Is it too late to do a year-in-review three weeks into 2016? Eh, whatever. Sorry, I had some thoughts about summer reading that I wrote over the fall and I wanted to share. Here is the memorable fiction (and one work of non-fiction) that I read over the past year. Arranged thematically.
Margarate Atwood, Oryx and Crake
These first three books fit under the realm of dystopian speculative fiction. George Orwell's 1984 was the first book of "real literature" I ever read, so dystopian books have a special place in my icy, post-apocalyptic-loving heart. Atwood's novel (she recently finished the story-arc's trilogy) about the end of the modern world creates an interesting setting in which our collapsing neo-liberal world reaches its endpoint of economic inequality and environmental collapse. Basically tech and bio-tech companies rule the world from isolated compounds (think the Googleplex with gated housing) as urban centers continue to erode. It reminds me of Edan Lepucki's first novel, California, which has a similar West Coast libertarian endgame. Ultimately, Atwood's story never really grabbed me and I found the protagonists a bit too self-pitying. It was a far cry from the strength shown in the internal monologues of The Handmaid's Tale.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road kept reminding me of a striking moment, featuring Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight. Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in Dark Knight was so very disturbing because his performance made the Joker into more than a character: he transformed Batman’s traditional opponent into an almost natural force, a malignancy endemic to humanity. The Joker was not just a villain, he was the Hobbesian tendency of man—the social entropy of self-interest and the desperate violence of survival. “You’ll see,” the Joker says smugly to Batman, “when the chips are down, these civilized people... they will eat each other.”
And in The Road they do. Cannibalism is the horrifying endgame of social breakdown in McCarthy’s novel. It is the fulfillment of an Ayn-Randian logic, where any sort of social cohesion has collapsed and individuals (or bands of human-eating individuals) move across the dying landscape of the world. As the last bits of life slowly hemorrhage from the earth, a father and son, themselves physically deteriorating, move through the void. Both son and father have no illusions. They know the world is over. Humanity, with all its values, is winking out. There is no redemption in the story, only the particularity of hope amidst the inevitability of the collapsing cosmic.
Michel Houellebecq, Submission
This is such a strange book, but one that has motivated some interesting conversations. Houellebecq imagines a plausible scenario in which a moderate Islamist government is elected into office. Is the book xenophobic? Or actually about some sort of deep apathy of the soul that confronts we hapless post-moderns? My sense is both. There is also some fantastic sexual imagery in the book, noted with a sort of glee in this Atlantic article.
II. Hopeful Reads
Marilynne, Robinson, Gilead
Oh my. This is a slow burn of a read. The book is a meditation of sorts–a dying father’s thoughts and recollections of his faith. This book takes effort, especially, if like me, you tend to read fiction right before you go to bed. At times, I felt as if I was doing more primary source research on western spirituality. Perhaps worth borrowing a copy–especially if you’re interested in religion, theology, or curious about ideas of transcendence in the modern world.
Catie Diabato, The Ghost Network
A neat, compelling, weird little book. Disabato, a new author, was recommended to me by my brilliant friend, Katie Harper. This is worth checking out if you are into celebrity pop-culture, and/or if you majored in philosophy or critical theory. Yeah, it is an interesting combination. Check out more thoughts in my Amazon review. Worth buying a copy. (Support a young author.)
Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue
I enjoyed reading about this book about the East Bay and, given Caitlin’s side job as a doula, gaining some perspective on the cottage industry of midwifery. While I did not find the story that compelling, I did enjoy Chabon’s meandering tour of Oakland and Berkeley. Actually it made me a bit resentful I didn't do my Ph.D. here in the 1990s. My sense is that the Bay Area sucks a bit more with every decade. But maybe that sense of resentment is what defines NorCal culture across all periods.
Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
Since I have been incorporating John Milton’s views on materiality and the cosmos into my dissertation, I’ve really enjoyed reading Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Indeed, “Dark Materials” is the working title for a chapter draft I’m reworking. The fictional series is Pullman’s riff on Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is worth checking out if you have any interest in English literature, culture, or fantasy. So... Harry Potter fans?
III. The Bad
Christopher McDougall, Natural Born Heroes
Ok this is not fiction, but I had some thoughts on the book. McDougall, hoping for an interesting follow-up to Born to Run, flops pretty miserably here. The postscriptural matter nails down the issue: McDougall actually had two projects floating around—one on the physiology of "natural movement,"(paleo-diet!) and the other on Cretan resistance to the German Occupation. He tries to combine the two into a single narrative through an exploration of the physiological and physical realities of Greek mythology. He fails. And it is oh so Discovery-Channel, reality-TV-terrible.
McDougall has the best of intentions. He is part of the same constellation of naturalist anxieties that have arisen in reaction to modernity’s real human costs (obesity, climate change, the meaninglessness of our lives), and he wants to provide solutions to deeply embedded social views of the human body, cultural approaches that are obviously failing. Such an effort is commendable. But what mars McDougall’s view of the body is his erroneous methodology. He is, as the title of his book implies, searching for an occult knowledge. These are “secret” or “hidden” techniques that if we would only find them in the hidden corners of human history or society we will find them undamaged by the expansive, insidious march of the Modern. "The Secret" will unlock incredible health, amazing physiological performance, athletic prowess, thin bodies, better careers, etc. ad absurdum. This is the same question posed in Born to Run. What is the Secret? The secret to ultramarathons? (run barefoot) To incredible, seemingly random, acts of heroism? (parkour) To kidnapping a Nazi general and ferreting him across the harsh scab-land of a Mediterranean island? (read Greek mythology) Not once in his frantic narrative does McDougall ever stop and consider—as anyone who actually tries to run a marathon quickly realizes–that there are no secrets—at least, not legal ones. At best, this is intellectual laziness; at worst, hucksterism.