A List of My Favorite Novels (2022 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement. In at least one case, the book doesn’t hang together as a complete novel, the author thought it was a complete failure, and yet it contains some of my favorite scenes that author ever produced.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am annoyed by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists, hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.
  • Since the 2021 update, I have added just two books to the list and adjusted the ranking of one book. This is mostly because the two best books I read in 2021 came before I updated the list and while I have enjoyed a lot of the books I have read since, the great ones have mostly been non-fiction or in genres that I am generally not tracking here. There is more movement on my science fiction and fantasy list, both because I have read more books in those genres and because it has been two years since my last update.

And a few stats:

  • Original Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 19
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2021 (The Book of Form and Emptiness)

Tier 5
77. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
76. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
75. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
74. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
73. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
72. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
71. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
70. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
69. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
68. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
67. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
66. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
65. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
64. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
63. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
62. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
61. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4
60. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
59. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
58. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
57. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)
56. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)

Tier 3
49. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
48. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
47. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
46. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
45. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
44. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
43. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
42. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
41. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
40. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
39. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
38. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
37. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
36. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)
35. The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki (2021)

Tier 2
34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B
15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A
5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had fixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

ΔΔΔ

I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Last Train to Istanbul

I am endlessly fascinated by the history of 20th century Turkey. The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 shook the foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which crumbled over the next fourteen years until the Sultan Mehmed VI went into exile in 1922 and the Turkish Republic came into existence the following year. The transition created a nation of contrasts. Formally a republic, Turkey was often dominated by the military establishment that saw itself as the caretaker of Atatürk’s legacy. The first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ushered in sweeping social and cultural reforms, including secularism.

This is the context behind Ayşe Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Fazıl Reşat Paşa, a Turkish gentleman of the old style, had two beautiful daughters. The older daughter, Sabiha, married Macit, a government worker in the foreign office. The younger, Selva, was the apple of his eye, but even that could not overcome his anger when she decided to marry Rafa, the scion of a prominent family of Turkish Jews. Faced with the disapproval of their families, Selva and Rafa moved to France, just several years before the outbreak of World War 2.

Last Train to Istanbul traces the development of these two families against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Holocaust. Sabiha’s relationship with Macit frays with long hours that he works, leading to trouble at home with their daughter and a brief dalliance with therapy; Selva’s relationship is strained as the reality fo the Vichy regime sets in and she increasingly uses her position as a Turk to protect Jews. But the two are also connected. While Macit uses his position to thread a needle between helping Turkish Jews in France and keeping Turkey out of the war, his protégé, Tarık, who is infatuated with the idea of Sabiha, becomes increasingly involved with direct action after being posted to Paris. These actions culminates in a fraught train ride filled with Turkish Jews from France, through Germany, and on to safety in Turkey—a nice inversion of the usual picture of trains carrying Jews to the camps at Dachau or Auschwitz.

However, I didn’t love Last Train to Istanbul as a novel. I found the plot rather unbalanced, with the parallel story taking place in Turkey often clashing with the eponymous train plot. I understand that Kulin was not principally writing a thriller, but I found the two arcs dissonant rather than building depth. Further, I struggled to see characters and story beats as fully-developed in their own right because they always struck me as palimpsests of real people and events.

Perhaps because they were.

Kulin explains in the acknowledgments that much of the plot emerged from actual experiences of Turkish diplomats during the war who saw the unfolding Holocaust with horror. Perhaps because of their commitment to secularism, those diplomats used their positions to shelter Turkish Jews in France by extending documentation and intervening with the Vichy and German authorities and, later, at considerable risk to themselves, to offer what aid they could to even non-Turkish Jews. Last Train to Istanbul might not have been my favorite novel, but it provided a tantalizing glimpse into a side of the Holocaust that was new to me. One that I would like to learn more about.

The Book of Form and Emptiness

I kind of assumed that books know everything, but maybe you’re a stupid book, or a lazy book, the kind that starts in the middle because you don’t know how a story begins and can’t be bothered to figure it out. Is that it? Is that the kind of book you are?

