Monday, March 5, 2012
March Book Recommendations: The Vanishers, Hot Pink, and The Thief
By Kevin Nguyen
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
The Vanishers is a clever, metaphysical detective story about a young psychic named Julia who is haunted by the death of her mother. But The Vanishers is anything but hard-boiled — it's a funny, affecting novel about girls being really passive-aggressive to one another.
If you think about it, using psychic powers on someone is the most aggressive form of passive-aggression imaginable. Julia is the victim of a “psychic attack” from her envious mentor, Madame Ackermann, which keeps her ill and cripples her astral powers, forcing her to re-live her mother's suicide over and over. (Naturally, these attacks take the form of e-mail.) To get revenge, Julia teams up with Ackermann's rival scholar in the world of occult academia, while tracking down a missing avant-garde film director who may have some connection to Julia's dead mother.
Heidi Julavits, founding editor of The Believer, has imagined an ambitious world that reveals the depths of the matriarchal power structure (i.e., how girls treat each other). At the same time, Julavits does some clever twisting to the classic revenge plot: The Vanishers presents blame as a way of remembering someone, while forgiveness becomes a means of forgetting. At one point, Julia says, "People can vanish or even die, but the blame keeps them present and alive. To be forgiven is to be released into the ether, untethered and alone." Revenge, then, becomes the sincerest form of flattery.
The book loses a bit of its sense of humor toward the end, as the dark Freudian/Oedipal undercurrents take over, but for how many themes Julavits tackles — grief, memory, and the relationship between mother and daughter — it’s satisfying in all its attempts as a robust mystery, satire of academia, and finicky family drama.
TLDR:The Mean Girls of detective stories; also, there are psychics.
Hot Pink by Adam Levin
Adam Levin authored The Instructions, a sprawling, 1,000-page epic that some people loved and some people hated and everyone seemed to be talking about back in 2010. But I haven't read The Instructions, which made it really hard to explain what his new book, Hot Pink, is about to someone who saw me reading it on the bus. She had confused Adam Levin with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 ("HE WROTE A BOOK?"). I ended up mumbling something inane like, "Weird short stories, but the good kind of weird."
Here’s a better description: Hot Pink is a short collection that takes its influences from George Saunders and David Foster Wallace — in fact, it reminded me of '90s-era satire in a good way. The first story is about a toymaker who sets out to create a puking doll, an old but still funny critique of consumerism; in "Jane Tell," the narrator falls in love with the titular character at his rehab group; and "Scientific American," Hot Pink's best story, is about family and a wall that oozes an unidentifiable gel. A few of the stories rely on punchlines, which sometimes work ("RSVP") and sometimes don't ("How to Play the Guy"). But Hot Pink's unevenness is part of its charm. Each story is so singular and entirely different that it becomes a joy delving into each strange new world. They’re weird short stories, but the good kind of weird.
TLDR: Great if you like short-story collections that are more bizarre than they are tonally consistent, and if you didn't just roll your eyes at the first half of this sentence.
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
I've always thought of thrillers as "dad books.” But The Thief, the much-buzzed-about thriller from Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura (winner of the Shincho Newcomer's Award, Akutagawa Prize, and Oe Prize — all things I have definitely heard of and can totally pronounce), is the sort of thing my dad would hate. It's short, straightforward, and driven by an ambiguous sense of morality.
The Thief finds its pickpocketing protagonist making a fairly uncomplicated living snatching wallets from the rich (and subconsciously snatching wallets from everyone else), until he gets roped into a heist that goes awry. You won't be surprised to learn that it's all part of an elaborate setup, but The Thief doesn't rely on plot twists or chapter-ending cliffhangers so much as it does a masterful sense of pacing. The Thief is a swift piece of crime noir, surprisingly light on grit but weighted by existential dread. It's simple and utterly compelling — great beach reading for the deeply cynical.
TLDR: If you crossed Michael Connelly and Camus and translated it from Japanese.
Also Notable in Fiction:
By Blood by Ellen Ullman
Ivyland by Miles Klee
Also Notable in Nonfiction:
White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain
On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening by Rick Moody
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
Kevin Nguyen is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. His writing has also appeared in The Millions, Kill Screen, and Thought Catalog. He tweets (@knguyen) from Seattle.