Song for the Unraveling of the World

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A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.

This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.

This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.

This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.

This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.

This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.

This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.

This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.

In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.

Tuesday New Release Day: Hemon, Bob-Waksberg, Martins, Awad, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Aleksandar Hemon, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Geovani Martins, Mona Awad, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: “Bob-Waksberg, creator of the subversive cartoon series BoJack Horseman, hones his wonderfully absurd and unexpectedly moving style in this selection of stories about love. ‘A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion’ pokes fun at the arbitrary absurdity of wedding traditions and expectations by introducing a world in which engagement rings are replaced by expensive ‘promise eggs’ and goats are routinely sacrificed at ceremonies. During a family vacation in ‘These Are Facts,’ a girl bonds with her bratty older half-brother, who uses sarcasm to hide the bitterness he still feels toward their father. Sometimes the author’s premises go on a beat too long, as in ‘Missed Connection—m4w,’ in which two mutually attracted subway riders stay on a train for years but never get up the nerve to talk to each other, or ‘Rufus,’ told from the viewpoint of a small dog and peppered with cutesy nomenclature. But mostly Bob-Waksberg successfully tempers the ridiculous with a sharp tug at the heartstrings. ‘Rules for Taboo,’ in which avoiding certain words during a board game triggers a string of pleasant and unpleasant truths, is a prime example of this skill, and a highlight of the collection. These stories are at times poignant and triumphantly silly, but always manage to ring true.”

The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins (translated by Julia Sanches)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sun on My Head: “Young men contend with the violence and corruption of Rio de Janerio in this tantalizing debut from Brazilian Martins. The characters in these stories represent a full spectrum of favela life, from the aspiring graffiti artist, Fernando, who longs to give his son a better childhood than his father offered him (‘The Tag’) to the drug pusher forced to dispose of the body of a customer he kills in a fit of pique (‘The Crossing’). In ‘Spiral,’ a student who commutes to a tony neighborhood becomes obsessed with its residents, ‘who inhabited a world unknown to me’; he stalks one for months before he sees in his subject’s ‘eyes the horror of realization.’ Martins’s characters and the situations they navigate grab the reader’s attention, but he often shies away from offering a resolution. ‘TGIF’ defies this tendency, accompanying its protagonist on a harrowing subway ride to score drugs in a distant favela and ending in a confrontation with a crooked cop. In Martins’s Rio, every interaction is a negotiation, and everyone is ‘in the same boat: hard up, dopeless, wanting to chill beachside.’ This is a promising work from an intriguing new voice.”

The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The History of Living Forever: “The search for an eternal life potion weaves through raw emotion, scientific curiosity, and heartbreak in Wolff’s intoxicating debut. On the first day of his senior year of high school in Maine in 2010, 16-year-old Conrad learns his chemistry teacher and secret lover Sammy Tampari has died in an apparent suicide. Conrad comes home from school dazed, only to find a package from Sammy that contains journals and a key to storage unit. He discovers that Sammy has long been testing an immortality elixir on himself. Conrad enlists best friend RJ to duplicate the substance in hopes of healing his father’s fatal liver disease and RJ’s sister’s muscular dystrophy. Conrad reads, in Sammy’s journals, about Sammy’s depressed childhood and globetrotting search for ingredients first with his overly forgiving girlfriend Catherine and then with boyfriend Sadiq. Wolff blends the journal entries and other flashbacks with ease, incorporating vignettes of historical figures who were drawn to the search for eternal life, as well as the future, and of Conrad’s 40th birthday and his husband’s brain cancer diagnosis. The epic sweep and sly humor in the midst of enormous anguish will remind readers of Michael Chabon’s work as they relish this heady exploration of grief, alchemy, and love.”

