Autumn Lit Roundup 2016
A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl Publication Date: June 28, 2016 Publisher: Viking
Part road trip, part exodus, part homecoming, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is set in the vast universe of comics, specifically comic and cosplay conventions. Valerie Torrey is an actress who played in 100 episodes of a popular cancelled sci-fi series called Anomaly. Under court order she is returning her nine-year-old son Alex to his father, her former husband and co-star. The parents are to meet midway between New York and LA, appearing at a convention.
On the way, we meet an endless array of characters: hipster bros who co-create a hit comic; Tim, the Idea Man and his amanuensis, Louis; a dozen characters in character costumes; venerable Golden Age artists, collectors, and publishers; and Gail, a brainy fashion-backward lesbian illustrator. Gail is ready to shake off the paternalistic industry hierarchy, and her inner voice makes for good company throughout the novel.
The characters live, work, and dream in at least one parallel universe to our own. Illustrators give life to worlds created by writers, or the reverse, and life’s events are understood when filtered through cosmic storylines. Alex and Val live two stories about their odyssey: the false and the true. Alex dwells part-time in the series he reads and part-time in a new story he’s writing. His actual life story is distorted, lovingly, by his mother. She tells him edited versions of Anomaly story lines and background as a way of describing their family. Alex only sees his father on television, and knows him as “something dad-shaped and of vital importance.” Confused yet? The main story alternates with Anomaly episodes, memories, and origin stories, and comic book character mythologies conflate and intertwine with the characters’ real lives.
Gender inequity is a strong theme, played out in entertaining conversations among the (always) voluptuous female lifeforms such as Red Emma, the Ferret Lass, and OuterGirl. The cosplayers are brighter than they look, and never confuse the real world with the ones they dress for.
Proehl’s voice is rhythmic and original, modest, and quietly clever. He is a patient, unobtrusive observer with a gift for the small moment, especially when describing moments shared between parent and child. Alex is the best thing in this book: pitch-perfect, original, granular, natural—Scout, from Brooklyn.
Proehl is a talented writer, so the book’s shortcomings are puzzling. The short chapters make the flow of the book choppy. The dialogue is funny but never far from cliché. The inner lives of the adults are limited and often unconvincing. It is tempting to believe that the author is playing by different conventions. Maybe lassoing worlds effortlessly into a kind of balloon bouquet is more important to him than traditional character development. As Alex says, “the last rule, the unspoken rule of any story or journey, is that all limits are suspect.”
Good as Gone by Amy Gentry Publication Date: July 26, 2016 Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Good as Gone, as the cover plainly states, is “a novel of suspense.” It is about a girl named Julie who was kidnapped at age 13; we see from her sister’s eyes as Julie is led silently out of her home, a knife pressed between her shoulder blades. Flash-forward eight years, and Julie’s sister Jane is home from college. Her father just finished making her favorite meal, and she and her parents are about to sit down to eat when the doorbell rings. It’s Julie. Her family is overwhelmed, amazed to see her after all these years.
It becomes immediately apparent that Julie isn’t exactly the girl her family thinks she is. She is both Julie and Gretchen, Violet, Charlotte, and countless other women with hardscrabble lives from across the country. The story unfolds from her mother’s perspective as we simultaneously explore Julie’s past lives, tracing the journey that the girl has made from her mysterious youth to the time that she arrived on the Davalos family’s doorstep. Moving backward and forward in alternating chapters, we begin to piece together the girl’s past in ways that Julie’s mother, Anna, can only grasp at—though grasp she does, overcoming an initial determination to look past obvious discrepancies in the girl’s story.
Like Winona Ryder’s character in this summer’s blockbuster Netflix hit Stranger Things, Dr. Ann Davalos embodies a harried, desperate mother who clings to hope in spite of long odds and the condescension of her peers. Gentry’s portrayal of Ann elevates Good as Gone into something more than a typical genre novel: her strained relationship with Jane, her doubts as a mother, and her acknowledgment of her failings in light of Julie’s disappearance make Ann into a sympathetic, three-dimensional figure, giving the book a resonance beyond the simplistic horrors of Julie’s tale. Although the subplot regarding her marriage difficulties feels gratuitous and unnecessary, for the most part Ann’s troubles come across as realistic and universal.
