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Vernon Subutex 1, and 9 More Books I Can’t Get Out of My Head

Photo: The Hague

Quicksand is real. I know because I stepped in it. I was getting into a boat to cross a crocodile-infested river mouth in Central America two weeks ago, and instead of docking (there were no docks), the boat ran up against the strip of ground where river met beach. This strip was quicksand. I sank in to my upper knees and squawked — not because I was in peril but because it is unusual to confront a new texture as an adult. I thought I had already experienced all of the textures! I thought quicksand existed only in books! But here it was, an emulsion of sand and water that looked solid and felt liquid. I easily heaved myself out of the emulsion and into the boat. It was the physical equivalent of speaking a word out loud that I’d only read on paper and having my pronunciation corrected. Quicksand: It is real, and it is not as expected. The first of the books here offers a faint 2-D replica of the experience. It won’t be what you predict. It is indescribably peculiar. Happy sinking.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes

Fiction, November 5

Vernon is a down-on-his-luck fellow who has discovered, decades too late, that he should have married one of the rich babes he seduced and discarded when he was still desirable. Whoops! He is the title character of Virginie Despentes’s novel, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies in France, was made into a TV show and short-listed for the International Man Booker prize, and is now translated into English. Like HBO’s Succession, the book revolves around an ensemble of horrible people: a sleazebag movie producer, a professional troll, an ex-groupie, and several aging Lotharios, including Vernon. Almost all are malignant xenophobes, homophobes, and/or misogynists. They also display a specifically French kind of dorkiness — these are the kinds of people who pronounce Kraftwerk as “Kroft-verk” and refer to Led Zeppelin as “Led Zep” and are weirdly invested in their Facebook profiles. Some are rich, and some are broke; all are befuddled by the digital economy.

Despentes has been compared with various realists (Balzac, Zola), and she writes wickedly about people watching their privilege evaporate in real time and reacting with the full range of human ugliness, which is probably a metaphor for France. What fun!

RIYL: The Deuce, Iggy Pop, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Martin Amis’s London Fields, oversleeping

Find Me by André Aciman

Fiction, October 29


Books do not normally come with gifts. I can count on two hands the number of times a publisher has sent me a book with anything other than a press release, and it’s usually something budget like a pin or a cute little pen that matches the book’s cover. You can imagine the noise I made when I knifed open a brown package containing André Aciman’s sequel to Call Me By Your Name and found that it came with a tiny bottle of perfume described as the “olfactory translation” of the book — scented with “Italian citrus, ancient gardens in Rome filled with pine trees, and linen bedsheets.” Of course, I drenched myself before cracking open the book; like everyone else, I’m a sucker for a free gift. I’m olfactorily challenged and all perfume smells the same to me (like “perfume”), but I believe I isolated notes of hotel pillow and leafy enclosure.

I have not previously been swayed by Aciman’s books — not his fault, probably mine — but this one functioned like a medical-grade SAD lamp in the dead of February. It is a lively novel about sentimental Americans in Italy who feel a wider range of emotions in seven minutes than most people do in a month. Elio is a pianist having an affair with an older man. His father, a philologist, falls in love with a chick on a train. Oliver is a married professor in New England with a roving eye. If you have read the book’s antecedent, you won’t be surprised that these men intertwine in enchanting ways. Is the book a little corny? It is. Did I mind? I did not. However, you’ll need a decent tolerance for the word lover to enjoy it.

RIYL: Lawrence Osborne, overeating dessert, Merchant Ivory movies, embracing hedonism in the face of a meaningless world

Tokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb

Fiction, January 2009

Here we have a slim and wicked love story written by a slim and wicked Belgian woman. Hubba hubba. The author, Amélie Nothomb, writes in French and spent part of her childhood as the daughter of a diplomat in Japan, where this novel takes place. Most of Nothomb’s books have a density of fascinating characters and social observations, with bright little twists of the verbal knife on every page. In this one, a character named Amélie (hmm …) teaches private French lessons in Tokyo, where she meets a wealthy student named Rinri who captivates her with his sensitivity and propriety. Together they cruise around in his white Mercedes, taking ritual baths in the snow, setting off fireworks (actual as well as metaphorical), and dining on cephalopods. There isn’t a single superfluous word in the whole text — last time I read it, I tried to find one just for fun. Nothing.

Nothomb is prolific to the point where it seems like a kind of disease, writing multiple novels a year and publishing, on average, one of them. (The rest go in a drawer, I guess.) She also appears on the cover of all her books wearing, like, a floppy hat. The synchronicity of prose style and Google-image-results-of-author is sublime. In 2015, she was named a baroness by King Philippe of Belgium, which reflects well on his taste in literature.

RIYL: Eve Babitz, Weezer’s Pinkerton, Elaine Dundy, having a “signature drink,” going on walks alone


Trip on high-quality MUSHROOMS minus the queasy side effects with this combo platter of ecology, philosophy, and art history?

Nibble on a 144-page novel about a guy who designs SOUND SYSTEMS in BEIJING and has thoughts like “Everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone”?

Listen to the audio version of She Said next time you have 9.9 hours and the urge to be THRILLED by an investigative-journalism procedural?

Get small?

Feast on the work of a critic in the prime of his BRAIN?

Try The Incest Diary if you like the idea of “Lolita but if SOPHOCLES wrote it in 2017”? (Note: NSFW)


Pair the picante work of Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Crashing) with the sabroso work of Oyinkan Braithwaite.

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Vernon Subutex 1, and Other Books I Can’t Get Out of My Head