BY MICHAEL HASTINGS
Here’s the 7th and final part of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.
I’m in the process of moving, and many of my books remain packed. So I was going to do these recommendations sans-text. But, after giving it more thought, I felt that would be quite lazy and irresponsible of me. Using the Internetz, I took the middle path: for each book, I went to the Amazon.com “Surprise Me!” feature and chose a line from the randomly selected page to give you a sense of what the novel’s about.
Lunar Park, by Brett Easton Ellis
What happens when Brett Easton Ellis moves to the suburbs? Very, very, bad things. Think Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road meets Stephen King’s The Shining.
The plot is pretty simple: our narrator, Brett Easton Ellis, recovering addict and literary celebrity, lives in a haunted house with a semi-famous wife and a twelve year old kid whose friends keep disappearing. The ghosts are many: his career, his fictional characters, a stuffed animal called a Terby, his own father. As Brett’s mid-life crisis intensifies, so do the night terrors. We turn the pages to see how he survives.
For my money, this is Ellis’s greatest novel to date. It’s also my favorite “literary novel” of the past few years. I wish I’d never read it so I could read it again this summer. Like all of Ellis’s books, really, it’s a modern day horror story, characters tormented by emptiness, confusion, nihilism, Prada, ambition, family, expectations and, this time around, actual ghosts.
Surprise Me!: “It was an indictment of not only the way of life I was familiar with but also—I thought rather grandly—of the Reagan ‘80’s, and, more indirectly, of Western Civilization at the present moment.”
Platform, by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq is one of those authors who specializes in pissing people off. I don’t know why the easily offended take the bait every time—some folks must get as much joy from righteous indignation as the provocateurs get from provoking it. Over the years, I’ve recommended this book to a number of people. The response is either “Thanks, a masterpiece!” or “You’re a sick bastard for even thinking I would like this.” So be warned.
The narrator is a French bureaucrat, the caustic Michel Renault. Michel thinks that the only way Western men can find pleasure in sex is to find submissive Asian women in Thai massage parlors. Michel sort of realizes he’s wrong after he meets Valerie, a successful and rich middle-aged French chick.
Beneath the book’s controversies (the above mentioned sex tourism, as well as Islam, orgies, the death of Western civilization, etc.), Platform is a powerful love story between Michel and Valerie. The two find each other, and within each other they find the limits of pleasure. The book pretends to take the tone of what one could call a typical French post structuralist “modern life has no meaning so smoke another Gauloise” attitude. But that’s Houellebecq being clever. The book falls on the side of meaningfulness, just not where we’d expect. (At a sex resort.) I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it’s worth reading to the final page. And it takes place on the beach.
Surprise Me!: “She was getting quite angry too; I could sense that it wouldn’t be long before she mentioned human rights.”
Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart
I read Absurdistan slowly because I wanted to savor the humor. The book is that funny, especially if you’re ever had the misfortune of spending time in any country with a ‘Stan suffix. (Or an ‘aq syllable, for that matter.) It’s essentially a send up of all the cliched and way too serious emigre and exile novels you’ve ever read. At the same time, it’s a hilarious tale of America’s cluelessness and excessive meddling, the massive stupidity and greed in the local Absurdsistan-like cultures that make them ripe for meddling, and the uber-rich Russian oligarchy.
It’s the Catch-22 for the age of American Empire. (I just noticed that the Washington Post review also compares it to Catch-22, so my observation here is less than original. A few more Googles tells me that everybody (except Michiko Kakutani) seems to love the book. Despite the daily NYT pan, it was named by the Times as one of the Ten Best in 2006.)
I didn’t need “Surprise Me!” for this one—I knew my favorite line memory. “During the thirties and forties, Stalin had killed half my family. Arguably the wrong half.”
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
In Old Man’s War, retirement is when the action starts. The brilliant conceit: Earth, engaged in a number of intergalactic battles, meets its recruitment goals in the Colonial Defense Forces by signing up retirees who’ve agreed to a genetic treatment that makes them superhuman kick-ass warriors. The treatment also allows them to live for generations more (as long as they don’t get killed). Our hero is John Perry, an everyman of sorts, if you will, who finds himself in a series of classic Starship Trooperesque situations.
It’s the best science fiction book I’ve read in the past few years, and I’d put it in my personal top ten sci-fi novels of all time. Yes, all time. Plus, it’s got a bunch of sequels, so you can lose yourself for a good week or two in Mr. Scalzi’s universe.
Surprise Me!: “Viveros waited for the cease-fire order, walked over to the puddle that was left of Bender, and started stamping it furiously. ‘How do you like your peace now, motherfucker?’ she cried as Bender’s liquefied organs stained the lower half of her legs.”