Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Marrying the Ketchups, by Jennifer Close: Sweet Home, Chicago

If you are a Chicagoan, the fall of 2016 was the absolute epitome of the "best of times, the worst of times." The Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years...and then six days later, there was an election, and I don't remember the rest, but I think it was really bad.

These are the backdrop events for Jennifer Close's fantastic new novel, Marrying the Ketchups. Sullivan family patriarch Bud has dropped dead of a heart attack. In his wake, he's left an institution Oak Park restaurant and a devastated family. A life-long Cubs fan, poor Bud checked out just before that rainy November night in Cleveland when the Cubs lifted a century-old curse, and that fact alone is all the more devastating to his family.

The restaurant Bud started in the early 1970s is still the cornerstone of all the Sullivans' lives, even as their lives have diverged away from the friendly confines and outdated decor of Sullivan's. After Bud's death, the novel tells the story of the Sullivan family from the perspective of three characters. 

Gretchen is mid-30s, living in New York City and fronting a popular 90s cover band. When her boyfriend, also the band's guitarist, cheats on her, she dissolves the band and moves back to Chicago to live above the restaurant. Her older sister Jane lives a bougie Lake Forest life with her rich husband (who she suspects is cheating on her) and her two kids. And then Gretchen and Jane's cousin Teddy, the restaurant's floor manager, gets dumped by his boyfriend, only to begin an affair with him after he's engaged to another guy. So yeah, all their lives a little bit of a mess. But they take comfort in each other, in between shouting matches and disagreements. Just your normal family...

The meat of the novel is each of these characters evaluating their romantic relationships, their relationships to each other, and crucially, their relationship to the restaurant, the symbol of the ties that bind their family together. 

If you were a fan of Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had, you'll love this book. I absolutely did — a definite favorite of the year so far. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel: Is This a Simulation?

Intricate, but accessible: That is how I think about Emily St. John Mandel's stories. Her new novel, Sea of Tranquility, is that and then some. In fact, it's freaking brilliant.

Sea of Tranquility is the third novel in the Station Eleven-The Glass House universe. I hesitate to say "trilogy," because god-willing, there'll be more. And besides, the stories themselves are only tangentially connected. That's to say, you don't need to have read the other two to enjoy Sea of Tranquility (though of course having done so will provide some important context and enrich your reading experience. This fantastic New Yorker piece profiling St. John Mandel tells you all you need to know about how the three novels are related).

Of the three, Sea of Tranquility is the most straight-up speculative fiction: The thrust of the plot of the novel is a character traveling back in time to try to figure whether there's a "glitch in the matrix." So the main question the novel asks is this: Are we living in a simulation? And if so, what would cause several different characters over the course of several centuries to experience the same anomalous event? 

Structure-wise, Mandel is up to her usual tricks — she jumps all over the place in time and geography to follow the stories of several fascinating characters: A British fellow traveling to Canada, an author (who very much resembles the author of this book) of a pandemic novel on a book tour, a NYC woman who had been friends with Vincent (from The Glass Hotel), and a down-on-his-luck time traveler who lives on the moon. But as always, despite the leaps, it's not hard to follow. This won't be the only time you'll hear this comparison, but there's definitely a Cloud Atlas vibe to this novel.

Mandel uses all these literary fireworks as her vehicle to ask a very simple question with a very difficult answer: What is real? If we're living in simulation, do we need the so-called red pill to awaken to what's real, or, does it matter — as a character comments, "a life lived in a simulation is still a life."

I loved this book. Emily St. John Mandel's superpower is packing an enormous amount of plot and theme into a paucity of pages. Though this has all the elements of the best science fiction, you won't confuse this with Neal Stephenson or Philip K. Dick. St. John Mandel is a much more nimble, much less verbose writer. And her novels are the better for it. This is easily a favorite of the year so far.