What I’m Readin’
Okay, I’ll be perfectly honest, y’all, I’ve been slackin’ on these here book reviews, and I ran it by Humphrey and he said I could just hammer out some quick stuff before gettin’ back to my book pile — you know what they say, can’t call yourself a bibliophile without a big ol’ book pile! Anyhow, I got real excited about current publishing and went ham on a couple new books that I was tickled to dive into: Either/Or by Elif Batuman and Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh — these little ladies are two fresh, cool shooting stars on the literary scene that also have a touch of the whimsy in them, perfect for our little magazine, I’d say!
Let’s start with Either/Or. I dove in headfirst to this one, y’all, and it reads like butter (if such a thing is possible). The astute reader may recognize the title, which is lifted fromm Kierkegaard, a clever little bit of referential and reverential play with titles that sets the tone for the whole book. I feel a little silly for only finding out recently that the book was in fact a sequel to Batuman’s acclaimed debut, The Idiot, starring the same beguiling narrator, Selin, a girl in her sophomore year at Harvard who is full of questions — quite literally, the book is peppered with questions like the seasonings in a good pot pie, not just adding flavor but defining it. The questions are the anchors of Selin’s psyche, a psyche that is developing before our very eyes, finding its way and negotiating with the world at hand; thus Kierkegaard and the philosophical questions he poses on how to live, how to incorporate aesthetics into work and life, and how to navigate the multitude of quandaries posed by the built-in absurdities of the modern world. I was reminded of a young Cowboy Books at the University of Nebraska, wandering campus and wondering what, exactly, it was all about.
The college-age wonderment Batuman captures is a specific kind of intellectual blossoming that is, I suppose, the entire point of college: the way books can shape not only your academic career, but the way you approach life itself. Even the social dynamics within the book between Selin and her friends are informed by her constant interior monologue that is guided and shaped by these philosophical dynamics, especially her handling of her offstage love interest, Ivan, who she communicates with in the very 90s way of belated emails (the time setting isn’t heavy-handed, and the antiquated technology aspect will give anyone that little wisp of nostalgia that has been fragrancing the culture of late, and to be sure it is an oddly warm feeling to think of waiting on an email from a fella you’re sweet on who is off wandering the word in that way specific to the pre-smartphone era). The reader is left hanging at every step in regards to Ivan — we do love a love interest, don’t we? — in the same way that Selin herself is, in that specific way that college puppy love tends to ebb and flow with a will-they-or-won’t-they, are-we-or-aren’t-we torture. It’s a delicious kind of torture, in the same way that her navigation of letters and meaning is a sweet torture: the torture of growing up and figuring it all out. Some of us never really get there! I for one am excited to a) read the first installment, duh, and b) read the next installment, since Batuman has hinted that she plans on following Selin into her 30s. Count me in, y’all.
Let’s talk about Lapvona. Ottessa Moshfegh is undoubtedly the author of the moment, after the smashing success of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which was bizarre in a particularly special way. Lapvona seemed almost like a personal challenge that Moshfegh posed at herself: how furthest to depart from the ice cold contemporaneity of Relaxation while still writing a book pertinent in the same red hot way to our moment. In so doing, she has created a dark little snow globe of humanity itself: all its weird systems of hierarchy and power that haven’t really changed, despite all the great hopes created by The Enlightenment and thousands of years of history reexamined and reinterpreted and challenged with youthful zest and verve by those excited kids engulfed in the culture wars waged on the interweb — no matter, they still arrange themselves in certain ways, regardless of time or place, these things we call humans (glad I’m not one! Boy howdy, it’s nice to be a puppet!).
It’s definitely, as I said, on the dark side of whimsy. Set in the Eastern European town of Lapvona in the Middle Ages, we follow Marek, a malformed boy who lives with his gruff father herding lambs in a meadow between the town and the walls of the Lord’s manor, mother mysteriously absent. Marek has a love of punishment and pain that he believes brings him closer to God — a common trope in medieval Europe — so when his father beats him, he relishes it. Marek is acquainted with the young Lord’s son, Jacob, who couldn’t be more Marek’s opposite — clean, beautiful clothes on a handsome, healthy body — and they often wander in the woods together, Marek playing the pastoral patsy to Jacob’s rich kid cool. The book delights in these kinds of opposites, and without giving too much away, I’ll tell you that through a swift series of events that unfold in a way that feels oddly inevitable, a brilliant Shakespearean marionette funeral march, Marek ends up in the manor as Lord Villiam’s “new son” — the Lord strikes a deal with Marek’s father — and Marek is forced to entertain the Lord, whose daily decadence has made him half-mad (perhaps fully), easily bored and petulant, a spoiled child with all the toys in the world and nothing to do, his mind and soul rotting from unearned wealth and power. You know, rich people stuff.
The plot is gripping enough to keep you on your toes and for the author to revel in almost every perversity she can get her hands on — perversity as glorious inevitability, perversity as symptom and savior. The characters are all reaching for salvation, their eyes are full of the clear blue of a crisp sky and heaven beyond, but their daily lives are haunted by the palpable texture of muck and grime, the disgusting reality of bodies, dirt, survival, and the corrupt forces of power that rotate around them. The book is guaranteed to turn your stomach, I wouldn’t recommend reading it over lunch, but Moshfegh manages to make the filth reflective, a mirror from the past on the possibilities and realities of the present. They say it takes three days without food for there to be a revolution: this book is that revolution, challenging all the mores and structures of society with just a small touch of very weird magic (literal magic — my favorite character, and the one who drew me in the most, is the hundred-year-old mystic Ina, who survives a bout of plague in her youth and retreats from the town to live naked in the woods, becoming, in her old age, the milkmaid of the town and a kind of stand-in for the reader, observing these absurd little people and their absurd little problems, plucking from them what she can in order to survive on the fringe, learning to talk to birds and sighing at the foolishness of the world — perhaps she is also a stand-in for the author herself? Either way, she is one of the most beguiling characters I’ve come across in contemporary fiction.) If you can stomach it, the book is one for the ages.