Books do not exist in a singular state, after all. The notion of “a book” is just a convenient fiction, which we books go along with because it serves the needs of the bean counters in publishing, not to mention the ego of writers. But the reality is far more complex. Of course there are individual books—you may even be holding one in your hand right now—but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves we are the One and the Many, and ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow. Shifting and changing shape, we encounter your human eye as black marks on a page, or your ear as bursts of sound. From there, we travel through your minds, and thus we merge and multiply.

I loved Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being when I read it back in 2018 so when I learned that she had a new novel this year I bought it without so much as bothering to find out what it was about. I was not disappointed.

The short description of The Book of Form and Emptiness is that it is a conversation between a boy and his book. That boy, Benny Oh, is the child of Annabelle, a big, blond American woman who gave up her ambition to become a librarian after she became pregnant, and Kenji, a Japanese clarinet player in a jazz band. One night when Benny was 12 his father stumbled home, fell asleep in the street outside their small house, and there was killed by a chicken-truck that didn’t see his body laying there. Annabelle and Kenji were in love, but they had been fighting and he was stoned.

Suddenly, Annabelle finds herself a single mother of a teenaged son, trying to support them both with her job cataloging the news. She is well-meaning, but finds it hard to keep up with everyday tasks. The house starts to accumulate junk, the kitchen becomes a mess, and she ceases to keep up with her appearance.

One year later, Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects.

So begins a story spanning most of Benny’s teen years that weaves together a challenging mother-son relationship, mental institutions, Buddhist philosophy, a Marie Kondo stand-in book called Tidy Magic (written by a Buddhist monk), a homeless poet-philosopher named Slavoj who he calls Bottleman after the bottles tied to his wheelchair, and Benny’s first love, a young woman, artist, and drug-addict, who goes by Aleph and has a non-binary, gender-fluid ferret named TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). It is a lot.

You think he’s this crazy old hobo, but he’s not. He’s a poet. And a philosopher. And a teacher. And it’s not him that’s crazy, Benny Oh. It’s the fucking world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our fucked-up consumer culture that’s crazy. It’s the fucking meritocracy that tells you that feeling sad is wrong and it’s your fault if you’re broken, but hey, capitalism can fix you! Just take these miracle pills and go shopping and buy yourself some new shit! It’s the doctors and shrinks and corporate medicine and Big Pharma, making billions of dollars telling us we’re crazy and then peddling us their so-called cures. That’s fucking crazy…

However, The Book of Form and Emptiness actually has a simple structure. The book narrates events in discussion with an older Benny who corrects, critiques, and queries what it writes, and interspersed with excerpts from Tidy Magic. In turn, this simplicity allows Ozeki to weave a story that blurs the boundaries between the real and the fantastical, very much like she did in A Tale for the Time Being.

Most of that blurring centers on the person of Benny, who suffers very real consequences from both sides. On the one side, objects have desires. When scissors want to cut, the question is what they cut. On the other side, the “respectable” adults in his life are concerned by what is happening to him and want him medicated. The exception is Slavoj, who tries to help Benny hear the world without being controlled by it.

What I love about Ozeki’s novels, is how she also captures simple, powerful, human emotions. Here, the beating heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Annabelle and Benny. She frequently embarrasses Benny, whether by the condition of their home, by her weight, or by her inability to make sure that they have milk in the fridge. At the same time, Annabelle’s sole objective for most of the novel is to give Benny everything, with the result that she never has a chance to process the death of the love of her life. Even if she understood everything going on with Benny, which is a much more extreme version of going through puberty that she most certainly does not, Annabelle simply doesn’t have the capacity to help him. The result is a downward spiral for both that at times had me cringing because it recalled arguments I had with my mother at roughly the same age.

But it was too late. The door slammed. He clattered down the rotten wooden steps, out the flimsy gate, and went careening down the darkening alley. The thin thread of her apology trailed behind him, straining, straining, until finally he outran it, and it snapped.

Together these pieces form a compelling, funny, weird, and challenging story that also works as a meditation on objects and purpose. The Book of Form and Emptiness is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished Caliban’s War, the second of the Expanse books, and am now reading Ken Liu’s The Veiled Throne and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, two hefty tomes that should keep me occupied for a few days.

Gun Island

Yes, you’re right. But the whole world is made up of semantics and yours are those of the seventeenth century. Even though you think you are so modern.

We’re in a new world now. No one knows where they belong any more, neither humans nor animals.

