Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Review:

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can’t let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It’s a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

I’m surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she’s lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She’s bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn’t been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he’s just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he’s doing and why. He doesn’t seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he’s another character I found I couldn’t care about.

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He’s been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

I won’t spoil how the three characters’ stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn’t enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Review:

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I’ve waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author’s fault or mine. It’s silly to assign blame when one doesn’t like a book; I suppose this one just wasn’t for me, and I wish every book was.

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much “me.” The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator–I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to–borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious “accident.” The game also embodies what I understand to be the book’s major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn’t until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean’s “accident,” though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery…except it’s not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you’re even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don’t have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn’t. A book can be about roads we do and don’t take, how our choices don’t always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Deliverance, by James Dickey

Review:

Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for “that scene,” the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a “hillbilly.” The scene is a bit different in the book–there’s no “Squeal like a pig!” moment–but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to “develop” a female character, that it’s rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe).

I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey’s prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I’ve read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it’s about using and relying on one’s physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.

The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine “man’s man” of the foursome. He’s what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There’s Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who’s the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis’s best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it’s up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won’t be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.

What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters’ actions and attitudes from the author’s. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn’t want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?

The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn’t appreciated her enough. Drew’s widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men’s masculinity.

Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I’ve mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library’s list, even as I struggle with some elements.

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Deliverance, by James Dickey

Black Wave, Michelle Tea

Review:

Black Wave - Michelle Tea

The more I read (and watch movies and TV), the more I value encountering something unlike anything else I ever have before. Black Wave, by Michelle Tea, immersed me in a world new to me in several ways.

Though there are occasionally individual queer characters in the books I read, I haven’t read much queer lit where a larger community is represented, especially queer women. Black Wave is set in San Francisco in the 90s at the start, an alternative past where gentrification has strangled most of the culture(s) from the city. In addition, the world appears to be ending due to advanced climate change: it’s dangerous to be out in the sun even incidentally, the ocean is a trash wave, many animals are extinct, and invasive species have overtaken the dying native flora. In other words, the environment’s death mirrors a cultural and, as is soon apparent, a personal one.

The protagonist, Michelle (like the author), is in her later twenties, and is the kind of addict who tells herself she’s not because she doesn’t shoot heroin but snorts it and is able to keep her job at a bookstore. She falls in love (or becomes infatuated) easily and hooks up with many of the women who come into her orbit, despite being in a “steady” relationship with a partner more stable than she is. At one point the point of view shifts from Michelle’s to her girlfriend’s, who thinks she’s a sociopath.

That feels pretty accurate, but one of the amazing things about Black Wave is that despite Michelle’s objectively unlikable character, I still felt very much invested in her. In part this is due to the humor and energy of the writing. For example:

Michelle seemed more like some sort of compulsively rutting land mammal, a chimera of dog in heat and black widow, a sex fiend that kills its mate. Or else she was merely a sociopath. She was like the android from Blade Runner who didn’t know it was bad to torture a tortoise. She had flipped [her girlfriend] Andy onto her belly in the Armageddon sun and left her there, fins flapping.

I may also personally respond to Michelle because she’s a writer, one who’s even published and had a sort of local fame. Around the midpoint of the book when she moves to L.A., the narrative is deconstructed as she attempts to write a new book. It becomes clear that not everything we’ve read so far is as it happened. Another aspect I liked is that somehow this sudden shift doesn’t feel like a trick as can happen in many modernist and post-modernist writing and metafiction. How and why I don’t know, but after some minor readjustment on my part as a reader, I was still invested.

I’ve often noted what a structure fanatic I am, and the last major selling point of Black Wave is the way it beautifully spins out in the last third.

Tangents were Michelle’s favorite part of writing, each one a declaration of agency: I know I was going over there but now I’m going over here, don’t be so uptight about it, just come along. A tangent was a fuckup, a teenage runaway. It was a road trip with a full tank of gas. You can’t get lost if you don’t have anywhere to be. This was writing for Michelle: rule free, glorious, sprawling.

As the world ends, people begin dreaming vividly and lucidly about others who exist in the real world, all over the world. They’re dreams of connection and love where identity is fluid, and some begin living in them, like Michelle’s bosses at the bookstore who hand over the business to her. So the world ends, but somehow Michelle’s in a good place, and so was I.

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Black Wave, Michelle Tea

Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet

Review:

Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel - Lydia Millet

Hm. Hmmm. This is a difficult book to write about as it defies easy genre placement. It has notes of thriller, horror, SF/speculative fiction, and philosophy. I chose to shelve it under “literary fiction” because I don’t see a conflict between the literary and genre elements.

Judging by the three-star average rating, most will either love or be confounded by and hate this novel. It took some warming up for me, and I have other quibbles about characterization and writing style. But when I finished the book, I wanted to jump back in and discuss it.

It’s a novel of big (and politically relevant) ideas wrapped in a domestic thriller. The story centers on a mom and her young daughter. The mother, Anna, hears a voice. Not voices, one voice, and much of the novel’s first quarter or third is spent characterizing this voice–what it is and isn’t, if not why it is at all. Then, the voice stops. Anna is relieved but still puzzled. More importantly, she has to get away from her husband, who is revealing himself to be a sociopath. She sets out on her own with her daughter and shacks up at a motel in New England. Her husband doesn’t care until he decides to run for a government office. He wants his estranged wife and kid around as political props. Anna resists but is threatened.

Interspersed with events are bits of research Anna has done on the voice–on language and communication across species, flora and fauna, on God and mental health, community and self-hood. She’s found a small community at the isolated motel, and they contribute to her understanding. The closer she comes to making sense of things, the more danger she’s in until matters reach a breaking point, not felt until she realizes just how much she’s been manipulated.

Millet is posing some big questions and making assertions that ring especially true in our new extreme-right and digital environments. I haven’t yet sorted through all the implications of the story, but I’m happy for the challenge.

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Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet

The Unseen World, by Liz Moore

Review:

The Unseen World: A Novel - Liz Moore

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I’ll mark), but I’ll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the ’80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father’s identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father’s past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.

Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:

I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father’s lab mate and later Ada’s guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.

I liked how David’s choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David’s history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston’s boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she’s letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.

My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she’s immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she’s likely operating at above grade level.

Non-spoilery elements I wasn’t crazy about:

Liston’s sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada’s growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don’t see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.

Though the mystery and reveal of David’s identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos…).

Ada’s one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she’s unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it’s a familiar type that’s come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.

In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada’s whole world). She should trust her readers more.

SPOILERS below:

Continue reading “The Unseen World, by Liz Moore”

The Unseen World, by Liz Moore

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

Review:

The Association of Small Bombs: A Novel - Karan Mahajan

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

I finished this critically acclaimed book while away for the holidays and jotted down a list of likes/dislikes. Short story shorter, I liked it, but what a downer.

The synopsis from amazon:

 

When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.

I admired the novel’s intricate structure as it shifts across time and multiple points of view. As a writer, I’m always greatly impressed by such a feat when it is accomplished smoothly and clearly. The different points of view also offer insight into how a victim might become a terrorist or sympathetic to one or his cause, how other victims may become advocates, how someone moderate in his faith might become an extremist, how a terrorist may walk away free and be disaffected even as he commits or aids in more acts of terror. In the case of these characters, often it’s the personal or psychological rather than the political that provides the impetus for violent action. Refreshingly, this novel does not feel ideological.

The prose is also accomplished, and I liked that the author wrote to his best reader; he did not define or explain cultural or religious terms that may be unfamiliar to a white, atheist Westerner like me. I had no problem looking up information for myself.

Despite what I was drawn to in the novel’s craft, I felt the characters were held at a remove, as if I were looking down on them from above. This prevented me from fully connecting with them and the novel as a whole. Without that connection, I finished the story with a feeling of, “Well, that happened.” There was nothing to counterbalance the weight of events, not enough beauty to keep the novel from simply depressing me. At times the metaphor of the titular bombs was also heavy-handed.

I can see what critics admire in this work, but I left it feeling untouched.

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The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan