Academic satire meets anti-globalization polemic in Thier’s debut.
The tale of Tripoli College is told piecemeal, in an accretion of memos, newspaper excerpts, diary entries, historical accounts, emails—and slave narratives, old and new. The college, an institution of higher learning that hardly dares call itself elite or Ivy League, manages, in spite of a recession-gutted endowment, to subsist thanks to its robust athletic department and innovative proxy college on St. Renard in the Caribbean. St. Renard, island habitat of the medicinal (or poisonous?) “Ghost Apple” originally cultivated by its first indigenous population, the long extinct Carawak Indians, is still largely dependent on its sugar industry. In short, Tripoli, with its failing finances—the football team is losing steadily thanks to woefully inept kickers—is ripe for corporate takeover by the global snack food/pharma conglomerate Big Anna®. To gain more insight into Tripoli student life, William Brees, Tripoli’s 70-year-old dean of students, goes undercover to live in a dorm and party with a crew of slacker freshmen. He quickly develops a crush on Maggie Bell, an African-American student from a privileged background, whose emails to her twin brother, Chris, reveal that she has a crush on charismatic history professor John Kabaka. Disgusted with Tripoli’s craven acceptance of corporate governance—Big Anna®'s minions muzzle the student newspaper, squelch academic freedom and, in acts of political correctness carried to unimaginable extremes, perpetrate atrocities against a college benefactor descended from slaveholders—Kabaka flees to St. Renard to foment revolt. As Megan and professor Brees soon learn, while they spend an ill-advised semester on the pestilential isle, Big Anna® has, in the name of reducing its carbon footprint, abandoned mechanized forms of sugar production. This forces it to resort to the only other large-scale sugar growing and refining mechanism possible: slave labor. In arch language mirroring everything from annual report puffery to 17th-century castaway journals, Thier manages to lampoon corporate evil without ever underestimating or dismissing it.
A debut collection so friendly and casual in style (pieces first appeared in Harper's and The New Yorker) that it takes a while before you realize what a frightening world Saunders has created. His is a dystopian vision of a "degraded cosmos,'' a future in which leisure and history combine in theme parks for the rich while the rest of humanity fights over scarce resources. Saunders's weird naturalism pulls you in with its chattiness and modest posture—no science-fictional bombast weighs down these skilled narratives. The title piece introduces the author's screwed-up future; the narrator is the cowardly flunkey of a theme- park owner who's trying to interest investors in his dying enterprise. The rides and exhibits are in disrepair, attendance is low, and violent gangs assault the perimeter. A similarly frightened worker in "The Wavemaker Falters'' is haunted by images from the past—he's visited by the ghost of the boy he chopped up by accident in the wave-making machine at the water park where he works. Saunders's future world engenders strange, disgruntled workers, made more vicious by their need to survive a stark and ruthless marketplace. The overweight loser in "The 400-Pound CEO'' works for the insane owner of a raccoon removal company that promises a humanitarian treatment but kills the animals brutally. "Isabelle'' marks one of the few redemptive moments in this bleak collection: In a nightmarish city of blunt racial hatred and easy violence, the narrator discovers family with "Boneless,'' a crippled neighbor he eventually takes in. "Bounty,'' a novella, is Saunders's fullest portrait of the future; it begins in a postmodern freak show where "Flawed'' people work in historical re-creation shows for the rich "Normals.'' Eventually, the claw- footed narrator escapes, journeying cross-country to join the revolution. The politics of scarcity are brilliantly fictionalized in these smart and understated stories that are more Mad Max than 1984.
Perry (This Is Just Exactly Like You, 2010) follows up his poignant debut novel about a father and his autistic son with a lighter novel about impending fatherhood, Hiaasen-ian Floridians and the way life carries us forward whether we want it to or not. Walter and Alice used to have a fine life in North Carolina, stable enough that they began to tiptoe toward the idea of having children. “Yes, I told her, yes, which was not quite a lie: I could easily enough see us having a child, or children. I imagined we’d keep them fed and watered, that we’d find ways not to kill them, or ourselves,” Walter muses. And then life carries them forward: Walter loses his job and Alice quits hers, and they move 500 miles south to a remote vacation condo south of Jacksonville owned by Alice’s sister, Carolyn. Walter is soon drawn into working for Carolyn’s husband, Mid, whose considerable wealth comes from owning things: real estate, sea kayak rentals, umbrella shops, a pizza place—all the strange accoutrements that adorn the beach to leech money away from tourists. Walter is talked into running the ice machine empire while he and Alice fumble their way through a difficult pregnancy. This is an interesting book with a slightly offbeat tone. Walter, who tells the story, makes for an amusing worrywart whose fish-out-of-water state becomes more and more obvious as Mid gets arrested and Walter begins to realize that he’s become attached to a serious criminal. Even Mid feels bad: “I had something else pictured. Something calmer. Fewer police, fewer wayward children, you know?” There are some madcap elements here that recall the novels of Tim Dorsey or Laurence Shames, but the core story of Walter’s family makes the enterprise feel closer to an Alexander Payne jaunt than anything else.
A funny, frenzied tale of a terrified man plummeting helplessly into his own adulthood.
From Semple (This One Is Mine, 2008), a cleverly constructed Internet-age domestic comedy about a wife/mother/genius architect who goes a little nuts from living in that cesspool of perfection and bad weather called Seattle.
