I can tolerate, and understand, a lot of complaints about novels and the world of fiction. Bad endings, sloppy editing and overly done storytelling or style are all valid complaints. The two that I hear most frequently that I have no patience for: it seemed unrealistic(the headlines from CNN every single day are more implausible than any novel) and the old 'there is no good writing since year fill-in-the-blank.' I'm afraid that not much can be done to combat either statement--those people need to believe what they want to believe.
For those who don't believe the latter, or are willing to have their mind changed, I do have some promising news. In the last 4-6 weeks I have read four outstanding novels by young writers. Three, in fact, are debut novels and the other one is the authors second book.
The first is Elliott Holt's "You Are One Of Them" which is something I was made aware of by my friend Casey Peterson at Graywolf Press. Casey reads contemporary fiction like mad and I am always interested in what he likes. Holt has put together a story that I think perfectly captures the angst and worry of children witnessing the Cold War arms race. Set in both Washington, D.C. and Russia the book centers around a friendship between two young girls. As North Korea is currently trying to go off the rails and doing its peace talks with Dennis Rodman(defense item #1 of actual world events being totally nuts)this novel was a great reminder of what this kind of chatter can do to the minds of children. I read this book over the course of two or three days and immediately handed it to my wife who also cruised through it. It has a perfect balance of being a page-turner and very well-written. She will be reading at Magers&Quinn on June 4th at 7:30 p.m. I plan to be there.
The next three have become a trio that I want to discuss as a grouping. And a big part of that has to do with the marketing that is being done for them individually. All three have comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. Blurbs and marketing are a tough business. You want to say that something is completely original but also compare it to past success. Anything vaguely Southern or gothic or tough or masculine tends to get the Cormac tag which is an unfair(and mostly not correct) link. Yet I did love Bill Cheng's "Southern Cross The Dog," Philipp Meyer's "The Son," and Kent Wascom's "The Blood of Heaven." All three are set outside our current world in American frontier times. 1799, early 1800's and 1927 are each of their starting points in reverse order.
All three have some historical research and characters both real and imagined. The storylines are each their own thing but it seemed, to me, while reading them in succession that they are somehow spiritual book cousins. I'm no mastermind at interpreting trends in the book world either by color of book jackets or thematically. But I do wonder what has turned these novelists to American history(and not so recent)? There are no footnotes or traces or David Foster Wallace. There is no use of heavy irony or modern technology and its trappings. These are old-fashioned character and prose-driven works. I have tried to force myself to pick which one was my favorite and it keeps shifting.
I try to stay away from talking about too many books that are not yet published because it seems like a tease. So if you'd like to learn a little bit more about them you can find some stuff here. Bill Cheng. Philipp Meyer and Kent Wascom.
Elliott Holt can also be found here.
Always good to have some books to look forward to.