John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
I’ve been thinking lately about adulthood. When it begins, what expectations we might reasonably have of those just entering through its gates, and how we represent it in our fiction. I realized recently that virtually all of the coming-of-age stories one encounters — okay, most of the ones I’ve encountered — involve growing up too quickly. There is the traumatic incident after which childhood is over and life will never the same (John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and about a million other books, few of which are as good as Knowles’), the creepy secret that heralds the end of innocence (Allison Espach’s The Adults), the sleazy secret that gets you institutionalized (a recent book I’d mention if naming it in this context wouldn’t give away the plot), etc. It’s an interesting feature of Leigh Stein’s debut novel, The Fallback Plan, that she takes precisely the opposite approach.
The Fallback Plan concerns a girl — difficult to think of her as a women, because she’s an adult only in years — who’s growing up too slowly, who doesn’t want to grow up at all, and who, more to the point, is so coddled that she doesn’t really need to. Stein’s narrator, Esther Kohler, is a recent graduate of the theatre program at Northwestern. Esther’s feeling is that in the absence of either a job or a trust fund, her options are between moving back in with her parents or “suffering the rancid fate of a nomadic couchsurfer.”
She chooses the former, camping out in her childhood bedroom while she figures out what to do next. This wasn’t anyone’s original plan, but she’s secretly relieved to be back at home. The adult world proved to be a bit much, actually. It would be nice, she thinks, to never have to be a part of it, to never have to suffer the hassle of work, to be taken care of forever. She smokes pot with her friends, takes recreational Vicodin, and spends a great deal of time hoping to develop “a chronic illness that would entitle me to monthly checks from the government, tender sympathy from my loved ones, and a good deal of time in bed with the collected works of Frances Hodgson Burnett.”
It’s a tricky proposition, the Peter Pan novel. A subset of readers will smile — or wince — in recognition of an adolescence that extends far into one’s 20s, a hazy longing for the comforts of one’s childhood home, a desire to return to one’s parents after college and hold on to ease a little longer.
But there’s another subset of readers to whom that first subset seems, well, frankly a little soft. My tribe didn’t have any particular prospects either, but we worked our multiple low-paying jobs, we balanced shifts at coffee shops with days at school while we sank into student loan debt, we swept floors and made lattes and washed dishes, we put up with bad roommates and cockroaches. We took buses and trains to our lousy apartment shares in dangerous neighborhoods, we lived on noodles and did our laundry in the bathroom sink during those last few days every month before rent was due. Because we had to, and because our understanding of adulthood was that you’re supposed to make your own way in the world, and that it isn’t supposed to be easy.
I’m not romanticizing this. It isn’t unreasonable to want to skip most of these experiences, especially the cockroaches and the unstable roommates. I’m trying to explain why it’s easy for someone like me to dismiss a narrator like Esther Kohler, whose idea of a job search involves dropping off résumés at exactly two places and then printing up some dog-walking flyers that she doesn’t distribute.
But then, I do have tremendous respect for authors who are willing to present unlikable narrators, and what Stein is laying out, in prose so lucid and simple that she makes it seem effortless, is a variation on American young adulthood so common that it does, I believe, deserve a place in our literature. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 85 percent of that year’s college graduates planned on moving back in with their parents. It would be heartless to imagine that at least some of those graduates weren’t exactly thrilled with this prospect.
Moreover, the world has changed, and unemployment statistics suggest that the always-complicated business of trying to become an adult is probably harder now than it was when I was Esther Kohler’s age. This is what I tell myself, anyway, because I don’t want to believe that 85 percent of 2010 college graduates — or any percentage, actually, when I think about it — moved home because being an adult is kind of hard and they just don’t really feel up to it quite yet.
What to reveal, when: it’s one of the trickier parts of plotting a novel, and it’s an area where I believe The Fallback Plan falters slightly. Fictional characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting, and there is nothing overwhelmingly captivating about a lethargic young person who just doesn’t particularly feel like growing up and who kind of wishes she had some kind of a permanent disability that would excuse her from work for the rest of her life, who feels entitled to a room in her parents’ house and food from her parents’ refrigerator.
But the picture changes somewhat when, some distance into the book, the circumstances of Esther’s last year of college become clear. This isn’t just a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up. She’s a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up and who has mental health issues of sufficient severity that she was briefly committed the previous spring. A character who I’d struggled to care about was cast in a suddenly altered light. She does want to avoid the adult world, but also she’s suffered tremendously there.
