Harvest Time for Literary Fiction
In the world of booksellers, the term currently used is Lit-Fic.
Genre-wise, lit-fic is a kind of catch all that can include satire, historical fiction, science fiction, crime and mystery, or anything else, really. It does not describe the subject of a novel so much as it does the quality and depth of writing.
Of course, booksellers being booksellers, the label can be something of a trap. Many is the time I have picked up a tome labeled Lit-Fic by a publisher or retailer, only to find the writing enclosed within something that might, with a little work, eventually be up to the standards of Dan Brown. Because of this, I keep a fairly attentive watch for authors that have already proven to me that they have the chops to satisfy my lit-fic craving. And sometimes it’s a long watch.
I also like brain candy novels, of course, but they’re churned out like… well, candy. Hell, sometimes it feels like Lee Childs, Jim Butcher and Lee Child are releasing a book every couple of months. Lit-fic authors, on the other hand, torture their fans with release dates separated by what feels like eons. (I sometimes think Kazuo Ishiguro releases a book every time there’s a new Presidential administration.) For months now, I’ve been loading up on a steady diet of brain candy because the lit-fix authors I trust to scratch that itch were nowhere to be found. But suddenly, they’re everywhere in the New Release section of Powells, and I am like a kid in a non-brain-candy candy store.
For those readers who crave quailty lit-fic, here is a quick list of the stack of novels that will soon adorn my nightstand, if they aren’t there already:
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell : Most people are probably aware of Mitchell for his best-seller Cloud Atlas, which was indeed a wonder. So too was his The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He’s like an edgier version of Michael Chabon, in that he’s able to write brilliantly not just in different genres but also in different styles. (In fact, because of this the artist he most reminds me of isn’t a novelist at all; it’s Elvis Costello.)
Bone Clocks is a time-travelling sci-fi thriller on it’s face, and an exploration of our bodies frustrating mortality at its roots. There are epic (and sometime bloody) battles of good and evil intertwined with rich character studies, Sorkin-esque dialogue, explorations of the various kinds of loving relationships we have with family, friends and romances, and even commentary on the hubris of lit-fic writers, readers, and critics themselves.
I’m half-way through it, and have a hard time putting it down.
Tigerman!, Nick Harkaway : In both The Gone Away World and Angelmaker, Harkaway took common lit-fix themes and placed them in fantastic settings in order to fully explore them. In Tigerman!, however, he does the opposite.
Tigerman! is a superhero book that isn’t really a superhero book. It takes all of the elements we expect from such a story — costumed crime fighter, mild-mannered alter ego, even a radio-active accident that sets everything in motion — and turns it on its head with its realism. The costumed hero isn’t really quite a costumed hero; the radio-active accident doesn’t really do anything to the protagonist that changes him; the ultimate result of his actions don’t really change much for anyone save himself. It’s a pretty wonderful exploration of what heroism truly is, how we choose our own families, and what it means to be “good.”
The Children Act, Ian McEwan : From the author of Atonement, Amsterdam and Enduring Love comes a this novel about what happens when law and morality force the secular world and the world of faith to fully confront one another. The plot involves a secular and successful but unhappy and fulfilled judge being asked to rule on a seventeen year old boy who is refusing medical treatment that could save his life on religious grounds. The two meet and begin to get to know one another, and the effect each has on the other is profound.
In what way is it profound? I haven’t read it so I’m not really sure. Knowing McEwan, however, it’s a good bet that the implications for each with be tragic, raw, and heartbreaking. I fully expect McEwan’s latest to scratch my lit-fic and my Hobby Lobby itch.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Yilgrimage, Haruki Murakami : I will confess some trepidation about diving into Haruki’s latest effort. I personally find him frustrating, in that for me he wavers between brilliant and tiresome depending upon the book. I loved Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore; I’m irritated that A Wild Sheep Chase is a bunch of hours I’ll never get back. His previous effort, 1Q84, was somehow both simultaneously: a behemoth of a book that pulled me in at the beginning and held me by the throat, and then lost and bored me well before the end.
As to the new book, it’s difficult to say without having read it yet what exactly the book is about. All of the publishers notes have been rather coy. (I know a lot of folks here have already read it — I invite them to give non-spoiler descriptions if they wish below.) I know I’ll read it regardless, however, because wading through Harkuri when he’s off is a small price for getting to experience Haruki when he’s on.
Within the collection are stories of ghosts, vampires, and fairies that might not actually be stories about ghosts, vampires and fairies at all. As with all of Atwood’s works, everything revolves around the delicate and often troubled psychology that fuels human interaction.
Orfeo, Richard Powers : Powers usually writes about the intersection of technology and art, and what that intersection says about our modern society. Orfeo, therefore, appears to be a return to the familiar.
In this post-modern satire, a composer looking for patterns in nature runs an innocent experiment in his home that puts him rather absurdly in the sights of Homeland Security. When he panics and flees, he unwittingly sets himself up to become the focal point of an Internet and 24-hour news media starving for the latest meme from which to whip up hysteria, rating, and page hits. The composer’s attempt to turn all of this into a work of art itself is interspersed with his attempts to reconnect with the three people who have affect him in the most profound ways over the years.
The Secret Place, Tana French : French might well be the most gifted single-genre writer alive today. The Dublin-based author creates wild, spinning whodunit yarns that tap into all of the elements we expect from a good, summer-read, brain-candy, beach-ready mystery. But ultimately, her detective stories play second fiddle to the explorations of demons revealed in the stories protagonists and narrators. By the end of her first book, In the Woods, it was hard to pin down who the story’s true villain was: The violent murderer, the woman who was the object of his affections, or the deeply damaged detective assigned to the case. The most horrific crime in the book isn’t even solved, rather, it acts not so much as a mystery to be cracked as a Moby-Dick-like exploration of how we choose to cope with that we will never be allowed to comprehend.
Her new book’s dust cover synopsis tells me the book is about the solving of a cold-case murder, but I know before I sit down to crack it that it will ultimately be about something else entirely.
That’s quite a lot of books to devour, and I’ll have to be quick about it. After all, new books by Hilary Mantel, Richard Ford, and Martin Amis are all being released within the next month.
It’s a good time to be a reader.