Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Mount Chicago, by Adam Levin: One of the Funniest Novels I've Ever Read

I have some questions for you, Mr. Levin. You're a very good writer. You KNOW you're a very good writer. You're also a very self-aware writer. So when you're as good a writer as you are, and you fully understand what you're doing and its effect on your reader as well as you do, why do you insist on aggravating your reader just to the point where he wants to throw your novel across the goddamn room? Why? Why why why why why? 

Is it because it helps the other 90 percent of the novel, which is truly a marvel, stand out in even more stark relief? Is it because you're just a prankster? Do you just like keeping your readers on their toes, making sure they're paying attention? Or is it because you truly like to inflict a small measure of pain on people?

It doesn't matter. I'll still read every damn word you ever write if the remaining words you write in your career are even one-third as f#%king incredible as the good 90 percent of Mount Chicago

To my readers, most of whom I've probably already lost: Mount Chicago is one of the funniest novels I've ever read. That's the first time I've ever bolded a sentence in a review. Because that's really the one thing you need to know about this book. And when you consider it's sort of kind of tangentially about a massive tragedy that kills thousands of people, that's a pretty neat trick. And that's not the only trick. There's no line between author and novel here. As the kids say, so meta. Except maybe there is a line? Who knows? I'm not smart enough to try to figure that out. And I don't think Adam Levin wants you try. 

To describe it further, and I fully realize this is an absolutely ridiculous analogy, and I have no doubt Adam Levin would hate this, but this is my small measure of payback for making me read pages and pages about behavioral psychology and parrots and that really, really long duck (yes, duck) joke: Mount Chicago is what would happen if Kurt Vonnegut on speed, a baked and giggly Philip Roth (can you imagine?!), and David Foster Wallace on...well, no, just normal DFW...had a book baby. 

I can't find the passage or the interview now, and maybe I'm imagining this but, I think DFW said something really smart once about reader aggravation: That a good novel must have parts that aggravate the reader, but a good novelist knows just the right amount to antagonize his reader before he can pull back just in time, and entertain again. And so if you think about it, this novel's 575 pages, so 90 percent (again, my approximation for the non-purposefully-aggravating parts) of 575 is 517.5 INCREDIBLE pages. I like those odds. You probably skim over - whether on purpose or because you drift - 10 percent of every novel you read anyway, right?!

All right, so anyway: I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. You don't need to know what it's about, you can read that anywhere. But whatever you read that it's about, it's actually about Entourage (the HBO show) and metafiction and Chicago politics and psychology and cryptocurrency and other get-rich-quick-scams and the author's face and stand-up comedy and writing and depression and tragedy and love and coming-of-age and parrots. 

READ THIS. 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng: About An All-Too-Terrifyingly-Real Dystopian America

By the standard definition of dystopia -- an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice -- Celeste Ng's new novel Our Missing Hearts is DEFINITELY set in a dystopian America. What's most terrifying -- and what makes this such an engaging read -- is that it's not at all hard to imagine this dystopian version of America becoming reality very soon. 

Ng's dystopian America, she tells us at the end, is based on real events -- violence against Asian Americans, freedoms curtailed in the name of "patriotism," even children being ripped away from their families. 

But there is cause for hope here: In this novel, librarians are heroes of the resistance. Stories and poetry and art still matter. And even as dire as things are, a small and dedicated group is still invested in fighting fascism, racism, and injustice. 

The story is about a 12-year-old boy named Bird. Bird's mother, a poet, has disappeared and Bird and his father, who works at a university library, have no clue what's happened to her. What we do know is that Bird's mother had published a poem that became, though it was not intended this way, a symbol of the resistance against a law known as PACT -- or Preserving American Cultures and Traditions. PACT was enacted after a years-long event known as the Crisis, which galvanized and basically codified burgeoning fascist, authoritarian, and horribly racist tendencies in America. Sound familiar? 

Bird begins finding some clues about his mother's whereabouts, and endeavors to find out what happened to her. And that's the meet of the novel: Will he find her? And will he discover why she disappeared?

I love Celeste Ng, and this is another terrific novel from her -- her first foray into what could be considered "speculative fiction." It's so beautifully written. And Ng truly understand compassion, family dynamics, loyalty, and heartbreak. She is absolutely a joy to read, even when this novel itself isn't exactly cheerful. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The Great Man Theory, by Teddy Wayne: Ignatius Reilly Lives!

I have no idea if Teddy Wayne had Ignatius Reilly - the pugnacious protagonist of the classic novel A Confederacy of Dunces - in mind as he penned his character Paul in his new novel The Great Man Theory. But if he did, he nailed it! Paul is a middle-aged, divorced dad, Brooklyn writer living with his mother who is constantly upset with the state of the world and beyond befuddled that the world doesn't appreciate his brilliance. 

