Thursday, October 7, 2021

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Awesome Autofiction

So I don't mind admitting my superficiality: I read Claire Vaye Watkins' new novel, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, based almost solely on its incredibly awesome title. Hey, there are a lot worse reasons to pick up a novel.

Here's how it started: 

Me, after about 10 pages: Ah, man is this gonna be just another one of these self-indulgent, self-important pieces of autofiction?

Here's how it's going: 

Me, halfway through, and riveted: Okay, yeah, it is, but it's also really good!

If you do some googling, you'll learn that the real-person writer Claire Vaye Watkins' father was one of Charles Manson's right-hand men. Which is crazy! This novel gives a long story about her/the narrator's parents, how they met, etc., right at the beginning. So right off the bad the autofiction/memoir line is a little blurred. In these autofiction novels that seem to be so trendy these days, you always wonder where the line between reality and fiction is, which I realize is not productive to your reading experience. But I can't help it. It sort of feels like you're being tricked a little, but not in a nefarious way. (Of course, to most writers, readers trying to figure out what's real and not is beside the point — and in fact, is probably supremely irritating to them.) 

Anyway, that line is further blurred because the rest of the novel is about a character named Claire Vaye Watkins (also a writer). The character Claire and her husband have just had a baby. And she has had enough — she feels trapped, confined, and felled by postpartum depression. 

When she travels to her hometown of Reno for an author event, she hangs out with some of her old friends, does mushrooms, and slowly realizes she can't go back to her former life. So now what? That's what the rest of the novel is — her just trying (or not really trying, just drifting) to figure out her life. 

All the while, she contemplates a series of letters her mother, who has since died of an opioid overdose, wrote to a cousin when her mother was a teenager in Las Vegas in the 1970s. These letters are give us breaks in the narrator's story. And part of the point is: The apple maybe hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Yes, so once you get past trying to figure out what's fiction and not, you'll find a really sharply written story about returning to your roots. When you start slowly deviating from who you think you are, how do you get back to who you want yourself to be? 

I enjoyed this — a lot more than I thought I might after the first few pages. It's an acutely observed, quickly paced, clever, often funny, often VERY raunchy, and really entertaining read. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen: Testing the Limits of the Family Bond

The Franzen returns! 

You know, for a writer who has such a reputation (warranted or not) for being an unpleasant curmudgeon, he sure understands and seems to like people. And he sure knows how to tell their stories in such a way that even a 600-page novel, like his new novel Crossroads, seems to just fly by.

A few months ago, I attended a Zoom interview with The Franzen, during which he mentioned he's of the (seemingly arbitrary) belief that writers only have six good novels in them, and then they should retire. He said when he started Crossroads, his sixth novel, he was sure it would be his last book — but then he got so into it and the lives of this family, 600 pages later, we have what is the first volume in a trilogy. 

Woo, and may I add, Hoo! 

I for one am delighted about this, because I loved/hated/was absolutely fascinated by this family. To back up a second, Crossroads tells the story of a family of six — the Hildebrandts — living in a suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s. These people are quirky but also about as normal and everyday as people get. The father is an assistant pastor at a local church, the mother is a stay-at-home mom, and the kids do kids-like things, fight with each other, go off to college, try drugs, sex, and rock and roll. 

As each character wrestles with their own problems (and their checkered pasts, in the parents' cases, especially in the case of mother Marion), things, as is the case with all families who are miserable in their own way, get broken. Each member of this family seems to be striving for his or her own individual definition of freedom (a common Franzen theme), both from the constraints of their family, but also, just to live their lives in the way they believe they're intended to. 

Franzen asks us to consider some pretty itchy questions in Crossroads. For one, when you are so mad at someone you love, how is it possible to repair the damage done by intentional cruelty? For another, how do you overcome the feeling that you may not even, much less love, the people in your own family anymore? 

The revolving character studies and how each of these characters relate to each other is interesting enough to keep us moving along quickly. But what Franzen's really got going on here is a novel about the extremely fine lines between ostensible opposites: love and hate, respect and contempt, faithfulness and infidelity, faith and doubt, empathy and intentional cruelty, and self-righteousness and altruism. 

I don't know if this is my favorite Franzen novel — but it's up there. And I can't wait for the next one!

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Dishwasher, by Stéphane Larue: Up All Night, Sleep All Day

I can't recall exactly how this small-press indie novel, The Dishwasher, by Stéphane Larue, first popped up on my reading radar — I just remember reading it's about a heavy metal fan working in a restaurant, all the while nursing a nasty gambling addiction. I was like, did this French-Canadian writer dude follow me around in 2001?

Okay, I exaggerate — while I am a huge metal fan (I have the Tshirt to prove it — see below!), and while I've worked some pretty menial catering and restaurant jobs to make ends meet during and after college, and while I do enjoy laying a few bucks here and there on sports, I never had near the problem this guy does with gambling. 

In fact, one of the reason I loved this book is that it's one of the more clear-eyed depictions of gambling addiction I've ever read. Of course, there's much literature about substance abuse and addiction, but gambling can destroy your life just as easily. And this novels pulls no punches in how it shows that.

