A Slap in the Face
The first time I read Atonement was a few years after its release, in the early 00's. It was a deeply formative time for my tastes, when I was finally allowed to enjoy things even if they weren't endorsed as acceptably uplifting and consistent with the religious principles I was supposed to be abiding by.
It was also the early blog era, more specifically the early book blog era, and oh I did not like it. There were, apparently, books I was supposed to like and feelings I was supposed to have and all my tastes were supposed to mean something about who I was as a person. I had not encountered this before. I'd taken plenty of difficult literature classes in college, but in those situations having an opinion (particularly an effusive one) was deeply uncool, but I could not help being who I was so I just accepted my lot. This was different, though. This was not about being cool, it was about being smart, about being some kind of objectively good reader. It was a lot of pressure. Sometimes it's hard for me to know what my real opinions from those days were, if they weren't strong they could get absorbed into this larger set of "good" opinions.
But I remember Atonement. I remember it because it was the first time I'd had the rug yanked out from under me so quickly and so cruelly. As a reader who was already doubting myself, it was even worse. I immediately wondered if I had read it correctly, if I'd misunderstood. It made me even more nervous that somehow I had done it wrong. I had to consult the people with good opinions to make sure I hadn't messed up. I still wasn't completely sure of myself until I reread it a short time later knowing what was coming, and then I knew I loved it. I even loved its meanness now that I had survived it and could look back and remember that feeling it had given me of the floor disappearing beneath my feet.
I know a lot of people hate books that do this, and I do not blame them. You want to be able to trust a book and the story it tells you. You don't want to be betrayed. Maybe it's me that's all messed up for enjoying that betrayal, for feeling exhilarated by the literary equivalent of a slap in the face.
It's also very hard to talk about these books because you don't want to tell someone that the betrayal is coming. Usually I get around this by saying that I find the structure of the book interesting or I talk about the way it treats the reader. My review of Trust Exercise: "This is a book that has some structural tricks up its sleeve." My review of Asymmetry: "This is... a book that doesn't want to make friends." I want to find a way to tell you if a book like this is not for you without giving it all away.
But today I am thinking about all this because of two books that did something a little different. They are cousins of these books, but instead of knocking you over they gently lay you down on the floor. They have something of the puzzle about them but they are not so unfriendly. They are narratives about narratives (if you could marry a book, I would marry a narrative about narratives in a fucking heartbeat), about how we tell stories, about the differences in how people see the world. But they don't have to have such a harsh juxtaposition.
The first is Trust by Hernan Diaz, one of my favorites of the year, which I probably wrote about back when it came out. Perhaps the meanest thing about Trust is that in one of its sections (all in different styles, from different perspectives) you have to sit through some very dull prose and wonder, "Why the hell am I reading this?" You find out, of course, there is a lot of reward for making it through. But it's not interested in tricks, it is more interested in slowly unfurling itself into more than what it initially seemed. Its multiple styles and perspectives is not all that different from Atonement or Asymmetry or Trust Exercise. It just treats you more thoughtfully and I admit that I loved that slow roll, it let me luxuriate and enjoy everything this book was doing.
The second, My Nemesis, is not out yet (February, 2023!) but I just read it and it has been stuck in my mind enough to get me to write this newsletter so I am going to talk about it anyway. Instead of the impressive structure, this is very simple, a first person story that doesn't always move in a straight line, but that tells you pretty upfront how things are going to end. It isn't exactly a nice book, on the very first page our protagonist (a feminist writer of personal nonfiction) tells another woman (also a feminist writer of personal nonfiction) that she is an insult to womankind. Our narrator is not exactly a nice person. But just when you think you've got her all figured out, when you know exactly what kind of person she is, then the book starts to make you wonder if you are wrong.
I am almost positive I will be reading this book again. When I finished it, I immediately went back and reread the first few chapters just to experience them with my newer and deeper understanding. I suspect it may have that reread potential, and I suspect someone could make a great audiobook out of it so I may go that route.
I enjoyed both of these books very much, so maybe I am not a complete masochist when it comes to books. Though honestly I would happily let a Susan Choi novel slap me in the face any day of the week.
A few October releases for you that I enjoyed very much:
I always complain about comps (especially movie comps) but Wicker Man meets Final Destination is 100% accurate. Absolutely hit the nail on the damn head. Give whoever came up with that a raise. This is atmospheric folk horror (set on an isolated British island where it's even more of a small town than usual) where the growing sense of dread is palpable. And it has a third act that doesn't suck! A miracle, and a great spooky season read.
Bruce's previous novel, You Let Me In, had some absolutely creepy stuff in it so I was very excited for her follow up. This is very different, but still very twisty, here there's more of a folklore flavor. Set in a small Norwegian village, it's about two childhood friends, estranged as adults, who find themselves back in the same place and both obsessed with the same woman who lived in their town hundreds of years ago and was accused of witchcraft. Has a great mix of the modern (one of them is a wellness influencer, the other writes a very gripe-y blog) and the ancient.
In non-spooky reads, I really enjoyed this memoir. I love books about people who actually change. I love memoirs from people who have clearly gone through some therapy and figured their shit out. This one is extra interesting because while it focuses on the author, she brings her entire family's story into it. She traces their histories, her parents' secret traumas, and how their secrets led the entire family to devolve into dysfunction. Then they all ended up being queer and coming out and they're all happy now. Okay I'm oversimplifying but yes, almost everyone in this novel is gay and it almost sounds like a fantasy but Hempel is very willing to get into the tough stuff. And her family is willing, too. It's a really unique and enjoyable memoir.