Take A Girl Like You has aged alarmingly well. Narratively it has a standard and unremarkable plot, but Kingsley Amis’ character portraits and set pieces are often on par with his fantastic debut, Lucky Jim. And then there is the complex and often troubling (intentionally so) way the novel explores sex and consent.
Published today, the way in which Patrick Standish takes Jenny Bunn’s virginity would be perceived as a form of sexual assault by readers and subject to Brock Turner comparisons. Not that this would be wrong or that Amis disguises Patrick taking advantage of intoxicated Jenny as anything less than extremely morally dubious. But it is the subtle way that Amis writes the scene from Jenny’s perspective and portrays the way, in the moment, she rationalizes and accepts what happens to her that would possibly be missed by readers today who have two-a-day sex scandal news stories constantly on their mind. Of course she is drunk and incoherent and unable to truly consent, however, Amis doesn’t use the scene as a means to shallowly shock us with reprehensible behavior that Patrick has shown signs of from the start.
By going deep into the depths of Jenny’s clouded-by-alcohol mindset, we get a deeply conflicting and human portrayal of the way love can warp and manipulate desire. The scene finds deeper relevance today in the midst of the #MeToo movement when our understanding of consent and the innumerable ways it can become twisted and violated has shaken up the way we view sexual relationships.
Amis is known for writing cruel and morally corrupt characters, and while many of Patrick’s actions fit this mold, the bittersweet (much emphasis on BITTER) “happy ending” he gives Patrick and Jenny has hints of optimism within its inherent cynicism. Patrick is a manipulative, entitled bastard, but the desperation in which he clings to being with Jenny and the comfort and security she provides, and the visceral agony he feels in response to his many discreet and indiscreet betrayals of her hint at a deep-rooted shifting of the nature of men like him. Unfortunately, the psychological shifts occurring within Patrick, and voiced by Amis who was admittedly a Patrick-type scoundrel with the women in his life, did not progress beyond a tendency for self-loathing in future intellectual bachelors.
Reading Amis’ novel today likely leaves you with a bitter taste on a larger scale than it did in 1960. You want to be hopeful that the better instincts of Patrick and the type of sophisticated man he represents will prevail, but the countless stories of abuse flooding the news reveal little has changed. Everywhere we turn men like Patrick are still deceiving and abusing, discreetly and indiscreetly, women like Jenny.
What makes Goliadkin, protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, such a fascinating protagonist is the way it is left murkily ambiguous whether he is as awful as the rest of the characters perceive him. We are given evidence of him being a hypocritical snob in the endless social facades he crafts, but the novella opens with his complete and devastating ostracization already well in progress (the opening set piece involves him being rejected from the daughter of his former guardian’s birthday party)
Over the course of the novella Goliadkin becomes such an abject figure of pity as his isolation is compounded by his double’s universal acceptance. It is impossible to imagine the actions he could have committed to justify the endless stream of indignities he suffers.
The story creates the impression that Goliadkin is an anti-hero of the same type as Crime and Punishment‘s Raskolnikov, but Goliadkin is ultimately too cowardly and consumed by social etiquette to be able to embrace his baser instincts in the way of Raskolnikov. And it is this fatal humanity that makes his downfall so deeply tragic in spite of his manipulative nature.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is an ambitious, over-indulgent, clever, and repetitive debut novel. Brimming with style and energy, Shteyngart grabs you with his comedic rambunctiousness right from the beginning. He has a gift for crafting fascinatingly eccentric characters, and equally outrageous scenarios to throw them in. But as the plot hijinks are continually kicked into overdrive the book starts to feel like a mature pre-teen who wants to feel adult but still can’t quite control their desperate-for-attention manic energy. This is a greedy gripe at a writer trying to do too much and doing it well most of the time.
Vladimir Girshkin is twenty-five-years old. He is working a low-paying job helping Eastern European immigrants gain American citizenship. He cares about his job about as much as he cares about his roommate/girlfriend Challah who works as a dominatrix and with whom he has punctual weekly sex. His only friend is Baobab, an enthusiastic loser and professional scammer. Vladimir is contentedly wasting his life much to the dismay of his business magnate mother who refers to him as her “Little Failure” and to the affectionate disinterest of his lazily successful doctor father. But this happy malaise is disrupted when Vladimir begins an affair with Francesca, a graduate student from a wealthy intellectual family.
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The Invention of Morel is a classic of Latin American literature written by one of its premier writers of the 20th century. These are facts, yet I only heard of it for the first time within the past year, and indirectly while reading about Jorge Luis Borges. Its author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was an equal to his lifelong friend and collaborator during their respective lifetimes, but while Borges’ influence has spread with fittingly labyrinthian pervasiveness over all of literature since his death, Casares’ has faded – at least in regard to English speaking audiences. I make this judgement after looking for other books by the very prolific Casares in print/translation, and the only titles other than Morel I am able to find are another short fantastical novel, Asleep in the Sun, a collection of stories, A Russian Doll & Other Stories, and an experimental murder mystery he co-wrote with Sylvina Ocampo (another widely respected writer in her lifetime whose work remains almost entirely untranslated into English), Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. Even his collaborations with Borges appear to have faded out of print.
