Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Nix: Spectacular, Spelling-Bindingly Readable

Wow. The Nix, by Nathan Hill (out today!), is really spectacular — about as engaging, spell-bindingly readable, smart, and funny as fiction gets. This is the Franzen novel to read if you don't like Franzen the man — expansive, modern, political, and just immensely entertaining. There are shades of Don DeLillo, Donna Tartt (if you liked The Goldfinch, you'll LOVE this), and (I don't say this lightly) friggin' David Foster Wallace here (yes, there's a 12-page sentence, but even beyond that, Hill's astute observations of us in the modern world are incredibly DFW-esque).

It's a novel about what it means to engage with the world, to do your duty, even as the going gets tough. It's a novel about how personal politics aren't usually purely formed, similar to how some believe that by its very nature, altruism can't be perfectly unselfish (because there's always the good feeling for the doer of doing something good). And it's a novel about trust and loyalty, between friends, lovers, and parents and children.

We span 45 years here, from the violent protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 to the less violent but still powerful protests of Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Republican National Convention in New York City.

The story is about a woman named Faye who was involved in the 1968 protests. After the protests and then a sad, quiet life with her husband Henry and son Samuel, she suddenly leaves them (Samuel is 11) and disappears.

Samuel, now in mid-30s, is a failing writer, and an-about-to-be-fired English professor at a small Chicago college. (Brief interlude: There is a section right at the front of this novel showing Samuel confronting a student who has been caught plagiarizing a paper. It is the best, funniest 20 pages I've read in a long time.)

In the first scene of the novel, Faye re-emerges — she throws rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate visiting Chicago — and Samuel, who is about to be sued for not delivering the novel for which he received a big advance, is convinced by his agent Guy Periwinkle to write what will no-doubt be a runaway bestseller about his mother. (Second quick interlude: The conversations between Samuel and Guy throughout the novel are another highlight. Really damn funny.)

Samuel, still angry with his mother, agrees. And we go from there — back to Faye's childhood in a small town in Iowa, forward to Samuel adulthood in Chicago and New York City, back to Samuel's childhood in the generic Chicago suburbs, to the Iraq war, seedy bars, Norway, and just about everywhere else in between.

As I said, this book is expansive. Allen Ginsberg is in this book. So is a dude named Pwnage who is the champion of a World of Warcraft-like game called Elfquest. There are ghost stories. Sexting. A love story. Some funny stuff about publishing. Bullies and sexual abuse. Politics. Radical hippies. Traitors. It's just AWESOME. 

This is easily one of the best novels I've read this year. Despite how full it seems, it's also the shortest 600-page novel I've ever read. What I mean is that it felt like it could've been three times its size, and I would've happily kept reading. I spent about 3 hours on just the last 20 pages, reading one page at a time, because I didn't want it to end. This is a novel that, if you're thinking of picking it up (and by all means, do), I am immediately jealous that you get to read it for the first time. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Behold The Dreamers: What Happened To The American Dream?

There's been no shortage of controversial, combative rhetoric about immigration in this election cycle, so much so that it's hard to separate the Internet meme from the facts. But if you want to find out just how badly our stupid immigration system is broken, check out Imbolo Mbue's terrific, morally complex, heartbreaking debut novel, Behold The Dreamers.

But this novel isn't just about how difficult it is for those who come to this country seeking opportunity, it's about how the American system as a whole has been rigged such that in many cases many people never really have a chance at all. Maybe it's a pessimistic view of the American dream, but imagine yourself in New York City in 2009, at the height of the financial meltdown, and it's not hard to see how pessimism could be pervasive.

The story is about a Cameroonian immigrant named Jende who comes to the U.S., drives a taxi, saves fiercely, and finally is able to bring his wife Neni and six-year-old son over to the U.S. For a minute, all is well — Jende gets a "high-paying" job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive named Clark, Neni begins taking classes to become a pharmacist, and they're generally enamored of the Big City and the opportunities it affords.

But then it all goes wrong. For everyone. But what's fascinating about this novel is how Mbue turns expectation on its head. She shows us how crisis and pressure expose and exacerbate the flaws in even the best people...and even more so in the worst. You'd expect that you're rooting against the rich banker Clark and rooting for the hardworking immigrant Jende. But it's certainly not that simple.

Along with dysfunctional family stories, immigrant stories are one of my favorite subgenres of fiction — Americanah (one of my favorite books ever) to all of Jhumpa Lahiri's stories to The Newlyweds, The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, among many others. And this novel takes its place firmly in that pantheon. It's such an assured, well-written debut — as smooth and readable as any veteran writer could produce. Highly recommended! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Underground Railroad: Alternate History, All-Too-Real

When I got to talk briefly with Colson Whitehead while he signed my copy of The Underground Railroad at BEA this past May, I bragged to him that his book The Noble Hustle was my go-to hand-sell for dude customers at our bookstore (yeah, I'm so cool </sarcasm font>). I asked him if he still played poker, and he said he doesn't much because he has a young daughter now. It was a breezy, quick conversation, and I was thrilled I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the famous author, as I usually do.

Now that I've read his sobering, brilliant, unflinching, utterly spectacular novel, I feel like a prime asshole — like given the subject matter of the book he was signing, I should've been a tad more somber, or respectful, or just less trying to impress him. Because clearly, the thing he was he was signing as I jabbered away about poker is the work of a genius.

Indeed, don't be surprised if The Underground Railroad winds up on many of the end-of-the-year literary prize shortlists, if not the least for sentences like this: "Then it comes, always – the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for tiny moments across the eternity of servitude." Or this: "The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act."

Whitehead's sentences are magisterial, they absolutely just crackle. A blurb on the back from John Updike (presumably an older blurb, but relevant here for sure) tells us "Whitehead's writing does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world." That's it, right there. On the nose.

In this novel, Whitehead has refreshed not just our sense of the world, but the world as it could have been to give us an alternate history in which the Underground Railroad is a real, physical railroad. (Why? It'll make sense when you read, but it's something you should discover on your own — it's pretty profound.) Some time in the early 19th century, a teenage slave named Cora escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation and travels on the railroad throughout the South. In each state she visits, Whitehead gives us a different alternate history, or different approach, to the "African problem." In South Carolina, for instance, blacks are relatively free, but are forced to be sterilized and terrifying medical experiments are performed on them. In North Carolina, blacks are outlawed, period. Georgia is pretty much the same as it actually was. Slaves are beaten, brutalized, raped, and basically treated like the human property they were considered to be. Just utterly devastating. Not easy to read.

All the while, a slave catcher named Ridgeway chases Cora from state to state. Cora's mother had also escaped, and Ridgeway had never been able to find her, to his eternal shame. It's not until near the end of the novel, in one of the many fascinating mini-profiles of characters Whitehead includes between each chapter, that we find out what actually happened with Cora's mother.

Another of the profiles is about a doctor in South Carolina (who treated Cora on her way through), who grave-robs for cadavers to learn more about the human body. He mentions the irony of only being able to learn about life after one is dead. And also, that it was easier to find black cadavers because their graves weren't as well guarded, and black bodies were just as useful to him as white. And, therefore: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal."

This is one of the best books of the year. I enjoyed the hell out of reading it, but it frequently had to be put aside for a minute, a deep breath required, before continuing. It's a truly great piece of fiction.