The pandemic saw a revolutionary transformation of labor, specifically working from home as a viable option. This novel is told entirely through Slack chats for a New York-based public relations firm. It starts with Gerald discovering his consciousness has been uploaded into the company’s Slack channels. His coworkers think this is an elaborate prank and dismiss his calls for help. The PR firm’s most prominent job at the moment is helping a high-end dog food company recover from reports that their food may be poisoning Pomeranians across the country. We are introduced to the employee in-jokes & drama, all while bizarre things happen in the background. I thought this was an entertaining read, nothing life-changing but clearly written by a sharp mind who found a way to make an unconventional format work. Because this is essentially written like a stage play, it makes for a quick read. I knocked it out in a couple of days. If you are looking for something that isn’t fluff but also not too heavy, this one is worth checking out.
The titular Darryl is a man living in the Pacific Northwest who is going through a profoundly chaotic and confusing period of his life. Due to a healthy inheritance, Darryl doesn’t work and spends his days abusing GHB and watching his wife have sex with other men. He claims he’s a cuckold, but the other cucks on the message board he follows don’t see it that way. There is something deeply wrong with Darryl, and he doesn’t seem to realize it. Like devils & angels on his shoulder, two other men play formative roles in Darryl’s sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious revelation. Bill is a longtime friend, someone who has sex with Darryl’s wife but seems genuinely worried about our protagonist. Clive is a “therapist” brought in by his wife, who turns out to be another man just interested in fucking her. He drugs Darryl, who is more than happy to be numbed to life. Author Jackie Ess has written a brilliant, short novel about such a distinct voice. There are few books like this one, and even if you aren’t very knowledgeable about kink culture (like me), it’s a very approachable text that confronts the good & bad in people.
I haven’t read much noir, but I know that Jim Thompson was one of the premier names in the genre and is still a must-read. This was my first time dipping into his work, and wow, it’s some wild, fantastic stuff. The story is told from the perspective of Charlie “Little” Bigger, a hitman that goes against widespread expectations. He’s five feet tall, wears false teeth, and seems sick with tuberculosis. That’s all hidden beneath prosthetics and lifts, though.
Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazukatai
As I’ve been stretching and working out my writing muscles, I’ve thought a lot about how hard it must be to write a novel. Even a longer short story is quite impressive to me. I believe writing is partially about building stamina. It’s hard to write for a long time about one thing, and it takes work to get to where you can do it, at least for me. Like with physical exercise, some people have natural coordination & agility, and it’s easy for them. For people like me, you’re working on getting there. One avenue of writing I find very beneficial to read is flash fiction because it’s a writing form I feel that I can easily tackle right now. This is a pretty perfect collection with entries from very well-known authors to some new ones who specialize in the form. The themes in these stories are very philosophical; there’s not a lot of heavy plot that can be done in such a constrained space, so leaning into the abstract can be helpful. That said, some choose to begin in media res or end on an ambiguous note if they are closer to traditional narratives. The best pieces in the book come from your well-known writers, in my opinion, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Tim O’Brien. If you are interested in having some short, bite-sized pieces of fiction to read and take your time with a book, this is a great one to have on the shelf.
Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart
Hailed as one of the first great COVID novels, I was very curious going into Our Country Friends. I’ve heard of Shteyngart via the Chapo Trap House podcast, and the premise intrigued me. A Russian-born novelist invites a small trio of friends to his and his Russian-born psychiatrist wife’s country house in upstate New York. The pandemic has just broken out, so they offer their place as a haven, although many issues exist between them and their precocious K-pop-obsessed child. Among the guests are a struggling Indian-American writer, a globe-trotting college buddy, a successful Korean-American dating app designer, and the actor set to play the lead in a film adapted from the Russian writer’s novel. Shteyngart pulls off something amazing, summarizing the current shift of this new decade, all of the anxiety and narcissism. I got a strong sense of a Frank Oz film like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or What About Bob? reading this. It has that sort of building to a wild crescendo energy, people becoming obsessed with minor slights. But there’s also a lot of heart to the book and character work through disappointments and heartbreaks from decades previous.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan
If Our Country Friends is trying to find humor and humanity in our current state of being, then Good Neighbors is a descent into contemporary suburban Hell. The Wildes have always felt like outsiders since moving from the city to their Maple Street neighborhood on Long Island. Rhea Schroeder was the only person that ever seemed to give Gertie Wilde the time of day. Everyone was friendly, to a point. But something changed, and Gertie becomes upset when she realizes they have been excluded from a block party in the nearby park. Things take a dark turn when a massive sinkhole opens up in the park, and the mood changes quickly on Maple Street. This is a horror story about people refusing to deal with their trauma, allowing guilt to drive them mad, and ultimately how contemporary life has isolated people from each other in a way that can only end in violence. You will feel many things reading this novel, and that’s something only really great literature can do. I saw this being recommended alongside things like Big Little Lies, but it is a much more intense read than that.
