Taipei (Tao Lin)
I haven’t technically finished this book yet (have one more chapter to go) but still wanted to write about it here. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time since the Internet exploded with reviews about it around a year ago, comparing Lin to Bret Easton Ellis (whom I’ve never enjoyed) and calling him the first author to accurately represent the Internet-addicted, Adderall-taking age (which piqued my interest more… I was intrigued by the idea of someone attempting to depict “the age we live in” without turning it into a morality tale). Another interesting fact is that Lin’s agent apparently is Bill Clegg, whose crack-smoking memoir I read two years ago during my addiction memoir binge (eew, “binge” feels like an inappropriate word to use in relation to addiction-themed literature… but oho well).
I approached Taipei with the same eerie fascination with which I approached Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again and Clegg’s book–the mindset of “wow… life is so simple when you’re an addict. Everything boils down to just one thing.” What is interesting about Taipei is I don’t know if any of the characters would identify themselves as addicts. They’re not constantly taking MDMA or LSD because they NEED it–it’s more like it’s just something to do. Also, I haven’t reached the end yet, but I highly doubt that the main character is going to change his lifestyle. It’s almost like the kind of novel that Cat Marnell in her heyday would have written–a book where the characters don’t repent from their hedonistic lifestyles, but instead keep moving numbly, emptily forward.
Also, maybe I’m just a really sick person, but I find Lin’s style absolutely hilarious–not break-into-laughter funny, but definitely shaking my head at certain sentences. Here are certain passages that appealed to my black, bleak sense of humor:
Matt said he drove a rental car without a plan to Maine and ate seafood in a restaurant alone, did other things alone. “It was really good,” he said, and briefly displayed a haunted and irreducibly unenthusiastic expression before reaching for chips. (59)
He rolled over and gathered a blanket into a cushiony bunch, which he held like a stuffed animal of a brain. (130)
“Do you sometimes feel like it sucks–to just, like, live in the world?”
“What do you mean?” Paul said slowly.
“Like, that the world can’t provide us with enough to satisfy us.”
“No,” said Paul after around ten seconds, and covered his face with his hands. “I mean… the world is good enough, based on evidence, because I haven’t killed myself. Like, if I killed myself… I could say the world is bad, on average.”
“Like definitively,” said Alethia.
“On average,” said Paul through his hands. “Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in.” (127)
Technology is also a big theme throughout this book: lots of references to outer space, characters using their MacBooks to film themselves, stalking exes on facebook, reading Wikipedia, feeling like an endless series of open browsing windows. I’m sure lots of people are going to choose this book for their future dissertation topics about technology and alienation and stuff:
Paul laid the side of his head on his arms, on the table, and closed his eyes. He didn’t feel connected by a traceable series of linked events to a source that had conveyed him, from elsewhere, into this world. He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed and was continuing ahead in a confused, choiceless searching. (67)
To be frank, I find it amazing that I can read this book without being bored–how does Lin do it? Am I just predisposed to be interested in this kind of story, in which people close to my own age wander around doing random things, like buying kale and toilet paper at Whole Foods or going to parties in New York? Why am I so captivated by its complete lack of affect, as opposed to bored?
One thing that helps is that there’s a lot of dialogue. The other thing is that for all its lack of affect, a lot of “things” (i.e. events) do take place in the book–there’s even a Las Vegas wedding. We’ll see what the last chapter is like, but for now my favorite part so far has been the MDMA-infused tour that the main character and his Vegas bride take of the first McDonalds ever built in Taipei, in which they maniacally examine the posters and visualize the models as futuristic Chicken McNuggets or Cameron Diaz’s children. Good lord.
Once You Break A Knuckle (D.W. Wilson)
I enjoyed this book a lot and thought it was very moving, beautifully poetic and powerfully written. The author is an alumni from my beloved graduate school institution and boy, can you tell that he worked like heck on these stories. Que ejemplo. My favorites were the ones that were linked (there were quite a few too–I wonder why this wasn’t marketed as a linked collection?) or the ones set in childhood. There’s lots of moments of brutal, unexpected violence in these stories, most memorably in the one involving a rope swing (ugh, see if I don’t take notes of individual story’s names, then they just inevitably fade forever into the ether). I feel like I learned a lot about the Experience of being a Rural Canadian Man from reading this–i.e., being gay would be really hard. And I liked how a lot of these pieces focused on characters’ every day lives–going to work, the bar, hanging with the family, etc. I was also really impacted by this sentence in the title story: “Once you break a knuckle, you will break it again.” Uff, talk about a sentence that sums up the legacy of familial abuse and violence. Simple but straightforward–there’s a lot going on underneath that sentiment. Que fuerte.
