#tobyreads: The Unreal is Here


Well, I tried. Given that the folks at Flavorwire are prompting the reading and re-reading of a number of Shirley Jackson novels, I figured I’d delve into a few myself, beginning with The Haunting of Hill House. Said novel fell into the category of books I’d been meaning to read for ages but hadn’t; after reading the first 50-odd pages of the used copy I’d bought earlier in the month, I could see why. Jackson’s command of mood and atmosphere was stunning, and then came the boldest metafictional trick of all: 58 pages in, the book started over.

It took me a good ninety seconds to realize that, no, Jackson wasn’t out-Calvino-ing Calvino; that instead, my copy had two sections of the first 58 pages, and then skipped to page 128 or so. I ordered a fresh copy from WORD, and am awaiting its arrival. Hopefully, this one will defy reason in other ways.

In a recent interview with Jeff VanderMeer, he spoke highly of Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants. Given that I’ve liked the work from both authors that I’ve encountered, I ended up ordering an omnibus from Penguin UK titled Early Levy, which contains that novel along with Swallowing Geography. (That it has an introduction from the prodigiously talented Lauren Elkin didn’t hurt.) And these two short novels are indeed memorable: Beautiful Mutants contains recognizable scenes of 1980s England, but also veers into a dreamlike surrealism. Animals speak, characters are summoned as if through magic, and the tone becomes increasingly apocalyptic as the novel goes on. Swallowing Geography is more overtly realistic, but here, ellipses and obviation are essential to the narrative, as the constant motion of the book’s protagonist becomes more and more exhausting.

(A quick aside: said protagonist is named J.K. It’s a nod to Kerouac, but in this post-Harry Potter world, I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a nod to Rowling. Strange how references like that can work over time.)

I read Karen Russell’s new novella Sleep Donation this week, too. I’d say “picked up,” but since it’s digital-only, I’m not sure how accurate that description is. I’m a huge admirer of Russell’s short fiction, and this is another fine example of it. The premise: in the near future, epidemics of sleeplessness plague the world, and the narrator is a volunteer tasked with collecting the sleep of others. It’s an evocative premise, and Russell perfectly captures how unsettling this is and the ways in which society would react. And I feel like it would make a fine double bill with Jonathan Lethem’s story “Sleepy People.”

In keeping with the surreal science fiction, I also delved into Marek S. Huberath’s Nest of Worlds. It begins in the space of philosophical science fiction and heads into stranger territories. Set in a world where age-based migration is a constant and time passes at different rates depending on what form of transportation you take, Huberath establishes a dizzying mood. At times, it’s deeply familiar; at others, it’s (intentionally) bewildering. Slowly, the novel’s protagonist settles into a new life; slowly, people around him begin to die, in sometimes-surreal ways. And there’s also a novel being read by a colleague of his, also called Nest of Worlds. What evolves is a blend of mathematical science fiction and metaphysical metafiction; I read it not long after Definitely Maybe, and the two fall into a similar vein, I’d say.

(Also, for the record: the title of today’s column is totally a nod to Chavez. Because Chavez are fantastic.)

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.