Featuring new works by Karl Ove Knausgaard, The Leftovers author Tom Perrotta, and more.
At this point, Tom Perrotta is likely best known as the author of The Leftovers, but it’s probably the least like his other books. From that metaphysical bleakness, Perrotta has returned to the domestic landscape of his previous work with Mrs. Fletcher, a smart, comic novel about suburban sex.
After her son leaves for college, Eve suddenly discovers life is great as an empty nester. She starts taking a course called Gender and Society at a local community college, makes a bunch of new friends, and finds herself awakening to new realities of the world. A wayward text from a stranger drunkenly dubs her a MILF (“U R my MILF!”), and from that, Eve finds a new confidence in her sex life too. (She also gets very into a website called MILFateria.com which is, well, you can probably guess what it is.)
Meanwhile, her son Brendan, a jock in high school, is not having the time of his life, as he expected he would entering freshman year of college. Instead, he’s going through something akin to Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street: the realization that the world has moved past clueless, sexist bully behavior. The Brendan chapters (told in first person, as opposed to Eve’s third person) are among the funniest in Mrs. Fletcher, as Perrotta finds his strongest footing imitating the voice of a bro.
Books that try to talk about sex and technology often fall flatter than a Match.com ad. Happily, I can report Mrs. Fletcher is the rare exception. There’s a touch of melodrama, but the low stakes keep everything grounded. Nothing here gets tragic. And through the amusing ironies of Eve, Brendan, and everyone they seem to interact with, Tom Perrotta has returned to form—and reminded us that it’s a very good form.
Eastman Was Here
Eastman Was Here is a bit of a dude book. At its center, a dude (natch). This one is named Alan Eastman, a once-venerable-now-washed-up journalist going through a second divorce. He drinks, he fucks, and he can’t help that he’s an asshole. Also: kind of an idiot. In a misguided attempt to win back his ex, Eastman heads to Saigon to cover the end of the Vietnam War.
The book takes a bit to get going, and with the exception of a loose reference to a banyan tree, the setting never really feels like it’s moved abroad, but Gilvarry’s brash and occasionally crude sense of humor keep Eastman Was Here moving at a good clip. Gradually, the book reveals itself as a clever send-up of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Richard Ford, and anyone else you might consider a classic white-guy writer. Sure, Eastman is sympathetic, but we’re left to recognize that he’s a product of a bygone era—his misogyny is bespoke, left behind in the social upheaval of the ‘70s. It’s why the novel’s title is set in the past tense.
The novel’s brightest and most interesting character is another journalist, Anne Channing, presented here as a foil to Eastman. She is competent and unwilling to cave to Eastman’s dude-liness, often the self-aware stand-in for the reader. At one point, Eastman attempts to mansplain why men are more suited to writing than women (men are less sentimental). Later, as an apology, Eastman sends Channing flowers as an apology. But she doesn’t offer her forgiveness, which may underscore Eastman Was Here’s smartest idea: that the only way men will learn is by withholding what they feel entitled to.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
If you’ve never read Karl Ove Knausgaard before, you probably still know him as the guy who wrote a six-volume memoir about his life. They’re rightfully praised and revered, but also, no one would blame if for saying you didn’t have time to read several thousand pages about a random dude’s life. In which case, you might be better off with Autumn, the first in a series of four books (I’ll let you guess what the other three are called) that showcase the precise maximalism writing of Knausgaard. If My Struggle is the Star Wars franchise, Autumn is the Star Tours ride at Epcot—a kind of Diet Knausgaard (Knausgaard Zero?) that gives you a glimpse into the joys of his writing without hours of commitment. In the form of letters, he picks a myriad of seemingly everyday objects and finds meaning in each. A chapter on lice is a meditation on shame and ritual; “Cars” examines the thrill of motor anxiety; throwing up becomes a thing to be embraced. Taken altogether in Autumn, you’ll find the joys of one of the world’s great living writers distilled.