Morel is an eerie, hypnotic, and wildly inventive novella that deserves to be read and discussed alongside the best of Borges’ stories. The New York Review Books edition even comes with a prologue by Borges expressing his admiration for the novella with absolutely no restraint. And that is the last time I will mention Casares’ legendary friend.
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Taking nearly a year to read a new Roberto Bolaño is an unforgivable sin. Bolaño is the kind of writer who, once discovered, should be returned to every six months at the least. The cause of this shameful delay on my part is because for the past year I have been intending on reading his 900-page posthumously published finale, 2666. The past couple years I have been working hard to get better at reading more 500-plus-page books, but I definitely haven’t reached the point where I can pick up an 900-pager without months of deliberation. Last year I read Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote (it’s amazing, read it), clocking in at a satisfying 1,000 pages. By the end of this year, my goal is to finally read 2666.
Diversion aside, while I didn’t read Bolaño’s magnum opus, I did read a book that nonetheless reveals his genius. Nazi Literature in the Americas is structured as an encyclopedia of writers who were either born or based in Latin America and North America, and, as the title implies, whose work and private life were politically and/or morally dubious. But as a master craftsman, Bolaño takes this idea and explores it with eloquent subtlety.
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A lesser writer would have taken the concept behind The Answers and used its strangeness as a vehicle for quirk and comedy. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, the story is explored with complete seriousness and a mournful melancholy that manages to make even the most exaggerated moments deeply touching.
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The New Me by Halle Butler proves that it is possible for a book to simultaneously confirm all our worst fears about the meaninglessness of modern life and to also serve as an argument for why it’s (mostly) worth living.
Millie is a thirty-year-old temp starting yet another low-paying office job as an assistant receptionist at an upscale design studio. She dislikes all of the women she works with and spends her considerable amount of free time overhearing their conversations and basking in how much more vapid and frivolous they are than her. She spends her evenings at the messy apartment her parents pay for, watching Forensic Files on a loop, eating the sad dinners that she can afford on her $12 an hour salary, and getting drunk on booze that she bought with money she could’ve used for food instead. If reading any of this is making you feel like a mirror is being mockingly held in your face, you are part of a gloriously miserable troupe known as Millennials. With infectious mirth Butler hits on the ceaseless anxiety, manic rage, and chronic helplessness that is existing in the 21st century.
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My main issue with The Collected Schizophrenias was Esmé Weijun Wang’s reliance of putting on a tough and unemotional front while recounting her horrifying experiences with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. But yet I feel guilty for this quality of her writing bothering me as much as it did. Wang’s illness has rendered her unreliable emotionally and mentally in the eyes of most people her entire life. She has been misdiagnosed (as bipolar before her psychologist diagnosed her as schizoaffective in a flippant email), and then diagnosed with a condition that many doctors consider unverifiable (late-stage Lyme disease). She has had to make herself appear well and stable to keep people from righting her off as crazy.
I know all these things, yet while reading The Collected Schizophrenias I couldn’t stop wishing that she would stop working so hard to portray herself as tough and composed and embrace the vulnerability she felt during her horrific experiences with hallucinations and involuntary hospitalization. She writes about her journey with her illness like Joan Didion writes about losing her husband and daughter one after the other, but the problem with that is Wang doesn’t give us the painstakingly introspective look into her mind during her experiences that Didion does. This makes sense, Didion wrote about her experiences in The Year of Magical Thinking (focused on the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter Quintana) and Blue Nights (focused on Quintana’s death) essentially as they were happening. Much of Wang’s experiences she is writing about are over a decade past. And the impression we get is of her writing about them from a distance, not completely detached but definitely distanced from the raw emotion she was feeling at the time. It made me want to scream Let me in! While many memoirs lately bask in the opportunity at victimhood, often not entirely earned, Wang has earned sympathy and understanding yet tries so hard to avoid coming off as a victim. Most of all, though, she has earned the right to be angry – at the illnesses that have made her endure more than most people ever could, and at the fallibility of science and the mental health industry.
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It is a special satisfaction to finally read a book that has been on your list for as long as you can remember. It’s an even special-er satisfaction when that book lives up to your expectations, as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House. However, now I am faced with the challenge of writing about a book that has been extensively written about by writers far more suited to the challenge than I am (Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, etc). I’m going to give it a crack nonetheless, but will keep it brief and to the point.
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With his debut novel, Colson Whitehead follows in the admirable and envy-inducing tradition of taking a subject of interest and creating a whole damn world around it. Whitehead’s topic is, broadly, elevators, and, more specifically, elevator maintenance. He creates a world where elevators aren’t just a convenient mode of transportation that we take for granted until the one we are on stalls for half a second and our entire life flashes before our eyes. No, in the world of The Intuitionist, the creation of elevators in placed comparably next to cars, and the people in charge of making them work are treated with the type of respect architects receive. And Whitehead embraces his story world concept with so much passion and invention that as I ride the elevator to and from my office each day I find my thoughts shifting from what meal I’ll eat next to being aware of just how incredible that box of machinery I’m riding truly is.
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