The narrator of Gun Island, Dr. Dinanath — Dinu, Deen — Datta, is an archetypically-unlikely protagonist for world-spanning adventure. He a rare-book seller nearing retirement in Brooklyn who holds a PhD in Bengali folklore from an American university. And yet, a visit to Kolkata, the city of his birth, unlocks exactly such a story.

Gun Island opens with Deen in Kolkata on an annual winter trip home to escape the cold isolation in Brooklyn. While there, a member of his extended family quizzes him on the obscure figure from Begali folklore Bonduki Sadagar who, he claims, is tied to a shrine in the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest spanning the border between India and Bengal. The conversation concludes with Deen instructed to reach out to Piya Roy, a Bengali professor marine biology working in Oregon whose work puts her in India.

Deen is in no rush to actually go to the Sundarbans, even after Piya offers, but with a little push from his friend, the world-famous Italian professor, Giancinta Schiavon, he agrees to a visit.

This trip proves fateful. Deen hitches a ride to the isolated shrine with Tipu, the son of a woman who works for his aunt Nilima, where they run into a young fisherman, Rafi. The shrine proves real, but so too do other aspects of the Bonduki Sadagar lore. In the story that Deen knew, the Bonduki Sadagar, the gun merchant, angered Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes whose giant cobra guards the shrine. That cobra bites one of the intruders.

From there, Deen begins to see the tendrils of the Bonduki Sadagar story everywhere and Gun Island becomes a shaggy dog story that spans from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Venice.

The unifying theme is a world on fire, sometimes literally. As an educated person, Deen was of course aware of climate change, but he confronts the polyvalent nature of the crisis as he becomes enmeshed by this lore. Dolphins beaching themselves in the Sundabarans, wildfires in California, Venice sinking, and waves of refugees simply trying to survive.

Gun Island is a book with lots of room for criticism. For instance, it is a book light on plot, with the characters coming into contact with one another seemingly by serendipity. And each time Deen meets a new person or runs into one of these acquaintances they invariably fill him in on what he missed. In another book I would have been frustrated by these digressions, but in Gun Island they transfer the weight of the story from plot to the currents of climate emergency woven into the magical realism. Deen is the vehicle for understanding the crisis, but it is brought to the fore through the multifaceted problem converging on his person from several vectors at once.

Speaking as a historian, I was also less taken by how Ghosh has Deen uncover a deep historicity to this piece of obscure folklore as though he was a post-colonial Robert Langdon. There is nothing inherently wrong with the premise and a sixteenth-century Bengali certainly could have found himself in India: my problem was that this element simultaneously served as the primary thing driving the plot of Gun Island and was largely irrelevant to the pressing points being made. In other words, I thought any ideas that Ghosh wanted to introduce by weaving history and folklore into this story got lost.

Despite this weak plot, Ghosh uses the shaggy nature of the novel to build a series of partial, believable, and incomplete relationships from the ragged cast just trying to make their way through this devastated world.

You ask any Italian and they will tell you that they have a fantasy, maybe they want to go to South America and see the Andes, or maybe they want to go to India and see the palaces and jungles. And if you’re white, it’s easy: you can go wherever you want and do anything you want—but we can’t. When I look back now and ask myself why I was so determined to go to Finland: I wanted to go there because they world told me I couldn’t; because it was denied to me.

The irony of writing about Gun Island is that it does not stand up to close scrutiny. While I was reading the novel it wove a spell that allowed me to simply get lost, but when I started to pull at the threads the effect started to unravel. Nevertheless, Ghosh fills the pages with a desperate determination against the most pressing concerns of our time in a way that I found compelling.

ΔΔΔ

I am planning a write-up of Tana French’s The Secret Place, and recently finished Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. I am now reading Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

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I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The Plot

“I just care about the story. Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”

You’re only as successful as the last book you published, and you’re only as good as the next book you’re writing. So shut up and write.

Jacob Finch Bonner is a novelist of some promise, at least that is what the New York Times said after his first novel. The second book did less well, which is how he wound up teaching at Ridley College’s low-residency MFA program. His students almost never show any potential except for one summer when Evan Parker shows up. Unbearably smug, Evan assures Jake that his is a plot unlike any other—so unusual that it is inevitable that it will be a success. Much to his chagrin, Jake agrees with this assessment.

