Book reviews.

I realized at some point last week that I’ve been reading a lot of books narrated by 15-year-old boys this summer—Black Swan Green, Kafka on the Shore, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and, most recently, The Rotter’s Club (not narrated by a boy, for the most part, but still in the same universe). I’ve been toying with the idea of some kind of comparative essay, but haven’t really thought of what to say yet. Z recommended I read A Clockwork Orange, which (shamefully) I never have, to add to the mix. Any other recommendations welcome. This is not a promise to produce anything insightful, though, or anything at all for that matter.

My point is that I’ve neglected to write book reviews for a while because I was contemplating this essay, but as it becomes less likely with each book I read that I’m actually going to write the thing, I thought I should just do a quick book round-up, relying on my spur-of-the-moment BookCrossing journal entries where I have them (the ones without them are library books because this summer I lurve the library).

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
David Mitchell has such a magnificent way with words, I think he must live a richer life than the rest of us. He is not just a talent; he is, and will be remembered far into the future, as a master wordsmith. This is perhaps my favorite novel of his to date. I wondered when reading his previous works if he would be able to sustain a single voice for the duration of a novel, and here he proves that he can, and to stunning effect. Many wonderful novels have rendered the pains and frustrations of adolescence, but none that I’ve ever read have come as close as this to presenting the beautiful creativity of the young adult mind as it grapples with the world as, among other things, a sea of language.

Francesca Lia Block, Necklace of Kisses
The Weetzie Bat books have always had a tinge of guilty-pleasureness about them for me, not least because I suspect that I would find Francesca Lia Block insufferable in person, what with her skinny L.A. goddess-worshipping sparkly-headed pop-culture idolatry and all. But despite my misgivings, I’ve been charmed by all the Weetzie Bat books, and the most recent addition to the series is no exception. Weetzie’s all growns up, kind of, with two college-age daughters and a domestic partner emotionally traumatized by September 11, and she’s having a kind of typical middle aged crisis, so she packs a suitcase and heads to a luxurious Pink Hotel where she lounges around in the tub and orders lavish room service concoctions for breakfast and makes out with supernatural strangers by night. And the guilty-pleasureness was in full effect: on the one hand, I was like, Puh-leeze, are you really going to get spiritually superior on my ass about ordering room service and getting an overpriced pedicure from the daughters of Asian refugees? and on the other hand I was like, Ooooh, pedicure. So, yes, I’m a terrible person and I really enjoyed this book.

Ian McEwan, Enduring Love
This is the second of McEwan’s novels that I’ve read—I loved Atonement. I found this one less engaging. There’s no question that McEwan writes a lovely sentence. But the narrative here is about obsession, specifically the obsessive quality of love, and the tension that holds it together depends upon the reader’s complicity or at least involvement in the various obsessive mindsets that intersect and clash, and I found myself not caring enough about any of the forms of love represented. The relationship between Joe and Clarissa in particular reminded me of other instances of The Great Drama of Contemporary Middle-Class Love in which I just couldn’t invest any interest (e.g. Dinner with Friends, which bored me practically to tears). Still, McEwan is a wonderful writer, and I can’t regret reading his work. I still look forward to reading more of his novels, perhaps more recent ones.

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Once again, Murakami is up to his old tricks, thinking lofty thoughts about how lives translate into narrative, and how narrative gives shape to life, and what happens to human experience, desire, and identity when you eschew History (where time marches forward, with regularity, in waking life, in individuated consciousnesses) for a different set of narrative rules. His grand-schemed playfulness in this novel reminded me powerfully of the Matrix trilogy. As a work of literature, it’s not transcendent like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but it’s compulsively readable for a novel about such Big Ideas, and outstandingly intelligent for a summer page-turner.

