To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in May:
Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.
I bought this book a few years ago for a class where it ended up getting replaced on the syllabus, but I figured I would read it eventually and stuck it in my bookshelf. While waiting for my next Amazon order to come, I plucked it out to tide me over. I didn’t know anything about it other than that it was postmodern literature. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it.
In The Country of Last Things is a quick read, clocking in a few pages shy of 200. The story revolves around a young woman named Anna Blume, who travels to an unnamed city to find her missing brother William, and tells her story through letters she writes to someone back home. There seems to have been some kind of political upheaval or natural disaster, and the entire culture has descended into chaos and violence. Anna is able to survive by looking through the garbage for stuff to sell to a system of dealers, which is extremely corrupt. In some ways, it reminded me of Invisible Man in that every good thing that happens to Anna is accompanied by an equally horrible thing, but that the people she meets along the way buoy her optimism towards finding her brother and getting out of the city.
Auster builds this narrative on the idea that one day our society will get to a place where we can’t make anything anymore, and that we’ll walk around as former ghosts of ourselves. Everyone in the novel lives in a constant state of precarity, with no protection from a government or any kind of social structure. It’s scary how real this situation could be. The novel also includes an interesting commentary about death and suicide — in the novel, there are two acceptable ways to kill yourself — as well as reproductivity, all with biopolitical underpinnings. You probably won’t like In The Country of Last Things unless you’re already into postmodern literature — it makes Orwellian and Huxley dystopias look like funhouses. I’m not sure I’ll seek out any other Auster novels, but I’m glad I decided to finally read it.
Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton.
I have read two, now three of Lauren Groff’s novels, and count her as one of my favorite fiction writers. She has a knack for dreaming up fascinating universes within her novels, and creating compelling female characters that don’t take anybody’s shit. The Monsters of Templeton is no exception.
Groff found her inspiration in her hometown of Cooperstown, which you should read about. The story centers around a young woman named Willie, who comes home to Templeton in a crisis. When she arrives, she finds out from her mother that her father, who Willie thought was a freewheeling no-named hippie, is actually still living in Templeton and someone Willie knows. The town is also having its own crisis — Templeton’s version of the Loch Ness monster has turned up dead.
Although I liked Lauren Groff’s other novels better, The Monsters of Templeton is an engrossing and highly enjoyable read. Groff weaves Willie’s story and her geneological research with letters, testimonies and documents that concern both Willie’s family and the town’s history. The revelation of who Willie’s father is kind of weird, but the book isn’t really about that — it’s about Willie finding herself and accepting that her small town and its magic is part of who she is, which is something I can relate to. On another level, this novel is about how we make martyrs out of our historical figures, who were really people like us that make mistakes.
If you love ~~Victorian scandal~~, you will love this book. Once you read The Monsters of Templeton, get to reading Arcadia and Fates and Furies ASAP.
Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name.
After reading My Brilliant Friend in March, I bought myself a first-class ticket on the Elena Ferrante train. Even though I thought My Brilliant Friend was great, The Story of a New Name, the second novel in the Neapolitan novel cycle, blew me even further away.
The Story of a New Name picks up right where My Brilliant Friend leaves off. Elena and Lila, who are still close friends, deviate even further in their paths — Elena becomes the first in her family to go to college, while Lila gets married as a teenager. Along the way they both experience betrayal, romance and the plights of growing up. The Napoli neighborhood and Italy they live in are swirling with violence and political strife, which nearly parallels what’s going on in their personal lives. Ferrante is so eloquent and writes with such intensity that it’s easy to get sucked into the story, even if it is just about two women.
The cover art suggests that this is a fluffy romance novel, but it’s anything but that. What I enjoy most about reading these books is that Ferrante explores the complexities of female friendship in a compelling way. Elena and Lila are inseparable in spirit but struggle to find separate identities that can coexist, something I came to understand the more I read. The person you love the most is also the one who can hurt you the most, and that idea comes up over and over again throughout the novel. The empathy you feel for both characters is very real, at least in my experience — these women are stuck within traditional gender roles, and trying to deviate from them has real consequences. I already bought the third novel, and can’t wait to crack it open.
Don DeLillo’s Zero K.
I found out about Don DeLillo in college, where I ended up reading White Noise and Underworld on my own time. Part of what brought me to reading Zero K was the awesome opportunity to see DeLillo at a publicity event for the novel earlier in the month. In the conversation part of the event, he talked about death as a cultural artifact, a suggestion that stuck in my brain the whole time I was reading Zero K.
The novel is focalized through a man named Jeffrey Lockhart, who lives a pretty directionless life. His billionaire father Ross invests in a movement called the Convergence, which promises to control death. Jeffrey’s stepmother Artis, who is dying from illness, elects to undergo a procedure that would preserve her body until biotechnology is able to come up with more effective treatments, and Ross invites Jeffrey to the remote compound to say goodbye to both him and Artis, and also to convince Jeffrey to take over his businesses. Throughout the novel, Jeffrey tries to grasp a better understanding of what it means to be dead, and how death figures into the meaning of life. Zero K is simultaneously cold and hilarious at many moments, which is frightening but also very DeLillo-esque.
The Convergence is creepy and cultish, and what makes it even more creepy and cultish is that it seems like something that could actually happen. This seems like something today’s billionaires would do instead of funneling their money into larger social issues, in defense of innovation and the temptation to let technology take over. Because of DeLillo’s comment at the event, this book made me think about the social construction of death and how we have a preoccupation with being able to cheat it. We come up with all of these rituals surrounding death, and the way we handle it contains multitudes about our values and belief systems. The death-as-artifact thing is also a class issue: the Convergence is seemingly only accessible to someone who is able to subsidize its mission, and that opens up other problems about who has the right to choose their own death. DeLillo is an incredible writer, and Zero K was nothing short of incredible.
Have you read anything good lately? Tell me about it in the comments.