Chabon, who’s written about his own adjustments to marriage, fatherhood and settled middle age in Berkeley, is kinder to his cast of sinners than the reader, by the end of the book, may feel they deserve. But those who believe in the redemption of losers and the recalibration of dreams should be willing to cut him a break for cutting them a break. As Telegraph Avenue shows us, the next generation will have plenty of time to mess things up all over again. (Note: Chabon and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell will be reading at the Free Library this Tuesday, Oct. 16.)
[ horror ]
Justin Cronin, Ballantine, Oct. 16, 592 pp.
I’m convinced that the thing in novels from the past couple years that will date them most severely is the torture scene; nearly any novel with pretensions of topicality has a chapter in the middle where someone gets isolated, beaten, waterboarded. This used to happen occasionally in a certain kind of book — Bond gets held hostage while a nefarious plot unfolds — but it’s become endemic. Sometimes it’s appropriate; more often, it’s monotonous and momentum-killing (like in Nick Harkaway’s otherwise-delightful Angelmaker, where the plot stops dead when the hero’s locked up and bloodied, and it takes ages to get back up to steam).
Justin Cronin, in The Twelve, is no better than he should be: There is indeed a particularly rape-filled torture sequence late in the book. But it’s his earlier description of one particular labor-camp guard, who “set her sights on you and the next thing you knew you would be pulled out of the latrine line for a pat-down just when it was your turn, or assigned some impossible and pointless job,” that captures the bureaucratic horror of his setting — at that point, post-apocalyptic Iowa. “You found yourself wishing for the suffering to befall someone else, and thus you became complicit, part of the system, a cog in a wheel of torment that never stopped turning.”
That sharp, detailed writing is what made the opening of The Passage — the first installment of this projected trilogy of thick zombie-vampire-apocalypse novels — so surprising, and so clearly the best-case pairing of belletristic sensibility with the guts of Stephen King. The Twelve shows off middle-child insecurities, with occasionally chunky exposition and characters dispersed all over the landscape. And it’s comfortable enough in the overarching stakes of the series that this volume’s villain — Guilder, a near-immortal Homeland Security functionary, pitched as satire but only rising to slapstick — hardly represents a credible threat next to the 12 vampires of the title, who largely stay offstage. But if the writing is seldom as good as the first installment’s, Cronin’s growing cast offers him far better opportunities for cliffhangers and shocks; and 1,000-plus pages into his genre experiment, Cronin’s learned how to turn a shock into sheer momentum.
[ essays ]
Lost At Sea: The Jon
Jon Ronson, Riverhead, Oct. 30, 416 pp.
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse aren’t just an easy target, with their dumb clown makeup and even dumber lyrics — they’re also a common target these days. Once something’s been filmed, satirized and memed unmercifully, you’d imagine Welsh superjournalist Jon Ronson would steer clear. After all, this guy favors rare game, like crazy people (see last year’s brilliant book The Psychopath Test), secret government nutjobs (The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009) and cult/conspiracy types (his whole career). Aggro-dipshit hip-hoppers shouldn’t even be on Ronson’s radar. But they are, and his interview with ICP in Lost at Sea, a new collection of his articles originally printed in the Guardian, is wonderfully enlightening.
Ronson amiably, skeptically investigates the Clowns’ sudden revelation that they are and always secretly have been evangelical Christians. It’s a funny, weird, fascinating and dubious claim. Ronson’s wheelhouse, in other words, especially when J and Shaggy try to put into words their belief that everything from magnets to rainbows to giraffes is a miracle that the explanations of science can only ruin. Says Ronson: “For ICP, a true understanding of ‘fucking rainbows’ would reduce them to, as Keats put it, ‘the dull catalog of common things.’”
And that’s essay number one. After that, we meet the newscaster who (falsely) confessed to killing somebody on the air, the people who think their children are superbeings, the billionaire trying to create a sentient robot version of her lover, and so on. Ronson’s an effective everyman, a deadpan narrator who treats his subjects with a grain of salt and a spoonful of sympathy. He doesn’t mock Robbie Robertson when the pop star drags him to a UFO convention. He lets the citizens of North Pole, Alaska, rectify their year-round Christmas theme with the news that middle-schoolers were caught plotting a Columbine-style attack. Yes, there are plenty of cult leaders and fanatics, but Ronson wisely lets the reader decide which ones are crazy. It’s probably that open mind, sympathy and barely judgmental attitude that keeps the nutballs from hanging up on him. Also, they’re crazy.
[ historical fiction ]
Kim Young-ha, translation by Charles La Shure, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct. 30, 320 pp.
It’s not immediately apparent whether it’s the story of Black Flower or the fact it’s being told by Kim Young-ha that’s more curious.
The story, true in its basic facts, concerns a shipload of Koreans who left their homeland shortly before it was subsumed by the Japanese empire in 1905; 1,033 Koreans boarded the British steamer Ilford, journeyed to Mexico where they were unwittingly sold into bond slavery and ultimately established a new country of their own, briefly, in the wilds of Guatemala.
And it’s odd that this is Kim’s story; in his early 40s, Kim is at the leading edge of a new breed of South Korean writers, postmodern and irreverent, incorporating global influences in the place of traditional themes and stories. A large-canvas historical epic set against the last days of feudal Korea seems like an uncharacteristic choice.
Black Flower seems, if not old-fashioned, certainly out-of-step with the increasingly neurotic style of novelized history. In contrast to psychologically detailed doorstoppers like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books or frantic self-reflexive novels like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Kim is calmly matter-of-fact and unconflicted, relating historical events and the actions of his characters in a streamlined, simple style.
But Black Flower is hardly straightforward. Kim’s cast brings together a wide range of ranks and types — aristocrats, soldiers, shamans and thieves. He introduces Ijeong, the orphan of a peddler, who dreams of making enough money in Mexico to return home as a landowner, and sets him alongside Yi Yeonsu, the beautiful daughter of an aristocrat, who hopes for some measure of independence in the New World. When they are sold off to different haciendas, Kim sets up the kind of frustrated romance that can animate and propel a historical epic. But instead of placing the pair at the center of the book, he interrupts, giving their story no more importance than those of their fellow passengers, or dryly recounted diplomatic machinations offstage. It’s a quiet, sly strategy for a postmodern writer to show the beginnings of modernity, mirroring with his story the way social and class distinctions break down among its inhabitants.
[ history/politics ]
How We Forgot The Cold War: A Historical journey Across America
Jon Wiener, University of California Press, Oct. 15, 376 pp.
Improbable as it may seem to some of us, babies born when the Berlin Wall came down are now college graduates. For more than 40 years the Cold War, author Jon Wiener writes, “served as the iron cage of American politics,” and its abrupt end inspired officials of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush eras to propose elaborate Cold War memorials to rival those of World War II: “The effort to construct a public memory around the ‘good war’ framework for the Cold War was undertaken by the same political and media forces that convinced Americans it was morning in America.”