Esther’s parents are somewhat less interested in Esther remaining a teenager forever than Esther is. When they decide to start charging her rent, Esther takes a job as a babysitter to a neighborhood family, the Browns, who have recently suffered an unspeakable loss. Esther had met Nate and Amy Brown the previous winter, at a holiday party thrown by her parents.
They had a baby and a toddler at home with a sitter, but that was the last night when Nate and Amy Brown had two children on Earth. They returned home to find that the baby had died in her sleep. Now Nate works long hours and Amy stays home with their surviving daughter, four-year-old May. At first glance, the family is surprisingly functional, but the more time Esther spends with them, the more obvious the fault lines become.
Amy and Nate are disconnected from one another, still reeling, and both begin to treat Esther as a confidante. Nate stays late at the office. Amy spends hours locked in the attic, working on a mysterious project. Esther finds herself falling in love with little May. Stein’s sensitive treatment of the Browns’ grief and disconnection is the strongest part of the book. Esther’s gradual realization that she has to face the complications of the adult world is carefully rendered and a pleasure to read.
It is easy to write about the arrival of desire. You can spot its presence right away: it reddens cheeks, quickens pulses, and makes a cold room hot. Discovering lust is naturally dramatic in any story, and writers from D.H. Lawrence to Danielle Steele have discovered all the tricks to make our hearts race and palms sweat. But how do you write about desire’s disappearance? When the central characters of your love story left their virginity behind long ago, what is left to discover? And when the sheets go cold, what generates emotional highs? The tension comes from what is absent, and so the story without sex is populated by apparitions, suggestions and possibilities of satisfaction whispering in the wings. Desire haunts former lovers, and becomes an embrace from which they cannot escape.
This kind of desire-in-absentia serves as the engine of Meg Wolitzer’s extraordinary new novel The Uncoupling, which may prove a new classic for our oddly old-fashioned modern times. At the novel’s outset, Robby and Dory Lang are the model of a modern marriage, one traditionally structured yet propelled by a steady passion. Contented in each other’s company, they assumed that desire would always be there, that “they would sleep together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always.” They teach in the English department at Eleanor Roosevelt (“Elro”) High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey, and hardly register the arrival of a new drama teacher with plans for a production of Lysistrata, the Aristophanes comedy about the women of Greece going on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Though the themes of the play contribute a great deal, Wolitzer spends more time playing with the broader exploration of desire, and when a cold wind sweeps into the town and steals away the women’s lust, what ensues is a supernatural happening with devastating consequences.
Wolitzer’s principal assumption, even in the happy beginnings of the novel, is that desire fades as love marches forward into middle age, that even the most content of couples will find themselves wanting less of each other. “People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness.” Dory never had to suffer through this odd nostalgia, and so when the cold wind sneaks into her bed, she is disarmed by its presence. “It was as if the words had been supplied to her by some hidden prompt,” and what most torments her is that though her affection for Robby remains, the easy passion has vanished. Dory finds herself stuck in memories of how their love used to be, apologizing to Robby but unable to move forward. “She couldn’t tell him about wanting to shake everything up, or about what she now knew, which was that once you realize you are different from the way you used to be, then you can never be that earlier way again. Awareness changes you forever, and instead of being spontaneous during sex, you will forever be a little self-congratulatory.” This new reality, this never being able to go back to the spontaneity of sex, stops up her lust completely. “You could dress love up, but always you would have to confront desire—its absence or presence.” Robby’s desperate purchase of a Snuggie-like blanket is all that Dory has to see to really give up and give in to the despair of a sexless future. “He had bought it because they were now in a period of life in which they could use it. They were seeking warmth from someplace other than each other.”