Bark (Lorrie Moore)
I love Lorrie Moore! I loved this book! I was underwhelmed by her last novel, A Gate at the Stairs (its political themes felt too gimmicky and forced–to be fair, I might have to give it another shot; I was going through a REALLY rough time when I read it). But with this book I am officially back in the Lorrie Moore as Goddess Fandom club. Who else is so funny? So kind? Who else makes something that is so hard (humor) look so easy? She still officially remains one of the two authors who’s literally made me laugh out loud (the other being Terry Pratchett). I also think she did amazing job of balancing political and social commentary in these stories–the references and themes never feel heavy-handed or forced. The endings of these stories are also incredible, real sucker-punchers, so unconventionally unresolved and unsatisfying. My favorites are “Debarking” (LOVE THESE CHARACTERS; I could read a whole book of with them, seriously), “The Juniper Tree” (surprisingly poignant and moving, an interesting twist on the ghost story) and “Thank You For Having Me'” (I love that the collection ends with a story set at a wedding! What a way to go out with a bang!).
Some of my choice fave sentences (definitely so many to choose from; this is just skimming the surface):
“I said, ‘Are you on crack?’ And he had replied, continuing to fold a blue twill jacket, ‘Yes, a little.'” (181)
“She had always chosen the peanut allergy table at school since a boy she liked sat there–the cafeteria version of The Magic Mountain.” (183)
“The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding.” (187)
“‘Bummer,’ said Ira, his new word for ‘I must remain as neutral as possible’ and ‘Your mother’s a whore.'” (11)
“He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like ‘Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins?’ or ‘I’ll bet God really loves butter.'” (14)
“He wished this month had a less military verb for a name. Why March? How about a month named Skip?” (22)
“‘I would never time travel without a pen,’ he said.” (43)
“The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things–cheeks, tongues, thymus glands.” (41)
Ahh, Lorrie Moore. We’re so lucky to have a writer like her in the world.
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (Lucy Corin)
I am sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy this book very much, despite being very excited about its concept. One hundred micro-stories about apocalypses (as well as a couple of similarly themed full-length short stories)! One of my favorite subjects in the world! So why didn’t I get into this? Why did it end up leaving me cold? I think… I am maybe just not the target audience (IDK who would be, though–someone who is a bigger fan of experimental flash fiction/prose-poetry than I am?). It simply wasn’t my cup of tea. I also might have had expectations that were way too high–the reviews I’d read were glowing, and I loved the title as well as the concept (or at least the idea of the concept, I guess–the execution was a different story). So yeah–reading this book made me feel fuzzy and alienated. I was also really bothered by the full-length story “Madmen” for reasons that I won’t get into here, but to say the least, I would never, ever, ever want someone who is suffering from mental illness to read this story. Like… it is kind of offensive? Or maybe I am just too sensitive? But I thought it was gimmicky and icky, like a bad George Saunders knock-off.
I respect this book’s experimental nature, though. And there were a few of the short apocalypse flash pieces that I liked, though I can’t say there were any that I loved. And there are definitely none that I can remember off the top of my head, three weeks after having finished it. This book made me respect Lydia Davis all the more–writing this kind of experimental, short-short fiction is VERY hard to do without leaving the reader feeling cold or alienated. Or maybe feeling alienated is an inevitable consequence of the form? Maybe I just need to read more flash fiction and get more familiar with it? IDK, it’s true that even with poetry, I tend to like stuff that is more readable/easy to understand/reminiscent of straightforward prose (like Raymond Carver, Bukowski, Robert Bly), rather than stuff that is more trippy and weird (though I definitely like reading that from time to time too… just in small doses). Who knows. But again, kudos to the author for taking a big risk with this book and trying something that is decidedly new.
The Good Cripple and The Pelcari Project (Rodrio Rey Rosa)
Still loving Rodrigo Rey Rosa. I have another book or two of his waiting for me in the library this weekend, yay. He’s the perfect author to binge read: I LOVE SHORT NOVELS!
So yeah, neither of these two books were as good as The African Shore but I still enjoyed and was highly impressed by them. The Pelcari Project especially is extremely eerie–something out of a surreal nightmare, a Kafkaesque riff on the mad scientist story, told mainly through salvaged diary entries. This book in particular is a terrific example of how to write about the horrors of Central America in the 1980’s in a way that is very memorable, risky and innovative. The Good Cripple also deals with violence and is probably the most “conventional” of the three Rosa books I’ve read so far. It’s a fast read that provides several unexpected twists for what you think is going to be a classic revenge story. Instead, you’re left with uneasy questions and no reassuring conclusions. Overall, both books read as allegorical commentaries on the violent culture of Latin America, and I’m probably going to have to think about their themes and ideas in a lot more detail over the coming weeks…
That’s good for now… just for fun, here are some photos of Epic Edinburgh Marathon Weekend (!) that I’ve stolen from other amigos’ social media accounts, since Lord knows where my camera cord is.