I always retreat to fiction. Or maybe I retreat in fiction. I need stories, I need poetry, I need beauty. At times during this other-worldly apocalyptic hellscape we're attempting to live through, I have felt like abandoning the world entirely, slipping through the Pevensie children's wardrobe into another world, out of time, cut off from reality. I always loved that image: that Susan, Lucy, Peter and Edmund could enter Narnia and grow and change and have lives, but still exit back into the other world as their same selves. I, for one, am tired of my same self and this world, and would love to enter another world, perhaps never to return.
You would think that would lead me to reading more fantasy. Goodness knows I can't take any more dystopia. Whatever I read of dystopia comes from the New York Times every morning. I want to step through a wardrobe here and be back in the real world again.
But no, this pandemic year I have not read fantasy as much (other than the years-delayed sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood: The Testaments). I've read some quasi-historical fiction that perhaps takes me back to another time, or at least takes me out of this time. Of books of that sort that I've read recently, let me mention, two successful to some extent, two not.
I'm not sure what made me pick up popular author Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69. Perhaps it was because I am a child of the 60's and an deeply awash in the history and trivia from that time. Perhaps it was because I used to center my classroom around a study of the decade. Perhaps because it was a New England-type of book. Whatever the cause or reason, I found myself asking who reads dreck like this? Its thinly-drawn one-dimensional characters, overt racism cloaked as woke-ness, and facile predictability pretty much infuriated me. I'm actually not sure why I finished it.
B.A. Shapiro's The Muralist, on the other hand, is more nuanced in its depiction of the art world of the 1930's in New York. She takes some liberties with history—portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt and some minor political actors in the run-up to WWII—but does so in the service of exploring a fictional enigmatic female painter, perhaps an influence on Pollack and Rothko. The book is uneven and scattered at times, but she asks some great questions about the purpose and creation of art, ownership, motives, sponsorship, and lost history.
I've read most everything that TC Boyle has written. His latest novel, published in 2019, is Outside Looking In—a terrifically understated, unsensational title for an exploration of the LSD trials done at Harvard and beyond in the 60's. All of Boyle's fiction has a "point", similar to Tom Wolfe. Boyle likes to capture the essence of a moment in time or in a particular subculture and spin out a story within that time and place to fully describe it. He does that here in sometimes spell-binding fashion, including a prologue capturing the moment when Albert Hoffman first ingests LSD in 1943, as seen through the eyes of a fictional assistant.
Among the many reasons I pick up a book, I've never chosen one simply because the name of one of my daughters is in the title. But that's why I picked up Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie. The set-up is a familiar one (it even bears a slight resemblance to Shapiro's The Muralist to some extent): a diary is found and the author wants to know more about who the writer of the diary was. Mazie is one of those typical New York characters—brazen, outspoken, iconoclastic. She drank and partied her way through Prohibition, opened up her movie theater to the down-and-out during the Depression, and generally became a saint to the locals who knew her. This charming little book really surprised me and, as the pandemic worsened and we became more and more aware of those who were suffering, it spurred me to take action even more than I already had. It really was an unexpected gift, as I wouldn't have predicted that this book would have affected me in the way it did.
Speaking of unexpected gifts (and breaking away from historical fiction), two books really delightfully surprised me recently: Charles Yu's bizarre, hysterical yet deep Interior Chinatown, and Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here. I love trying to describe each of these books to people because the set-ups are just preposterous. For instance, the basic plot of Wilson's book is that the narrator, a young woman drifting purposelessly through life, has been asked by a wealthy friend to be the nanny for her new step-children. The 10-year old twins she has to take care of are fairly normal and well-adjusted, considering one teensy little problem: when angered or upset, they burst into flames. I was surprised how much I got out of this book—especially the shreds of humanity and grace that the main character is able to muster up, despite her scattered life; the effects of simple kindness and of listening; and the sometimes all-consuming fire that lives within all of us. Why aren't more of us literally on fire more of the time?
Yu's book is deeply original and bizarre. The set-up here is that we are reading a screenplay, starring a man who exists either as a man in actuality or as a character in a TV show called "Black and White", purportedly a "procedural" of the CSI variety. His whole goal in life is to move from being "Generic Asian Man" up to "Featured Asian" or maybe even "Kung Fu Guy". What a clever way to explore race, society, marginalization, and assimilation. I loved how the book teetered between what seemed like reality and the real world of the fictional show. This was one of the funniest, most interesting books I've read in a long time.
It's possible that I could have written this post entirely about books set in the 60's, as the last book I'll mention is David Mitchell''s Utopia Avenue. The title comes from the name of a band, born at the right time in the right place in late 60's London. The band's mystique comes from a blend of styles and personalities—think Pink Floyd meets the Doors meets Fleetwood Mac—with obvious and bizarre references and cameos by everyone from Dylan to Leonard Cohen to Janis Joplin. Since all of Mitchell's novels relate to one another in a sort of fictional meta-verse, I kept expecting the "real" story to kick in long before it did, given that one of the main characters is named de Zoet (harkening back to his Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). But we never really get there, except for one small section about 2/3 of the way through the novel. Yes, its well-written—neatly-drawn characters, some beautiful scenes, twisty journeys down winding narrative paths. But it's also predictable, and unexpectedly, well, maudlin and sentimental at other times. I felt as if I were reading an exposé about a band in Rolling Stone written by someone who writes Hallmark cards. After all was said and done, I wondered to myself why he wrote this. I'm not sure I have an answer, because he certainly didn't bring anything new to the table about the music scene of the 60's. And, even more curiously after The Bone Clocks, there's nothing new about Mitchell's meta-verse either (should you care to read more about the world of all his linked novels, go here—but don't say I didn't warn you).