Julie’s inner life is a little less rewarding. Due to the nature of the book’s structure and Julie’s changing personalities, it can be hard to get inside her head, and her character feels more like a vehicle than an actual person. The story touches on a number of serious issues—prostitution, abortion, and drug use among them—but Gentry only approaches them in a superficial sense, which feels both shallow and somewhat exploitative. One wishes that we were made to feel the depths of the pain that Julie experiences, as opposed to a third-person narrative that uses stereotypical touchstones of a troubled life in place of an actual exploration of her emotions. Then again, considering all that Julie goes through, it might have been too difficult to bear such an account, to say nothing of the difficulties of attempting to honestly portray such a mindset. In some ways, Gentry smartly lets the actions speak for themselves.
The writing is serviceable throughout, and some passages, including a particularly harrowing scene toward the end that I had the pleasure of hearing Gentry read aloud, are gripping in both literary and thriller-novel fashion. The prose moves in a straightforward manner, letting the plot drive the reader’s interest, and although the mystery of Is she or isn’t she Julie? is not exactly page-turning, the quest to discover the girl’s origins is compelling. The ending is particularly strong; once the pieces are all in place, the picture we’re left with is both original and thought-provoking. In short, fans of Tana French and other smart, suspenseful fiction will find much to like in this powerful debut.
Christodora by Tim Murphy Publication Date: August 2, 2016 Publisher: Grove Press
The concept of Tim Murphy’s sprawling new novel, Christodora, is simple enough: the lives of four residents of the titular New York City building are followed over the course of four decades, largely set against the backdrop of the AIDS activism movement. Yet the reality of the work is more complicated than that. For starters, the building itself becomes increasingly less important and less relevant to the plot and, commensurately, to the characters. One of the ostensible main characters, artist and adoptive father Jared, barely factors into large chunks of the book. And AIDS is central to some plots, while barely considered in others. Yet, through all of Christodora’s 400-some perspective-shifting, timeline-jumping pages, the characters Murphy has created remain compelling.
To be sure, some characters are more compelling than others, a key issue in what's essentially a group of linked character studies. One cannot help but be a bit disappointed that Murphy places so much more emphasis on adoptive mother-and-son pair Milly and Mateo than on the comparatively more complex and enthralling Issy and Hector. Issy in particular feels underserved here: when the novel does explore her story, it’s fascinating, not only for her comparatively unique position as a Latina, HIV-positive activist, but for the perspective her character brings to proceedings. Too often, though, Issy is used more as a plot point or a chance to reaffirm the novel’s themes than as an actual person. Hector, the scientist-turned-activist-turned-meth addict, gets his share of words, but it’s still not enough to do justice to the potential of his story, which deserves a novel on its own. Milly and Mateo simply can’t live up to the unexplored richness of these characters: there are few themes as overdone in contemporary literature as wives with unfulfilled artistic ambitions, except, perhaps, privileged young men who turn to drugs. (And some of Murphy’s attempts to write from Mateo’s perspective are simply embarrassing; surely we can all agree that hip art school teens in the late aughts would die before embracing steampunk as an aesthetic.) The fractured timeline doesn’t always work, either, especially when Murphy substitutes pop cultural markers—Radiohead, the Pixies, Guns N' Roses, Odd Future, yes, yes, we get it—for actual ambiance.
Yet ultimately, none of the novel’s shortcomings matter. The book is simply gripping; the finely wrought characters and their complex relationships bring to life a story that could easily fall flat in the hands of the wrong author. I devoured the book, turning the final page less than 24 hours after beginning. And in between I lay sleepless in my bed, fretting what will become of Hector?! This is the ultimate triumph of Christodora: Murphy, a journalist with over 20 years of experience reporting on AIDS, has crafted a novel that vividly and compellingly portrays the horrors of the epidemic and the triumph of the people working in the movement, without ever coming across as preachy or overly message-focused. Instead, it’s simply one of the most eminently readable, riveting pieces of literature I’ve read in quite some time.
