I’m burnt out on dystopia. We’re currently living through a number of different daily scenarios that George Orwell or William Gibson called decades ago, and new levels of absurdity that would make Albert Camus shake his head in disbelief. I don’t try to hide from the bad news, because it’s not like I could if I wanted to. But when I sit down to read a novel, I’d rather try and escape just a little. I’ve read plenty of books where some author shows us their version of what the future will look like, and nine times out of ten the prophecy is pretty grim—which is totally reasonable because, well, humanity likes to destroy itself. Still, I’d like a little less somber from time to time with my reading experience these days. Lately I try to steer clear of reading or watching anything about the future because, frankly, I’m sick of thinking about what’s to come.
On Tuesday February 12th at Konikuniya Bookstore on 6th Avenue in New York City I saw Raymond Strom do a Q&A for his new debut novel, Northern Lights. At one point an audience member asked Strom about his inspiration in writing the book, and he explained that an essential question guided the novel:
Why were we such thrill seekers as teenagers?
I relate deeply to the characters in Strom’s novel—to their family of origin stories and also their current destructive choices. While I do not have Strom’s answer to his question, coming from a similar background, and having plenty of experience with many inappropriate choices when I was young, I do have mine.
Metaphors are a tricky thing. In the sense of K Chess’s novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, I mean that literally: its central conceit eventually turns out to be a sort of magic trick, in the sense of misdirection and revelation. At the heart of Chess’s book is a displaced population: a group of residents from a parallel Earth who find themselves refugees in a familiar place: contemporary New York. (For this reader, it was very familiar: lengthy sequences play out in several locations less than a mile from my apartment.) But while this idea might seem like grounds for a sweeping, thematically resonant work of fiction challenging readers’ ideas about refugee narratives, that’s not exactly what Chess is after here.
Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient is a rare psychological thriller that plays with secret agendas while constantly inhabiting the realm of psychotherapy and trauma. There is murder and violence here, which makes it fit nicely in the category of crime fiction and offers fans of the genre a lot to enjoy, but the series of secrets at the core of the narrative and the revelations in the novel’s last act set it apart from most contemporary crime novels and make it a unique, memorable hybrid.
The biggest music fans of Gen-X were also some of the biggest fuck-ups: the struggling, the wounded, the ones who couldn’t get their acts together. Those without the words to express turmoil leaned on the sentiments of others, passing mixtapes like currency to patch and convey, to cover and compensate. It’s no surprise, then, that two bisecting tributaries – music and trouble– cut through the heart of Constance Squires’ new short story collection Hit Your Brights, pouring into the same emotional pool.
While 2019 is still young and there is a lot of literary terrain to cover before the end of the year, I can confidently say Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance will be talked about in many best of 2019 lists as one of the most honest and timely book of the year. Unflinching in its portrayal of senseless violence and scathing in its critique of the country’s obsession with guns and distrust of the Other, this is a book that resonates.
As Amazon sets upon its tax-sponsored path of evicting every last New Yorker, turn-of-the-millennium Seattle looms as the inexorable cautionary tale, the gold rush prototype of full-throttle technocratic gentrification. To apply a gauzy retrospective lens, the specter of early-2000s Seattle evokes not only a simpler, more innocent age, but one which augured the crises which would kneecap the soaring economy. In a cynical light, the murderer’s row of 21st century doomsdays—dot-com boom, housing bubble, Silicon Valley oligopoly, Facebook’s unfurling the carpet for Trump’s 2016 sweep—were beta-tested in a Seattle incubator.
Daisy Johnson’s Fen emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Here was a collection of tales overflowing with ideas and emotion, but firmly rooted in the ground. They were delightful beasts, written with a panache that showed a masterly style, as raw as it could be delicate, which punched you in the gut while displaying an odd fragility. Fen was a worldly, earthy book, which at the same time left an aftertaste of fairy-tale and folklore. It introduced us to Johnson’s protagonists: strong, lonely women, trapped at the sources of myth, taking us closely, at times uncomfortably closely, into their world. We could almost feel as if we were catching eels ourselves, as if we trod those lonely East Anglian towns in our Saturday night high heels. We had always known of the darkness in these places; but we had known it out of the corner of our eyes, intuitively. Now Johnson showed us that we had been right all along; and we felt as if we had met a friend, someone who understood this often forgotten part of the world.