I’ve read a number of books like this—a group of high school-era friends, spinning off into adulthood with various combinations and results. They’re usually very readable and entertaining, but it’s hard to be more. They almost by definition lack focus. And issues pop up: child labor, HIV, feminism (a Wolitzer favorite), depression, cults, rape, income inequality–not that that’s necessarily unrealistic. It’s just all over the place, too wide-angle to feel coherent. Did I enjoy coming back to it each day to hang out with these characters, as their kids passed the age they themselves were when they first met? Very much. But I didn’t come away with many thoughts, or impressions, or insights.
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
What a strange book. Strange, but also oddly gripping. It’s incredibly layered and sprinkled with allusions and thematic tie-ins, and even, for lack of a better word, self-allusions. It has a lot of form-theme connection and is highly cerebral without being sterile; it also has some high emotion.
The subject: marriage. Or really, what marriage is for men. I’m not sure what to make of all the violence against women—there are three primary couples and all three wives get killed, either in life or in vivid fantasy, as well as an ongoing obsession with Hitchcock movies—and the book in fact starts with David Pepin, the protagonist (if there is one), thinking about killing his wife, Alice. Pepin is actually writing a book on the subject, which seems to have a shifting relationship to the reality of the novel. We also have two detectives investigating his alleged wife-killing: Sam Sheppard (a famous real-life historical wife-killer who appears here without explanation) and Ward Hastroll, whose name is an anagram for Rear Window wife-killer Lars Thorwald. Points of view include David and both detectives–and Marilyn Sheppard, the only for-sure victim.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the repeated mentions of M.C. Escher, and the participation throughout of a mysterious hitman named Mobius. What’s all this? Is it part of the marriage exploration, or is it a somewhat separate venture into the art-life relationship? I could probably read it five more times and still not really catch all of what it was supposed to mean.
I haven’t “solved” it, but I came away with some sense that all the violence isn’t rooted in rage or misogyny, and it isn’t really anti-marriage. I wonder if, in enacting extreme violence, Ross is actually recognizing what men and marriage have historically done to women, personally or societally. The men cheat; when the women try that, they get killed. Women in these marriages stay in bed for weeks on end or become morbidly obese. And yet in all of this, it’s clear that each husband does love his wife.
Too much formal gymnastics? Probably. But there’s something very complex inside this maze.
The Girls by Emma Cline
I started this because the premise sounded fun (a girl caught up in a Charles Manson-like debacle) but I ended up really enjoying other things about it. It’s full of descriptions and metaphors that are wholly original and exactly right, without ever feeling forced or overdone. It has a past-present kind of structure that is executed deftly and winds up having a purpose in the book as a whole besides just getting the story told. And as it nears the end, there’s a kind of shift in the narrator’s thinking that casts everything before in a different and intriguing light. (In this way it’s like The Witch Elm).
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a book called The Girls has a fierce feminist streak…
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
I liked the structure of fairly short but in-depth sections that follow a host of characters who are loosely connected more than I expected to. There’s no unifying plot, at least not in the traditional sense, and no one character who could fairly be called central, but the content of the various stories is all connected–they all address the struggles of being, at least in some way, a woman, and of color (specifically black), and they largely focus not just on race and gender but on sexuality and relationships. The thematic linkage, combined with the continual reappearing of characters as peripheral figures in one another’s stories, keeps it feeling cohesive, and in in the realm of the novel. Some of the dives are deeper than others, but all are engaging.
What really struck me was the book’s illustration of the way everyone we encounter is fighting some battle we know nothing about-a critic who reviews the play written by another character, a teacher, a cleaner, a grocery store employee, a great-grandmother–across social strata, across generations. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to draw a chart, or a web.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
First: this is metafiction. The first section turns out to be a book a character is reading (albeit one in which she, or a version of her, is a minor character, written by a former classmate). It’s packed full of questions and suggestions about the relationship between art and life, experience and memory, truth and fiction.
Sarah (the writer) and Karen (the eventual narrator) attend an elite arts high school in the 1980s, so there is a lot of talk about acting, truth, experience, etc. To me, a novel that is about all that by virtue of its form and also explicitly about that in its content is just too much. (Cf. Asymmetry–even involving writers!–but not so self-referential.) Then there’s the fact that Choi seems to be obsessed with students sleeping with their teachers (second book in a row). And the fact that she insists on acknowledging and playing with even the most obvious tropes (like Chekhov’s gun). I can’t help but feel that even though she’s talking about it rather than just using it, it’s still not a very original thing to investigate. Oh, two people have very different memories of a shared experience? We know.
There certainly is some emotional core here–Karen as a character is deeply felt–but it’s obscured by all the cerebral pyrotechnics.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
There’s definitely a lot going on here that I didn’t get on a first read, but the first read was actually satisfying just based on what was readily available–and that is a very difficult tightrope to walk. There is an obsession with language and words, with argument, in a way that perhaps I react to more than most readers because I feel many of the same things myself. But it’s also gendered, distinctly male (and self-consciously so).
Adam Gordon, our hero, actually tells this story from 2019, New York, but mostly considering the events of the late 90s in Topeka (cameo by Bob Dole), when he was a high school debate champion. Sprinkled in between, sections from each of his parents; ultimately no reducible explanation for the points of view other than a novel, with an author.
Another angle that interests me: the viewpoints of psychologists (some of them Freudian), who have occasion to say the things most characters wouldn’t about people’s thoughts and motivations, but it never feels like a device. Maybe that is Lerner’s birthright because it is his autobiography (psychologist mother)–or maybe it’s mostly skill. Either way, it’s a very cerebral book that maintains narrative interest and left me wanting to read it again and discover more.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
It’s quite a feat to create suspense in a novel told only in retrospective letters from one character to another about a subject whose climax we already know at the outset–but Shriver has accomplished that. She’s also captured the concept of gaslighting with piercing accuracy (it’s almost unpleasant to read because it’s so realistic) and created an epic battle between mother (Eva) and son (Kevin) that begins before he is ever born. We are always to wonder what Eva’s contribution was to all of this — and what was the contribution of her disbelieving husband? Layer in race (Armenian), gender, and class issues. It’s shocking and violent, but almost never graphic, and it escalates so slowly you can see how it would get out of hand.
This was one of those books where the book itself fades into the background, and I just keep thinking about the characters and what they did, and why. To create characters that only react to as people, not as part of fiction — that’s craft.
(Note: Maybe you know why I am reading this, topic-wise. It’s a clue about my next project!)