Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

downloadFirst: 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

download.jpegThere’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

downloadIt’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!)

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

downloadIt’s hard to write books that are genuinely funny, and even harder to do that in a way that is also sad and emotionally resonant. But that is what Wilson has done. One plot turn near the end was so delightful and unexpected that I laughed/gasped out loud when I read it. (Cf. Less).

The premise had the potential to really turn me off: a senator has two children from his first marriage who burst into flames if they get upset. Literally, in the world of this book, they catch fire. They are unharmed, but they burn up their clothing and whatever is around them. Lillian is asked to care for them over a summer because she was, for a year, the boarding-school roommate of the senator’s next wife, and the family wants to keep their condition quiet for political reasons. The “fire children,” as Lillian calls them–Roland and Bessie–are a bit odd, fire aside, but so are Lillian and Madison, the roommate/wife.

All of that is presented with a slightly snarky, ironic tone, and it’s entertaining–but at the same time it’s a brutal takedown of wealth and privilege, and an interrogation of the concept of love. Do we really need it? How does it relate to usefulness? Sacrifice? And what does it mean to truly want something? Not questions routinely associated with comedy–but there’s the genius. You’re thinking about all that without even realizing it was there.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Crawdads.pngI resisted reading this for a long time because I didn’t like the title; it felt just slightly too flowery, conspicuously written, advertising a kind of self-aware beauty that tends to turn me off. And the book’s flaw, really, is just that–the title phrase is repeated in places where it seems calculated to be resonant without actually accomplishing that (including the last line).

But that is my only serious complaint. There are points at which I had to agree to read this as not necessarily entirely realistic, but it really was captivating, in at least three distinct ways. First, there’s the survival story–a little girl abandoned, surviving, avoiding authorities who feel like threats. Then there’s the psychology of the girl-becoming-woman, trying to understand the feelings she has, love, sex, abandonment, and how all that relates to the natural world she’s so immersed in. And then there’s the whole third layer, the murder mystery (complete with trial) that is, cleverly, I think, introduced early on, even though it happens later, using dated chapters.

The book also manages to depict a sort of timeless existence in the natural world while also introducing elements–and problems–of modern civilization in a way that worked for me. We get a lot of things that are primal and eternal, but we also get glimpses of the mother’s separate life and psychiatric issues, the town’s deep racism and classism, and rape culture, among other things. Not to mention issues surrounding the justice system.

On the whole, at times this story of Miss Catherine Danielle Clark, or Kya, at times risked veering into the sentimental, and the way the novel chose to represent the speech of these southern people is maybe at times a bit too much (it’s nice to have the flavor but a lighter touch would do), none of that detracted much from an engrossing read.

The Body in Question by Jill Cement

downloadThis book is short and emotionally intense (as many of my favorites are–either that or epically sprawling). Two people, identified only by their numbers (at first), are on a sequestered jury for a murder trial (committed, incidentally, by one of a pair of twins, although which one actually did it is a primary question). He is an anatomy professor; she is a married photographer. It’s a jury of only six, with the others identified just by vaguely descriptive nicknames (cornrows; the church lady; the alternate).

The, after the verdict, there’s a whole second section of fallout in their real lives with names, and t’s dark and tense and deeply ironic, with exploration of life, death, and inhabiting a body. In fact the drama is so perfect that it verges on unbelievable, but by that point I’m not sure true realism is what I want; it’s satisfying like this.

Bonus points for accurate legal trappings.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

downloadA lot of people have compared this to a Jonathan Franzen novel, which I think is usually intended as a compliment. I totally see it–they share the sense that they fully understand the complete psychology of all of their characters, which to me is both arrogant and a sign that the characters are insufficiently complex. Do they really think that people can be figured out like that? They also both write about characters’ less sterling moments, even from within their own points of view, with an unappealing air of contempt. Maybe a character is illustrating something, but she isn’t really living it.

Some of these characters border on cartoonish, and the plot is too engineered, too tidy. What we have is Marilyn and David, a couple universally seen as golden (although of course we ultimately learn about each one’s isolated demon), and their four adult daughters, each with one major life issue–Wendy, the oldest whose rich husband, whom she actually really loved, died young; Violet, her Irish twin, obsessed with curating the apparently perfect life for her adorable family; Liza, ambitious and successful with a depressed boyfriend who plays video games in sweatpants; and Grace, who has moved away and pretends to the whole family that she got into, and is attending, law school. No character is significantly more complex than that.

And then, a new person appears in their orbit (I’ll leave you with at least some mystery), and methodically, one by one, disrupts each person’s equilibrium in exactly the way they happen to need awakening. It covers 40 years and jumps around among everyone’s point of view, sometimes quite quickly. I think it’s almost impossible to build deep psychological or emotional resonance like that.