“Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination — that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams.”
Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a hard story to summarize, but let me try. The focal character is Dustin Tillman, who’s had a hard life. When he was thirteen, his parents and his aunt and uncle were massacred, and his adopted older brother Russell was indicted for the crimes, based largely on Dustin’s and his cousin Kate’s testimony. Which concerned Satanism (a big thing back in the ’80s, if you recall). Thirty years later, though, Russell is cleared by the Innocence Project and released. Dustin, now a seemingly successful psychologist, is also dealing with his wife’s terminal cancer and his estrangement from his teenage sons, and he’s forming an unhealthy relationship with a patient, Aqil. Aqil has uncovered what he thinks is a serial killer (or possibly a cult?) drowning college boys around the area, and he wants Dustin to help him investigate.
It becomes increasingly clear that neither we nor any of these characters have a coherent idea of the truth of any of these events, Dustin least of all. Our memories are untrustworthy, stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of our lives, or “truths” other people implant in our brains. As we go deeper down this rabbit hole, we realize that everything we think of as real is fundamentally untrustworthy. Like the characters, how can we even be sure if we are alive or dead?
This story is not for everyone. It is about the ambiguity of reality, so the reader has to be comfortable with an ambiguous story. Chaon lets the readers assemble their own truths out of the component parts he gives us, just as the characters do. I think this is the work of a master craftsman, a great funhouse of a book that I’m sure would reveal more of itself with multiple readings.
I highly enjoyed and appreciated Ben H. Winters’s gripping new novel, Underground Airlines, on three levels.
First, it presents a fascinating what-if scenario. In this alternate America, instead of having a civil war, the states came to a compromise that essentially made slavery constitutional into perpetuity. In the present day, slavery continues to be legal in four states–the “hard four,” as they are called–making the United States a political and trade pariah in the world. This hard-to-fathom reality of present-day legal slavery shades every plot point, character motivation, and line of dialogue, presenting a mind-warping vision of America.
Layered on top of this is a highly suspenseful, well-plotted crime story. The combination of tropes from two such disparate genres infuses both with a new energy. Winters has done this before, in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, but he’s upped his game here. The nameless narrator, once a slave, is now an undercover detective for the US Marshals who tracks fugitive slaves himself, with a hard-boiled sensibility but a nuanced character that gradually reveals itself.
All of this would be enough to make Underground Airlines a terrific read, but Winters has deftly woven piercing social commentary into his alternate history. This vision of America, in which people passionately condone the enslavement of black human beings, is so different from and yet so much like our own society that it forces the reader to re-examine all the assumptions that lie at the bottom of race relations in the United States today. Without preaching or lecturing, Winters makes us question how we view race as it affects poverty, education, incarceration, pretty much everything.
This book enthralled me on all levels. I so hope there will be a sequel, because I would definitely read it.
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans — Ten-year-old Noel Bostock is an odd boy, smart, a reader, independent. He lives with his godmother until she goes senile and then dies. Left bereft, Noel is evacuated with other London children at the start of the Blitz, when Vee takes him in on impulse. Vee lives hand-to-mouth, always with some small scam going, always on the point of eviction; she has a shiftless son and a doddering mother. Together, Noel and Vee are an odd couple, but Noel begins to help Vee improve her scams and their relationship deepens as the bombing of London gets under way.
This is a sweet and charming book about how people need each other, quiet for the most part, and often humorous, which is a take on the Blitz I’ve not yet seen. (I particularly enjoyed Vee’s mother’s letters to the prime minister and the scenes in the crowded shelters during the air raids.) I’m not sure how well it will stick, but I found it a light-hearted and quick read, and an antidote for all the horrifying WWII books I’ve been getting burned out on.
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand — Cass Neary was once a young photographer on the burgeoning punk scene who made a name for herself with a ground-breaking book, but a couple of decades later, she’s burnt out, damaged, and still working in the storeroom at the Strand bookstore. A friend gives her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview her idol, Aphrodite Kamestos, who lives like a hermit on a remote island in Maine, and Cass takes it. When she gets there, she finds several people as damaged as she is, and she stumbles onto a mystery.
This is a story with a strong, unusual voice and a memorable, compelling setting, which more than makes up for there not being a lot of actual story, at least not until last third or so. I liked Cass primarily because she is so hard to like, because she does seemingly odd things mainly just to screw with people, and because her narrative voice seems so genuine. She is a person I believe in, not quirky just to be quirky, but quirky because that’s what humans are. Pairing her with the island setting–remote, isolated, difficult both to get to and to get away from–works to take Cass out of her long-time comfort zone and yet situate herself in a place that might feel like home. Toward the end, the story is permeated by a wonderful neo-gothic atmosphere. All of this does make up for the rather breathless (and somewhat unbelievable) wrap-up to the plot, which almost felt beside the point anyway.
Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.
I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.
Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:
- Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
- Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
- Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
- Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
- Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave
In a small town somewhere in America, when the children reach adolescence, they breach. On the nights of the full moon, they give in fully to instinct and run wild and naked in the streets. Everyone else stays indoors. There is sex, there is violence; anything can happen, and almost everything is allowed. Lumen Fowler, who narrates the story looking back on her teenagehood as a suburban housewife, is a good girl who does not believe she will breach like the others. Is she wrong?
Clearly, When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord is a literalization of coming of age, of the wild, out-of-control feeling that most of us experience in adolescence. It is also a meditation on whether we are right to suppress our instinctive animal natures as we do. The teenage Lumen is a compelling character, who reads and reasons and struggles with herself. However, the scenes featuring the adult Lumen were the ones I found truly chilling, and those elevated this book for me above yet another coming-of-age story.
The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.
The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient.
For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.
And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.
I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Children of Men by P. D. James
- Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
- When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
- “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin