- Billy Liar | Keith Waterhouse
- Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It | Geoff Dyer
- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi | Geoff Dyer
- 253 | Geoff Ryman
- Disgrace | J. M. Coetzee
- Leaves of the Banyan Tree | Albert Wendt
- Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides
- Super Sad True Love Story | Gary Shteyngart
- The Last Werewolf | Glen Duncan
- Feast Day of Fools | James Lee Burke [abandoned]
- How Music Works | David Byrne
- In War Times | Kathleen Ann Goonan [abandoned]
The problem with established “literary” authors dabbling in SF is that you can tell they think they’re slumming. Most obviously don’t read SF, and don’t realise their bright ideas have been treated better and earlier by others. They tend to be lazy, tossing about a few “futuristic” touches as window dressing but not really examining their implications. Steyngart’s future setting in Super Sad True Love Story is a parody of the present, played largely for laughs, but at the same time he seems to want to say something about the erosion of relationships in an age of oversharing. But he can’t have it both ways: the label “satire” absolves him of any commitment to his wacky ideas. It scarcely matters, since as the book progresses the SF aspects gradually disappear, except for a fairly unbelievable and sketchy account of the fall of the USA and its takeover by the IMF and Norway. The central narrative could have been set in the present day without much trouble; it might even have been an improvement.
That central love story, while indeed super sad, is a cheat. The protagonist Lenny Abramov is a bookish, nerdy Russian Jew, a lovable shlub whose weaknesses we’re meant to find endearing. A typical Steyngart hero, and (we suspect) a stand-in for the author. Lenny falls for Eunice Park, a vapid Korean-American 15 years his junior, who doesn’t read and is obsessed with online clothes shopping. Eunice moves in, sponges off him, and nags him constantly about his wardrobe, while lusting after other men and eventually cheating on him with his boss. Yes, she has a dysfunctional family and abusive father than is supposed to explain all this. But the deck is so monstrously stacked against her and towards poor Lenny that we begin to wonder if the author recently had a bad breakup and is working out Some Issues. I was hoping to like this book, as the last two Shteyngart novels I read were funny and linguistically inventive, but not quite satisfying: I wondered if adding science fiction to the mix would help. Sadly no.
Two others I didn’t even get through this month. James Lee Burke to me is a pale shadow of Elmore Leonard, and although the Texas setting is very evocative, too often the characters say things no human being would. Kathleen Goonan’s, despite being recommended by China Miéville, also proved disappointing, a stodgy WWII saga that apparently eventually involved time travel. By halfway through I was too bored to care.
After seeing Jeffrey Eugenides at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival earlier this year, I saved Middlesex and The Marriage Plot to read back-to-back. I suspect an unspecified percentage of Middlesex is autobiography, but wouldn’t want to guess how much. I enjoyed it, reminiscent of Michael Chabon with Greek culture instead of comic books, but the gap between the historical family saga and the account of growing up intersex was hard to bridge.
The Marriage Plot is more clearly autobiographical, with careful 1980s references: descriptions of genetics at the time match my undergraduate memories. I found the portrayal of manic depression and the long-suffering partner moving, and the satire of theory-ridden English classes hilarious, but other readers might not.
Am I the only person who gets completely sidetracked by anachronism? In The Marriage Plot, Leonard reads Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Ever Since Darwin exactly when they were first published, in 1977 (yes, I checked). But Albert Wendt, wanting to immerse us in the world and mindset of 1930s rural Samoa, dresses one of the characters in a Superman T-shirt. I’m nerdy enough to know that Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and printed t-shirts weren’t common until after WWII. Later on another character mentions reading A House for Mr Biswas in 1960, which would be a feat in isolated Samoa especially given it wasn’t yet published. But really, anachronism can scarcely spoil this lovely book, which was about ten times as evocative as it would have been had I not visited Samoa for the first time this year.
Finally, check out The Last Werewolf if you want easy-read contemporary fantasy, and David Byrne’s magnum opus in appealingly squishy cover if you like the music of the Talking Heads, or music of any other kind at all.