The last couple of months or so, I’ve taken a break from the Internet—or as much as I’m able to. Writing this piece feels a bit like yelling to you from across an enormous canyon filled with photos of latte art and babies and feminist slogans etched across coffee mugs in millennial pink. There is despair, too, and hourly screeds. There is so much suffering. Every day there is another story about a powerful man “asking” for a massage, or for a date, or if he can masturbate in front of you. There are Twitter rants that might lead to nuclear war. There are also, probably, puns about Charles Manson’s death. Are there? I don’t know because I haven’t checked. It feels good not to know.
2017 is the year I decided that the human brain can’t thrive if all it does is absorb a never-ending stream of information. It’s also the year I began to occasionally wake before dawn so that I could sit in silence with a book and read. It was a gift I gave myself. It has saved me in an era that seems intent on doing the very opposite.
I loved Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy, which starts in 1920 and ends in 2020 and concerns a farming family in Denby, Iowa. I realize this description put you to sleep it sounds so boring, but trust me, you will be stunned by how skillfully Smiley compresses a year per chapter, and slips from character to character, finding the epic in the intimate. In her hands, newborn babies and a war sniper turned spy and an elderly woman on her deathbed all enjoy particular, vivid ways of seeing the world. In his appreciation for her novels, Rumaan Alam wrote, “I like to imagine that Jane Smiley has reached her don’t give a fuck phase.” I think Rumaan is onto something; this is an audacious trilogy.
Because the last book, Golden Age, ends three years from now, in an imagined America, Smiley’s trilogy is also a sneaky work of speculative fiction. So too is Golden Days by Carolyn See, about a twice-divorced mother in her late 30s renting a house in Topanga for herself and her two daughters. It’s the 1980s, and the writing is wry and sharp, and you can feel the despair trying to nudge into every paragraph. Much of the novel is about our heroine’s renewal: a self-help convention, reuniting with an old best friend, her daughters’ absurd, moneyed private school. But when a nuclear event occurs in some far-off country (the details are fuzzy), the book shifts into the post-apocalyptic and we are taken from swanky westside interiors to a small group of survivors, their skin charred, then healing and itching, as they crawl toward the ocean. This is a bonkers, life-affirming book about the end of the world.
I plan to read all of See’s books. So far, I’ve also read her novel Rhine Maidens, about mother-daughter dysfunction with a delicious mean streak that hides, and then emphasizes, its characters’ fragility and pain. (It also partially takes place in cow-shit-smelling Coalinga, Calif., and does so with such wicked derision.) Carolyn See died last year, but she’s left us with a powerful oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction about life in Southern California. It’s strange, and exhilarating, to discover her influence on my own work.
Dark times call for dark books, which is why I’ve continued to be drawn to noir crime fiction. I continued last year’s study of Ross MacDonald with The Galton Case, an impeccable example of the genre, and the best of his novels, plot-wise, that I’ve encountered so far. After reading Megan Abbott’s essay about In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes, I sought out the new edition published by the New York Review Books. Told from the perspective of a serial killer in 1940s Los Angeles and dripping with paranoia, In a Lonely Place reads like a Patricia Highsmith novel set in the Spanish bungalow apartments between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. It’s also a chilling display of how, as Abbott puts it, “trauma connects to gender and a dangerously beset masculinity—and how it can explode into sexual violence.” An appropriate tale for our times.
My favorite novel published this year was Danzy Senna’s New People, about a young, biracial couple, Maria and Khalil, in 1990s Brooklyn (“Their skin is the same shade of beige,” Senna writes). It’s really about Maria’s unraveling, and it tackles big topics like race and identity with a comic sensibility that discomfits and complicates. It’s also funny. (Here’s a good line: “But she didn’t really feel it was rape. It was more like inserting a tampon.”) Reading it was a balm after one too many afternoons reading progressives on Twitter (my tribe!) swap sanctimonious judgments. There’s a suspenseful, breath-holding scene of Maria pretending to be the nanny for a woman, and baby, she’s never met. There’s a cringe-inducing flashback to a prank-turned-accidental-hate-crime. As with life, there is hilarity. There is also pain. The two often overlap.
Hey you! Can you hear me across the canyon? These are all terrific books! Drop your cell phone in the closest dumpster and read them!
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