Thursday, August 01, 2013

what i read in june and july

Kind of like Shutter Island, but funnier.
Quality over quantity, these past coupla months.

Madhouse Fog by Sean Carswell: What made The Matrix amazing wasn't the revelation that the world we know might be fake, but the idea that we can use that knowledge to manipulate hyperreality. The Matrix sequels kind of forgot about that and got hung up on saving sweaty, dingy Zion. But Sean Carswell's appropriately dubbed "metaphysical thriller" seizes the fun part and runs with it. Madhouse Fog is narrated with tight language and humble humor by a punk rocker-turned-grant writer who takes a job in a mental institution and stumbles upon research into the "collective unconscious," a space that opens up all sorts of good and evil possibilities for philanthropy, advertising, personal healing and wacky interactions with Einstein and African griots.

Although the plot can be a little hard to follow, I was always happy to be along for the ride, thanks to the novel's post-postmodern sensibility. By that I mean: It never forgets we live in a highly mediated world, but it knows that we need to construct lives for ourselves once the dust has settled on deconstruction. There's a gentleness to the protagonist and the book's worldview that I love. For example, when he sees a production of Waiting for Godot, he finds himself transcending the play's intellectual concerns, and its bleakness. He sees Vladimir and Estragon's babble as "a way of saying, 'We share this life together. Whatever voids we face, whatever emptiness surrounds us, it's okay.'"

This novel is a rare thing: a funny, expertly written caper; an atheist's spiritual text; and a love story whose female characters are never trite.

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson: The pieces in this collection, organized around loose themes related to belief, could be viewed as stunt journalism. Girl disappears from a Disney cruise ship, journalist books himself on the next cruise to interview Stepford-like crew members. Guy invents robot with artificial intelligence, journalist interviews robot. But even though some of the pieces felt too short (meaning I probably just wanted them to be more New Yorker-y), ultimately this is first-person journalism at its best. Meaning it's both journalistic and personal--Ronson is honest about his prejudices but is genuinely open to having his mind changed. He's snarky but humble in a way that feels very genuine, as when he details his ever-changing opinions of a possible cult leader who advocates for charitable kidney donation. In my favorite chapter, he interviews people on each rung of America's class ladder about their struggles and happiness. There are no easy conclusions to these mysteries, except when there are--either way, they don't sacrifice reality to narrative demands. This book satisfied my reading palette exactly. It's funny and light, yet weird and soulful and dark. Ronson proves such a combination is possible.

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie: In this novel, the personal is political is personal is political. It's a chicken-and-egg thing, the story of a youthful love affair in Kashmir that plays out against (and leads to) conflict in the region and across the world. Rushdie tells the story as a yarn, dipping in and out of the points of view of thespian-turned-terrorist Shalimar, his unfaithful wife, the wife's lover and their grown-up lovechild. This style often includes beautiful reveries and poetic wordplay, but it also means the characters feel more like fairytale players than people I could really get to know.

I kept trying to figure out the allegory. Lovechild Kashmira is post-colonial, multi-cultural America, who must be careful not to let her vengeful side get the best of her when the chickens of her parents' involvement come home to roost (to extend the chicken metaphor)? I'm not sure it quite works--maybe the writing just *seems* like allegory. This was my first Rushdie. It was a slow boil, but ultimately I got what all the fuss is about. He's a masterful writer of epics, and I look forward to reading his best-known books.

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