The Golden Age by Joan London Publication Date: August 16, 2016 Publisher: Europa Editions
The Golden Age, Australian writer Joan London’s third novel, is about what happens after great loss. Polio—and, more specifically, a children’s polio rehabilitation home named The Golden Age—provides the unifying framework around which London has built an elegant, meditative narrative of loss, transformation, and triumph.
Though it’s not a plot-driven novel, the story is loosely centered on 13-year-old Frank Gold. He is a polio patient and poet, and he comes to The Golden Age from an infectious diseases ward carrying the poetry of a terminal polio patient named Sullivan. Sullivan had shared with Frank the poetry he’d written from inside his iron lung, and when he died, Frank became the custodian of Sullivan’s poetry.
At The Golden Age, Frank meets Elsa, fellow polio survivor, and she becomes the key to both his own poetry and to a life beyond polio. Frank and Elsa’s narratives are weaved in with the stories of their parents, as well as the story of Sister Penny, the head nurse at The Golden Age, and the stories of the other patients in the rehab home. Frank’s parents Ida and Meyer, Jewish refugees from Hungary, had barely recovered from the war and their move to Australia when their son was struck down with polio. When Elsa becomes ill, her mother Margaret becomes unmoored from her life as wife and mother, scrambling to find identity outside her institutions. Sister Penny, war widow and head nurse at The Golden Age, runs the home with an easy confidence, but has to confront the fact that her daughter, on the verge of adulthood, is building for herself a life where Sister Penny has no place.
What makes The Golden Age compelling is the process of reclamation that each of London’s characters goes through. Each one begins the novel from a place of loss—of health, of homeland, of identity, of security—but no one stays there. Within the vacuum that polio and war, genocide and dislocation have created, each character is forced to go deep within to find the strength and dignity that can allow them to transcend their circumstances. For each character, loss becomes a doorway into deeper, truer parts of themselves.
That London is able to write about humanity’s better angles without sacrificing complexity is a credit to her prose. She keeps her language simple, but her sentences surprise; they are both beautiful and emotionally honest. She gives each character, each scene, each revelation and tragedy a fullness of experience that allows for the novel to be honest about deep loss, but hopeful in spite of it. Because she’s committed to fully recording the complexity of human experience, London’s prose becomes the power upon which her lush, solid story sings.
What London puts to paper here is much more complex and much more beautiful than any of its individual plot points. She’s written a story of human dignity and of quiet, uncompromising hope.
—Torrie Jay White
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue Publication Date: August 23, 2016 Publisher: Random House
Cameroon-born author Imbolo Mbue possesses a gift that is not easily taught: the instinctual ability to weave timely subject matter into a multi-layered plot. In her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, she juxtaposes the daily lives of a struggling Cameroonian immigrant and a wealthy Wall Street executive, skillfully constructing and then dismantling the narrative of their experiences. Although it suffers from occasional stilted dialogue and shallow character development, Mbue’s story nonetheless captivates.
When the story opens, New York City immigrant Jende Jonga is determined to “impress a man he never met” in order to secure a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as his personal chauffeur. Throughout the first half of the novel he strives diligently, even desperately, to impress financial executive Clark Edwards so that he may retain his position. At the same time he lives in quiet agony, fearing the day that his work permit expires. But then, in an odd twist of fate prompted by the self-destructive tendencies of the exorbitantly wealthy, Jende finds himself in a position of power over Clark. Suddenly, the poor man wields power over the rich. The undocumented immigrant controls the Wall Street big shot. The Black man pities the white. Fittingly, Obama is elected President around the same time. Jende, overwhelmed at the fulfillment of a seemingly impossible dream, “shed euphoric tears that the son of an African now ruled the world.”
