The Big City

”The more susbtantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.."

In general, we think differently about books than about music. In music, genres are, if not bad, in poor taste, something seen as restrictive—genre-crossing, genre-busting, and even genre-queer are promotional descriptions I often see.

But in books, genres are good, or at least useful. The edges between literary fiction, crime, horror, science fiction, and others can be hazy, and there’s always going to be snobbish condescension (I will never forget race-science bullshit artist Charles Murray asserting his regular-guy bona fides by pointing out how he liked hard-boiled detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes…).

There’s genius in genres though, having a formula and pushing and pulling it around makes for some of the most creative and important writing we have (same for the movies). As more than one artist has pointed out, having restrictions leads to more innovative thinking, and like the tension and release in musical form, there’s a satisfaction in seeing how the pieces of a story resolve the requirements of the genre. Here’s new and recent genre novels I’ve been reading:

  • Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig: This is a frustrating book. Wendig uses a near future America of both advanced technology and advanced social and political decay to explore ideas about agency and moral decision making. But he puts more energy, and page space, into a large cast of characters who never rise beyond two dimensions, and also never misses the opportunity to move the plot into an obvious and overstated direction—he’s his own worst enemy here. Wendig is a real pro, who has written for role playing games, comics, and the Star Wars series of novels, and he knows how to get from here to there, even across 800 pages. But there is too much of comics and Star Wars-type fandom in here, too much hitting all the expected notes, and not enough thinking through of his own original ideas.
  • Severance, by Ling Ma: This has rave reviews and I was eager to read it—literary fiction that was based in genres, in this case a virus that destroys civilization, is where you find writers like John LeCarré. But Ling Ma comes from a very different place. She’s the product of an MFA program and teaches at the University of Chicago, and this novel fails—and it is a failure—in just the ways those two details signify. Severance is all signification as only a contemporary bourgeois academic can do it, obviously and without meaning and feeling. This is criticism of consumer and office culture that shows no substantial experience of either, no sense of how these can combine to crush people. Ma has said she watched George Romero movies, but seems to have only picked up the mechanism, as nothing ever feels consequential in terms of class or race, as in Romero, or Dickens, who would have been a better model. To that add the arch disaffected MFA tone, and I found this infuriating.
  • Cherry, by Nico Walker: A great crime novel and a great contemporary American novel. Cherry is about a young guy who is aimless, loses his girl, starts using drugs, joins the Army, serves in Iraq, returns home and gets the girl. Then the guy and the girl become opioid addicts and the guys starts robbing banks, using a gun. That Walker is currently serving time in prison for armed robbery is both meaningful and irrelevant. This is obviously a book that comes out of experience, but in no way is it seeking absolution, sympathy, or even understanding. He is showing how fucked up parts of America are, and how America fucks up people, the kind of people that the David Brooks’ of the world pander and condescend to by pretending to understand their concerns. Cherry shows the op-ed pages know fuck all about Americans’ concerns, and would be frightened of what they found out about life beyond career and lifestyle choices. This is all told in vernacular prose that is biting and funny and unsparing. Terrific, and a must-read.
  • Version Control, by Dexter Palmer: This book is not new, it came out at the start of 2017, and is marvelous. Call it science fiction, because time travel is part of the story, but this is at the core a novel about human relationships and sacrifices, seen through the lens of shifting perceptions of reality. It is deep literary fiction that reads like genre fiction. And does it read—Palmer has exceptional skills. The prose is as smooth as any MFA product but also has a gentle touch, he makes everything real and even funny in subtle ways because his characters aren’t just objects to be pushed around, they’re real. And because they are real, what they decide and what happens to them has a feeling to it. His near future America is shown through how the characters see it as normal, which makes it sinister, and his structure is so fine that the most momentous things come across as quiet sighs—you are knocked sideways while the prose just continues to flow, and you hang on to every word so you can follow where he’s going. One of the finest books I’ve read in years.
  • The Warehouse, by Rob Hart: In the way it’s made, this book belongs to the same world as Wanderers, and it’s not that of the future America (though that’s the world here). The question is how to take a book that has a powerful and important idea that the writing can’t quite match. This is a thriller set in a warehouse that is part of Cloud, a corporation that has become at least a plurality of the American economy. The desperate unemployed take jobs at Cloud, where some work in the warehouse, grabbing and shipping items under extreme demands all day long, others work in security, and of course there’s a layer of managers. The warehouse is like Shenzen; you work there, live there, enjoy your recreation there, all on the company scrip/company store model. Hart really has something here, and has thought it through, but the writing is so often mechanical that it denatures the impact of the story. Still this is very much worth your while.
  • Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace: Wallace is known for her YA fiction, and this is her first ‘adult’ novel. Everything about it though is undercut by YA thinking—what might be a complex and fascinating societal and political backstory is reduced to set dressing, the characters never waste a moment of immediate crisis to examine their feelings and memories in detail, and the plot, which is initially interesting (in the context of the society she hints at), eventually turns on the presence of a parasite. This has become a clichéd device in so much speculative fiction that it needs to be fumigated out of existence, or at least until someone can come up with a fresh take on it other than as a deus ex machina that allows the writer to manipulate characters and situations in the laziest ways available. And that’s what Wallace does.
  • Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan: There’s a fascinating and meaningful story to tell about how the digital/tech world uses us as a combination of natural resource and serf, but Maughan can’t quite tell it. This is less of a novel than an accumulation of lectures from figures who all seem to be different facets of the same character. The lectures cover what seems to be infinite (and often redundant) detail while barely advancing the story, which takes a disproportionately long time to get past the scene setting and into the events and their resolution. Maughan’s concerns about the misuse of the power of technology by governments and corporations are sincere, but it’s clouded by a humblebrag smugness, the author who knows more than you and wants to show it. He also can’t solve his own equation—the answer to the operating system that created his disordered world is another operating system, an arbitrary designation of good guys or bad guys. For a similar idea told with great depth of thought and emotion, read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, still the finest dystopian novel of this century.

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