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 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.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney: Thank You, Next

A modest proposal: Sally Rooney is to a certain sect of readers what David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen are to middle-aged white dudes (like me). That's to say, Rooney fans are ride or die, and god help you if you sling a wayward negative comment her way. Sally Rooney is a saint!

Anyway, so I'm about to duck. Here comes a rare negative review at The New Dork Review of Books. And believe me, I fully understand the choppy waters I'm wading into here.

Sally Rooney's latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, about four unlikeable navel-gazers, is...just, oh god, I don't know, unlikeable

So the novel is about the worries of youth. Four characters — two couples, basically – sit around and argue and complain and worry about each other and have sex and also try to puzzle out REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS. That's it. That's the story. My friend Matthew, who is a wunderkind with words, called this novel a "masterpiece in navel-gazing" and "akin to a ballad amidst bangers" (read his whole review for the context on that last bit, which is brilliant).

I felt like this entire novel was like sitting at a bar listening to the most unlikable people talk about things that don't matter. Nothing about this novel felt authentic — from what the characters say, to their long-winded emails to each other about climate change, existential dread, beauty, and art, to how they actually treat each other. Everything was just a bit off. 

Far be it from me to decry a novel because of unlikeable characters. Yes, these people are all intensely unlikeable. But that's only 5 percent of why this novel fell flat. Between bad dialogue, a lack of anything remotely interesting happening, and people that don't act, talk, or interact the way you'd expect normal people to, I couldn't wait for this to be over. 

Thankfully, it does read quickly. Look, I know Rooney is an immensely talented writer. She does a lot with very few words, and that's impressive. I actually really enjoyed her last novel, Normal People, so I'm not just hatcheting here to be hateful or contrarian. I genuinely didn't like this book. I joked on Goodreads that this novel should be titled: Sex and Email: But Nothing Happens. But lots of people will like it, and I hope you're one of them.

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: ", okay that could work."

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

P: ", 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!