Ridley goes to an even lower residency program, though, and Jake bounces around a few positions until several years later when another writer at another cut-rate writer’s retreat where he has a job reminds him of Evan and prompts Jake to see what ever became of that promising plot. As it happens, not only did the book never come out, but Evan is dead. A drug overdose in his hometown of Rutland, Vermont.

So Jake writes the book himself, just transposing the details to upstate New York.

Crib, the novel, is a smashing success. Multiple rounds of book-tours. Meetings with Steven Spielberg to produce the movie. A beautiful woman who schemes to get him to come to her radio station before striking up a relationship with him.

In short, life is grand—you know, other than his agent asking for the next book.

And yet, Jake also finds himself trying to solve another mystery while hiding the details from everyone in his life. At the height of his success, he begins to receive emails from a mystery sender with the screen name “Talented Tom” (as in the Talented Mr. (Tom) Ripley) threatening to reveal him as a fraud. This story, the sender says, does not belong to Bonner and in time he will be exposed as a thief.

Of course, from a legal perspective the blackmailer has no leg to stand on. The “author” of the original plot is dead, but, even if he wasn’t, Bonner wrote every word of the book. A plot twist along doesn’t belong to any one person, but the combination of increasingly hostile messages and Jake’s insecurities about being a failed writer prompt him to begin digging into the troubled family life of his former student, only to discover that the mystery and plot twist might have been more auto-biographical than Evan had initially divulged.

There is a lot to like about The Plot. For one thing, Korelitz casts a jaundiced eye at MFA programs and writers in comic ways. Jake might have had promise once, but he’s also an indifferent teacher and his own worst enemy in terms of writing his next book.

“I’ve learned so much about writers. You’re a strange kind of beast, aren’t you, with your petty feuds and your fifty shades of narcissism? You act like words don’t belong to everyone. You act like stories don’t have real people attached to them. It’s hurtful, Jake.”

Korelitz also puts out a sophisticated narrative structure that follows Jake through time while weaving in Jake’s investigation into the mystery of Evan Parker’s background and snippets from Crib. This is a thriller restrained by writerly craft, pushing you forward but withholding the plot.

However, this was also a book that gave me several major hangups.

First, the story within the story. When we are introduced to the plot that becomes Crib, we receive several pieces of information:

  1. it is filled with compellingly overwrought characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in Infinite Jest.
  2. the plot is compelling because of an unforgettable, impossible to predict plot twist.

The passages of Crib that Korelitz provides are much like the rest of The Plot: solidly crafted, but with relatively unremarkable characters and a more somber atmosphere. I could absolutely see Crib being picked up for a prestige drama (though probably not a movie), but the idea that this book could have become a must-read national sensation defied credulity for me.

Second, while I was impressed by the narrative structure of The Plot, I had effectively guessed the twist by about the midpoint of the novel. This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but, in a story meant to mirror a book that is popular because it had a twist unlike anything anyone had ever seen, it certainly made my experience closer to “shrug, okay” than “oh, wow!”

(I’m also not convinced that Jake is correct that this plot is so unique since the very allusion that is keeping him up at night is itself a variation on this very plot.)

The Plot is a good read. I’m willing to forgive setting the opening scenes at a fictional college in a part of Vermont that doesn’t have one (I suspect the model is the low-residency summer program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, but it is set in the Northeast Kingdom), and I liked the nods to and cracks at writers because this, ultimately, is a story about Jake’s numerous flaws that drag him down. I correctly identified the twist in this literary thriller, but there was no other way to adequately resolve this plot.

This praise just also falls short, not only of the supposed excellence of the parallel story Crib, but also of the satisfaction of a perfectly executed thriller.

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I have another post in the queue for the tomorrow that has my thoughts on The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth. I am also planning to write about Omer el Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and have some thoughts about television adaptations involving The Expanse and Leviathan Wakes. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

How Beautiful We Were

The cover of Imbolo Mbue’s _How Beautiful We Were_.

I’d sighed after Nubia recounted this, and she’d asked me why I’d sighed. I told her that on all sides the dead were too many—on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who’d never chosen sides. What good were sides? Who could ever hail themselves as triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted , there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost.

Modern industrial capitalism carries a steep cost. The price of abundance is paid in blood by the people working in dangerous factories and living on the land where natural resources are extracted.

