By Ryan Joe
It’s hard not to be beguiled by the teasing wit in the opening chapters of Mr. Fox. Helen Oyeyemi’s novel begins when an enigmatic firecracker of a woman named Mary Foxe surprises the novelist St. John Fox by appearing in his study. At first we assume she’s his mistress.
Later, we learn she’s a muse Fox himself invented and who has somehow been conjured into reality.
And as a muse, Mary has a problem. St. John Fox, author of lurid thrillers, has a habit of killing his female protagonists.
For St. John, it’s violence in lieu of real intimacy or human connection. He ostensibly loves Mary – which complicates his relationship with his neglected, dissatisfied wife Daphne. But Mary sees through him: “Oh you don’t love me,” Mary said. She undid the collar of her dress and bared her neck. “You love that,” she said.
The two begin writing stories through which St. John slowly works out his own issues with emotional intimacy. Soon Daphne starts writing herself, at Mary’s behest. And in writing, each experiences a transcendent such-and-such ending with…
Well. Let’s just say that if Wes Anderson were a therapist, this is exactly the sort of thing he’d prescribe.
By Ryan Joe
I’m going to discuss Manuel Gonzales’s debut The Regional Office Is Under Attack regardless of spoilers. So be warned.
So, here’s a novel that’s both completely entertaining and a completely missed opportunity – a comic book in prose instead of panels.
Chandler nominated The Regional Office Is Under Attack! for FBC because, “in his short story collection The Miniature Wife, Manuel Gonzales managed to make the plight of a zombie, a video game character, and a vengeful, doll-sized spouse emotionally explosive. This lead me to the natural question: how much further could this author go in a book-length exploration of a squad of super-powered action babes?”
By Ryan Joe
Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State is both very easy and very difficult to read. Easy because the novel follows the general outlines of a thriller – the heroine is kidnapped and eventually released – and because Gay’s prose is clear and unadorned, save for the opening sentence.
That candid writing style guides us through the breaking of a woman’s body and mind, and the often excruciating steps she and her loved ones take to begin the slow process toward something approximating recovery.
The destruction happens to a wealthy American-born woman named Mireille, visiting her parents in Haiti. On her way to a beach excursion with her husband Michael and her young son, armed men kidnap her and, after Miri’s father refuses to pay the ransom, rape her repeatedly. At this point, we begin to see the slow dissolution of Miri’s personality, which becomes a necessity for her survival: “There is nothing you cannot do when you are no one.”
The damage extends even after Miri’s captivity. After she’s released, the psychological aftershocks threaten the foundations of her every relationship – especially the one she has with herself. “I whispered my name several times, tried to find a way to fit myself into that name, tried to hide the truth. I as no one, a woman with no name, no family.”
Ryan nominated An Untamed State for FBC because, “At face value, An Untamed State, about a young mother kidnapped for ransom in Haiti, is ostensibly the stuff of pulp. But Roxane Gay, based on what little I’ve read of her (Mostly her New York Times columns and her Tweets), is more interested in exploring issues around race, nationality, and the violence men seem to reserve for women. I picked up Gay’s novel about a year ago and, finally, I look forward to reading it.”
By Dan Bjork
I absolutely plowed through M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts, giddily even. I read on the subway, I read while my wife watched the Chilean version of Access Hollywood, I read at work while a high school freshman bickered with his mother about whether an hour was enough time to get to Wall Street from the UWS. This is all very new to me. I read hermetically (otherwise), super early in the morning, as an essential part of quieting my mind. I don’t really face the world without first spending 45 minutes inside someone else’s narrative. Most importantly, I think, this is first book I’ve read for FBC where an ‘I don’t have my hook yet’ panic never set in. Sunday night, while cooking a simple lentils, rice, and chicken thighs dish that leans heavily on Goya Adobo and should modestly get me through Wednesday (spoiler: it did), I began my notes. Assembling the roughest of outlines. All stemming from the single impression I had: that I really enjoyed this book.
And the notes were super simple, so much so I can share them in full: “Maybe it has something to do with the simple precision [re: language] –> its images are clear and never showy and never stacked to create ambiguity –> and this extends to the presentation of emotions as well. Situations are allowed to simply happen. Asked to bear the brunt of this weight. This flies in the face of everything my world-class education in writing 12 page stories seems to scream. How?”
By Ryan Joe
Note: This week, we were supposed to read half of Zero K, but I ended up powering through the whole thing. So needless to say, there are end-of-the-book spoilers.
I have never entirely figured out how to read Don DeLillo – a writer I admire but don’t really enjoy. I haven’t read a lot of him – White Noise, The Body Artist, half of Americana and now Zero K – but it’s enough for me to generally understand where he gives me the most trouble.
Typically, that’s when his characters stop seeming like real people and start becoming vessels for ideas about…well, media consumption, commercialism, history or whatever. Regardless of the topic, it’s the point where the characters become indistinguishable from the author, when his cast begin to seem like little DeLillo fingerpuppets.
Chandler — who will doubtlessly have a lot to say about RGIII’s latest injury and how it will impact her beloved Browns — nominated Zero K for Football Book Club because “she loves Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis but associates cryogenic freezing with Futurama and that terrible Mel Gibson movie Forever Young. What, she wondered, would this author’s sad, chilly take on a cheeseball sci-fi subgenre look like?”
By Chandler Klang Smith
In an underground bunker, sometime in the near future, little Melanie is strapped into her chair and wheeled down the hall to class with her beloved teacher Miss Justineau, even though little Melanie can walk just fine. Little Melanie has lots of questions about her world, big questions, poignant questions, like: why are all the adults so sad? What happened to the cities? And why do I get this funny feeling in my tummy when I smell human flesh?
Spoiler: little Melanie is a zombie. Meta-spoiler: little Melanie is a zombie in the same way Twilight’s Edward Cullen is a vampire, meaning a zombie minus all the really troubling parts. Real talk: The Girl With All the Gifts has its strengths, but zombie fiction can be much more formally, emotionally, and intellectually ambitious than this. Colson Whitehead did it with Zone One (flawed but so, so smart), Manuel Gonzales did it with his short story “All of Me” (perfection), Kelly Link has done it repeatedly (there’s a reason her Twitter handle is @haszombiesinit), and though I haven’t read Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, I hear it’s bitchin’. The premise is no excuse for an irising-in of readers’ expectations; if anything, it’s a lot to live up to. But it’s no fair just to compare a work of fiction to all its hotter siblings, so let’s get into the nitty gritty of what’s going on with this particular book.
By Ryan Joe
Like cell phones, every zombie iteration requires some kind of new feature. The 2002 film 28 Days Later gave us zombies that sprint – which is now de rigueur. And the 2013 video game The Last of Us – likely haunted by a segment from the BBC’s Planet Earth – introduced the fungus zombie.
Entering the mix is M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, also about a fungal outbreak that turns people into zombies – though pop culture seems to agree that the word is too corny to accommodate our 21st century edginess. They’re all “walkers” or “the infected” or, in our present instance, “hungries.”
Because Girl came out only six months after The Last of Us, it’s probably unfair to compare though I’m having a hard time not because the two have such similar beats. Both feature a zombie apocalypse caused by an outbreak of the cordyceps fungus, a perilous roadtrip to “safety” during which initially hostile characters learn to trust and love each other, and a young girl whose brain is the locus of a possible vaccine – which of course is only accessible by dissecting her.