Sunday, June 30, 2024

Margo's Got Money Troubles, by Rufi Thorpe: On Authenticity and Power and OnlyFans

The title and cover art of Margo's Got Money Troubles, by Rufi Thorpe, make it seem like one of those breezy reads about a quirky, cool Zillennial in over her head in the real world. It is that, but it's that only in the sense that, like, Gone Girl is a story about a failing marriage. That's to say, there's a WHOLE lot more going on here. 

This is a novel about authenticity and about correcting power dynamics both in relationships and in society writ large. Margo, a 19-year-old college kid, has an affair with her 20-years-older-than-her-married-with-children college English professor. She doesn't really even like the guy, but he makes her feel a certain kind of way...and later, she understand he abused his power to seduce her. He's a real shithead (and also, side note, Thorpe hilariously gives him some really stupid notions about fiction -- he's a terrible teacher, too). He's furious she decides to keep the pregnancy, and he tells her he wants nothing to do with her or the child, which is actually fine by Margo. 

But things start to get tough. She's fired from her job because her mother won't help her with childcare. Two of her roommates move out because they don't want to share an apartment with a baby. And so, as the title makes clear, Margo runs into a financial brick wall. Her solution: She starts an OnlyFans.

The novel is about all the problems this taboo "profession" creates for her and how so many people make snap judgments about her character and her fitness to be not just a mother but also a productive member of society. The strength of this book is how it makes the case for people like Margo being able to reclaim control over their own lives, how with some guardrails and precautions, sites like OnlyFans allow women to set their own course, to rebalance the power dynamic. 

And then, there's Margo's father Jinx. Jinx, who is one of my favorite characters I've read in a novel in some time, is a former professional wrestler and drug addict. He'd been only an occasional participant in her life for most of it -- as he also had been married with a family when he had an affair with Margo's mother. But now he is back, having retired, and wants to do the right thing better late than never. After some initial hesitancy, he is supportive of her new job, and is a huge help to her in taking care of her kid. 

The novel -- often hilariously -- plays wrestling and sex work off of each other as two examples of entertainment where we it's the consumers of this content who is trying to wrest a reality from an obvious fiction. This is such a smart comparison -- especially given the idea that professional wrestling is widely accepted in society, but OnlyFans is looked down upon.

I really, really enjoyed reading this -- Thorpe has created some captivating characters here, and then set them up together in the cage match of life to let them fight it out. Highly recommended!

Monday, June 24, 2024

The Material, by Camille Bordas: Yes, Jerry, Comedians Can Still Be Funny

The Material by Camille Bordas is a novel about a fictional MFA program in stand-up comedy. It's a very funny book, and like the best stand-up comedy, it's also astute and wise. 

I think the funniest part of this book is the whole-book-long running joke that there could be an MFA program for stand-up comics. Can you imagine? LOL! As if the whole School of MFA vs School of Life argument among fiction writers isn't contentious enough, just think what that debate would be like among comedians? Imagining that is almost as funny as anything here on the page.

So the story is about a group of MFA candidates and their teachers and their adventures over the course of one difficult Chicago winter day. There are crushes and rivalries and a visiting professor who has just behaved badly and may be cancelled. But the school decides, despite some protests within the English Department (where else would an MFA program in stand-up comedy be housed?), to not rescind this famous comedian's invitation to come teach in the program. 

But the real meat of this story is the idea of mining real-life for material. Where is the line between one's private life (if such a thing exists) and what can be used to get a laugh? A drug-addicted family member? An unrequited crush? Holocaust survivors? Molestation? A school shooting? A childhood illness? All of these are considered throughout the novel.

Furthermore, though, when is it okay to "borrow" from someone else's idea or from someone else's experience for a bit? The age-old question: Where is the line between taking-off-from or being-inspired-by and straight-up stealing?

A huge strength of this novel is how it treats these questions -- less a question of WHAT is offensive (i.e., should some topics be avoided all together?) and more a question of how should supposedly offensive topics be treated. This novel comes up with much more nuanced answers to these questions than some of the whiny comedians (cough, Jerry Seinfeld, cough cough) who have complained recently that comedians can't be funny anymore. 

Comedians can indeed still be funny. Comedians can also still bomb. A huge part of the fun of this novel is watching these comedians develop bits, riff with each other, and dissect each other's comedy. Yes, a novel about comedians better be funny, and this sure is. The last scene of the novel, during which all the characters come together for a comedy battle against improv troupe Second City at the legendary Empty Bottle is just a beautiful mess of comedy and slapstick and cringe and just about anything else that'll make you laugh heartily.

(If you're interested in some further insight, here's a great interview with the author at the Chicago Review of Books.) 

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Subverting the Suburbs: My Interview with Claire Lombardo

Please note: What follows is the first two paragraph of the introduction to an interview I did with Claire Lombardo for the Chicago Review of Books. Because again, I want CHIRB to get all the clicks they deserve for being nice enough to let me interview famous and incredibly cool writers like Claire, please click on this link to read the full interview (don't worry, it's free, there's no paywall or anything).

