Betty Scott

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

the harder they comeFans of The Tortilla Curtain, rejoice! T.C.Boyle returns with another contemporary take on the social novel. As usual, he does it with humor, moral ambiguity, and lively characters.

This book, though, doesn’t stop at lively. Boyle plumbs the depths of some very warped minds here. From the jungles of Costa Rica to the placid northern California countryside, readers will encounter humans doing violence to other humans for a host of reasons. Some of them have a firmer grasp on reality than others, and while the characters plainly tell how they think each violent act is justified, it is this personal and/or social justification (or lack thereof) that gives the novel its heft and meat.

The novel opens with a D.H. Lawrence quote: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” It is this American soul Boyle invites his readers to explore and inspect beneath the microscope of his words. The examination neatly ties the bad-boy frontiersman archetype (that darling of young men in middle school history class) and contemporary, grown-up constructions of masculinity into a tidy bow. Unlike what many readers may imagine when they think of a “social novel,” however, The Harder They Come doesn’t read as preachy. Boyle avoids easy moral or political points, raising questions about violence in our society with more subtle probing. Here, a thread of hypocrisy runs through liberal, tree-hugging baby boomers; survivalist right-wingers, and American culture at large. Boyle tugs it, turns it every which way, and sets it in the reader’s hand alive and twitching.

This is a long read, but the nuanced characters make it more than worth the effort. There are several moments in this book where one character or another approaches a fork in the road, and readers can see where each will lead, though the characters cannot. I found myself intently hoping they would do the right thing, only to realize I was no longer sure what “the right thing” meant for them any longer. That, readers, is how T.C. Boyle does a social novel.

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle (Ecco | 9780062349378 | March 31, 2015)

photo credit: Jamieson Fry

“Jillian” by Halle Butler

Jillian 9781940430294_2c50dThis is not the feel-good book of the year. It has no hero. Like Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, it will likely reignite the debate over whether a book must have likeable characters to be good, or if readers can truly enjoy a book full of unlikeable characters. If you haven’t formed an opinion on this issue yet, here’s your chance. Jillian is populated by a bunch of self-centered jerks, each deeply flawed and in no danger of improving.

As a bookseller, a complaint I often hear goes something like, “I didn’t enjoy this book because I wouldn’t want to spend time with the main character,” “I didn’t identify with the main character,” or, “The main character wasn’t nice.” In particular, it seems like some readers expect female characters, especially in novels written by women, to be nice. Women must be pleasant, and men must be someone you’d want to be. Failing that, the characters must be punished. Indeed, the only complaint against Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl I ever hear is repeated again and again: Amy Dunne is not nice, and she still gets what she wants.

Jillian, then, is the perfect foil for this idea. The two main characters are a 24-year-old alcoholic awash in self-loathing as she battles through a quarter-life crisis and a 35-year-old single mother who is a compulsive liar and, by the end of the novel, addicted to prescription pain pills. Readers will almost certainly identify with them, but not in any positive way. Instead, they will nod in recognition at the urge to belittle somebody who brags too much about recent success, the fierce need for approval that leads a person to invent a car accident, and the selfish desire to distance oneself from a negative person who clearly needs help. Their days are packed with typical minutia, like giving clothes the sniff test on laundry day and putting items back on the grocery store shelf after some aspirational shopping. These characters face no comeuppance other than having to live in their own skins and being forced to deal with one another (which, as it turns out, is plenty).

What, then, is the value of reading this novel? For starters, readers with a certain sense of humor will find this book hilarious. Butler is to schadenfreude as Paula Deen is to butter or as happy little trees are to Bob Ross–it’s everywhere here. Fans of John Waters in particular will enjoy the clever one-liner about semen, the conversation about serial killers and bedwetting, and the chapter where one of the main characters drunkenly weeps beneath a porch while contemplating suicide, as well as the amusing anecdote about masturbatory trauma. There is an underwear-chewing dog named Crispy, a belching raccoon, and a woman using a Batman voice as she threatens to rat somebody out to God.

More than that, though, this novel offers a close look at internalized misogyny. What happens to women who are told they must always be nice when they realize they are not, in fact, nice people? One of the two main characters accepts her “toxic personality” and is openly rude to everyone in her life. The other lives in deep denial. One refuses to see within herself any redeeming qualities, while the other insists on ignoring every mistake and imperfection in hopes that they’ll go away on their own. Neither plan works out very well. Empathy vies with disgust as each digs herself deeper into her own hole.

What, then, comes of the expectation that women be cheerful, pleasant, social–in a word, nice–at any cost? These characters are not likeable, but Halle Butler lets you into their minds to find the answer.

Jillian by Halle Butler (Curbside Splendor Publishing | 9781940430294 | February 17, 2015)

“The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

the buried giant 9780307271037_b504aFor most of its duration, this young century has been distinguished by a particular slogan: “Never Forget.” While previously applied to other causes, most notably the Holocaust, for many readers the phrase calls to mind only one date.

