It's gross as hell out there, right? The fat sun beating down, sweat leaking from your nether regions like an open hydrant and face burned to oblivion. How could anyone have the brain span to pay attention to anything long enough for it to matter during a summer like this, much less a book? Really, though, it all depends on what you're reading. Some books make life seem harder, and others make it seem worth living. Below are three that I came upon this summer that made me forget about the world for a while, and somehow thereafter made me feel even more of the world as it returned.
A Bestiary by Lily Hoang
It seems more and more rare these days that a book can be so exacting in its effect that it blots the whole rest of the world out. And yet that's precisely what Lily Hoang's A Bestiary does from the first sentence, letting the reader in on a voice so close, clear, and devoid of bullshit that it brings on immense relief, despite the fact that the private life the book allows you in on will be so crushing in its frankness that afterward you might no longer wish to move.
On its face, the book's construction is very simple: There are many tiny essays, each of which are mostly told in fragments, bits of line, which fit together to build a personal narrative weaving notes of philosophy, essay, lyric, confession, anecdote, facts, fairy tale, and fragment together into a memoir of a young Vietnamese woman coming to terms with the traditional rigor of her heritage and its conflict with her own desires. Hoang's struggle to please her family and a hyper-controlling husband, and to see how a similar experience resulted in her sister's untimely death from addiction, is related with impressive calm and unassumingness. It is a rare thing to find someone so willing and able to peer into her life so unflinchingly and with such grace.
Literally every page of A Bestiary is one worth lingering on. "Going through my dead sister's jewelry," reads one sentence, "I give my mother back all her jade bracelets and throw away the fake ones." Later: "There is no variable for time in physics." And later: "When does otherness dissolve?" Amid its massive themes of self and other, love and loneliness, fear and shame, the book accrues depth as each idea continues to evolve, mutate, surprise, simulating not only an unforgettable reading experience, but a truly transformative one.
Madeleine E. by Gabriel Blackwell
Similarly, a mutating collage of fragments is at work in Gabriel Blackwell's Madeleine E., the body of which takes for its subject Hitchcock's notorious memory-bending epic Vertigo. But where other works might make an essay out of dissecting the film's intentions and themes, Blackwell uses his exploration of the film as a backdrop to his own strange mystery. There's an uncanny line at work here exploring the relationship between a work of art and its audience, revealing how obsessive rumination on a subject founded on mystery can infect the psyche, blur fact and fiction, throwing open mirrors onto the world around you.
What makes Madeleine E. such compelling reading is that very intersection of fact and myth. As the book breaks the film down scene by scene, it compiles anecdotes about the production of Hitchcock's work with quotes from philosophers and artists from Baudrillard to Gertrude Stein and intermixes them with the author's daily life. He tries to write, to connect to his continuously distant wife, to stay employed, and his paranoid experiences become increasingly more paranoid—he sees doubles of himself and his wife in various public places, much like in Vertigo itself.
The book very quickly takes on a mysterious, drug-like momentum of its own. Like a great mystery film, it makes you want to poke holes in all the storylines around you. It's a refreshing, haunted take on the essay and the memoir, one that complicates both by refusing to let you say for sure where either ends.
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
The apparent premise alone of Sudden Death was insane enough to make me buy it knowing nothing else about the author or its tone: The artist Caravaggio and poet Francisco de Quevedo play a tennis match with a ball made of the hair of Anne Boleyn, in front of a crowd including Galileo, Mary Magdalene, and a group of popes. A novel framed around a single match of tennis, even one so seemingly ridiculous in its historical heft, seems on its face like an idea so simple it almost couldn't even work, which is perhaps precisely what makes it work best.
When I say this book (an excerpt of which appeared on VICE.com in February) goes all over the place, I mean it feels like it can do anything, page to page. The narrative meanders back-and-forth from the strange, clear description of the bizarrely violent tennis match, told like something out of Calvino, to lusty scenes of Caravaggio's daily life making his paintings in displaced time, to ridiculous dialogues between the popes trying to unravel the history of the hair-based tennis ball, to embedded emails between the author and his editor as he is writing it. The very writing of the book seems to be something that plagues the story from the outside as it goes, irregularly finding its fictional premise interrupted with the author admitting he has no idea where he is going or why. It is often unclear what the author has completely made up and what really happened historically, making neither mutually exclusive but at the same time intensifying the effect of both.
What is the point of a novel these days? This novel has no idea and doesn't seem to wish to, thank God. It is instead satisfied to fuck around with magic and fact and mess them both up, delighting in the feeling that sometimes ideas are things to be served and volleyed, to destroy boredom. The final result is an electric reminder that reading, like writing, can do anything.
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