As the spell sweeps through Stellar Plains, anxieties grow over passion stretched over too many years, sex that has become too lived-in, and too accustomed. Wolitzer manages to get the adult perspective on teenagers just right, full of half-correct sugar-coated predictions, and uses their misperceptions to kick the sexual anxiety up a notch: Robby says of his daughter’s generation, “They’re all like someone in a dream,” and it’s a statement born more out of wonder than condescension. Yet their daughter Willa is also touched by the spell, just as she begins a tender romance with the drama teacher’s son. They come together as avatars in a virtual forest, and Willa’s first sexual experiences give her a new awareness of her body and her desires. “She felt as if she were unfolding, unclasping, being saturated, falling to bits, intensely whirled around like someone blindfolded and about to smack a piñata… ‘Going the distance’ seemed a good way to think of what it would be like. It—sex, actual sex, created a distance between you and everyone except the other person. You were in a hot-air balloon, and you waved goodbye to your sweet but clueless mother and father, and even your dazed and innocent old dog.” This is the poignant, trembling awareness of teenage love and the first awakening of desire. Through Willa’s eyes, Wolitzer gives us a character who gets to experience everything fresh, and Willa blossoms through love and sex with a surprising amount of tenderness and humor. This, of course, becomes all too tragic when the chill forces her into a jaded nihilism, thinking, This is never going to last. Oh, what is the point? She withdraws from what she has just discovered, and you want to reach through the page and shake the spell off of her; no one should have to suffer this loss, especially not someone who has so much left to explore.
The spell makes its way to all the main female characters, and in each person’s cooling and retreating, Wolitzer gives specific, very real reasons to recoil from intimacy. Ruth the gym teacher is performing a dance for her handsome husband and three small boys when the cold air rushes into her kitchen and all over her skin. “She realized now that she had been overtouched; she was like a computer with a thousand fingerprints on the screen. How did anyone tolerate being touched? It was terrible, all that touching.” The revulsion sweeps in so suddenly that it literally knocks her to the floor and leaves her weeping, begging her husband to leave her alone. The alluring school psychologist Leanne, juggling three men at once, suddenly senses that “one of these days it’s going to look bad, and I’ll seem like this predatory person. And that will be terrible and humiliating.” A sad little worm of self-doubt clings to her, a reminder that “one day, not terribly long from now, she would be older, and she would be considered someone a little wild and embarrassing. A cougar, perhaps… Men could get away with sleeping with various women, but not the other way around.” And poor Ed and Bev Cutler, the long-married long-dispassionate, suddenly have the disappointment of their relationship stripped bare to them, the cold wind no longer worth fighting back. They retreat to opposite sides of the bed, no longer hoping for something better.
But even as the husbands begin to ache with longing, and the wives tears their hair out in frustration, the adults unite in a mutual fear of a new, colder world encroaching on their former, warmer ways. They wish to be more like their children, like their students, like the newer generation that might be on the verge of discovering something fresh to lust after. “You weren’t supposed to think that life was worse now; it was ‘different,’ everyone said. But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse.” The adults fear that they are too old for passion or pleasure—and so they envy the teenagers who have everything ahead of them to look forward to, and nothing behind them to mourn. Dory sees this all too clearly:
Lucky them for the future, and the love that lay waiting. They could make whichever analogies they chose: the love that lay waiting like a web page as yet undesigned, or maybe even like a forest as yet unwalked in. A bafflingly simple forest green and virtual, or one wet and dark and real. Lucky them. She had underestimated them, and now she felt only regret.
If the language of desire is spoken with a vocabulary honed over many years, then inevitably women got tired of talking. What was there that was new to say? Wolitzer brilliantly executes the premise of the magic spell, but with feelings articulated this clearly, she doesn’t need supernatural sorcery to transport the reader. And only in a peripheral plot or two does the novel falls short. But Wolitzer’s achievement is extraordinary—finally, a novel about true yearning that doesn’t belong solely to the young. She creates an original parable without ever leaning on her source material, and explores all the life stages of desire: the long relationship that has somehow maintained its energy; the first tremors of teenage lust; the quick excitements of one-night stands; and the frustrated marriage with all its inevitable droops and disappointments. She has built for us a community defined by desire, and in taking that desire away, she turns what could be a mundane story into something mythic. Though much of what the town of Stellar Plains faces is painfully recognizable, on every page this reader found it “thrilling, it was all cracking open, and in their lifetimes, which was so terrific. How wonderful to be there for the show.”
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes the origins of his first publishing endeavor. The first ad (well, it was a sticker, but whatever) read thusly:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
In typically postmodern (and neurotic) response to this, Eggers realizes that something’s amiss about the sticker: “It’s unclear who is being screwed. Who are the idiots that should be getting screwed?” He imagines a few ways in which this ambiguity could have been avoided:
MIGHT MAGAZINE SAYS:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
“SCREW THOSE IDIOTS,”
SAYS MIGHT MAGAZINE
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS
(“THOSE IDIOTS” NOT REFERRING TO THOSE BEHIND
MIGHT MAGAZINE, THE MAKERS OF THIS STICKER,
WHO ARE GOOD PEOPLE AND SHOULD NOT BE SCREWED.)