While I am not sure Kazuo Ishiguro intended readers to understand his novel as a direct political statement, it raises questions about memory and forgetting–questions so relevant in the post-9/11 era. Part of the brilliance of this novel is that it can be read at face value and enjoyed as a fantasy novel complete with dragon, pixies, and questing knights, or it can be read deep, deeper, and deeper still, until the reader begins scrutinizing the words not on the page as intensely as each description and every scrap of dialog. We know from interviews that the author scrapped an entire first draft of this novel, and so each sentence and phrase offered to readers must’ve been written as deliberately as the careful steps Axl and Beatrice, the main characters, take across medieval England’s ruin-littered landscape.

The story tells us, straight away, that the main characters (along with everyone around them) cannot remember much of the past at all. There is little personal memory and still less communal or cultural memory. Because the bits and pieces each individual remembers might differ from what a friend or neighbor remembers, they simply don’t discuss the past. Beatrice and Axl are haunted, however, by the feeling they’ve forgotten something–a son. They set off to pay him a visit. This creates the unusual experience of getting to know these characters as they get to know themselves along their uncertain journey. As they meet more people and gather more information, readers see the first rift in the couple who, at the outset, were nearly a single unit. One values truth, knowledge, and memory at any cost while the other grows increasingly desperate to preserve a way of life nearly lost but protected at great price. How vital is memory to identity? Is mnemonic identity necessary for real love? Fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will enjoy revisiting this question in an entirely new context.

Nearly every character in the book is conflicted but irrevocably tied to a single path, heightening the tragedies their actions may cause. One acknowledges that what he has sworn to do will see villages in flames, women raped, and children hanging from the trees, but the past tethers him to the act, and he must commit it. Memory, then, becomes a differentiator setting people apart and marking individuality but also a thief of free will and a prison. Here, we are powerless to determine our futures so long as we yoke ourselves to the past. The more firmly these characters grasp memory, the less choice they seem to have in how they use the information, until Axl fearfully understands what he can no longer forestall.

Ishiguro does leave a slender ray of hope at the end of The Buried Giant. The character who represents the next generation is asked to hold a particular memory close through all his days–the memory that some among his ostensible enemies were good to him once, the recollection that the “other” is not very different. We know he will soon witness the horrors of war, and this will be a difficult choice. What to remember? What to forget? We close the book hoping he will be the first to fully grasp the value of letting go of the past. This week, when movie web sites are peppered with Islamophobic insults and racial slurs following the release of American Sniper, that value is something we ought to consider, too.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf | 9780307271037 | March 3, 2015)

“Lucky Alan” by Jonathan Lethem

Lucky Alan coverYou could easily call this short story collection Lucky Reader, because Jonathan Lethem fans will find work previously published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, and Conjunctions all in one place.  These nine stories range from fairly straightforward realism to bizarre forays deep into the imaginary. They’re quite different from one another, having in common only certain stylistic preferences of Lethem’s and a preoccupation with the often-hazy lines between the real, surreal, and entirely unreal.

Fans of Lethem’s novels will recognize his brand of humor as it vacillates between wry cynicism and playful absurdity. Readers new to Lethem who are  willing to put a little work and thought into these pieces will find them rewarding, but they are thoughtful, challenging stories without blatant moral messages, formulaic plots, rising action followed by complete catharsis, or immediately relatable characters—if you prefer light reading, this is not the book for you. Funny as his characters may be, these are think pieces at heart.

Among the best stories in this collection are  “Lucky Alan,” the modern folk tale “Traveller Home,” and the hilarious yet depressing “Pending Vegan.” The titular story opens the book, and its nesting-doll structure allows unexpected twists and familiar scenes to exist side by side.  The choppy style of “Traveller Home” is a departure from Lethem’s novels, but it lends itself both to getting you into the main character’s state of mind and to breathing life into a myth that could’ve otherwise gone stale. Internet junkies may relate more to the surreal blog tale, “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” nostalgia junkies will recognize the way the characters in ”Their Back Pages” literally eat the past to reach their futures, and the gainfully unemployed might better identify with the coffee shop lurker in the Barthelme-esque “Procedure in Plain Air,” but parents of young children will look into “Pending Vegan” as if into a mirror. “Pending Vegan” does best what each story, in its own way, tries to do—question reality in a way that points to your own life. The effects of drugs on perception, the cognitive dissonance that comes with adulthood, and the tragicomic hypocrisy of action versus desire raise enough uncomfortable questions to get you squirming in your seat. Several of these stories also address technology– the unending screens pervading our lives—in subtle but clever ways.

Lethem often accomplishes all this concisely, conjuring with only a few words vast expanses of meaning. He even uses “judo” as a verb. Whether his characters visit the “bogus municipality called Fun Town” or contemplate “family life, a cataclysm of solitudes,” every word counts.

Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem  (Doubleday | 9780385539814 | February 24, 2015)