Fiction, even when you're scratching your head while reading it, asking yourself how "real" these characters and situations could possibly be, can still demonstrate truths about human nature better than a chapter in a textbook. You may need to ponder a bit to get the most out of them, but I found these three recent novels thought-provoking, if sometimes flawed, without being heavy-going at all.
The Humans, by Matt Haig:
I loved every page of this book in which Haig manages to sustain the point of view of an interstellar alien masquerading as a human. As with seeing life afresh through the eyes of a child, seeing our human frailties and longings via the consciousness of an outsider is truly eye-opening.
Will our protagonist give up the immortality of his own kind in order to enjoy human love and connection? Or will he complete his assigned mission and stop humanity from solving a certain mathematical puzzle and thus keep us from space travel? There's something to be said for super-intelligence, utopian perfection, and never having to lose those you love. But what if the price is never knowing what love is? Very funny while making you think.
Stories are fucking easy. PLOT OF EVERY BOOK EVER: Someone is looking for something. COMMERCIAL VERSION: They find it. LITERARY VERSION: They don’t find it. (That’s fucking it.)
Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld:
Curtis Sittenfeld was a hot young much-hyped nice-advance-earning author only a few years back. I tried not to allow schadenfreude to affect my judgment of her work. Her writing in Sisterland is seductively smooth, and I found myself turning each and every page to see what might happen, though what did finally happen seemed unrelated to what might have, to what we've been led to expect. That doesn't mean, though, that it was necessarily a satisfying twist. Rather somewhat underwhelming.
In fact, Sisterland struck me as consistently ordinary, especially from the computer of such a good writer. The protagonist's worries and irritations and handling of her kids' daily lives felt real, certainly. But also overly familiar and cliched. Not quirky at all.
Two things particularly bothered me. The main plot is built around two sisters with psychic powers. The two sisters possess special "senses," and one of the sisters has tried to get rid of hers (by burning a piece of paper with the word on it!). The senses lead them to believe there might be a big earthquake in St. Louis. The protagonist's fear of this earthquake felt, to me as a Southern Californian used to earthquakes, as neurotically overblown. (People die in them, even in the developed world, but some precautions usually keep most people safe.)
I couldn't abide the main protagonist's wishy-washy approach to the supernatural and paranormal. It's not real, so make it obviously unreal or make it, purposely, a fantasy. And yet, though I don't believe, this recent piece in the L.A. Times is so much like Suttenfeld's that it's downright uncanny.
A distaste for abortion played a key role in the story's trajectory too, including when the fetus has Down Syndrome. I couldn't help but wonder whether Sittenfeld has a better book yet to come.
Schroder, by Amity Gaige:
I hadn't read anything about Schroder before opening my egalley file. Author Amity Gaige pulled me in smoothly and, ineluctably, kept me reading. Only about half-way through did I stop and ask why the plot was beginning to tickle some part of my brain. Oh, wait, I thought, this is a lot like the true story of Clark Rockefeller, that world-class faker that I met many years ago and wrote about in this post. Certain personalities can hook you even when you know better.
Gaige draws a compassionate, even sympathetic, portrait of the con artist, whom she names Eric Schroder in this novel. She particularly gets it right, in my opinion, when she writes about his genuine love for his child.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry
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