There There – Tommy Orange
When Tommy Orange writes, speaks, or generally puts anything out into the universe, you should pay attention. Just the first dozen pages of “There There” are enough to jolt you to rapt observance – in that space alone, he lasers through centuries of wrongs against Native American people, across continents. Orange zeroes in on the contemporary urban space: “…nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”
At the very least, here is a voice big enough for the Grand Canyon, booming and bitingly philosophical, yet precise enough to convey the particularities of people with both named and unnamed trauma.
In his debut novel, Orange follows a range of Native Americans through Oakland, California, as they converge on a powwow at the city’s Coliseum. He has created people who want to forget, discover, hide, be seen, who grieve but find ways to make it through the world, who have been ascribed a restricted identity by a country that still doesn’t let them create one for themselves.
Orange gives life to a wide array of characters struggling with these identities. At one point, one of them flies a drone into the open top of the Coliseum to take in the scene – Orange is a drone himself, a flyer who has only just begun to show what he can do.
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
This is a jewel box of a book. Greer’s Arthur Less, an author approaching 50 and meandering into obscurity, decides to take a trip around the world to avoid thinking about the love he’s lost. When invited to the wedding of someone he loved for nine years, he decides to accept every other invitation but that – and sets off one of the most charming jet-sets in recent literature.
Greer takes Less from New York City to Mexico City, then Berlin, Morocco, Paris, India, and finally Japan. Each episode is a wonderfully realized portrait of a place, and another window into our hero. As Less travels, the narrator reveals more of his life and what he has thought of it. (The ending has a beautiful reveal in narrator identity; I don’t know if I’ve loved a tying-up trope more.) This man clearly holds Less in charming affection, and treats his foibles with smiling kindness.
Greer reaches into that well of insecurities we all house to some extent, and explores Less’ feeling that he has never been good enough for anyone, in literature or in love. In all of his globe-trotting adventures, Less stays grounded in his quiet grief for the man he lost, and his worries about being irrelevant. Greer steers clear of the black hole, however, and his humor and inability to play a sentence wrong buoy Less across continents.
During his last travel period in Japan, Less recalls a childhood trip to a museum with his mother. They saw a Japanese garden room together, in miniature through a scope, and Less has never felt such beauty again in his life. He gets the chance to visit the very room this model was based on, but gets laughably stuck in it. The book is also that garden room – we are looking into Less’ life, and Greer allows us to peer into his beautifully detailed places that hold special meaning.
Hits and Misses – Simon Rich
Read this short story collection if you want to laugh for however long it takes. Rich takes fun, absurdist starting points (if Paul Revere’s horse told his side of the story, magic birthday candles, an incompetent and clueless court jester, a 1930s ghost starlet, etc.) and drolly spins out the tension from there.
Some might see the collection as so many cautionary parables of millennial non-woes, but there was also something timelessly funny about them to me. It’s simply fun to read about a man whose birthday party turns into an argument with himself at past ages (those magic candles) – Rich excels at these existential conversations, without being too preachy. It’s just funny bone-tickling to hear his take on jealousy with a fetus who writes a novel in the womb. It doesn’t matter the setup, I’ll always stick around for Rich’s stories. Whatever comes out of his brain – a TV writer who’s an actual dinosaur, a monk with comparison issues – the tale doesn’t disappoint. I’d like to see what he could do with a sci-fi comedy.
As Rich has Paul Revere’s uncelebrated horse lament, spiraling into despair: “I go from licking brewery puddles to licking distillery puddles to just licking whatever puddles I can find, like, who cares, get it in me” – I feel the same about these stories.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
When she starts having graphic, disturbing nightmares, a South Korean woman named Yeong-hye gives up meat and any other animal products completely. Her husband is the first to narrate this story, recounting the beginnings of Yeong-hye’s saga with cold tones of indifference. He only starts to notice who she might really be when her life’s routines start to affect how the world views him. He complains to her family, and violence ensues. Yeong-hye refuses to surrender her body to the rules of her family and society at large. She has a vision for her life – to live as a plant would, subsisting on light and water.
Yeong-hye ends up in an institution, visited only by her sister, who picks up the story for the final installment. Yeong-hye is essentially starving, seemingly destroying her body, but trying to free herself in the process. No matter where she turns, forces try to exert control over her mind and body, again, in violent fashion. Whether it’s her parents restraining her and attempting to force-feed her meat, her brother-in-law incorporating her body into a failed art piece, or the mental institution keeping her in a more human life vein, Yeong-hye is never truly seen or understood by those around her.
I had to lie down after reading this book. It is about war waged on a woman’s body, an allegory for societies that take no prisoners (most of them). Kang is like a butcher in her precise detailings of Yeong-hye’s bloody visions, the ones that lead her to turn her life into a quest no one else bothers to understand. These passages, and the descriptions of her institutionalized life, are so visceral as to be metallic-tasting, their physicality so intertwined with Yeong-hye’s inner life. She tries to soothe her visions through control of her own body, to seemingly disappear completely. Kang is foremost a keen observer of the mind’s workings, and the ways those can be policed and intercepted in so many forms.