Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead: A Triptych of Noir

Man, Colson Whitehead is cool. And his novel Harlem Shuffle (out today!) is cool, too. It's a return to fiction that must've been much more fun for him to write than his previous two hugely important, vital, Pulitzer-prize winning novels (The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys) about dead serious topics of racism, death, slavery, and injustice. 

Harlem Shuffle is like a triptych of noir — three different sections, each with the same characters (except for the ones that get rubbed out, naturally), involve three different schemes: a heist, sweet revenge, and then lastly, just sort of cleaning up loose ends. 

Our hero is Ray Carney, an ordinary furniture store owner in 1960s Harlem, who like just about everyone, has a few less-than-legal side hustles going on. As Ray strives to the straight and narrow, to move his family to a nicer apartment, to live the American dream, he keeps getting sidetracked. In each of the three "scenes," his connections to the seedy underside of Harlem (his cousin Freddie, his long-dead father who was about the life, Ray's own business associates) always seem to draw him back in. 

I read this in basically two sittings — not because it's laced with unputdownable suspense, exactly. I don't know, there's just something about the way Whitehead writes that's super engrossing. I don't go in for much crime fiction, but of course if Colson Whitehead is writing it, I'm in. This book probably won't change your life, but it's still a great read. What, you're not going read the new Colson Whitehead? Of course you are. I think you'll have fun with this one, too. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Matrix, by Lauren Groff: Nuns Having Fun

Lauren Groff is nothing if not unpredictable. And brave. As I was reading her new novel, Matrix, a tale of 12th century nuns, I was trying to imagine the conversation she must've had with her publisher. 

LG: "So, it's about a nun..."

P: "Cool, cool. A superhero nun?"

LG: "Well, no. Her superpower is being a strong woman."

P: "Oh...um, okay that could work."

LG: "Also, she lived in the 12th century."

P: "Oh...um, well, we'll let marketing handle selling that."

I kid, I kid. Lauren Groff is talented enough to write about anything she damn well pleases. And I'll happily read any and every word she writes (literally...Groff is one of only a handful of writers for whom I've read everything she's published). And even though it took a minute to find my way into this one, once I did, I was thoroughly impressed, thoroughly entertained, and sufficiently wowed. Like the protagonist of this story, Groff herself is a wunderkind.

So Matrix is the story of Marie de France, a poet and abbess who lived in the 12th century. We know very little about Marie's real life, except what little of her poetry survives. And so here Groff has imagined her life. 

In Groff's telling, Marie is a fierce, powerful, inspired woman who turns her dire circumstances of being remanded to the abbey by the queen into becoming one of the most powerful women in England. This is a novel about the spark of creativity, about the limits of faith, about the power of passion, and about what constitutes inspiration.

As you'd expect, this is pretty different than Groff's last novel — Fates and Furies, a tale about a marriage coming unraveled, which I REALLY loved. I've seen several reviewers try to draw parallels between these two books — "Marie de France's relationship with God becomes unraveled like a bad marriage," etc. It doesn't really work. My advice is to not try to compare this to Groff's other work. This one's fine on its own. Again, it's a brave novel — one definitely worth taking a shot on!