However, a tragedy compels Jende to forfeit a dream of his own: his “American dream” of financial security, a grand home, a dazzling future for his young son. Once infatuated with the United States, insisting to critics that “nothing... can make me stop believing that America is the greatest country in the world,” he finds himself profoundly disillusioned. When he receives notice that Immigration Services denied his request for a green card, he has already accepted that his future in America is a thing of the past, a passing illusion.
But his dashed dream of a great American future is not the only illusion. Clark, whom Jende so admired as an emblem of success, is promptly destroyed by the 2008 financial crisis as his firm declares the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. America itself, reeling under the implosion of said financial crisis, seems to Jende a fragile lie.
Suddenly the book’s title acquires renewed significance. Jende, a titular dreamer, no longer knows what country to call home or how to come to terms with the broken goals on which he’d once tried to build a life. His disorienting predicament provokes a litany of questions in the reader: How real is a dream? How fragile? What is reality for an immigrant who dreams of a future in one country and of a past in another?
Behold the Dreamers merits a reading despite its labored dialogue and stereotypical character development. Its treatment of the downfall of Wall Street, of America, and of Jende’s starry-eyed ambitions is unexpectedly complex. The storyline, though increasingly tragic, hums with a hopeful undercurrent that leaves the reader unsettled and deeply contemplative.
Loner by Teddy Wayne Publication Date: September 13, 2016 Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Whatever one’s intentions or views on how to interact with and critique art, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to divorce Teddy Wayne’s latest novel, Loner, from the cultural context that surrounds it.
The novel concerns the story of an entitled Harvard freshman, David, whose obsession with a beautiful classmate grows more and more intense until the climax of the novel, which is as gut-wrenchingly awful as it is inevitable. Its themes are of obvious relevance to contemporary society, in which it seems more and more attention is finally being paid to the terrifying ideology behind the men’s rights movement and other groups of a similar attitude: that women are, somehow, owed to men. Indeed, the press material surrounding the release makes it clear that Wayne drew some amount of inspiration from men like Elliot Rodger, whose hatred of women (for the unforgivable crime, of course, of not fucking him) fueled him to kill six people at UC Santa Barbara in 2014.
After tragic events like that, or even after simply perusing the foul depths of the Internet, where men rage about the women to whose bodies they feel they are entitled, it’s only natural to wonder about the mindsets of those who espouse such rhetoric, and Wayne does an admirable job of capturing the psyche of one such character. David is never entirely sympathetic, but he’s not a cartoonish monster, either. His disturbing lack of empathy is subtly unfurled bit by bit. As his obsession with his classmate, Veronica, grows, so does the reader’s sense of unease. Wayne’s depiction of David’s character is masterful: the nuances of David’s dangerous sense of entitlement unfurl subtly but unmistakably. It’s chilling to think that such people mask themselves so well. Yet the tone is never that of a tawdry thriller or straight cautionary tale; there’s humor here, and the book is entertaining in the purest sense even when pushing its way into uncomfortable corners and situations. A scene of David at an elite party, for example, had me smiling even as my heart tightened.
Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to give this book my wholehearted recommendation, simply because it’s so very uncomfortable to read. Discomfort is important in art; it opens us up to perspectives we might otherwise never consider, and to feel constantly comfortable is to feel safe in a way that indicates that nothing important is taking place. Yet as a woman who has been harassed and worse by men—as has, I must note, every woman I know—Loner at times pushed me beyond discomfort and into sheer misery. A twist near the novel’s end was particularly striking in this regard. In one sense, it gives Veronica a necessary sense of agency and a much more well-rounded character, but in another, it seems to validate some of the vile rhetoric that angry men spout about the way that women treat men. Does doing so undermine Wayne’s points about David’s motivations? I’m not sure, and the novel doesn’t seem to be, either, perhaps because Wayne never considered the question or because he’d rather leave it open to interpretation. Either way, I’m left feeling very uncomfortable, and I can’t say that’s entirely a good thing.