This week: a candidate for the Great American Internet Novel, a dead body in a chimney, and reimagining Custer's death.
Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen (Random) - Like Pynchon's Bleeding Edge and Eggers's The Circle, Cohen's (Witz) latest is an ambitious and inspired attempt at the Great American Internet Novel. The narrator, Joshua Cohen, is a struggling writer whose debut effort was inauspiciously launched on Sept. 10, 2001. Deciding to "earn better money... at the expense of identity," he agrees to ghostwrite the memoir of another Joshua Cohen, referred to as "Principal." Principal is the secretive founder of Tetration, a tech company that has developed a revolutionary search engine and seeks to "equalize ourselves with data and data with ourselves." Speaking to his ghostwriter in the first-person plural he leisurely relates the genesis and evolution of Tetration while sprinkling in a mixture of ominous epigrams ("All who read us are read"), mystical musings, and "techsperanto," the language of Silicon Valley. But Principal has another motive in sharing his story, one that forces his biographer to go into hiding, and offline, to complete his task. A dense, thrilling, and occasionally perplexing work, Cohen's encyclopedic epic is about many things—language, art, divinity, narrative, desire, global politics, surveillance, consumerism, genealogy—but it is above all a standout novel about the Internet, humanity's "first mutual culture," in which our identities are increasingly defined by a series of ones and zeroes.
American Meteor by Norman Lock (Bellevue Literary) - Lock's latest historical reimagining (after the time-traveling Huck Finn novel The Boy in His Winter) follows an orphan from Brooklyn to the Battle of Little Big Horn, where he irrevocably alters history. Listening to the "clamor of my heart," 13-year-old Stephen Moran enlists in the Union Army as a bugler. His time on the battlefield comes to an abrupt end at the Battle of Five Forks, where he loses an eye, kills a Confederate soldier, and receives the Medal of Honor. While recovering, Moran meets Walt Whitman, who gets him assigned as bugler for Lincoln's funeral train to Illinois. Thus begins Moran's lifelong roving of the West, his spiritual restlessness set against the backdrop of westward-driving America—a wild, malformed place that's really Moran's primary antagonist. After riding the nascent railroads and apprenticing for photographer William Henry Jackson, Moran ends up as the personal photographer for General Custer, his story culminating in a bloody finale during Custer's Last Stand. This feels like a campfire tale, an old-fashioned yarn full of rich historical detail about hard-earned lessons and learning to do right.
Crazy Mountain Kiss by Keith McCafferty (Viking) - The death of a young Montana rodeo star propels McCafferty’s terrific fourth mystery featuring artist, fly-fisherman, and occasional PI Sean Stranahan (after 2014’s Dead Man’s Fancy). When 16-year-old Cinderella “Cindy” Huntington is found dead in the chimney of a Forest Service cabin, it’s unclear if foul play is involved, but Cindy’s mother, Etta, hires Sean to do some digging. This means Sean will have to work with Sheriff Martha Ettinger, and things are tense between them since she recently called a halt to their romance. However, they undeniably make a good team, and what seems to be a straightforward death soon proves to be anything but. This is a must for fans of eclectic mysteries in which the setting is just as important as the characters.
Null Set by Ted Mathys (Coffee House) - “This is not going to be/ transcendent,” writes Mathys (The Spoils) in his third book, a collection of cultured, emotionally vulnerable poems in which he seeks meaning within the bounds of the absolute while simultaneously reaching toward the unknowable, even via negation and denial. Mathys alternates between two poles, employing a “smooth mindlessness” as he luxuriates in making phoneme smash-ups and, more often, constructing logical arguments in an effort “To routinize/ failure into a form of hoping.” Perhaps skeptical of conventional poetic means of exploring vulnerability, Mathys overloads the system, crashes the hard drive, and then sorts through the bits. When an airline companion lists trinkets he once collected from the sea, Mathys “seek[s] these objects in clouds, work[s] to assemble them into a master scene,” realizing that “Content is irrelevant if I can find a pattern, but I can’t.”
A History of Money by Alan Pauls, trans. from the Spanish by Ellie Robins (Melville House) - The first book published in the U.S. from acclaimed Argentine author Pauls is a stream-of-consciousness novel chronicling a family’s tumultuous relationship with money. The nameless narrator’s mother has left his father and remarried a wealthier man. As the story begins, an executive with a mining company, who is a friend of the narrator’s stepfather, has been sent to deliver a briefcase full of money to a group of striking workers. A bribe? A concession to demands? Payoff for strikebreakers? We never know: the helicopter carrying him crashes, and, though the body is found, the briefcase goes missing. The narrator spends pages evoking the irritating sound the family friend made while chewing crostini, the awful crunching serving as metaphor for a generation’s conspicuous consumption. This caustic indictment, and the stylistic tour de force through which it’s delivered, should help secure English speakers’ awareness of Pauls as an important writer.
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert (Scribner) - Footnotes enrich the text of this short, deceptively simple novel; altogether the book combines memories, regrets, doubts, hopes, fears, and mental detours including an escape from war-torn France and the past of a sugar maple tree. The result is a multidimensional portrait of two 80-something widows in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood venturing outside their comfort zone to take an art class. Simone and Marie, both French survivors of WWII, have been friends since meeting as young mothers on a Brooklyn playground. Neighbors, family, art students, and school administrators provide a supporting cast whose hopes and disappointments, routines and crises, pleasures, and fears converge to form an ode to New York City, a riff on aging, and a discourse on living with a vague fear of impending catastrophe. Walbert’s wistful glimpse of women reaching out during their last days of independence offers a penetrating look at New York and the world, post-9/11, post-Sandy, pre–the next disaster.