Claire Lombardo hit the rare debut novel trifecta with 2019’s The Most Fun We Ever Had: Readers loved it, critics praised it, and it sold hand over fist. That’s quite an accomplishment for a previously unknown novelist debuting with a 500-page book. The novel’s staying power and appeal were still evident: this past month Reese Witherspoon chose The Most Fun We Ever Had as her book club pick for April.

Now Lombardo is back with her second book, Same As It Ever Was, another long novel about a somewhat-functional family set in the Chicago suburbs. But Same As It Ever Was is certainly not, well, the same as it ever was. Whereas her debut had a polyphonic point of view, alternating between the voices and characters of four sisters, Same As It Ever Was is the third-person-limited story of Julia Ames, a middle-aged librarian and mother, navigating the slings and arrows of upper-class suburbia. It’s a more contemplative novel, and also a terrific study in tension-building.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil, by Ananda Lima: Wow. Just Wow.

Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil (out today!) is unlike anything I've ever read. I mean, I've read hundreds and hundreds of books in my life, and this is something completely original. It's somewhere between a short story collection, a book of linked short stories (like Olive Kitteridge or The Tsar of Love and Techno), possibly a memoir, and a novel. I didn't know fiction could do this. Reviewers don't really know what to do with it so far, either -- which is fun. It's sometimes called horror, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes literary fiction, sometimes none of the above OR all of the above. Yep, everything about this book defies categorization. 

Full disclosure, and only partially a humble brag -- Ananda Lima is a colleague of mine at StoryStudio Chicago. I'd been looking forward to this book, though, before I'd met her. But I soon learned she is a kind human and an enthusiastic and generous literary citizen. It's been so fun getting to know her! So frankly, even though I'd been looking forward to it, I picked up her book last month with no small amount of trepidation. What if I didn't like it? How would I talk about it if I didn't? Thankfully, that concern quickly faded. I can tell you with a crystal clear conscience, it is truly fantastic. 

So here's the deal: The book begins with a story about a writer who slept with the Devil on the night of a Halloween party. The subsequent stories are all related, but often in surprising ways. Sometimes the Devil reappears, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes "the writer" is writing about writing the stories. Sometimes the same story is told from different perspectives or in different ways. Sometimes the stories *seem* to stand completely alone. 

Anyway, the effect, or at least the feeling I had reading this, is that each of the stories is standing in a circle, sort of winking at all the others. The cover art for this book does a great job of subtly capturing the notion that these stories build on each other or are nested within each other (either or both). The connections aren't always overt (but sometimes they are), but also, you don't need to "get" how the stories are connected to enjoy the book on a story-by-story basis. 

I don't know if that makes sense. It's hard to describe well what Ananda is doing here. But what IS clear is that it works. I definitely recommend this for all readers, but especially for readers who are also writers. (If you've ever been in a writing workshop, the story "Idle Hands" will cause you untold amounts of glee.) This is very high on my list of favorites of the year so far. I'm just in awe of this small, but mighty book! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Blue Ruin, by Hari Kunzru: Does Money Lessen Art?

Hari Kunzru is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Each of his last three novels -- White Tears, Red Pill, and this one, his latest, Blue Ruin (no, I don't think the colors thing is a coincidence) -- I've started with a little hesitation. But each time I've been absolutely floored, really loved each one. 

For my money, Kunzru is one of the best capital L capital F Literary Fiction writers working today. Especially in the case of Blue Ruin, and in contrast to many Serious Literary Fiction novels, Kunzru's books about art are not pretentious and stuffy. They're as entertaining as they are intellectually engaging, going about tackling their Big Important Questions.

In Blue Ruin, the Big Important Questions are these: Should art be a commercial enterprise? That is, does money changing hands lessen art and/or artist? Further, what are the boundaries between art and life? Are they even boundaries at all? 

These big questions are framed around a plot that takes place during the early days of the pandemic. A grocery delivery driver named Jay makes a delivery at a remote New York compound in the woods. The person who placed the grocery order just happens to be Alice, a woman with whom Jay had a torrid affair in London in the late 1990s, as he was coming up in the London art world. 

Is this a coincidence? Or part of a bigger story/plot? You see, Alice wound up leaving Jay for Jay's former friend Rob, a fellow artist. Is Jay still bitter? Is he hellbent on revenge?

We learn the backstory of the young artists' time in London, of Alice and Jay's fraught, often drug-fueled relationship, and Rob and Jay's divergent paths as artists. Each part of this novel is so carefully constructed -- revealing each bit of backstory right when it'll have the most impact on our understanding of what's happening in the present. Will Jay and Rob reconcile? Will Jay steal Alice back from Rob? What's the deal with the douchey conspiracy-theory-minded gallerist named Marshal?

I LOVED this book! Kunzru is so adept at tautness -- maximum impact in minimum pages. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book for days. A favorite of 2024, for sure.