I recently got on a plane for the first time since the pandemic. All the passengers received a 2-by-2 inch sanitizing towelette upon boarding — a poetically inadequate gesture, like bringing an eyelash to a gunfight. The man behind me wore not a mask but a kind of tactical snood printed with the American flag, and I instantly ID’d him as the kinda guy who would know what to do In Case of Emergency. “Don’t worry, I won’t recline my seat,” I told him, hoping that this olive branch would induce him to rescue me first if the plane went down in flames.
That didn’t happen, nor much else. The featured in-flight movie was Murder on the Orient Express, which seemed like a comment on the reality of commercial air travel during a plague. (In case you forgot: The twist of the movie is that … everyone is a killer.) I watched the movie while eating a veggie wrap that blurred the line between solid and liquid states. The woman next to me opened an issue of The New Yorker and immediately fell asleep. Two hours later she woke up, turned a page, and fell back asleep. All I can promise is that none of the following will induce that reaction.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Fiction, February 16
“When another person is vastly superior to you there is no remedy but to love him.” That’s a line from the novel Elective Affinities by Goethe, and it’s probably appropriate that the only way I can assess Patricia Lockwood’s novel is by pirating a line from another superior (to me) writer about how to assimilate superior people. Got that? I do … sort of…
No One Is Talking About This is the first novel from Lockwood, a poet and memoirist, and it is a glowing object that somehow replicates and beautifies the experience of being on the internet (one of her ongoing topics) while also functioning as a carefully plotted story. The book is split in two parts: In the first, a nameless narrator meditates and goofs about the modern condition; in the second, her sister becomes pregnant and the baby turns out to have a rare genetic disorder. What follows is profound … it’s enjoyable … it’s profoundly enjoyable.
Lockwood reminds me a lot of Nabokov — less in style than in attitude, one of extraordinary receptivity to the gifts, sorrows, and bloopers of existence. What Lockwood lacks in Nabokov’s fastidiousness she makes up for in butt jokes.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
Fiction, February 2
“HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!” screams this book, which is bouncier than a newborn marshmallow Peep and has, Peeplike, an uncanny aftertaste that will have you questioning your consumption of it as you munch along. Our young narrator is Tiller, a (by his calculations) “slightly below-average guy in all categories.” While working as a golf caddie at a country club, Tiller meets a mysterious businessman named Pong. Pong is a Chinese immigrant and apparent entrepreneurial genius with Willy Wonka–level charisma. He adopts Tiller as an apprentice for his newest venture, the commercialization of a health tonic called jamu (which actually exists, and is of Indonesian origin). Together they voyage to Hawaii, Shenzhen, Macau, and beyond — hitting casinos, karaoke bars, and mountain chalets; encountering foxy ladies; getting drugged, etc.
“Finally,” you will think to yourself, flipping these pages. “Someone is taking me somewhere fun!” And yes, the fun ends after 476 pages and you have to go back to the strife and punishment of this benighted world — but wasn’t it great while it lasted? My only complaint is that Lee uses the word literally too often — sometimes twice per page! Editor should’ve caught that.
RIYL: David Copperfield (book, not magician), ziggurats, Tom Perrotta, T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, romps
Problems by Jade Sharma
Fiction, July 2016
This is a classic example of the “frequency illusion.” Based on what I’ve gathered from the internet, “frequency illusion” is the experience where you learn about a new word / person / thing, and then it starts popping up everywhere. Or, rather, it seems to — instead of being an example of magic, the phenomenon is an example of cognitive bias (like so much in life, alas). As soon as I saw Problems mentioned on Twitter last year I began encountering other reverent descriptions of the novel as a stone-cold classic. And lo, it is!
Maya is a young and horny woman in New York who works at a bookstore and juggles three relationships: one with her husband, one with her side piece, and one with heroin. She is a brimming bucket of self-loathing and nasty little epigrams, blessed with intelligence and cursed with self-awareness. Her marriage fails, her habit helixes out of control (“spirals” doesn’t cover it), her side piece dumps her, and she wonders if she is doomed to be a mess for the remainder of her days. The author’s prose is as sharp as a freshly Windexed mirror. It is everyone’s loss that Sharma died in 2019 at the appalling age of 39. If I’d had the privilege of blurbing this book when it came out, I would’ve have described it as “the opposite of Sex and the City.”
WHY DON’T YOU …
• Break out the crystal barware and pour a glass of EXQUISITE CHAMPAGNE to pair with this bubbly (and bracing and brainy!) comedy of manners?
• Build a HUMBLE COTTAGE on the dunes of CAPE COD and let the wintry roar of the sea lull you to sleep?
• Do more DRUGS?
• Hurl yourself into the arms of your next cult favorite and revel in his one-night stands, glinting parties, and HARDCORE TENDERNESS?
• Complete (or begin) your education on Western fashion history with this dazzler? A quiz to find out whether you’ll love the book: do you know what a STOMACHER is? If not … would you like to?
• Commit a VERY STRANGE FORM OF ASSAULT and then move to Los Angeles in disgrace, only to become enveloped in a creepy filmmaker’s orbit?
Savor a second scoop of feminist rage if the movie Promising Young Woman didn’t quench your appetite!
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