novel, Chicago, is a brave book. It's a passionate, wistful love letter to a revered city...that includes a friggin' talking dog. It's hard to imagine Bellow or Cisneros, Roth or Wright, making that choice. But of course dog-as-character is a metaphor — for the diversity of the city itself, and eventually, for the attachment our narrator feels to it. And your ability to enjoy this novel will hinge almost solely on whether or not you can get past the fact that there's an anthropomorphized animal in an otherwise realistic novel. I was warned ahead of time, which helped, and so I ended up really enjoying this. So consider this your warning as well.

But let's back up a second: Chicago is about a young man, our first-person narrator, who moves to the city in the late 1970s (the specific year isn't important, because Doyle sort of combines events of several late-1970s years into one — the White Sox 1977 season, the Blizzard of 1979, Jane Byrne's election, etc.) to take a job as a journalist for a Catholic magazine in the Loop. He spends his free time exploring Chicago's neighborhoods with the dog Edward, who knows everyone and everything about Chicago.

Frankly, it's a story that's a bit short on story: Our new Chicagoan makes friends, plays basketball with gang members, hangs in blues clubs (like Kingston Mines), goes to White Sox games, helps his landlady out of a jam, plays matchmaker, and falls in love himself. But mostly, he spends a lot of time hanging out, philosophizing, and being shown the sites and the people with Edward, the stamp-collecting, Abraham Lincoln-obsessed talking dog. 

As is the case with Edward the dog, whether you like this novel will depend on your reaction to several pages-long "thought bubbles" from the narrator himself, as well as soliloquies by various characters the narrator meets and befriends: The building manager of his Lakeview apartment building, who is Edward's owner, but in stark contrast to Edward, barely leaves the apartment, the mailman, a bus driver, etc. Sometimes, these are so eloquent they give you chills (a particularly beautiful one about the blues, for instance), as the narrator tries to identify the soul of Chicago; what makes Chicago the most American of American cities. Sometimes, however, these feel a bit overwritten or just seem like odd tangents that don't add much to the overall piece. But the latter are definitely fewer and farther between than the former.

So, if you're a Chicagoan, and you're attached to your city, as I am, this is highly recommended. It's certainly not Augie March, my personal favorite classic Chicago novel, but it's a solid addition to the overall Chicago canon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Regional Office Is Under Attack!: Fun! Fun! So Much Fun!

If you're like me, and fun is one of the main reasons you read, then stay tuned. Because I haven't had more fun with a book in a long, long time than I did with Manuel Gonzalez's crazy, goofy, hilarious, utterly original novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, out today.

What it's about: A mysterious organization called the Regional Office, housed in a secret location several stories below a Manhattan travel agency, uses a cadre of highly skilled young women warriors and assassins to protect the world from all that is dark and evil, including time traveling aliens and terrorist cartels. Founded by the mysterious possibly insane Oyemi, whose origin story includes becoming radioactive at a young age, and Mr. Niles, who has always loved her, the Regional Office may not, however, be all it seems. One of our two protagonists, the young and beautiful, but mercurial Sarah, is a Regional Office lifer, vowing to defend it to the death. Also, she has a mechanical arm, which allows her to kick more than the usual amount of ass. 

Rose, a mere 17 years old, is our second protagonist and represents the opposition — the attackers of the Regional Office. She's already a graduate of Assassin School and is like a more foul-mouthed, smoking-and-boozing version of Katniss from The Hunger Games. But why is Rose attacking the Regional Office, and what is her organization of highly trained graduates of Assassin School all about?

As we learn more about the backgrounds of these characters, we begin to see a more full picture of everyone's motivations, and why they're making the decisions they are. We also learn about a mysterious man named Henry, who recruits Rose at the beginning of the novel and may or may not be playing both sides. But what is his motivation? Revenge? Love? If there's a "serious" theme at all to this novel, it's about how tough it is to make decisions without complete information, and the dire consequences of doing so.

But, really, this novel's more about fun. There's almost a comic book feel to it. And there are a million pop culture references, including several nods to Die Hard, which all the characters think they might be in at one point. It's not sci-fi, exactly, nor is it a thriller. This novel is really its own thing — I've never read anything quite like this. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just so much fun.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Two Great Paperbacks: Private Citizens and The Sellout

Private Citizens, by Tony Tulathimutte — If I could nominate an alternate title for this incredibly well-written, smart debut novel, it'd be "Hot Mess Millennials Make Increasingly Bad Decisions." I really dug this book because to me the only thing better than reading about one character who can't get out of his/her own way is FOUR characters for which that's true. And that's what we have here. Four recent Stanford grads try to navigate their treacherous 20s in San Francisco, to vastly varying degrees of success.

I liked this book because it elevates itself well above the familiar theme of "life is hard when you're young and stupid." For one, stories like this almost always takes place in New York – so seeing this one unfold amidst the tech boom of mid-2000s San Francisco was fascinating. Secondly, the characters in this type of story are often good people striving against tough circumstances. These characters are decidedly...off. But they all have their redeeming qualities as well. There's your porn addicted tech guru who is dating a young ambitious woman who sees people as mere pawns in her grand scheme, a flighty nihilist who uses sex as power, an idealistic liberal activist who fails basic tests of common sense, and the perennial student with the odd upbringing

So if you liked A Little Life, but wanted a novel maybe a little shorter and a lot less horrifying, this is the story for you. Tulathimutte is a really talented, sharp writer — you might even see whispers of DFW here and there in the way he writes goofy logical double-binds and turns of phrases. Highly recommended!

————

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty — Oh man, this novel is something else — like what would happen if Chris Rock (and I'm sure Beatty would be apoplectic at this comparison) decided to convert a stand-up routine to a novel, but make it much smarter and even more irreverent. Crazy stuff here! No racial taboo is untouched in this year's National Book Critics Circle award winner, and it is utterly, completely hilarious. Though it does lose a little momentum at the end (which isn't a huge deal, it's a short book), this is one of the funnier novels I've read in long time — but it's sure not for the easily offended.

It almost reads like a collection of set pieces (comedy bits?), but a story does emerge — it's about a guy named Bonbon Me, a black guy who is a farmer, surfer, grower of amazingly good fruit and weed, and rider of horses. The story takes place in present day in the town of Dickens, California, a Los Angeles suburb/neighborhood that has been zoned as farmland, but has turned seedy, like many other black LA 'hoods. Bonbon goes about his life in typical fashion, owning a slave who happens to be the last surviving Little Rascal, trying to re-segregate schools, pining for his long-time crush who has married a rapper named DJ Panache, and working hard to get Dickens re-recognized on maps.

It's a novel rich in irony, cultural references, and laugh-out-loud jokes. If you liked Americanah, but thought it just a touch too serious, this is the book for you. Great.