The whole point of the marketing strategy was to intrigue people, to make them think, “What is Might?…I do not know, but when it becomes clear what it is that they will be doing, I will be very interested in their doings.”
One could have easily said the same of Mr. Eggers at that point in his career. Who is this young, ballsy writer? Though older than the rest, Eggers’s debut came along with a group of writers we could call the Undergraduates –– young, precocious authors with daring, audacious styles. Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Z.Z. Packer all made their debuts around the same handful of years. (The Graduates, of course, being David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenidies, et al.) Eggers, here, would be that older guy in the class, somehow funnier and smarter than everyone else, even if he never ends up graduating.
For Eggers definitely did not graduate with his class. No, he dropped out and started his own ventures. Who would have been able to predict the trajectory of Eggers’s career? From that original (but now in some ways dated) first book, Eggers has since stepped in nearly every field relating to writing: he published two story collections (one of which is flash fiction), novels, and two nonfiction works; he co-wrote two screenplays; he has written comic strips and essays and song lyrics; he founded The Believer, Wholphin, and 826 National, a non-profit that helps kids with writing; and he edits the annual Best American Non-Required Reading series, with the help of students. He’s been nominated for numerous awards (including the Pulitzer and the National Books Critics Circle Award) and won others (including the Salon Book Award and the American Book Award). But by the far the most influential contribution Eggers has made on the literary landscape is McSweeney’s, the so-called “Quarterly Concern” that has, for the last 15 years, produced some of the most original fiction and nonfiction out there, all packaged in some of the most beautiful and innovative book designs ever printed. Who is this young man? We didn’t know, but when it became clear what it was that he was doing, we all became very interested in his doings.
McSweeney’s could be called aggressively progressive. Not only are the stories often unconventional, experimental, and unique, so are the issues themselves. Some are conceptual designs, as in Issue 21, the cover of which has a little flap and if you pull it out it makes the cover connect to the back, creating “an unending panorama, a revelatory 360-degree immersion into a packed and pointy world.” Or Issue 26, which came in three small, postcard sized books and were “based on the World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council on Books in Wartime, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department’s Morale Branch.” Or Issue 33, which was presented as a full-blown newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. Others featured extremely original (and sometimes downright odd) theme: Issue 31’s aim to unearth “neglected or deceased literary forms,” such as the pantoum, the whore dialogue, the Socratic dialogue and Graustrarkian Romance (whatever the hell that is), or Issue 32’s challenge for authors to “travel to somewhere in the world…and send back a story set in that spot fifteen years from now, in the year 2024.”
Even the issues without a conceptual design or a creative theme are elegantly and beautifully rendered. Behind this progressive innovation lies an old-fashioned love of books as objects. McSweeney’s, I think, deserves much credit (and should, in various ways, be followed) for figuring out a way to make printed works not only relevant but also wholly separate from the latest digital iterations. You can’t ever make an e-book as gorgeous to look at or as wonderful to hold in your hands. And to those people who think covers and jackets and designs don’t matter, well I say this: Screw those idiots.
Same goes for those who dismiss the entire enterprise of McSweeney’s as a hipster outlet for quirky nonsense and youthful haranguing. We have now The Best of McSweeney’s, a 600+-page anthology that samples from everything they’ve put out in the last decade and a half. I would defy anyone to read this thing cover-to-cover and still maintain that McSweeney’s has contributed nothing to the world of creative art. As the back of the books promises, The Best of McSweeney’s gives us “a fascinating glimpse into recent literary history.” This is true for more than just the merit of the pieces included (though they are nearly all great), but for the unexpected insights their inclusion brings out.
This book is simply brimming with priceless inside looks into the workings of contemporary writers. Many of the stories are introduced by their authors, giving us a little bit of backstory into the creation of the thing. Wells Tower’s presents us with two versions of the same story, “Retreat,” which appeared in Issues 23 and 30, respectively. Each contain the same characters, the same essential setup, and even much of the same lines. Only the perspectives are different, but boy does that change the whole of it. In explaining why he struggled so much with this story, Tower cites “all the long-form nonfiction” he’d been writing. Here, he explains one difference between fiction and non-:
Nonfiction –– even ‘literary’ nonfiction –– call for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. In metalworking, they have this term, ‘cold connections,’ which is when you take two pieces of metal and rivet. A few smart bashes, and you’ve got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you’ve spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections.
Tower’s two iterations of “Retreat” (as well as his comments on them) offer a fascinating example of how much one can do with a single premise.
We are later, of course, to see Tower’s “Retreat” reappear in his collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and we now know which version he prefers (the second one, FYI). Many of the stories here ended up in well-acclaimed collections, and one of the great aspects of this anthology is getting to see them in earlier drafts. David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” appears here, and one very subtle change that occurred between its appearance in McSweeney’s (under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, a moniker everyone saw straight through)and its inclusion in Wallace’s Oblivion is worth noting. When “Mr. Squishy” graced the pages of Issue 5, the opening line read: “The Focus Group was reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt’s 19th-floor conference rooms.” In Oblivion, it reads: “The Focus Group was then reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising’s nineteenth-floor conference rooms” (italics mine). Besides spelling out 19th (Wallace often used shorthand, acronyms and abbreviations in order to fit as many words in as little space as possible) and clarifying just what “Reesemeyer Shannon Belt” did as a company, the addition of the word then is hugely significant. It completely changes the opening line, albeit in a small way. In the first version, the line functions as a beginning; in the final version, we join a narrative already in progress. We missed what came before then, as if the story had been going on long before we came to it.
Other highlights: a rare short story from Zadie Smith, taken from the issue that pitted McSweeney’s against They Might Be Giants. A section of comics from Issue 13 featuring funny and poignant pieces by Chris Ware, Daniel C. Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Adrian Tomine. Andrew Sean Greer’s hilarious account of his and his husband’s experience at a NASCAR event in Michigan (from the San Francisco Panorama issue). We get Jonathan Ames’s “Bored to Death,” inspiration for the HBO series of the same name, George Saunders’s “Four Institutional Monologues,” one of which only recently (despite the story being published in 2000) appeared in his latest collection, Tenth of December, and a trio of stories from International writers, deriving from issues dedicated to Norwegian, South Sudanese, and Indigenous Australian fiction.
But this being McSweeney’s, there’s a lot more than stories. Included here are also the best letters they’ve ever received, from the likes of Sarah Vowell, Peter Orner, and John Hodgman. There are four pantoums from the “neglected and deceased” forms issue, as well as a few 20-minute stories, which are exactly what they sound like: stories written in 20 minutes flat (although Aleksandar Hemon admits that his took 30). In other words, this is a fun and eclectic anthology, perfectly in keeping with the McSweeney’s philosophy, which Eggers explains in his Introduction thusly: “That’s what we look for –– writers who make us feel like they’re seeing their world, whatever that is, with fresh eyes, and who allow us to experience it through their words.” McSweeney’s, like Eggers himself, regularly provides the world with interesting and unique perspectives –– from different cultures, different personalities, and different aesthetic approaches. It does what all literary journals should aim to do. That is, be bigger than the sum of its parts, yet still allow each part to stand on its own. It’s a hard line to walk, but McSweeney’s, with its irreverent attitude and pure love of good writing, manage to do every issue, every year.
Despite some notable exclusions (no Joyce Carol Oates? no Yannick Murphy?), The Best of McSweeney’s is a triumph, not only as a stand-alone book, but also (and especially) as a testament to the power of the short story, the essay, the experiment. A tribute, too, to the power of one person’s vision, proof that writers can influence the world outside the borders of their prose. Eggers, lucky for us, has a great deal of passion for the work of other people, for supporting new writers and celebrating neglected ones. His and his colleagues’ (Jordan Bass and Eli Horowitz, the two editors of McSweeney’s) is an essentially artistic project but underneath that is a layer of fierce morality, one that believes in the rights of people and the importance of their stories.
