This month’s major book releases cover utopian cults, split identities, the shocking results of time travel, immigrants struggling with national hybridity, and Abraham Lincoln debating philosophy with ghosts. I know the first two are cheating slightly, since they came out at the end of January, but all in all, I’d call this a solid collection.
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Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson
Standing upon the shoulders of other American utopian texts such as Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Kevin Wilson uses his latest novel to imagine the pain, hilarity, and strangeness of the social perfectionist’s dream; but this time, instead of envisioning a community at the expense of intensely developed characters, Wilson examines how family itself can be torn apart in the name of advancement and individual struggles to bury the past hurts of our own lives.
In his follow-up novel to the popular The Family Fang, Wilson’s newest work imagines the life of Isabella Poole, who discovers immediately after graduating from high school that she is pregnant with her art teacher’s baby. With nowhere to turn, Poole joins The Infinite Family Project, founded by the charismatic Mr. Grind. The goal of Grind’s project is to raise ten children without the contact of their individual sets of parents, even though the parents themselves will be collectively involved in raising the children as a group.
As would be expected, this arrangement quickly breaks down into what promises to be a thoughtful, smart, and heartfelt examination of family bonds amid the hopes and fears of modern American culture.
4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster (January 31st)
One of the most famous names in American letters, Paul Auster has written perhaps his most complex novel yet in 4 3 2 1. In it, he constructs the life of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born on March 3, 1947; or rather, I should say that he constructs the lives of this enigmatic character, since immediately after birth Ferguson splits into four separate versions of himself–four boys, all the same yet somehow different, all leading different lives in seemingly different universes. All four fall in love with the same yet different Amy Schneiderman, and all four experience the same yet different high and lows, victories and defeats.
While it is not yet clear whether the boys are living in alternate realities or are somehow existing in the same universe simultaneously (with it being Auster, I’d bet on both), this novel promises to be an intense rumination upon history, perspective, and the consequences of choice from one of today’s greatest postmodern existentialists.
All Our Wrong Todays – Elan Mastai
From Canadian screenwriter and novelist Elan Mastai comes a tale of time travel, romance, and the thrill of other possible futures. Building upon the old tradition of writing a character from the future or an alternative reality who can then comment upon the ills of modern society (see William Morris’s News From Nowhere or Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land), Mastai imagines Tom Barren–a man who exists in the 2016 imagined by the 1950s. Flying cars, moon bases, food that never spoils, and good, clean American fun are the staples of Barren’s life in a world that never saw the political and social disruptions of the latter half of the twentieth century.
After Barren finds himself accidentally stranded in our version of 2016 (i.e. the “real world”), he at first sees this world as a dystopian wasteland, scarred with the lost potential of what could have been. Over time, however, he discovers that alternate paths are not always worse than those we find most familiar, and in the end, he must choose between that which he knows and that which he hopes may yet be.
Much like Auster’s work mentioned above, though not as directly metafictional and philosophical in nature, All Our Wrong Todays is a book about the road not taken, and about the universes we create and leave behind with every decision we make. It dwells upon pure potential, and in that way, it challenges its readers to consider what could have been within the frame of what we currently are.
The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Coming straight off of the Pulitzer winning international sensation that was The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen’s newest novel, The Refugees, dives headfirst into tensions of personal and national hybridity at the root of the immigrant experience. Each story explores the anxieties of being uprooted in one way or another, from a young Vietnamese man who learns about new lives and experiences by living with two gay men in San Francisco, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh city who must endure the stories of a sister recently returned from America; here, Nguyen deftly navigates the personal and political in ways that demonstrate his true mastery of the form. Politically relevant to a degree that could not have been planned over such a long stretch of time, The Refugees dissects, praises, and complicates the immigrant experience at at time when immigration itself is at the forefront of the American consciousness. As such, it is a book that should not be missed by people on either end of the political spectrum.
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
The most intriguing of this month’s picks is also its most critically anticipated–George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. While Saunders is widely known and respected as an essayist and short story author, Lincoln is his first novel, and it promises to be a special event. Set in February of 1862, just after the end of the Civil War, Saunders’s novel focuses upon Abraham Lincoln as he grieves the death of his eleven year old son, Willie. Even as he was busy helping a nation heal from the bloodiest conflict in its short history, Lincoln reportedly returned several times to Willie’s crypt, only to hold his lost son’s body one last time.
With this historical tidbit in mind, Saunders imagines a story that is part historical fiction, part magical realism, and part family drama. In the crypt, Lincoln enters a kind of purgatory state, known in Tibetan tradition as the bardo, to communicate with lost sprits and eventually advocate for Willie’s embattled soul. It is a hell descent like no other, and I for one cannot wait to see what lost Tiresias Lincoln encounters therein. I am also anxious to see a fictional portrayal of Lincoln that doesn’t revolve around vampire hunting.
All in all, Lincoln in the Bardo promises to be one of the most imaginative, heartfelt, and philosophically poignant novels of 2017. Miss it at your peril.