But here's the surprise: Paul is a little bit all of us. Paul is sure social media is destroying society. Paul has trouble understanding why his passion projects -- in his case, long-form articles about really obscure subjects published in academic journals -- aren't more widely read and respected. But mostly, Paul can't understand how so many people in this supposedly enlightened country can go along with the machinations of the orange fiend in the White House. (Yes, it's 2018 or so, and the Cheeto-faced Shitgibbon is at the height of his manipulative powers.)

And now, Paul discovers his own mother -- he had to move in with her after he was denied tenure and then got demoted from his university teaching job -- is a fan of Colin Mackey, the blustery anchor on a nightly news show bearing no accidental resemblance to Sean Hannity and Fox News.

But Paul has a plan to solve all these problems. He's currently working on a book titled The Luddite's Manifesto that will set the set the world straight and vault him to cultural prominence and wealth beyond his wildest dreams. 

It's pretty laughable of course, but let's let Paul/Ignatius have his dream because despite all this, we somehow manage to feel for Paul, a little bit. He is losing touch with his 11-year-old daughter who he only gets to see on weekend (part of the reason for this is that he constantly explains the world to her in the most condescending terms, and she recognizes his life as sad). But he really does love her and really strives to be a good parent.

Eventually, as is inevitable, Paul hits rock bottom and has a moment of clarity. What is he really doing to help the declining state of society? What can he do? Can he do more?

There are few "plot twists" in this novel that make you go "huh?" But on the whole, this is a really fun read. Paul is exasperating for sure! But do you root for him? Sometimes it's hard to tell if you should. Paul, in addition to standing in as a modern-day Ignatius Reilly, is also the guy in the classic Onion article, "Area Man Accepts Burden Of Being Only Person On Earth Who Understands How World Actually Works." 

Monday, September 19, 2022

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, by Joe Meno: "Family will find a way"

Joe Meno is the best, and his new novel, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, is another terrifically quintessential Chicago story from him. It's a novel about family and striving and choices, and whether or not anyone is able to escape their fate, their history, their family's past. 

Mitt Romney famously said that if someone really wants to go to college, all he has to do is "borrow money from his parents." For Aleks Fa, who wasn't born on third base thinking he hit a triple, that's not an option. Aleks, a 20-year-old southsider navigating life in a Polish neighborhood with an absent father and a sick mother, is the only thing keeping the rest of his family together - getting his three-year-old niece Jazzy to preschool, looking after his 13-year-old brother Daniel who is having some trouble, and taking his older sister, Isobel, a former music prodigy and math genius, to chemo. It's a lot. 

It's 2008 and the Great Recession is just starting. But to this family that barely scrapes by -- and only then by all helping each other -- the financial collapse barely registers. That's just how the world works, to them. People are poor. They struggle. Money is barely a real thing. So for a family like this, and an extremely likable and root-for-able character like Aleks, is there even a path out of poverty? What if hard work simply is never enough?

Meno gets this just right -- it's a story that feels real and immediate. And there are moments of pure levity -- especially in the relationships between Aleks and Isobel -- two siblings who spend as much time at each others throats as they do genuinely caring for each other.

I really loved this book. I love Meno's insightful writing and how he portrays Chicago. It really has that Chicago gritty feel. I've loved all his books, but this one is my favorite from him. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin: Friendship For the Win

Everyone is right. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin is truly extraordinary. It took me a bit to talk myself into reading this novel, because "two friends design video games" just didn't sound like something I'd be interested in. But I'm here to tell you, as someone who doesn't care a whit about video games, if that's also what holding you back from reading this: Give it a shot. Video games are basically the decorative curtains in this novel. And actually I learned a lot about how video games can be their own art form, which was immensely interesting.

Anyway, to bring this point home, and this isn't an original sentiment, but this novel is a lot like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in the sense that the story transcends the subject. Like, I didn't care about comic books either, and LOVED that book. And I loved this book too.

Let me throw out another bit of comparison to help arrange this in your mind: This is like The Social Network crossed with Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies, only this story is about friendship, not marriage. But like that novel, the themes of creativity, collaboration, and trust are all over this book, too.

Briefest of plot summaries: Two friends, Sam and Sadie, who grew up loving video games, reconnect in college and start a company to make video games together. But as their success grows, their personal friendship becomes increasingly fraught. Will their partnership -- both business and as friends -- survive?

What stands out about this book, other than it being just a great feat of storytelling, is how immersive it is. It is one of those novels that as you read, you get lost, you barely know you're reading. Then it's three hours later. And your eyes hurt a little. 

It's not flawless, but my quibbles are minor -- and they don't take away from just how much fun I had with this, how affecting it is, and just what a great overall reading experience it is. Definitely a favorite of the year.