Thursday, September 24, 2009
Culture Lust has already made you aware of the embarrassment of riches coming your way this fall, post-Dan Brown, from the book publishing world. Richard Powers, Kazuo Ishiguro, James Ellroy, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem! Where to begin?! Take a breath, friend – let’s start with the books you've most likely already missed in your local bookshop. These books are probably as good, if not better, than anything forthcoming. (Certainly better than the Coetzee, in my opinion.)
"Inherent Vice" by Thomas Pynchon
I’m going to fess up here: I've never even attempted to read a Thomas Pynchon novel before. His reputation for 1000-page tomes of general incoherence ("Gravity’s Rainbow," "Mason & Dixon") and genitalia-aimed rocket launches (again, "Gravity’s Rainbow") never really piqued my interest, funny enough. Besides, the notoriously reclusive author has always sort of frightened me. However, his latest book, Inherent Vice, a smoke-filled, hippie-laden crime novel, is another story altogether. This is not a “serious” book that will help solve the world’s problems or give the reader a deeper understanding of their fellow man – what it will do is give you a reason to drift off into fiction land for a few hours and undoubtedly expand your grasp of the hippie vocabulary.
Larry "Doc" Sportello is a pot-smoking hippie private investigator living in L.A.'s Gordita Beach circa 1970. When his "ex-old lady" Shasta shows up at his door asking for help finding her kidnapped boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, Doc embarks on a bizarre, painfully complex journey involving counterfeiting, drug-running, tax-dodging dentists (aka: "The Golden Fang"), swastika-tattooed Ethel Merman fans, revenge-filled, frozen-banana-loving cops, and ridiculous, eloquently named characters like Downstairs Eddie, Bigfoot Bjornson, and Puck Beaverton (not to mention "Denis", mispronounced by everyone like "penis"). Essentially, Pynchon has taken the crime novel, blown enough pot smoke in its mouth to kill a college sophomore, and created something wholly different, bizarre, and completely brilliant. The biggest injustice you could do to this novel would be to take it at all seriously. Think of it as a Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler joint-effort (no pun intended) with “The Dude” as the lead – even though the plot is as Gordian as knots get, it ends up not mattering one whit, as Pynchon’s remarkable talent for dialogue and unusual characters are simply fascinating.
"The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" by Reif Larsen
In this frenetic age of e-books, tweets and collapsing economies, Reif Larsen breathes fresh air into the book world with this lavishly illustrated debut novel that is so unusual in its structure, that it could become the benchmark of what books are truly capable of. Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the 12-year-old genius cartographer/narrator of this debut novel, spends every waking hour on his home ranch in Montana meticulously mapping the world around him. Not maps in the traditional cartographic sense, but rather he creates elaborate diagrams and illustrations of every object, experience, and thought that he deems important enough to put down on paper. An elaborate diagram of a "Freight Train as a Sound Sandwich", the history of 20th century, mapped according to 12-year old boys eating Honey Nut Cheerios, the structure of the Bailey train yards in Nebraska. The scientific drawings he does for a professor friend at Montana State are so accurate and beautifully rendered, that the professor sends them off to the Smithsonian without T.S.'s knowledge. When the museum awards T.S. a Baird fellowship, not knowing he's only in junior high, T.S. debates whether to accept his new life or to continue in anonymity on the ranch. In light of his adolescent perception of parental ignorance, he decides to slip off under cover of darkness, hop a freight train, and make his way across the country, on his own, to accept his award in Washington, D.C. T.S.'s humor, naiveté, and intelligence become magnified through his maps, heightening everything he experiences, and allowing the reader to actually slow down and see the world anew – a remarkable experience for a novel to impart.
"Everything Matters!" by Ron Currie, Jr.
Imagine that you were born with the absolute, unquestionable knowledge that the world would be destroyed in a fiery comet collision somewhere in the vicinity of your 36th birthday. How would you live your life, knowing that every single thing you do or say or think is essentially futile - or at least more finite than we are comfortable with? Would you use your knowledge to try and save the world? Would you just throw it all away and drink yourself to death? Or would you just live your life as normally as possible? Does anything you do actually matter? These are the questions posed to Junior Thibodeau, born with an all-seeing, all-knowing voice inside his head. The voice shares its vast knowledge with Junior, whether it's other people's personal secrets or the impending destruction of the planet. This knowledge turns Junior into a lonely, introverted, alcoholic genius who feels that no one really understands him, since he can't share what he knows and even if he did, no one would believe him. He peppers his life with poor decisions, all under the ruse that nothing he does in life matters. But the one constant in life, he finds, is love. Junior discovers that no amount of destiny can impede that emotional connection to other people. Currie has taken a highly unusual, potentially disastrous premise and created a completely plausible, emotionally resonant life story centering around Junior Thibodeau, cursed with his unique perspective. What can I say, this really hit home with me. I knew from about halfway through that I will read this book over and over and over again throughout my life, always having my own unique perspective. I'm sure of it.