Oryx and Crake is the future humanity deserves

19 Sep

Oryx_Crake_Margaret_AtwoodI got my first taste of the apocalypse driving west on Route 50, just outside of Nevada.

For some of US-50’s Colorado/Nevada leg—the 3,000-mile road spans Maryland to California—it tracks I-70, one of several highways that have more or less rendered Route 50 obsolete. Sometimes they’re the same road, and sometimes I-70 is visible in the distance, its familiar green signage and rush of 18-wheelers a comforting talisman against the isolation of the elder thruway. But every so often the highway is miles off, and the visual lull of gas stations and rest stops give way to a different kind of lull: the thrum of tires on barely-paved asphalt, the rush of breeze through open windows, the vista of untouched landscape in every direction.

Near Fruita, Colorado, Route 50 and I-70 part ways, and the former enters a stretch of near-total isolation (what I will come to know as one of many). The smooth surface of well-maintained blacktop gives over to worn, crumbling asphalt, and sometimes gravel. Lane lines fade and then disappear; desert shrubbery creeps in at the shoulders, threatening to overtake the pavement entirely. For 23 minutes, I didn’t see a single other car. Surrounded by mountains, vegetation, the mutterings of unseen wildlife, and one disintegrating road, it suddenly wasn’t hard to imagine a world in which people ceased to be, to imagine the planet reclaiming the land we colonized, bulldozing the evidence of humanity in the slow-motion manner of mother nature. It felt wrong, even, to be the only human thing, the only piece of civilization, in sight. Like encroaching on someone else’s property, or stepping behind enemy lines. Continue reading

The Mandibles is Titanic for the economy, and there isn’t enough room on the door

27 Jul

y450-293For as long as there have been disasters, there have been disaster stories. Sometimes they’re natural, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes militaristic. Sometimes a disaster story is only personally devastating—a sudden death, a fatal illness. And sometimes it’s national, or global, or even inter-planetary.

Catastrophes have long since been molded into narrative archetypes, such that any new movie or book or television show centered on the unraveling of human society after [fill in life-changing event here] can be easily folded into a pre-existing canon of work ruminating on those same hypotheticals. There is clearly something in us that experiences a perverse glee imagining the upending of everything, perhaps because such thought experiments cast in blissful relief the advantages and conveniences of a charmed life in the modern, real world.

But even in our imaginations, economic collapse ranks low on the list of fictional conjectures, somewhere between friendly aliens and symbolic single-symptom afflictions (see: mass blindness). The world’s somewhat recent flirtation with financial crisis has produced some emergent economic fiction, but it tends to focus on financial firms—who runs them, how, and whether they should be held accountable (see: Margin Call, ArbitrageMoney Monster.) Rarely is there a story centered on the machinations of an economic undoing as experienced by normal people; usually that kind of homey cast is reserved for plagues or earthquakes or the zombie apocalypse.  Continue reading

I’m already mentally casting Emma Cline’s The Girls

19 Jul

the-girls-cline-9780812998603On paper, Emma Cline is the kind of girl I want to punch. A stylish waif with a successful middle-part and piercing blue eyes. The owner of a near-monochromatic wardrobe that’s both simple and defiant in its simplicity. The recipient of a $2 million advance, at the age of 25, for her first book (and two to come), the end result of a bidding war between 12 major publishers. The author of a debut novel whose film rights were snapped up by Scott Rudin before the manuscript even sold. Cline is living a charmed life, a romantic-comedy-set-in-Manhattan kind of life, an I-live-in-a-shed-for-the-novelty-of-it kind of life. I want to find her wherever she’s tapping away on her laptop at twee essays for vaunted literary magazines and punch her right below that middle-part.

There’s only one problem with this plan—several, if you count the unlikelihood of my finding her shed or her even still living in the shed, or my managing to punch anyone in the face, arguably unprovoked, without consequence. The problem is that The Girls, the novel loosely based on the Charles Manson murders, for which Cline received said $2 million advance, is actually quite good. Seamlessly, thoughtfully, annoyingly good. So good I want to punch her in the face anyway for it being so good.  Continue reading

Barbarian Days is an actual surfin’ safari

30 Jun

51+9Q4THKRL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_For a sport so culturally linked to stoners and burnouts, surfing requires a surprising amount of energy. Physical, to be sure—all that paddling and balancing and trying not to drown—but also intellectual, and perhaps emotional too. There are seemingly infinite permutations of reefs, winds, cloud-covers and currents to assess, and a truly passionate surfer’s life is inextricably linked to these permutations, to whether their combination on any given day means everything must be dropped, every obligation sidelined, in the interest of catching a few good waves.

For reasons that have to do mostly with my own lack of prowess at anything requiring corporeal exertion, sporting memoirs aren’t usually my jam. The intricacies of a physical activity (save, I guess, one) feel duly rendered to me as text, even though I know there are hundreds of books that arguably disprove this opinion. But as athletic-endeavor memoirs go, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days made a pretty strong case for itself—it was on a bunch of “Best of 2015” lists last year, aaaannnd it won a Pulitzer.  Continue reading

H Is for Hawk, U is for ugly cry

14 Jun

18803640By all logical measures, we should not be fucking with hawks. Some of the most intelligent birds on the planet, hawks are strong and curious and fast as all hell. They have talons and beaks and the evolutionary advantage of being able to claw your face off and fly away before you even realize you’re bleeding.

And yet, against all odds, hawks also have a long and storied history of being tight with humans. Falconry is a profession (hobby? calling?) dating back to 700 BC, and there is to this day a uniquely talented community of people who raise and train hawks, people whose fists feel empty without the weight of an avian predator, people who live in a world where tucking a dead rabbit into the back pocket of your jeans is just a regular Saturday.  Continue reading

Everyone in Private Citizens is the freaking worst

26 May

617BpkFW0aL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_If populating your novel with unlikable main characters can be considered a bold move, then Tony Tulathimutte is a downright badass. Cory, Linda, Will and Henrik—the four pseudo-friends at the center of Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens—are some of the least likable contributions to fiction that I’ve ever come across.

Tulathimutte’s first novel, PC is a quarter-life crisis saga blended with a send-up of Silicon Valley, specifically 2007 Silicon Valley, when the influx of tech capital was just starting to turn insidious. Cory is a disaffected nonprofit worker, on the front lines of the chasm between heady liberalism and tangible altruism, who can’t help but preach about the perils of [insert cause here] to her uninterested friends. Linda is a party girl turned addict, hamstrung in her life goals by an aggravating combination of pride and inertia. Will is a successful Asian computer programmer with a complex about being Asian and a computer programmer. And Henrik is a bumbling bipolar mess, vaguely tolerable only by virtue of how awful everyone else is. Continue reading

If Harry Potter drank, had sex and was a bit of an asshole

13 May

magicians_lev_grossmanConsidering how many “schooling” options there are IRL—you can get a certificate in everything from beer judgment to survivalism—it’s surprising there isn’t more magical education in fiction. Hogwarts, of course, and “Magic School” on Charmed (really, Charmed? we couldn’t have stretched on the naming a bit?) There’s apparently a magic school in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and I would argue that enough shit went down at that high school in The Craft that it should qualify.

But by and large, the world of magical schooling was conquered, nay, slayed, by J.K. Rowling. Her blockbuster Harry Potter series—estimated book sales: 7 jillion to date—has made the entire genre feel prematurely old hat. (Old…Sorting Hat, if you will.) For Lev Grossman, journalist and author of otherwise innocuously plotted literary fiction, to conjure up Brakebills, the magical school slash origin story of Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, was a bold stare into the eyes of potential obscurity.  Continue reading