The story is of a college kid in Montreal studying to be a graphic designer, illustrating album covers for metal bands, and working as a, you guessed it, dishwasher, in a high-end Italian restaurant. But he can't get out of his own way: His girlfriend has dumped him, his roommate has booted him out, and every time he seems to get a little bit ahead, he blows it on the ubiquitous video poker machines at the bars all over Montreal.

Another strength here is showing the crazy lives of people working long shifts and late nights in restaurants. Substance abuse and all-night partying are the norm, rather than the exception — you get off work and after being geared up for hours, you can't wind down easily. So you just go on these booze- and drug-filled benders until dawn, sleep until late afternoon, and then do it all again the next day. Our narrator here easily gets caught up in this cycle, and gets swept away by a colorful cast of characters who work with him in the kitchen.

I love small-press books because in novels like this, some stuff slips through that probably would've been edited out in a novel published by a larger house. For example, here we have a whole chapter just of the narrator and his girlfriend going to a Static-X and Megadeth concert in the late 1999s. I guess for establishing the basis for his relationship, this chapter is important. But it could've been easily cut. I'm glad it didn't because of how much fun it is to read about a METAL CONCERT IN LITERATURE.  I was right there with him, moshing to Symphony of Destruction! 

Anyway, there are a few odd translation glitches and proofreading errors here, the latter which always bug me more than they should — another feature of small-press novels. But overall, this was a fantastic read — a story about people you don't often see in fiction, which I always love to read. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Calling for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris: Who Gets To Tell My Story?

"All this happened, more or less." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

If you've read Joshua Ferris before (Then We Came To The End, etc.), you know he loves toying with perspective and narration. And his novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, might be his greatest trick yet.

What we think we're reading is a "Man Called Ove"-esque story about an old guy named Charlie Barnes, who is just a little bit off. Charlie has had five wives, several kids, and even more failed attempts at getting rich quick. These schemes have included a toupee frisbee, a clown college, and his own investment firm. Now, at 68 years old, and apparently having just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he still hasn't found his calling. 

But after the initial shock of Charlie's diagnosis wears off, and we start to learn more about Charlie and his past and his family, we the reader begin to wonder about who is telling us this story. Is this narrator unreliable, or just lying to us, or both? Does it even matter, because as this narrator tells us "Like reliability exists anywhere anymore, like that's still a thing"?

So through the story of Charlie Barnes and his wives and kids and failures, Ferris gives us a comment on the nature of fiction, non-fiction, family history, legend, myth, and storytelling generally. "Facts are full of dreary compromises and dead ends. Stare at them long enough and you'll go insane."

This novel is infinitely quotable, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "What self-deceptions we require to get out of bed in the morning," as one of many examples. And the fact that it's a lot of fun to read is a good thing, because for a large part of this novel, you're pretty sure Ferris is playing a trick on you. You're just not quite sure what it is.

One of the important aspects of reading any novel, I think, is being able to trust the writer. Here, we don't trust the narrator one bit. Which is part of the point. However, if you trust Ferris to bring you home, and he absolutely does here, then you're in for a hugely rewarding, really eye-opening, really fun reading experience.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers: A Lesson in Empathy

"In the face of the world's most basic brokenness, more empathy meant deeper suffering."

If you're like me, you'll likely have two main reactions to Richard Powers' new novel, Bewilderment. (Well three if you count HOLY SHIT THAT WAS GOOD.)

1. Sadness: The natural world is receding, and we don't seem to care.

2. Rage: The natural world is receding, and not only do we not seem to care, many on one side of the political spectrum are actively working to ensure it's a trend that continues. Science is the enemy. Individualism trumps the common good.

That is such as a sad, lazy, selfish way to live, and worse, to lead — and Powers captures the real consequences here perfectly.

But this isn't a political novel, even though "the President" (the previous one) butts in occasionally. Instead, at its root, this is a novel about empathy. Empathy leads to a respect for the natural world and other creatures (as well as fellow humans, of course). As many of us are losing our empathy, so too are we losing the power and ability to undo the damage we've already done.

Bewilderment is the story of a father, Theo, and his son, Robin. After the death of Theo's wife in a car accident, Robin begins exhibiting behavioral issues, and the always-recommended solution is to put him on drugs. This is anathema to Theo, who knows there is nothing wrong with his son — he's just experienced trauma. And that combined with his unusual but beautiful brain is what's causing him to act out. They come upon an experimental treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback that allows Robin to learn from the emotions and brain activity of others — basically learning empathy. And it works!

But then all goes awry. 

This novel, in addition to just wrecking me emotionally, is fascinating in how it treats the notion of science for science's sake, and the wonder of discovery. Theo is an astrobiologist, searching for life on other planets. His wife had been an animal rights activist, a calling which Robin adopts whole-heartedly. It's an interesting juxtaposition: Why do we continue to look up and out, when there's more than enough life to save here? Because we must. We must do both. And also, because as Theo tells Robin: "People, Robin. They're a questionable species."

A new Richard Powers novel is always an absolute must-read for me. The way he combines science and story...no one does that better than him. And he does it again here. I'm not sure this is in quite the same pantheon as his last novel The Overstory — one of my favorite novels of at least the last 10 years — but it's not too far off. Bewilderment is awe-inspiring.