Life in Code
Most books about technology are awful, in no small part because they’re written in the mold of business books or, worse, TED Talks. This means they’re top-heavy, shallow, and more interested in being prescriptive than accurate, hewing to an overall, one-size-fits-all thesis. As much as the tech world likes easy solutions (and tech bloggers love referencing the Wikipedia entry for “Occam’s razor”), rarely are things so cut and dry.
Which is why the fierce intelligence of Ellen Ullman’s writing has reached cult-like status among a certain kind of reader, perhaps one that has paid attention to Silicon Valley long enough to be extraordinarily skeptical of the hubristic future it presents. Mention her first work of nonfiction, Close to the Machine, in the right room and it works like a secret handshake.
As a former engineer and a brilliant, Ullman is equal parts technologist and humanist. But what elevates her and this new book, Life in Code, is its sense of time. Each piece represents a year in technology, dating back from 1994 and moving to the present. The book is remarkable in the way it illustrates how much has changed, but maybe more stunningly, how little has changed at all. The sexism that plagued Ullman’s personally in the ‘90s still persists today, finally in the national spotlight as more horrifying stories come out of Uber; the simplistic Libertarian ideals implanted on the early Internet continue to take hold of tech’s solution-based outlook. Instead of becoming more complex, technology—and its perspective—has become less sophisticated.
In moments, Life in Code’s cautionary tone reads like science fiction. She writes: “Robots aren’t becoming us, I feared: we are becoming them.”
There are some people (cough, Lit majors) who believe that the platonic ideal of a short story is in the vein of Raymond Carver—subtle, quiet, not a lot happening. If that sounds boring to you, then Jenny Zhang’s debut collection Sour Heart is probably more your speed, especially in the sense that her stories move at all, rather than the glacial pace of Carver.
Zhang’s stories sprawl, but in a way that play to her strengths: distinct voice, an ear for poetic flourishes, a precedent of place over plot. And in these stories, which are at once funny and gross and vibrant, we find Zhang’s central characters—all women—reckoning with confused identity. The best story, “Our Mothers Before Them,” the narrator observes her tiger mom rediscovering ambitions of stardom after being introduced to a karaoke machine, an adolescent indulgence that softens her image. Like the strongest stories in Sour Heart, it finds resolution to be elusive, but its central idea to be crystal clear. “We’ll learn from our mother who learned from her mother who learned from her mother who learned from her mother and all the mothers before them,” the narrator says. For all the wrestling with coming of age, Sour Heart tells us there’s comfort in knowing that we’ve been grappling with exactly that since the beginning of time.
As a collection, The Mountain may be the inverse of Jenny Zhang’s. These are the kind of stories that are meticulous, delicate almost—constructed to be as close to perfect as possible (cough, Lit majors). And Paul Yoon, author of the excellent novel Snowhunters, finds a strong, common theme across his stories, even as narratives move through vastly different settings and eras: upstate New York, the French countryside, passage between South Korea and China. All of these six stories are about movement, and how personal and world history pulls us inextricably toward new and old places.
To some, Yoon’s subtlety might come across more as sleepy, but for the patient, there’s plenty to unravel in his tightly wound stories. Both careful and confident, The Mountain shows that a classic approach to a classic form can still feel vital and relevant when in the hands of a perfectionist like Paul Yoon.
The Future Won’t Be Long
The Future Won’t Be Long, the second novel from Jarett Kobek (I Hate the Internet), is all over the place. But it has so many good moments that it’s hard not to recommend, even if it meanders throughout.
After both his parents are killed, a small-town Wisconsinite escapes to New York. He dubs himself Baby Baby Baby and meets a rich art school student named Adeline, who shortens his name to Baby. What Kobek sets up is a nostalgia trip that tours the reader through New York between ’86 and ’96 with a vivid depiction of the city going through one of its grittiest periods. (It also takes a shrewd detour to San Francisco too.)
The book is full of delightfully cynical aphorisms (“The only reason to be rich… is to avoid the little details that ruin most people’s lives. Otherwise what’s the point of having money?”), and plenty of name dropping. (The portrayal of Bret Easton Ellis is particularly hysterical.) But for all its unevenness, at the heart of The Future Won’t Be Long is the friendship between Baby and Adeline—at once loving and destructive and convincingly drawn by Kobek.
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