Any discussion about the giants of contemporary American letters must include Joan Didion. In Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a new collection of twelve nonfiction pieces ranging from 1968 to 2000 and gathered together for the first time, Didion tackles the press, art, her college years, writing, and her own self-doubt, which has been constant throughout her career and is to blame for the small number of short stories she has written. Witty, heartfelt, and insightful, the writing in Let Me Tell You What I Mean is always incisive and shows Didion as a perennial chronicler and keen observer obsessed with the present, the palpable, the real.
The last time I read something of Cody Goodfellow’s, it was the novel Unamerica, a book which would accurately be described as “sprawling.” From extensive riffing on national borders to psychedelic passages, Unamerica covered a lot of ground; it was both keenly political and mind-bendingly psychedelic. What do you do for an encore, once that’s out in the world? Zig where one might expect a zag, apparently. Goodfellow’s latest book, Gridlocked, brings together two novellas about punk rock, traffic jams, cults, and werewolves. As befits the punk band featured in the book’s second novella, “Breaking The Chain Letter,” these are short, fast, and meant to be played loud.
Time is two-faced. Today it drags you in its wake, slowly, sadistically—tedious indignities nick you like so many potholes; you’ll never get where you’re going. But tomorrow you’ll be there before you know it, unhooked from the rear of the car, unmoving and face-up on the ground; you’ll have nothing but warm memories of the stupid suffering you should’ve savored. Time torments you until it’s through with you; its first face is a bullying sneer and the other is blank.
A work of art that takes as its titular subject the premise that the ability of humans to observe the universe is inherent in the universe’s being at all would seem either to be completely theoretical as a fiction or a work so mind-bogglingly dense and self-reflexive it would preclude access to all but an elite few. Luckily, Anthropica by David Hollander rids itself of this problem by embracing paradox to astounding effect.
“…I was writing and all the time I was also watching myself writing…” This passionate meta-short novel by Australian Jen Craig reckons with a world (the real world) where everyone thinks they can be a writer. The main character (Jen Craig), her father, and her long estranged dead friend from childhood all have intimations, but none can deliver passable prose, though Jen’s reading of a friend’s failed work triggers a “breakthrough” for her own writing—the words of the author Jen Craig detailing this experience of her speaker.
Picture the suburbs. Perhaps it’s wide streets that flatten out the light. Perhaps it’s the tight-knit, loving and irritated family in a huge, yet cozy house: the McCallisters in Home Alone or the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation. Perhaps it’s Carolyn Burnham’s pruning shears matching her gardening clogs in desperate unhappiness in American Beauty. Or perhaps it’s your childhood, your adulthood, your home.
Mellie is in Boston in 2010, one month clean, raising Juni, her damaged toddler daughter, solo, and doing her best to stay off the memory-scattering drug “cloud” when a familiar SUV she can’t place pulls into the driveway, flicks a familiar cigarette in a familiar way, then pulls away before her memory can catch up. There are so many things she can’t remember, including who in the wide world Juni’s father might be.
This is, by definition, going to be a short review. That’s not to say that Michael Griffin’s Armageddon House doesn’t have a lot going on, both narratively and structurally — it absolutely does. But part of the pleasure of reading this book is trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. It’s not quite a mystery box narrative, but there are certainly elements of that present here. Having finished it, I certainly have my theories about what’s actually taking place within its pages, but I’m not necessarily sure if I’m correct. And that’s fine, honestly.