Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ryan Chapman, Mary Miller, Oscar Cásares, Paul Auster, and more—that are publishing this week.
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Riots I Have Known: “While fellow inmates at the Westbrook prison in upstate New York are rioting, an erudite unnamed Sri Lankan intellectual attempts to put into words his philosophy, personal history, and, eventually, the events that led up to the riot in Chapman’s funny and excellent debut. The narrator has barricaded himself in the Media Center, trying to finish what could be the final issue of his in-house magazine, The Holding Pen. The narrative gets its most solid comic charge from the ironic disparity between the rough circumstances of prison life and the incongruous need of humans to intellectualize. The narrator reports that just before another inmate was stabbed in the yard, ‘he said: ‘Time makes fools of us all.’’ Later he recounts the tale of inept would-be suicide Fritz, who can’t ‘master the hangman’s noose, he kept falling to his cell floor in a blooper of self-abnegation.’ While the narrator documents his uneasy adjustment to prison life and his complex relationship with a pen pal, he is most concerned with his legacy within the niche world of ‘post-penal literary magazines.’ He confesses early on: ‘I am the architect of the Caligulan melee enveloping Westbrook’s galleries and flats.’ The explanation for this claim is offered in spoonfuls; it’s mostly a MacGuffin for protracted yarn spinning and Chapman’s dazzling virtuosity. Supremely mischievous and sublimely written, this is a stellar work.”
Biloxi by Mary Miller
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Biloxi: “When 63-year-old retiree Louis McDonald Jr., the narrator of this excellent novel from Miller (Always Happy Hour), spots a ‘Free Dogs’ advertisement when out driving one day, he stops and adopts Layla, a black and white pup with a gagging complex. The duo pokes around coastal Mississippi while Louis also deals with visits from Frank, his ex-wife’s brother, who’s concerned about Louis’s loneliness; calls with his semi-estranged daughter, Maxine; and his own attempts to settle the estate of his recently deceased father. A witty, insightful exploration of masculinity and self-worth, the story lets its protagonist roam with Layla and discover a new lease on life before introducing Layla’s original owner, Sasha, the wife of the man who gave her away without permission. When Sasha sees that Layla, known to her as Katy, did not run away, as her husband claimed, the much younger woman leaves him and shacks up with Louis, who is initially happy for the company, but who soon grows weary of her as their situation comes to a head. In Louis, Miller captures the insecurities of an imperfect man beyond his prime as he tries to find his purpose in the world, and the result is a charming and terrific novel.”
The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Organs of Sense: “In his sublime first novel (following the story collection Inherited Disorders), which recalls the nested monologues of Thomas Bernhard and the cerebral farces of Donald Antrim, Sachs demonstrates the difficulty of getting inside other people’s heads (literally and figuratively) and out of one’s own. In 1666, a young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—the philosopher who invented calculus—treks to the Bohemian mountains to ‘rigorously but surreptitiously assess’ the sanity of an eyeless, unnamed astronomer who is predicting an impending eclipse. Should the blind recluse’s prediction come to pass, Leibniz reasons, it would leave ‘the laws of optics in a shambles… and the human eye in a state of disgrace.’ In the hours leading up to the expected eclipse, the astronomer, whose father was Emperor Maximilian’s Imperial Sculptor (and the fabricator of an ingenious mechanical head), tells Leibniz his story. As a young man still in possession of his sight, he became Emperor Rudolf’s Imperial Astronomer in Prague, commissioning ever longer telescopes, an ‘astral tube’ whose exorbitant cost ‘seemed to spell the end of the Holy Roman Empire.’ The astronomer also recounts his entanglements with the Hapsburgs, ‘a dead and damned family,’ all of whom were mad or feigning madness. These transfixing, mordantly funny encounters with violent sons and hypochondriacal daughters stage the same dramas of revelation and concealment, reason and lunacy, doubt and faith, and influence and skepticism playing out between the astronomer and Leibniz. How it all comes together gives the book the feel of an intellectual thriller. Sachs’s talent is on full display in this brilliant work of visionary absurdism.”
Where We Come From by Oscar Cásares
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Where We Come From: “The author of the collection Brownsville returns to that Texas border town for this thoughtful and quietly suspenseful novel. Retired single schoolteacher Nina lives with and cares for her crabby, bedbound mother. She is looking forward to spending a few summer weeks with her 12-year-old godson, Orly, whose advertising executive father, Nina’s nephew, lives in Houston, and whose mother recently died of an aneurysm. Meanwhile, a few months before Orly’s visit, Nina has gotten in over her head by providing secret housing for undocumented immigrants in the rental house behind her mother’s. When Orly arrives, one boy, 12-year-old Daniel, is hiding there. Despite Nina’s efforts, Orly discovers Daniel’s existence, and the two form a tentative bond, in the process putting Nina’s extended family in danger. While keeping the focus on family dynamics and the characters’ internal struggles, Cásares frequently, and often heartbreakingly, sets this domestic story in a wider context by stepping back to investigate the stories of people with whom the main characters interact only tangentially (a waiter who provides room service for Orly’s father in San Francisco; the gardener who cleans the gutters at Orly’s house in Houston). With understated grace and without sermonizing, Cásares brilliantly depicts the psychological complexity of living halfway in one place and halfway in another.”
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Confessions of Frannie Langton: “Collins’s debut is a powerful portrayal of the horrors of slavery and the injustices of British society’s treatment of former slaves in the early 1800s. Frannie Langton lives as John Langton’s slave in Jamaica from 1812 until 1825. When the harvest burns, ownership of the land reverts to Langton’s wife and her brother, and Langton returns to London with Frannie. Once in London, he gives Frannie as a servant to fellow scientist George Benham and his wife, Meg, a woman intrigued by Frannie and the breadth of her education. Benham asks Frannie to spy on Meg, whom he thinks might do something to embarrass him socially; meanwhile, Frannie and Meg become lovers. But when Benham and Meg are murdered, Frannie is arrested. She claims no memory of the crime, and a good defense seems unlikely both because of her race and her spotty memory. Frannie’s dislike of Benham, her jealousy of his relationship with Meg, and memory gaps caused by Frannie’s use of laudanum add to the reader’s uncertainty of her involvement. This is both a highly suspenseful murder mystery and a vivid historical novel, but best of all is the depiction of Frannie, a complex and unforgettable protagonist. This is a great book sure to find a wide—and deserved—audience.”
Talking to Strangers by Paul Auster
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Talking to Strangers: “Man Booker Prize finalist Auster (4 3 2 1) gathers 44 pieces of nonfiction and essays in this wide-ranging and probing collection. His insightful literary criticism, written in the 1970s and ’80s for Commentary and the New York Review of Books, among others, discusses Kafka’s letters, the short-lived Dada movement, and the influence of French poets on their British and American counterparts. More recent works include a tribute to Auster’s long-lived manual typewriter and an account of an evening at Shea Stadium watching Mets pitcher Terry Leach shut out the Giants. The collection’s highlights include reflections on artists both classic and contemporary, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose notebooks reveal the humorous side of ‘a notoriously melancholy man,’ and Jim Jarmusch, whose films are characterized by “loopy asides, unpredictable digressions and an intense focus on what is happening at each particular moment.’ The book also includes newly published work, notably a lively 1982 lecture on ‘the luckless, misunderstood Edgar Allan Poe,’ who was greatly admired—and rescued from obscurity—by French poets Baudelaire and Mallarmé. This vibrant collection fully displays Auster’s wit and humanity and offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a celebrated author.”
Little Glass Planet by Dobby Gibson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Glass Planet: “In his fourth book, Gibson (It Becomes You) offers an ode to poetry and the respite it provides from a restless, cacophonous world. A gentle protest of the politics that scorn love and empathy, this book invites the reader to log off from the ceaseless relay of information in order to reconnect with the natural world, as well as simple, beautiful objects, such as an antique Korean fishing bobber. Gibson is charmingly funny, as when he presents a mock etymological elegy for the actor Abe Vigoda: ‘That name, like something resurrected/ from a dictionary. Abe: another word/ for honesty. And vigoda, meaning:/ a sacred temple for vampires.’ The poem ‘Roll Call’ considers activities that ‘the gods’ may be engaging in at any given time, including ‘updating their secret map of lost mittens’ and ‘chasing one another at the god park.’ The book contains many pithy observations (‘it’s impossible to get/ the same haircut twice’) which occasionally seem cute or unnecessary. However, it contains many more remarkable, arresting images: ‘a lemon tree dressed in December ice like a girl in her grandmother’s jewelry.’ The poem that opens the book’s third section, ‘Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lies the Will to Survive,’ effectively epitomizes the poet’s worldview. Gibson offers the reader a quiet space to reflect on the metaphysical and to find peace in a time of chaos.”
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.