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this book. The voice of Haddon’s narrator—15-year-old Christopher Boone, who has Asperger’s Syndrome—is both alienating and gripping, and his narrative is at once terribly funny and terribly poignant. I want to say that it’s sad, in some ways one of the saddest stories I’ve read all year, but “sad” isn’t quite accurate—perhaps because “sad” is one of the emotions Christopher only understands in its most simplified definition, and this story is about Christopher’s journey, physically and mentally, beyond the bounds of his comprehension. The narrative sticks to the rules of its main character’s syndrome, even as they butt heads with the conventions of storytelling, especially those of young adult literature, which often requires its characters to mature as socialized individuals. Christopher accomplishes much, but this is not a story about emotional growth. Its protagonist lives in a world that, while much richer in information, is austere in feeling. It’s not that he doesn’t have what we call “feelings,” but he feels in a different language than most people. The “sadness” I describe is a compromise—a not-very-good translation of the effect of sympathy charged between radically different subjectivities. Not many writers could suck you into this kind of experience. The addictiveness of Haddon’s prose pulls you into a relationship with a character devoid of some of the primary characteristics of a sympathetic persona; the quality of his writing thus overcomes the social estrangement that individuals with Asperger’s live with. And that, too, is both wonderful, and wonderfully sad.

Jonathan Coe, The Rotters’ Club
I will read just about anything bcjennyo recommends, as she did this novel, because she has impeccable taste. Coe is Better Than Most at telling a story, particularly a story set in a particular moment in history not long enough ago to have been memorialized as part of humanity’s collective experience, but too long ago to stir immediate feelings of allegiance and identification—in this case, the politically fraught Birmingham of the 1970s. But he is transcendent when he is funny. I was sitting in a bar, no longer pretending to watch the World Cup, when I arrived at a scene in which a married couple are sitting around the living room studying, respectively, the daily crossword and a secret love letter, passing the dictionary back and forth, and I was giggling aloud as if I were drunker than I actually was, when I knew that I had passed from being entertained by Coe to being owned by him.

8 thoughts on “Book reviews.

  1. I will read just about anything [info]bcjennyo recommends, as she did this novel, because she has impeccable taste.

    She does indeed! I think I’ll send you “Beware of God” by Shalom Auslander next. She sent it to me, and I think it’s just your kind of wild ride.

    I’ve got “Curious Incident…” on the bedside table pile, and will hit it as soon as I finish “Huckleberry Finn” which I’ve never read. (But now own in a gilt-edged, leather-bound edition by the Easton Press–welcome to my new addiction!)

    And definitely you must try “Clockwork Orange”. That’s one of the ones I remember whole passages out of 20 years and many hundreds of books later. Burgess is a minor deity.

    • Oh, heavens yes, needs to read “Beware of God” too. 🙂

      Z, I’m thrilled that there’s a new Coe convert! There are scenes in “The Winshaw Legacy” and “The House of Sleep” that I guarantee will make you double over laughing. And now, I must finish “Adverbs” and then get to my TBR shelf for “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”.

  2. Hmmm. I know more books narrated by or told from the point of view of 12-year-old boys than 15-year-old boys:

    Boys Life by Robert R. McCammon
    Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
    Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
    Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. (disclaimer: Ender Wiggins, the protagonist, may be a little younger than 12. It’s been a while, and I don’t recall exactly.)

    I think the protagonist in Fade by Robert Cormier is about 15ish.
    Also in A Separate Peace by John (?) Knowles (?).

  3. My solution to the essay dilemma is just to make an Amazon.com guide or listmania list.

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the obvious addition to your teen boy literature, and it is a great book.

  4. So I took much too long to respond to this, but:

    I’ve always loved Francesca Lia Block; some of her metaphors are absolutely stunning in a way similar to Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. (That book is relatively boring, but some of its words are fantastic.) I don’t know if I want to read anything more about Weetzie Bat, though; I sort of preferred the other stories about her world to her own. There’s also a relatively new book of Block’s called Wasteland, I believe, which looked particularly unappealing in a way similar to Nymph. (Nymph, for its part, sort of frightened me; I didn’t realize what it was when I picked it up.)

    I would definitely recommend A Clockwork Orange; Burgess does fantastic things with Alex, although I don’t buy him as 15, perhaps thanks to the film. (Which is great, too.)

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is really strange and was a quick, good read — but I’m not sure I liked all of it. Christopher is an amalgam of almost every autism stereotype, and some of it was frustrating, although it’s really cool to read someone trying to think like an autistic person. Still, yes.

    I racked my brain trying to come up with another 15-year-old boy book to recommend, but it sort of fell through — everything that applies is either fantastic (fantasy, I mean) or written for children.

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