#tobyreads: Looming Tomes and History’s Weight


When I was in Portland earlier this month, I was told that I needed to read Justin Hocking’s memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. The recommendation came from Michael Heald, who knows a thing or two about good nonfiction; I was in the midst of talking about various anxieties and frustrations relative to life in New York, writing, and other things, and he suggested that Hocking’s memoir would be a useful thing to read.

I’m tempted to say that he’s right. Hocking’s book, by and large, focuses on his time in New York in the middle of the 00s. He works a series of less-than-fulfilling jobs, takes up surfing, tries to become more aware of his own anxieties and obsessions, and continues his fixation with Moby-Dick. This last part ends up supplying the memoir with some of its structure: there are sections that parallel Hocking’s story with Melville’s novel, and recount the tales of numerous Melville obsessives. I’d say “digressions,” but given that this is a Melville-inspired story, there’s certainly a precedent for them. And ultimately, the two elements blend together neatly, allowing for multiple angles on Hocking’s journey of self-awareness.

Structure is also critical to Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s forthcoming novel Echo of the Boom. Initially, it seems fragmentary, as its four main characters begin the book entirely disconnected from one another. All are young adults: one travels the world’s hot spots with his father; one lives in relative isolation, learning the mores of combat; and two navigate the less overtly dangerous channels of high school. The online world plays a big part here, and there are elements that will please readers of William Gibson. This comes to the forefront in its second half, as one of its central characters becomes obsessed with a video game that allows for the simulation of a series of violent attacks on familiar cities. With the increased amount of time we spend online, Neely-Cohen asks, what does this level of chaos do to us? And given that one character’s chapters contain references to a length of time followed by “before the end,” Neely-Cohen hints at something even bleaker on the horizon. For me, the novel’s juxtapositions worked, creating a narrative space in which almost anything is possible; it makes for a book that’s hard to put down.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun has a more seemingly familiar structure, but quickly finds ways to defy expectations. It begins in historical-epic territory, with a teenage boy going to work for a temperamental academic in Nigeria in the early 1960s. After a while, the narrative jumps forward to later in the decade, bringing the narrative closer to the events that led Biafra to secede from Nigeria; then it leaps back. revealing certain personal relationships that have ruptured, and why. It’s a genuinely wrenching book to read: characters we’ve come to like do awful things, or crumble before doing the good they might be capable of. And by focusing on a core group of characters, several of whom are in relationships or related, Adichie allows for a tense moment in history to be viewed by a number of positions in  society: academics, those in places of economic power, those on the margins, and one expatriate. (The last of these also allows Adichie a way to organically throw some history lessons into the mix.) It’s an exhausting and vital read.

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