The Pacific Standard Fiction Series rolls on tonight at 7 p.m. with a reading by Colson Whitehead and Christopher Sorrentino. If you’re in or near Brooklyn area and are free, it would be great to see you. The Pacific Standard website has directions.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
There’s some interesting fiction hitting stores in the next few weeks. Here are some to look for.You may remember Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” from the summer 2003 debut fiction issue of the New Yorker (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. Now the story, about a newspaperman in Lima, will anchor a debut collection called War by Candlelight. According to HarperCollins the collection “takes the reader from Third World urban centers to the fault lines that divide nations and people.” If you want to sample more of Alarcon’s writing try “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” originally published in The Konundrum Engine Literary Review or you can enjoy this musing about the Mall of America at AlterNet.Another debut collection coming in April is Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God. In a recent review at small spiral notebook, Katie Weekly compares Auslander’s writing to that of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but goes on to say: “Unlike the angst-ridden, often cynical work of Roth or Allen, Auslander’s stories are more observational, sometimes magical and always humorous.” (err… don’t know if I’d describe Woody Allen as angst-ridden, but anyway…) If that sounds like something you’d be into, I highly recommend you listen to Act 3 of this recent episode of “This American Life,” in which Auslander reads his story “The Blessing Bee.” If you like that you can read another story from the collection, “The War of the Bernsteins,” here.The Harmony Silk Factory, the debut novel by 25-year-old Malaysian author Tash Aw has been compared to The English Patient in the British press. The book takes place in Malaysia in the first part of the 20th century, and centers around the textile factory that gives its name to the novel. The book is already creating a generous amount of buzz on both sides of the Atlantic including being chosen as one of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selections for 2005.As this recent article in USA Today discussed, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t the only novel to deal with 9/11 that’s coming out this spring. French author Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World takes place in the final hours of the restaurant of the same name. The book is actually two years old and was very successful when it first came out in France, debuting at number two on the French bestseller list. The early reviews are good, with Publishers Weekly describing the book as “on all levels, a stunning read.” Still, the subject matter may be too wrenching for American readers. Beigbeder acknowledges in the Author’s Note that he altered the English version of the book slightly because he was concerned that the book was “more likely to wound” than he intendedStay tuned. I’ll be posting about more forthcoming books soon.
Two new books from Princeton Architectural Press crossed my desk recently. Jason Bitner is one of the guys behind Found Magazine, where bits of discarded ephemera are turned into art or maybe a decontextualized historical record of the present day. Bitner calls it “a show-and-tell project.” When he found over 18,000 studio portraits from the 1950s and 60s in the back of a diner in a small, Midwestern town, they became the star of a new show-and-tell project. La Porte, Indiana is the name of the town where Bitner found the photos and the name of the book he made from them. As Bitner describes it in his introduction to the book, “we rifled through an entire town’s population, as if it were a card catalog, a huge visual archive of Midwestern faces.” As with looking at any of the FOUND crew’s finds, flipping through this book leaves one with odd sensations. We’re not used to seeing stuff like this so lovingly presented, so it makes us look a little harder. As I flip through the book, I enjoy the unintentional artistry of the black and white portraits, but more so I wonder who these people are or were. There’s more about the book at this Web site.A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson is an illustrated travelogue. Williamson, an illustrator and filmmaker, spent a year in Japan, filling notebooks with her illustrations and observations. This book is like peering into those notebooks. Williamson’s curly cursive elaborates on her rich, colorful drawings. Most of the illustrations are of details of every day life: foods and clothing, but they are exotic both in being from in Japan and in the care Williamson lavishes upon them, presenting them in close up on the page. But there are also portraits, collages and abstract compositions.
Not too many David Mitchell blurbs out there, and some of them are quite brief – cropped for maximum impact by editors, I suspect. Note as well the extremely British use of the term “wrong-footed.”For Strangers by Taichi Yamada: “Highly recommended. A cerebral and haunting ghost story, which completely wrong-footed me.”For The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore: “combines smartness and wisdom”For Book of Voices: “A treasures box”For Silence by Shusaku Endo: “One of the finest historical novels written by anyone, anywhere… Flawless”For Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam: “It depicts an extraordinary panorama of life within a Muslim community… Thoughtful, revealing, lushly written and painful, this timely book deserves the widest audience.”See also: Jonathan Safran Foer: The Collected Blurbs