Monday, March 31, 2014

My First

If I were drawing up my literary bucket list, Zombie Novel wouldn't be on it. But there's a first time for everything. And how better to dip my toe in the genre than with respected literary novelist Colson Whitehead? So with some trepidation I stepped into Zone One.

The story is set mainly in Manhattan, in the section south of Canal, where the narrator, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is part of a team of three “sweepers” searching for “skels” - short for sleletons. The word zombie is never used, but these skels are the walking dead and they feed on human flesh, so you get the picture. An unexplained plague has struck the world, and those unaffected are attempting to seal off a section of the island as a safe zone, while unnamed powers in Buffalo devise the structure of a new civilization. All survivors suffer from P.A.S.D. (post-apocalyptic stress disorder), but Spitz, a self-proclaimed slacker who was content in his mediocrity, functions better than most because his expectations are low and he views his situation with clear-eyed honesty. And yet, his flashbacks reveal a touching tenderness and sadness for what has been lost.

The story covers just three days. Whitehead's prose may seem over-wrought early in the book, but he is masterful at conveying grim humor, horror and tenderness, with social commentary stirred in. I can't compare this to other zombie novels, but let me just say this - the third day is scary, scary, scary.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

Rachel Kushner, your novel The Flamethrowers is beautifully written and deserves the many accolades (including National Book Award finalist) it has received. I admire the power of your prose, the engaging stories your characters tell, the deft weaving of fiction with historical events, the subtle skewering of the art world, the vivid scene you painted early in the novel of the speed trials in the Bonneville Flats.

And I really wanted to like it. I know the problem is mine, not yours. But it just didn't work for me. I'm frequently critical of readers who insist that a good novel must have a character they like, even admire. But I now realize I have my own prejudice. I need to feel engaged. Reno, a young woman from Nevada who enters the New York art scene in the early 70's, is by nature a passive observer. She is acted upon but rarely initiates action. This is not a failure by Kushner – she means for Reno to be a non-judgmental narrator. But this kept me at a distance from her, and I had trouble staying interested.

Sorry, Rachel. I look forward to trying again with you.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life's a Mess

Life doesn't run smoothly when you're a character in an Andre Dubus III story. In his earlier novel, "House of Sand and Fog", he sent his characters on collision courses with each other, with disastrous results. His latest work, Dirty Love, is a collection of four stories, somewhere between long short stories and short novelllas. The setting is a small New England coastal town. His characters all yearn for love, but they make desperate choices and are often their own worst enemies.

These stories are not for readers who like characters they can admire. I often wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake hard. But Dubus's talent is to make them so vividly real, so desperate and vulnerable and frightened by their choices, that I was never tempted to judge them. And in each story the characters are left with a flickering of hope that they might yet sort out the mess in their lives.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Big Brother Is...

In The Circle, David Eggers's imagined society in the not so distant future, it's not that Big Brother is watching. Instead, everyone is watching each other. The Circle is a fictional Silicon Valley corporation which has absorbed earlier social media outlets like Google, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook into the all encompassing TruYou. It sounds so appealing – one password, one identity, one account which connects you to everything and everyone.

Mae Holland joins The Circle as a starry-eyed enthusiast of this new vision, and is thrilled by her job. The 'campus' is luxurious, with fountains, playing fields, artwork, themed buildings, gourmet restaurants, even dormitories for those wanting to avoid commuting home. And if her job Customer Experience at first seems menial, she is buoyed by the constant encouragement she receives as she works to keep her satisfaction rating above 98%. In fact, much of her life begins to revolve around numbers and ratings. The more she 'likes', the more she 'zings' (the tweet replacement), the more she joins groups, signs petitions, answers surveys, the higher her ratings climb. In this utopian atmosphere transparency is the new normal and company mottoes like “Privacy is Theft” and “Sharing is Caring” encourage the notion that if everyone knows everything then social ills will be eliminated.

Is this so hard to imagine, with so many people today willingly giving up their privacy to social networks? Eggers certainly pushes the envelope, but he raises interesting questions about how persuasive our own version of Big Brother can seem.