My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You: “MacArthur fellow Hemon (The Lazarus Project) recounts his Bosnian family’s journey from hopeful progress to exile in this richly reflective two-volume memoir. My Parents follows his father and mother as they rose from impoverished rural backgrounds to enjoy the communist ‘Yugoslav Dream’—good jobs, a nice apartment in Sarajevo and a vacation house—until the 1992 Bosnian war forced them to flee to Canada and start over in their 50s. Hemon sets the tender and often funny story of his quirky parents against the vivid background of their nurturing (though dour and sexist) peasant culture, woven from epic war stories, food rituals, and folk songs. This Does Not Belong to You is an impressionistic, darker-edged sheaf of Hemon’s boyhood memories (after his grandfather’s death, ‘he was no longer there at all; just, where he used to be, a void’), more about writerly individualism than tribal solidarity. A lonely boy given to writing poetry on toilet paper and compulsively hunting flies (they ‘rubbed their little legs gleefully while I strived to catch them with a quick forehand’), Hemon weathered bullies and mooned over unattainable girls. Sometimes lively and sensual, sometimes bleakly ruminative, Hemon’s recollections unite his dazzling prose style with a captivating personal narrative.”

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Song for the Unraveling of the World: “In the title tale of this collection, the main character identifies the mood of disorienting uncertainty that pervades all 22 unsettling stories when he ponders a world ‘that was always threatening to come unraveled around him.’ In ‘Line of Sight,’ one of three stories that juxtapose movie make-believe to everyday life, an actor on set is startled to glimpse something peering out at him through ‘a seam where reality had been imperfectly fused.’ The viewpoint characters of ‘The Glistening World’ and ‘Wanderlust’ are disturbed by their paranoid perception that they are being followed by persons with inscrutable motives. ‘Sisters’ is a ghoulish lark about a strange family whose exploration of ordinary Halloween traditions reveals their own Addams Family–like proclivities. Most of these stories are carefully calibrated exercises in ambiguity in which Evenson (Windeye) leaves it unclear how much of the off-kilterness exists outside of the deep-seated pathologies that motivate his characters. His work will hold great appeal for fans of subtly unnerving dark fantasy.”

Writing to Persuade by Trish Hall

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Writing to Persuade: “Hall (A Little Work) delivers an instructional guide to writing the sort of persuasively argued think pieces she oversaw during her four years as editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page. Writing broadly rather than in bullet points, and illustrating her observations with examples of submissions she handled during her tenure, she addresses the many aspects of writing that distinguish an exercise in expository writing and make it attract attention, such as drawing on a deeply personal experience to crystallize a generally relevant concern (she cites Angelina Jolie’s column on her double mastectomy to raise breast cancer awareness) and playing on feelings to connect emotionally with one’s audience. Some of her insights will seem obvious, if useful: don’t make readers defensive by arguing, enliven a theme with storytelling, and prune one’s prose of clichés and jargon, to name a few. Others are profound in their clarity: speaking about the different moral values to which people cling, she writes, ‘You can’t expect someone to change their basic values, so you have to make your argument in a way that fits with their values.’ This book offers sound, well-reasoned advice that will benefit any writer.”

Bunny by Mona Awad

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bunny: “Awad’s outstanding novel follows the highly addictive, darkly comedic tale of sardonic Samantha Mackey, a fiction MFA student at a top-tier New England school. There, four of her fellow writers are a ghoulish clique of women who cryptically refer to each other as ‘Bunny.’ To outsiders, the Bunnies come across as insipid with their colorful, patterned dresses and perfect hair. Samantha feels more grounded after her first year and after meeting Ava, who becomes her only friend, over the summer break. Samantha dreads the Bunnies’ return upon learning the four of them are the only other participants in her writing workshop; once in class, they dismiss her work while praising their own. The trajectory of Samantha’s life alters after she receives an unexpected invitation from the Bunnies to join them. Samantha’s desire for acceptance leads her down a dangerous path into the Bunnies’ rabbit hole, which begins with them drinking weird concoctions and reading erotic poetry together in sessions they call the ‘Smut Salon.’ Soon, though, Samantha begins to believe in the Bunnies’ views, becomes unreliable as a narrator, and willingly participates in their increasingly twisted games. Awad (13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl) will have readers racing to find out how it all ends—and they won’t be disappointed once the story reaches its wild finale. This is an enchanting and stunningly bizarre novel.”

Also on shelves: Mamaskatch by Darrel J. McLeod.

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