I’m about half way through two books right now: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel, and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Pynchon’s latest novel–I’ll talk a little bit about it in a sec–comes out in hardback from Penguin August 4th. Picador will release the first trade paperback edition of Chris Adrian’s latest collection of short stories on August 3rd. I’m really digging A Better Angel so far, but before I talk about it, I just wanna shill for Picador. They put out really cool, great-looking books from really cool authors like Roberto Bolaño, J.G. Ballard, Denis Johnson, William Burroughs, and DJ Kool Herc, and they also have a sexy little imprint called BIG IDEAS//small books that puts out some killer jams. They’re also really nice about sending review copies. Shill shill shill. I’m a whore, but I’m an earnest whore.
Anyway. Back to Adrian. Just finished “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a 9/11 story set in what seems to be nineteenth century rural Ohio. Damien, and then the other children of his small rural community, catch an illness that gives them unexplained, vivid hallucinations of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Adrian works in a mode of distortion throughout most of these stories so far, repeatedly employing metaphysical disruptions as well as playing with time and setting as a way of alienating his characters from each other and the reader. Adrian uses the temporal/metaphysical disruptions of “The Vision of Peter Damien” to respond to 9/11, creating an uncanny milieu for his readers. The cognitive dissonance here reminds me of other responses to 9/11, like DeLillo’s Falling Man, David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” and even Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Actually, Wallace’s essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” does a really good job of capturing all the problems of witnessing to, understanding, reacting to (etc.) spectacular disaster. Adrian’s story recapitulates the same paradoxes, injecting a motif of illness and brotherhood, contagious decay and redemption that seems to run through all of the stories collected here. I don’t have a larger comment about literature’s response to 9/11 yet, but I think that it’s fascinating to watch such stories emerge and evolve. We’re still seeing the various shapes, tropes, strategies, etc. that authors will employ to tackle (or chip at, or remark upon, or even elide) such a big historical marker. Full review of A Better Angel at the end of this month.
Far less serious is Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, a detective noir painted in day-glo psychedelic swirls. Doc Sportello, at the behest of his ex-, is searching for a missing real-estate billionaire in the dope-haze of late 60s/early 70s LA (it appears to be set in 1969, as there are repeated references to “living in the sixties and seventies”). Pynchon’s new novel is a hard-boiled detective mystery, a psychedelic caper, an LA story, a comment on the decline of idealism and the emergence of media-unreality at the end of the 60s (because we needed another story about the 60s!), and probably a shaggy dog tale. The cover has gotten some criticism for its decidedly unliterary look, and last March I called it “horrendous.” I take it back: the campy cover, with its neon shock and beach-as-pastoral-idyll is lovingly ironic, satire that does not announce itself as satire and is thus always open to a straight-reading. Just like Pynchon’s novel, the cover can be read as an homage to both Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard (with a sly nod to all the Leonard ripoffs out there (glancing your way, Jimmy Buffett). As its cover suggests, this is a Pynchon book you can read breezily on a beach or airplane. Sure, it’s got the usual Pynchon trademarks–it’s overcrowded with zany, one-dimensional characters, it operates on a Looney Toons system of logic, it’s full of linguistic goofs–but it’s also incredibly easy to read (unlike, say, just about everything else Pynchon has ever written). It’s also a lot of fun. And to prove it’s a beach read, I’ll finish it this week at St.Augustine Beach, inebriated by strong margaritas and even stronger sun. Full review when I get back.