My reading year was spent moving between old favorites — Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, The Kill — and then for new novels alone, it felt like it was a storm of almost impossible dimensions, like all I had to do was open a window in Hell’s Kitchen and a new book would fly in. I’ll be reading from 2012 well into 2013 and perhaps beyond, I think, and you will be too.
Still on my TBR, for example, are new books from Junot Diaz, A. M. Homes, Zadie Smith, Jami Attenberg, Benjamin Anastas, Antoine Wilson, Emily St. John Mandel, Victor LaValle and Carol Rifka Brunt. I’m currently reading Emma Straub’s delicious Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the new Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth.
But my memory of what I read last year collects mostly around the summer, when I had the most time to read, as I waited for edits on my novel. I began with a novel to blurb, Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which I will never forget. Then came Don Lee’s The Collective, a strange mirror to another amazing book, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians. August was spent with Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Patrick Somerville’s This Bright River, both of which I loved, and both of which are really brilliant, as well as getting caught up in my Emily Books book club reading — the profound and profane Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger, a sly Muriel Spark novel, Loitering with Intent, and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which I loved so much, it led me to read her masterpiece, The Last Samurai.
And this last was the one that probably rules the year for me. Every now and then, you find a book that feels like it was keyed to your DNA. This was like that for me. I’d heard about it for a long time. As I am a member at the Center for Fiction, and they have generous summer checkout times, I went looking for it there and found it (sorry to the person who tried to call it back midsummer). For me, reading The Last Samurai felt like holding a slowly exploding bomb in my hands, but say, if a bomb could make something more than a hole after it exploded — something incredible, that you’d never seen before. Even writing about it now makes me feel the urge to go back in. It’s about a woman from a family of failed prodigies, who one day has a one night stand with a brilliant, hateful man that she cannot respect. This description of that night is when I knew I loved the book. Oh, yes, she gives him the codename ‘Liberace’:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow; swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley at last came to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
She sneaks away while he’s asleep, becomes pregnant from this episode, and soon is raising her child prodigy son on her own, who eventually wants to find his father, and she initially declines to reveal his identity; she has done everything she can to hide him from her son, at least until her son has the critical faculties to understand why his father is not intellectually respectable. To ensure this, she sets a challenge for him to meet as the condition of knowing who he is. The narration moves between them, and even incorporates the way a child interrupts a mother into the forward motion of the novel.
What I loved about it, aside from the hilarity, the language, the tone and the structure was that it felt so incredibly free. And reading it, so did I.
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Pre-pub buzz had Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, the intriguingly if somewhat cumbersomely titled The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, as a The Things They Carried—Mean Girls hybrid. If you are finding it just a little difficult to picture a Venn diagram where a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War intersects with a Tina-Fey-penned movie about the travails of high school girls, consider this: both war and high school are marked by a strange blend of ennui and nearly unbearable stress, of existential dread and petty banality. (But, yes, it’s also true that only one of these makes you ponder the cruel betrayals of fame and fortune vis-à-vis a once fresh-faced, plucky, promising Lindsay Lohan.)
High school may be war, but, ultimately, if one must cast The People of Forever in pop culture terms, the book is mostly reminiscent of the Lena Dunham-created HBO show Girls. With its episodic structure, its unfolding in seemingly standalone stories actually bound together by insistent echoes, and its cast of recently-graduated young women — three, in the case of Boianjiu’s novel, to Dunham’s show’s four — pretending to a maturity, a certainty, they neither possess nor successfully imitate, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes as its subject rites of passage, looks at transient but fraught moments in a transitional time. And, like Dunham’s fictional(ized) stand-in Hannah Horvath, Boianjiu may well be the voice of her generation or, at least, a voice of a generation.
Boianjiu’s generation is comprised of the young women who, having completed high school, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Army service provides the backdrop for much of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, though the book has little to do with the business of war. There are, to be sure, eruptions of violence — a male soldier is very nearly decapitated, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and Israel’s subsequent 2006 war in Lebanon are integrated into the plot, and the novel’s third section explores the peacetime aftershocks of armed conflict, for “when the boy soldiers returned from the war they tortured the girl soldiers who waited for them” — but for the most part, the book may well be set in the Brooklyn of Girls. Yael, Avishag, and Lea, the three friends who split narratorial duties and narrative focus, are mostly bored, biding their time at checkpoints, like wasting time in dead-end internships, waiting for their real lives to begin. I don’t mean to make light of the very grave, very deadly geopolitical concerns that are necessarily the background of a novel with its gaze firmly fixed on life in Israel, on life in the Israeli army. But these concerns are mostly background in The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which reads, above all, as a coming-of-age story.
We meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea when they are still in school, a “caravan of a classroom” in a tiny village on the Lebanese border. (Boianjiu herself grew up in such a town.) Like any students on the verge of graduation, the girls are tempted to ignore the lecture, to pass notes and fantasize about parties and crushes, to speculate about whose house might be without parental supervision long enough to host those parties and entertain those crushes. The lecture at hand is about the “PLO, SAM, IAF, RPG children,” Syrian submarines and Palestinian children trying to shoot RPG rockets at Israeli soldiers and burning each other instead, but, as a sub-chapter heading tells us, “History Is Almost Over.” These young women, like young women everywhere, believe that the past stops with their present, that their futures will be different and special and lovely. And this is of course terrifying.
Army notices are sent out. The girls prepare for service. Yael becomes a weapons instructor, responsible for training other soldiers in the art of marksmanship. (An editorial by Boianjiu in last Sunday’s New York Times revealed that this was her own position during her two years of IDF service. I mention this fact mostly by way of noting that Yael, who bears the heaviest load of the narration, seems closest to the author herself, serving as ego in the triangulated configuration of herself and the imperious Lea and the depressive, impulsive Avishag.) Lea checks documents at a West Bank checkpoint and desperately tries to enter into the history and experiences of the men trying to cross. Avishag serves as a guard overlooking the border. All three pretend at being grownups, at being tough, and all three remain vulnerable, become more vulnerable. They flash back to their childhoods, their conventionally troubled families, to which all three return, however briefly, after the completion of their service. The girls’ reunion becomes a momentarily idyllic return to the safety of childhood configurations, a respite not from war — which is after all a kind of existential truth in their lives — but from the need to pose as confident, as capable. Only about twenty when they leave the army, the girls are poised on the threshold of a world that does not seem to them quite real, and they postpone their entrance by retreating into old patterns, old games.
The author herself is still very young, only twenty-five. She is also the youngest recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, selected for that honor by the novelist Nicole Krauss. Boianjiu has something of Krauss’s sensibility, her interest in intersecting lives, the seams where unexpected connections are exposed. In The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Boianjiu showcases a lovely sort of simplicity, allowing the girls’ voices to ring true, to ring young and innocent and sad. In this, she strikes no false notes: Yael and Lea and Avishag are just different enough from each other to be interesting, just similar enough to be believable friends. The book falls apart near the end, asked to bear a burden it has not convincingly built to. It becomes, too suddenly, with too little warning, about war, and it loses sight of the characters who helped us make sense of all that has come before. But, for those moments when Yael and Lea and Avishag and their splendid, troubled, mundane lives are slowly developing in front of us, a strip of photo-booth pictures coming into a precision and a clarity, we fully believe in their existence and their sense of that existence.
Another big week for books is headlined by Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (the book’s opening lines) and Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. Also out are Susan Straight’s Between Heaven and Here, touted debuts The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, How Music Works by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, and Bob Woodward’s latest Beltway tick-tock The Price of Politics.