The latter is the premise of Imbolo Mbue’s novel How Beautiful We Were.

Kosawa is a remote village in an unnamed African country, one of eight in the valley. Everything changed when the American company Pexton discovered oil in the valley. Rather than bringing prosperity to Kosawa as promised, oil from Pexton’s pipeline seeped into groundwater. Children died. Pexton taught the people of Kosawa to boil water before using it, and children died.

How Beautiful We Were is something of a fractal of a novel.

In some ways it is a generational novel centered on the family of the young woman Thula. Her family doesn’t lead Kosawa, but they are prominent enough that when the village madman, Konga, forces the town to kidnap four Pexton men by stealing their car keys — the inciting incident of the novel — people look to her father and uncle Bongo for leadership rather than the village leader Woja Beki. After all, Woja Beki has benefited from Pexton’s largesse. Thula takes up their mantle in the subsequent generation, getting an education in the United States and becoming an activist in defense of her people and democracy.

In other ways it is a novel about a place. The beautiful lost place of Kosawa is brought to life by the inhabitants. When Thula leaves her homeland we see her through letters home to her childhood friends.

Still in other ways it is a novel of customs and structures, involving both the encroachment of foreign customs on a traditional village in the tradition of Things Fall Apart and the corrupt national government and first world companies that trample on those traditional customs. Thula and her friends fight back, of course, but their numbers are small.

All together, How Beautiful We Were is a story that is both powerful and sad. The people of Kosawa only want to live in their village as they always have. This is a village so remote, we are told, that the snatchers bypassed it entirely, leaving Thula’s grandmother Yaya to wonder:

Now, in my old age, I wonder, what song would they be singing if we’d been stolen and displaced and no one was left to tell our stories? The ones who were taken, where are their descendants now? What do these descendants know of their ancestral villages? What anguish follows them because they know nothing about men and women who came before them, the ones who gave them their spirit?

Nothing can save the people of Kosawa. When they accept Pexton, they die. When they fight, the soldiers come. Their attempts at raising awareness and marshaling outrage follow a depressingly predictable pattern of momentary outrage and performative contrition before the proceedings get bogged down in court and the general public moves on to the cause of the moment with the systems left unchanged.

Perhaps the most impressive part of How Beautiful We Were for me is how Imbolo Mbue has crafted a novel that is simultaneously specific and universal. It is set in a country presumably modeled on her native Cameroon, but the country is never named and the capital city is not found on any map. I tend not to like fictional countries in an otherwise “real” world. These countries, like Qumar in the West Wing, strike me as ahistorical palimpsests meant to dodge the implications of the story. Mbue avoids this trap by making Kosawa the center of this little universe. The nation state is coincidental here and matters only in so far as it establishes the asymmetrical power relationships that bear down on Kosawa. The country could be Cameroon, but it could just as easily be any other of a dozen East African countries. Likewise, the story here might be about an oil company, but it could just as easily be a logging company or a mining firm.

I found How Beautiful We Were to be a deeply moving story that captures the destructive underside of modern capitalism at the same time as it celebrates the people who live on that toxic ground. They live, even as they are dying.

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I didn’t have much of a chance to write about what I’ve been reading last week because of other writing deadlines but the reading has continued. I finished (and plan to write about) Cal Newport’s A World Without Email, but also I have also read Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman. Most recently I finished Ilan Pappe’s The Biggest Prison On Earth, a history of the occupied territories in Israel. Pappe is a controversial figure and wrote this book as a condemnation of Israeli policy. While some of his strong stances might be said to be predetermined, that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong. This book uses Israeli government documents to argue that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the apartheid-like security apparatus were not necessary retaliation against terrorist threats or accidents of right-wing governments, but the intended outcomes of Israeli government policy since the creation of the state.

I am now reading Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter, a compelling debut fantasy novel set on a floating archipelago in an endless sea. I am particularly taken by the setting, which features a long-standing empire that claims its legitimacy because the royal defeated an earlier generation of powerful and destructive beings and they now protect the people, except that the royal institutions also enforce a policy where they harvest bone shards taken from the skulls of the people that are then used to power constructs, slowly draining the life force from the person that shard belongs to. Some people die in the process of collecting shards; everyone dies sooner than they otherwise would if their shard is used. The people aren’t happy.

