This week: the latest from Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and what it's like to be a speechwriter.
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Pantheon) - This dystopian novel from Ball (Silence Once Begun) is both a puzzle box and a haunting love story. In the opening pages, the reader is dropped into a future world where brainwashed and childlike adult “claimants,” cared for one-on-one by mostly female “examiners,” are being systematically resettled in bucolic villages. One examiner, Teresa, is working to rehabilitate Anders, a claimant. However, memories of his previous life are intruding into Anders’s dreams—and eventually into his new life. In the next section of the novel, a new claimant and examiner are introduced. This claimant, Martin, progresses smoothly, until he meets Hilda, a female claimant who is keenly aware that something is wrong with their world. Each section illuminates the characters and situations from the previous portions, which draws the reader into the material more effectively and heartbreakingly than a traditional structure would allow. This method also gives Ball the opportunity to play with the conventions of the dystopian genre, addressing the surprising sociological cause of his alternate reality. Befitting the intricate premise, Ball’s prose, mostly dialogue between examiners and claimants, veers from precise to obfuscating and back again, as though the novel were a film rapidly going in and out of focus. Whatever the source of this book’s elusive magic, it should cement Ball’s reputation as a technical innovator whose work delivers a powerful emotional impact.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (Penguin Press) - In this panoramic and fascinating memoir, long-time New Yorker staff writer Finnegan pays tribute to the ancient art of surfing. Arriving on Oahu from California at 13, in the mid-1960s, Finnegan discovered that Hawaiian public school students weren’t particularly welcoming to haoles; surfing brought him acceptance and contentment, and would remain central to his life for the next half century. In the late 1970s, he set out in pursuit of a perfect wave, and spent five years circumnavigating the globe with long stops in Polynesia, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa. The social inequality he witnessed led him to journalism, but after his return to the U.S. and fatherhood, the waves still beckoned, even if that meant enduring a January swell off Long Island. Throughout this lengthy work, Finnegan never loses sight of the marginalized, such as the black students he taught in apartheid South Africa. Yet the core of the book is a surfing chronicle, and Finnegan possesses impeccable short-board bona fides. As a middle-aged, professionally successful man, he grapples with his aging body and the contradictions of surfing’s commodification, at one point returning as a high-end tourist to a wave he pioneered as a penniless kid.
The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka (Holt) - Kosmatka (Prophet of Bones) effectively harnesses his impressive imagination in the service of a mind-blowing plot in this outstanding SF thriller. Struggling physicist Eric Argus, who has been contemplating suicide, gets a chance to rehabilitate his career by taking a provisional job at Massachusetts’s Hansen Research. The parameters of his work are loose enough to allow him to conduct whatever research he wants, as long as it has scientific merit. Despite, or perhaps because of, this freedom, Eric is unable to gain any traction—until he decides to recreate the classic wave-particle experiment on the nature of quantum mechanics. Eric finds that conscious observation somehow affects the position of electrons passing through a slit. When he takes the inquiry a step further, to see whether animals could affect electrons by observing them, he gets an unexpected result that ends up having highly dramatic consequences. Ingenious plot twists, well-realized characters, and superior prose elevate this above similar books.
The Other Son by Alexander Soderberg, trans. from the Swedish by Neil Smith (Crown) - Stockholm nurse and single mother Sophie Brinkmann paid dearly for her romance with Hector Guzman—the seductive criminal she met when he landed in her hospital after being run down by a competing gang—in Söderberg’s acclaimed debut, The Andalucian Friend (2013). In this propulsive, Tarantino-esque sequel, Hector lies comatose after a second botched hit, and his associates have strong-armed Sophie into functioning as the Guzman syndicate’s mouthpiece to help maintain the illusion that Hector continues to run things. Sophie has to make some hard choices amid kidnappings, assassinations, and collateral damage to innocents, all of which mushroom as the remnants of the Guzman cartel come under fire from Colombian drug baron Don Ignacio Ramirez and the German Hanke brothers’ gang. Meanwhile, Tommy Jansson, a former associate of corrupt cop Gunilla Strandberg, embarks on a crime spree that threatens one of his few honest colleagues, dedicated Det. Insp. Antonia Miller. As the blood-splattered action accelerates across Europe and beyond, a shell-shocked Sophie tries to outmaneuver her adversaries with the help of a ragtag band of allies, including her first love, Jens, a smuggler. Readers won’t want this fast and furious—and fitfully funny—roller-coaster ride to end.
The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim (S&S) - Swaim, a writer for the Wall Street Journal and Times Literary Supplement, cut his political teeth as speechwriter for former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. The reflections here follow Swain’s work from 2007 to June 2009, when Sanford, who is today a state congressman, notoriously went AWOL with his Argentine girlfriend. This event became a media sensation and shortly led to widespread censure. Much of the book is an entertaining inside look at state politics and how the wheels of executive office grind. The book’s best passages explore the appeal of charismatic, earnest, and morally challenged souls like Sanford, who invariably devastate their true-believing but self-interested, in-on-the-game handlers and operatives through disastrous public exposure. Demonstrating empathy mixed with appropriate caution, Swaim reflects on how politicians can be corrupted by “the praise, the fawning, the seriousness with which people take their remarks, the gaze of audiences, the way a crowded room falls silent when they enter.” His report on his experiences as a governor’s idea man is a fine, sometimes brilliant foray into the nature of contemporary politics, the charismatic narcissists who seek high elected office, and the enablers who allow them to dance in the spotlight.
Lovers on All Saints' Day by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean (Riverhead) - These stories from Vasquez (The Sound of Things Falling) were originally published in Spanish, in 2001, when the Colombian author was in self-imposed exile in Europe and aghast at how “fate or fluke is the name we give to events beyond our control that lay waste to our soaring dreams.” A number of Vasquez’s characters are middle-aged or old, mostly flawed men falling toward solitude at the expense of their lovers and wives. Many of the settings are in the forests of the Ardennes, peopled with hunters and fishermen, and impart a kind of foreboding; the metaphors for which Vasquez is celebrated abound: in “Hiding Places,” an immature fish cannot be saved when lured by a callous sportsman; in “The Lodger,” an address book once rejected by a lover contains beautiful maps of places that do not exist. The title story tells of a man who agrees to spend All Hallow’s Eve night with a young widow, even donning her dead husband’s pajamas to comfort her. Vasquez charts the internal struggles of small men whose mistakes and betrayals condemn them to a confounding world that repeatedly fails to satisfy, a world about which one character wonders “if everything had a human cause and another random one...”