Thursday, February 02, 2006


Everyone's Pretty by Lydia Millet

This is a dark, pitch perfect black comedy that reveals a rogues gallery of acidly etched characters. Chief among them is Dean Decetes, a lowlife sleazeball philosopher with a gift for gab whom I can only can compare to Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Decetes' hilariously drunken peregrinations lead to run-ins with the idiot savant teenage math genius next door, his romantically and religiously crazed sister, a suicidal porno magazine editor and other psychically damaged people. Millet has a rare gift for dialogue, and she makes her criss-crossing plot and its conclusion seem inevitable, effortless and oddly moving. My favorite novel of the year.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is a fiction writer whose non-fiction is often superior to his novels, which sometimes get lost in self conscious experimentalism. Here in his second collection of essays he applies his steeltrap mind and amazingly sharp observational skills to a wide array of subjects, from the glitzy world of the Adult Video News awards to arcane controversies in the world of english usage. His long piece on John McCain's presidential run in 2000 is a marvel of political analysis (and an up close view of Karl Rove's brand of smear politics), and he views the effects of 9/11 on the residents of his midwest hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. The title piece, commisioned by Gourmet magazine, caused problems for him editorially when he wanted to ask if Lobsters feel pain when boiled alive (answer:yes) and wanted to reference a PETA video. Wallace encompasses a panorama of subjects with a mix of humor, self deprecation and smarts. Yes, there are footnotes, but don't let that scare you.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Though this is no epic masterpiece like his savage classic Blood Meridian, McCarthy's latest novel of a drug deal gone awry and its consequences still has a unique hard edged power. Llewelyn Moss finds two men shot dead and two million dollars while hunting along the Rio Grande. He takes the money and is pursued both by a ruthless killer and a sympathetic sheriff, whose monologues form the heart of the book. Plotted like a thriller, it's minor McCarthy, but still head and shoulders above the bulk of books I've read this year. It's as if William Faulkner wrote an Elmore Leonard book.

UPDATE: The Coen Brothers are slated to do the movie version!

Black Hole by Charles Burns

Though I've read more than a few graphic novels this year, Burns' novel (and unlike some comics, it really is a full length novel) stands out among the pack. Burns' art is familiar to many through his numerous album covers and magazine illustrations (I first saw his work in RAW magazine in the 80s), but here he shows that he's a great storyteller as well. Set in suburban Seattle in the 70s, Black Hole tells the story of a weird deforming plague transmitted by sexual contact. Burns uses the plague as metaphor for high school alienation, the fear of sex, and the everyday horror of being a teenager. More than a decade in the making, Black Hole is a creepy coming of age story that's all the more potently surreal for it's well observed social realism.

The Disappointment Artist/Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem

In a perfect world with less greedy publishers these two slim books (one fiction, one non-fiction) would have been combined into one. Both give insights into the background of Lethem's great 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude. In The Disappointment Artist, Lethem writes autobiographical essays on film (The Searchers, Cassavetes) and his formative influences in literature. His piece on Philip K. Dick (You Don't Know Dick) is the best short analysis I've ever read of the man's work, and his in essay The Beards he joins the story of his upbringing with bohemian parents with the cultural artifacts that shaped him at the time (Eno, Kubrick, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and strikes an apt, if unlikely, comparison of P.K. Dick and Bob Dylan. Many of the short stories in Men and Cartoons seem like rough sketches for themes in The Fortress of Solitude, and the very funny Super Goat Man is a story that brings the superhero mythos to the world of academia and is a reflection on the death of the 60s dream. An odd assortment of stories that don't settle for rote realist cliches.