The Scapegoat

—That’s the danger with freedom: it’s an abyss. Will you fall in? It’ll depend on you Georgiou.

In May 1948 a Greek fisherman discovered a body floating in the Thermaic Gulf. George Polk was a CBS foreign correspondent then reporting on the Greek Civil War where he was unsparing in his coverage of government corruption and atrocities. Despite receiving death threats, he had nevertheless travelled to Thessaloniki, only to disappear until his body was fished from the bay. The government, naturally, blamed their communist enemies and arranged a show-trial that ended in the conviction of three men: two in abstentia (they also had not been in Greece at the time of the murder) and the journalist Gregoris Staktopoulos, who confessed under torture and served more than a decade in prison.

A fictionalized version of this murder and wrongful conviction serves as a jumping off point for Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (trans. Karen Emmerich).

The Scapegoat consists of two intersecting storylines, though neither strictly adheres to a single chronology. The first plot centers on the 1948 murder of the American journalist, here named Jack Talas, who we meet in the opening pages. At the same time, we are introduced to Manolis Gris, a journalist who accompanies an officer to the police station thinking he is dealing with the theft of his laundry by gypsies that he had reported earlier that day:

“It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.”

This narrative unfolds through the voices of people around Manolis, including his sister Violeta, his mother Kyria Maria, and Jack Talas’ widow Zoe (Zouzou), as well as a host of others. We learn how Manolis and his family were refugees relocated from Pontus during the forced population exchanges of the 1920s and how he generally kept his head down while diligently working to support his family. And we learn how Zouzou faced a torrent of accusations after the death of her fiancé as the institutional forces in Greece worked to close the case quickly and ensure that the “right” people took the blame. Manolis’ signed confession seals the deal.

The second plot line flashes forward sixty years. In the 2010–2011 school-year, at the height of the financial crisis in Greece, Minas Georgiou has decided that he does not want to go to college. Previously a star student, Minas’ decision has shattered the peace of his household, particularly devastating his mother, Teta, who gave up a career after college to raise him. Minas’ decision also caused his grades to start slipping in advance of the mandatory exams, which serve as a critical point of divergence for the rest of his life. His history teacher Souk (Soukiouroglou) makes him an offer: instead of completing homework for the class, Minas can complete a research paper and presentation for his grade.

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

Minas throws himself into research, aided by materials put together over the years by his own journalist father — albeit distracted the ordinary pursuits of high school seniors, like trying to strike up a relationship with Evelina, the other star student in the class.

Each plot works on its own, the second somewhat more than the first, but The Scapegoat comes alive in the resonances between the two stories. Nikolaidou takes the universal position that the 1949 trial was a sham that turned the convicted into scapegoats who absolved a community of responsibility for its sins. (These were called pharmakoi in Ancient Greek practice, though the original Greek title of this novel is Χορεύουν οι ελέφαντες, or The Elephants are Dancing.) In and of itself, that part of the story is not particularly exceptional except that she uses the kaleidoscope of voices who articulate the layers of disruption in 1940s Greece.

The second plot, set at another time of disruption in Greece that was creating waves of new sacrificial victims, responds to the first. Three generations of Greeks are invested in Minas’ investigation, and are caught up in a tighter web of relationships than they first realize. Minas’ investigation eventually leads him to Evelina’s grandfather Nikiforos, the lawyer who defended Manolis Gris in 1948, but the old man refuses to speak to him until he arranges a meeting with his grandmother Evthalia — who Nikiforos admired from afar as a young man about to marry. Meanwhile, Souk is the sort of eccentric literary teacher who is easy to admire until you realize the consequences of his methods (his father Tasos knew Souk’s advisor and can’t stand him, but his grandmother, a former teacher, approves). Nikiforos doesn’t see the value in re-litigating the past, but Souk demands that Minas do just that in taking a stand. Minas concludes:

In studying them carefully, in marking passages with his highlighter, Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept. Perfect on paper. But in practice, riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies. did; there were no happy endings, as there were in fairytales or soap operas.

In sum, The Scapegoat is an impressive novel that grapples with the living consequences and echoes of historical events, even as Nikolaidou injects light into that darkness through a number of sweet relationships, none more so that the clumsy tenderness and unbridled optimism of young love.