The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins
It’s so funny to me that conservatives & fascists in the States are so unhappy with the current state of social studies/history education. As they currently stand, they give a strongly blurred and glossed-over version of actual events, but even that is not enough for them. The Jakarta Method is a must-read for anyone willing to hear the truth about Western anti-communism and its horrific effects on the planet. You’ll often hear “victims of communism” cited, yet never a conversation about how many people have died at the hands of rabid global capitalism. Indonesia was the staging ground of the CIA’s first successful coup, a framework that, like a virus, would spread across the planet and kill millions. Vincent Bevins does an excellent job sharing the broad view of history and the intimate experiences of people on the ground. This is difficult to get through because he conveys the horror these people went through at American-guided hands in their own countries. The evil that the United States perpetrated on the world’s developing nations is so beyond forgiveness. It truly is the most evil society in this world.
From my review: The story begins with Lauren, still a teenager, living with her father, stepmother, and brothers in their gated community. The people have barricaded the walls and gate and, under the guidance of Lauren’s father, created a tenuous but self-sustaining system. The story begins with very episodic moments, signs that things aren’t great, and as the narrative continues getting worse. Butler focuses her themes on the balance of individual & collective survival. Lauren begins preparing in secret for the day the walls don’t hold the hungry & wanting out anymore. She learns everything she can from her father’s library about survival in the wilderness and then goes about creating a go-bag with everything she would need to set out. At the same time, there’s a strong emphasis on teaching these skills to others. Lauren knows she could be perfectly prepared, but it will be much harder for her to survive independently. While most people in this future are becoming more savage, Lauren understands life without human connection is simply not worth it.
We live at a time when much of the world we assumed was permanent is being shown as transitory at best. Unsustainable systems of living are falling apart before our eyes reminding us how dead-eyed consumption charging into the future will lead to our deaths. Science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler saw humanity headed in this direction back in the 1990s when Parable of the Sower was published. The book is set in the distant future of 2024 and is told from the perspective of Lauren Olamina, a young Black woman living outside of Los Angeles. Her deceased mother’s use of drugs during pregnancy imbued Lauren with hyper-empathy, meaning she experiences the sensations and feelings of others. In a crumbling world full of violence and rage, this is a very horrible thing to have.
The Best Horror of The Year Vol. 11 (2019) edited by Ellen Datlow
It had been a while since I took a deep dive into some new horror, so I decided to check out one of the fantastic Best Horror of the Year collections. These are edited by the prolific Ellen Datlow, a person who has composed some excellent horror anthologies since the 1980s and served as the editor-in-chief of Omni magazine. Like all anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories that will depend on the individual reader’s tastes. I wouldn’t say there is anything bad here, but I enjoyed specific stories more than others based on my personal preferences.
I recently surveyed the crop of writers that made up the “freshman class” of Vintage Contemporaries. Vintage Contemporaries was a Random House imprint started in the 1980s and intended to publish paperback editions of literary authors of the era. This is where you would have found legends like Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, and many more. Among those writers was Joy Williams. Williams is a Massachusetts writer whose focus is often on the gradual decay of American life. She looks at it from all angles with middle-class characters who become disconnected from the communities they thought they would never leave. Adults are usually in failed or failing majors, and children are left to their own devices by grown-ups who are busy having affairs or in their own existential spirals.
The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell: Stories by Brian Evenson
I am a big fan of Brian Evenson’s short stories, having read A Collapse of Horses and Song For the Unraveling of the World. He exists in that space that perfectly defines weird fiction. It’s not quite horror or science fiction or fantasy but a great amalgam of them all. This book isn’t officially out until August, but I came across a post on r/horrorlit linking to Edelweiss where they were offering a free copy-protected Kindle download. It definitely appears that the text isn’t officially formatted entirely yet. However, the writing is so good any visual blips fade away. The stories here are just long enough, never overstaying their welcome and unsettling the readers perfectly.