Monday, January 17, 2022

The Revisionaries, by A.J. Moxon: The Author Is God

This freakin' beautiful mess of a novel is likely what would happen if David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Tom Robbins got together and tested the limits of how much a reader can stand before giving up and throwing the novel against the wall. But then Kurt Vonnegut showed up halfway through and goes, "But my dudes, we have to make it entertaining as well." And so they did.

I think I understood about two-thirds of what A.J. Moxon is up to here in his long, post-modern, super-meta novel, The Revisionaries. And I consider that a win. It's certainly a novel you need to read more than once, which is a tough ask at 600 pages. But also, in the moment, you're so dazzled by Moxon's language and sentences, you almost don't notice, that a) you're aggravated, because b) you only have a passing sense of what is happening and why. That's especially true in the last 100 pages or so as it's supposed to all be coming together, but it's told in a fractured, multi-perspective way that frankly drove me nuts.

So what's going on here? This is a novel about God, but it's sure not religious. It's a novel about the role of fiction, the author's authority, the reader's power, and where all those might intersect...but sometimes don't? That's my best guess anyway. 

The plot, which is important, but so zany it's almost beside the point here, is about a bearded acrobat woman, a preacher who performs a miracle in a place called Loony Island (so named because of it being home to an insane asylum) and builds a new church, a kid who flickers in and out of existence, a cult of weirdos dressed up as cardinals, and a guy who discovers a magical fountain and uses it to erase people's memories and recreate them as he sees fit.

Are you with me? IT'S SO WEIRD! But in a strangely good way. 

Again, I can't claim to fully understand this, but part of the point is how the author is God, but the reader still has veto power, even over God, because of how s/he interprets, understands, derives meaning from, feels about, etc., the text. And this is because each reader brings to bear a unique experience, education, philosophy on life, philosophy on reading books, politics, mood, etc. on every book s/he reads. I think?

Would I recommend that you read this? Yes, but with a bunch of caveats. If you like to be challenged, if you are okay with not completely understanding why or how or even what is going on all the time, and if you like something that's truly creative, inventive, and probably unlike anything else you've really ever read before, pick this novel up. Moxon is smart enough (you should absolutely follow him on Twitter, by the way — that is one of main reasons I bought this novel and read it), that someday soon, he's going to publish a novel that absolutely dazzles us. I can't wait for that, but I'm glad I read this one now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Small World, by Jonathan Evison: Striving Together for the American Dream

Jonathan Evison's new novel Small World is, no exaggeration, his masterpiece. He had mentioned on Facebook a few years ago that he felt like this is the novel he was born to write. And he wasn't wrong. 

Small World is a huge, ambitious, but incredibly immersive Great American novel about how we're all connected in striving for the Great American Dream. A huge cast of diverse characters both in the present and in the 19th century populate this novel with interconnected stories about how beating injustice and flourishing in this Great American Experiment is at its essence a team sport. 

So as a train speeds through a snowy night in Oregon, several passengers on this train are connected in ways they couldn't possibly know. A mom trying to give her basketball prodigy son a leg up. A woman escaping her abusive boyfriend. A family making a huge change in their lives. And the train engineer, on his last run before retirement. We get the stories of each of these people, but as importantly, we get the story of the 19th century ancestors of each of these people. An enslaved person who escapes in Illinois. Irish immigrant twins who try to make their ways in Chicago and then the sprawling West. A Chinese immigrant who pans for gold in California. And a Native American girl who yearns for open spaces and freedom. 

It's a lot, for sure. But Evison nails it! You never feel overwhelmed or have trouble keeping these characters straight. Without question, this structure was risky: There are literally eight different strands of story (and really nine, because we get both of the Irish twins' stories), and so this could've easily gone sideways. 

But I couldn't wait to get back to each story. Would the Irish twins find each other after they're separated? Would the basketball superstar get his time to shine? Would the woman escaping her a-hole boyfriend truly escape? How are all these people connected, both in the past and the present? But most importantly, how would all of these characters be able to overcome injustice, inequity, and a deck stacked against them to strive toward their American dream? 

To be honest, I'm just about done with long novels of interconnected stories (thanks a lot, Cloud Cuckoo Land). Everyone's doing it now and it's getting a little tiresome. But I'm glad I got this one in under the bell before I got tired of these, because this one is a paragon of the genre. If you've been a New Dork Review reader for any amount of time, you know I'm huge Evison fan. I've read everything he's written, and I can happily report this novel represents a major step forward for him as a writer. I've really enjoyed all his novels, but this is my favorite since The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which is still my favorite of his. But this is now a very close second. Highly, highly recommend. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: The Power of History

Ron Charles, the esteemed book critic for the Washington Post and one of my all-time favorite book reviewers, is almost solely responsible for talking me into picking up this 800-page novel. 

Charles wrote: "Whatever must be said to get you to heft this daunting debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, I’ll say, because The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the kind of book that comes around only once a decade. Yes, at roughly 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America."

So heft, I did, not without some trepidation, frankly. But now, I owe Mr. Charles a beer. Because it was just as engrossing and transformative as he said. I actually included it on my top 10 of 2021 before I'd even finished it. 

The story itself is two-fold. It's a coming of age story of Ailey, a young Black girl growing up in "the City" (presumably NYC?), and visiting relatives during summers in rural Georgia. It's also the story of Ailey's ancestors, enslaved people on a Georgia plantation. So yes, it's a multi-generational family saga, but told as two separate narratives. Both stories are fascinating, and there are a TON of characters. You're warned of this with the extensive family tree Jeffers includes at the beginning. 

As good as this is, it's not an easy read from a content standpoint. Serious trigger warnings here for sexual abuse, pedophilia, and drug addiction. 

But it really is as engrossing as Charles says — it's an epic story of America, injustice, racism, the power of knowing and understanding unvarnished history, and the strength of family.