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Since my last books post, I finished reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year and David Elliot’s Bull. The latter is a verse re-imagination of the Minotaur story where each character receives a different meter. It wasn’t my favorite riff on the Minotaur story (that would be The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break), but it had some powerful moments. I am now reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a memoir about trying to find information about the six family members none of his relatives will talk about — the six who were killed in the Holocaust.

Fake Accounts

I had to finally admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality, but a representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve. The superficiality this encouraged—pithiness and oversimplification were rewarded—felt appropriate not merely because it mimicked the way most of us choose to moved through life but also because it had compounded those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous.

Technology in a work of fiction is a tricky needle to thread. On the one hand, technology is a ubiquitous part of life. On the other, the speed with which it develops risks dating the work immediately. One solution might be to steer clear, acknowledging its existence but centering the story on universal aspects of human relationships. Or, like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, one might embrace it entirely.

Fake Accounts opens on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. For the unnamed female narrator, a blogger for an feminist internet website loosely modeled on Oyler herself, Trump’s election is a catastrophe of enormous proportions, but that is only a secondary catalyst for the events of the novel. That night, she finally peeks into a forbidden phone that belongs to her boyfriend Felix.

She had met Felix in 2015 in Berlin where worked as a pub-crawl tour-guide and instantly struck up a relationship that had gradually made its way back to New York. Theirs was a modern relationship — sexual, without being overly intimate — but Felix has his quirks. He is a little distant, for one, rarely having her over to his apartment, and he doesn’t have social media. But, above all, he makes a game out of small lies, conjuring new stories out of thin air.

Unlocking his phone causes everything she knows about Felix to unravel. Not only does he engage with social media, but it turns out that he operates an extremely popular Q-Anon style account called @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED that traffics to radical politics and nonsensical conspiracy theories. She resolves to dump him, just as a soon as she gets back from the Women’s March on Washington.

That’s when she receives news that really sends her life into a tail-spin. Felix is dead. Bike crash in upstate New York.

Before the narrator knows what is going on she has quit her job and moved to Berlin to write her novel — or, at least, to scroll through Twitter in bed. Once there, though, she comes to a realization: not only does nobody here know who she is, few of them particularly care. She, too, can indulge in little lies, like telling a Scottish man at an English-language ex-pat dinner that she was a dancer. What began innocuously enough begins to spiral as she creates a new persona for each new Tinder date or job application as she works to find herself through a myriad of inventions.

Fake Accounts is an identity novel for the internet age that interrogates the gap between the digital space and the meat space. We project a vision of ourselves into the digital world, curating social media profiles and manipulating words and images. Our avatars are ourselves, but not our whole selves. In Fake Accounts, Oyler expands these internet paradigms back into meat space. What if the interactions we have online are no more real than are interactions we have in the physical world? Are physical interactions any more lasting than online ones? What stops someone from simply reinventing themselves again and again and again?

I found Fake Accounts to be an incisive novel in a number of respects, but what sets it apart is Oyler’s clear, intimate, and striking voice. This is the confessional of a woman looking for herself after a series of events knocked her from her arch, ironic, millennial perch in Brooklyn. Her reinvention is this novel, in which she details her lies, talks about the intimacies of sex, and banters with an unseen chorus of ex-boyfriends. The ironic remove never entirely drops — Fake Accounts is divided into sections such as “Middle (Something Happens),” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” and “Climax,” and Oyler-as-narrator plays some with the style — but the voice remains constant throughout, promising to confide in the reader all of her dirty secrets. The result is a both funny and compelling novel that I thoroughly enjoyed even when the plot turned predictable.

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I have a half-completed review of Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire I keep meaning to finish, but have continued to read much more than I’ve been able to write at this time of the semester, finishing Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, C Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Glen Weldon’s Superman, Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman: Season of Mists, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax since my last reading update. I’m not sure that I will write an individual post about any of these books, but my favorite was How Much of These Hills is Gold, a wrenching story about two Chinese-American girls in nineteenth-century California. It is well-worth reading, I just didn’t have enough to say about it to justify an entire post. On the other end, I found Sin and Syntax a deeply frustrating book. I am now reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year, a funny exploration of what might happen in a world where a person suddenly had access to 108 utterly specific, precisely accurate predictions about the future.