I had a hell of a time picking my book of the month this time around. This happens every few months, and I’m always better off for the difficulty in choosing my favorite. One month I will go through four books and have a definitive favorite – a book that I’ll recommend to friends, etc. The next, however, I’ll manage to read three books that are not only better than the one I picked the month before, but are good enough to make my preliminary “best of the year” short list. It never fails – I’d have more balance in my life if I had read them a month apart, but it never happens that way.This month my choice was between Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), Hard Laughter (Anne Lamott), and Other Electricities (Ander Monson). Hard Laughter was good – better than I had expected it would be – but it was the easiest one to leave off. Many months it would have been my favorite (I’m a sucker for books that are 80% conversation) but this month it had too much to compete against.Foer and Monson fought it out in my mind until I realized something – I’ve already picked Foer as a Book of the Month – my first one, for The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. So, by process of elimination, Ander Monson won the right to have his book selected.I first heard of Ander Monson through the LitBlog Co-Op’s “Read These Books or Die” Winter 2005/6 campaign and was extremely interested in its use of indexes. I was intrigued enough to request it from our local library, and to my surprise they purchased a copy and put my name at the top of the list.Mr. Monson, you can send me a thank you anytime.Really, Other Electricities is like no other book I’ve ever read. It’s not quite a novel, but it’s also not quite a short story collection. It’s somewhere in between – a group of essays and short stories that all interplay with each other; all create another piece of a grand novel. It’s a series that is bound by one theme – the lives of a small town shortly before and shortly after the death of a girl. Her accident – she and her prom date were drowned in a frozen lake after they attempted to drive on it – binds every character together to the point where each story, regardless of the protagonist, is ultimately connected.The resemblances to Fargo and Twin Peaks are evident. And while Other Electricities may not have been inspired by Laura Palmer and Marge Gunderson, there are a lot of similarities in their worlds. In fact, the episodic nature of Monson’s overall story cries out for the comparisons. Much like Twin Peaks was a collection of odd characters whose lives intertwined; each of these stories overlaps and peeks into the life of this town in the years leading up to and following the death. The setting is Coen Brothers, but the town could have been created by David Lynch.Don’t think that this is a simple knock-off, though. Monson creates a complex town that’s filled with failed dreams and eccentric people – the group of bored and rutted kids that nearly always drinks too much, gets themselves stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, and commits murder. It’s cold, and the town has adapted to it. There’s mystery in the air, not to mention a vast array of disappointment.The variety in the style and length of each story in Other Electricities helps create a mosaic of voices and lifestyles; each character brings a new revelation about their small town, about death, and about growing up as a teenager in the middle of domestic tundra. Everyone gets their say.The layout of the book is wonderful. Monson charts out every character and connects each in a web, then gives an explanation of the themes and characters – both artistically and satirically. An index not only helps reference common ideas but also gives a little insight into the relationship between Liz, the drowned girl, and her prom date – a relationship that isn’t mentioned directly. You can cross reference to your heart’s content.It’s amazing to think of these stories on their own – they’re all very good, but as a whole there are ideas and themes that aren’t even mentioned; are simply implied by the connections between stories. I’ve never felt so cold, and I’ve never desired to go wandering through a small town, around a lake, and into the city center during a vicious snowstorm as much as I did after reading Other Electricities.Well, it’s snowing outside. I guess I could start now.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar.
I came to read this book because last summer I was given, unexpectedly, a review copy of Dexter’s latest book, Train; (my review). I had never heard of Dexter at the time, but I loved the book, and when Dexter came to the book store to do a reading, I made sure I was in attendance (he turned out to be a very engaging guy) and had him sign a copy of Paris Trout for me. And now I’ve gotten around to reading that very same book. Paris Trout centers around a character of the same name. Though he is clearly a psychopath, he has money and is a business man, so his violent nature is ignored by the citizens of his small town, Cotton Point, Georgia. The book opens with an attack by Trout on a local black family. The town’s white population does not want to be seen siding with a black family against a white man, so, from then on they turn a blind eye towards Trout and allow him to bully the legal system. Also involved in this hard boiled drama are Trout’s wife Hanna and Harry Seagraves, Trout’s good-guy lawyer. The book is framed as the story of a very bad man terrorizing a sleepy town, but the amazing thing about it is the way Dexter slowly turns the tables until it becomes clear that the complacency of the townspeople is a far greater sin than the murderousness of someone who lives among them. Though it reads like genre fiction with gripping suspense and at times remarkable violence, the subtle play on the psychology of a small town elevates the book to a remarkable literary novel. Although, I should say, if this book were not as deep and were merely a legal thriller, I would still have found it to be fantastic based on the strength of Dexter’s writing. A great book. (Another Dexter post).Next UpI am now embarking upon Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel De Cervantes’ classic, Don Quixote. After that I’ll be reading Walker Percy’s underappreciated classic The Moviegoer