Bernadette left Los Angeles years earlier after a professional disaster: After she won a MacArthur grant for building a house using only materials that originated within 20 miles of the site, vengeful neighbors had the house destroyed. Now she lives in Seattle with her equally genius husband, Elgie, who is working on a big project in artificial intelligence at Microsoft, and their genius eighth-grade daughter, Bee, whose devotion to her mother is one of the novel’s least credible plot points. Bernadette may be brilliant and funny, but she is also mean-spirited and self-absorbed, with a definite case of entitlement that the author too frequently seems to share. She certainly hates everything about Seattle, especially the other mothers at Bee’s crunchy-granola private school. Because she hates to leave her house, a crumbling ruin she’s never bothered to renovate, she has hired a personal assistant in India to run her life via the Internet. After her vendetta against one of her Seattle mommy-enemies goes terribly awry, Elgie begins to wonder if she is having a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, Bernadette decides she wants to get out of a planned family trip to Antarctica. Days before the trip, in the middle of an intervention Elgie has plotted with his adoring administrative assistant, Bernadette disappears. To makes sense of the disappearance, Bee creates a book by collating the Internet postings, public records and private emails she has received from an anonymous source. Although there are wonderful scenes of deadpan absurdity—Semple wrote for Arrested Development—Seattle, already the butt of so much humor lately, seems an awfully easy mark. The tone is sharply witty if slightly condescending, but ultimately Semple goes for the heartstrings.
A fun beach read for urban sophisticates or those who think they are.
A compendium of lighthearted, of-the-moment essays that address the many ups and downs of life at 50.
The former co-host of Dinner and a Movie on TBS, humorist Gurwitch (co-author: You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story, 2010, etc.) opens her new collection by lamenting the onslaught of AARP solicitations (“At a glance, I thought it might be an ad for white-collar prison uniforms”) that began showing up on her 49th birthday. On almost every page, she demonstrates a dogged commitment to elevating seemingly normal, even mundane happenings, such as buying moisturizer at the mall, and other encounters with people who include her husband, writer Jeff Kahn, and female friends, into situational comedies, frequently offering jokes at her own expense. Gurwitch makes for a highly likable, albeit sometimes-crass narrator who is willing to lay all of her cards on the table for the sake of entertainment. Infused with levity, confessions of her fears about getting older mostly relate to the way she looks and the lengths to which she's willing to go to fight gravity. Her neuroses show up in abundance—e.g., a monologue questioning whether or not washing fruit before eating it may lead to her death. “Pesticides are undoubtedly eating away at my insides this very minute, though statistically speaking, I will probably be bumped off by a teenage driver texting What’s up?" These obsessive, superficial fears tap into similar threads running through most glossy women's magazines. Having written for many such magazines, including Glamour and More, Gurwitch proves adept at attempting to address and soften readers' shared concerns about their own age-related changes in appearance with her aggressively personal (some R-rated) deadpan admissions (“In the light of day, our living room couch looks depressed. Literally. That sofa has seen a lot of ass”).
A bizarre case of identity theft forces a dentist to question his beliefs in this funny, thought-provoking return to form by Ferris (The Unnamed, 2010, etc.).
In 2011, Paul O’Rourke has a thriving practice on Manhattan’s Park Avenue and a throbbing sense that things could be a lot better. His nights are troubled by insomnia and a bed cooled by a recent breakup. His days feature patients who don’t floss and three staffers—including his ex—who unsettle him in their own curious ways. As the novel opens, Paul’s world quickly goes from bad to weird, and it’s clear that Ferris is back in the riff-rich, seriocomic territory of his first novel, Then We Came to the End (2007). A confirmed atheist who sustains a ritualistic devotion to the Boston Red Sox, Paul’s romances have exposed him to the tempting fervor and trappings of Catholicism and Judaism. Still, he resists fiercely when a website, a Facebook page and blogging comments mysteriously emerge in his name and he discovers that the man behind them fronts a quasi-Jewish sect founded on the value of doubt: "Behold, make thine heart hallowed by doubt; for God, if God, only God may know." With almost Pynchon-esque complexity, Ferris melds conspiracy and questions of faith in an entertaining way, although his irreverence and crudity in places may offend some readers. Full of life’s rough edges, the book resists a neat conclusion, favoring instead a simple scene that is comic perfection—an ending far sweeter than the Red Sox had that year.
Strangely astray in The Unnamed, Ferris is back on track here. Smart, sad, hilarious and eloquent, this shows a writer at the top of his game and surpassing the promise of his celebrated debut.
A struggling professor of African-American lit falls through the rabbit hole of Edgar Allan Poe’s strangest tale.
Multimedia writer and novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem, 2003, etc.) seems to have a fabulous time tinkering with wordplay and social conventions in his wildly inventive take on the roots of fantastic literature. The novel opens with an apologetic preface straight out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, begging pardon for the flights of fancy that follow. Johnson then launches into the loquacious world of Chris Jaynes, a professor at a liberal Manhattan college whose interest in teaching Poe over Ralph Ellison gets him fired. His interest in Poe’s adventure is flagged when his “book pimp” scores him a true rarity, a frayed copy of The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters. Coloured Man. As Written by Himself. The book is an alternative version of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a disjointed 1838 adventure novel that has long been the target of accusations of racism. Soon the odd professor has established the account’s authenticity and even secured poor Dirk’s skull from a distant descendent. This would be wild enough territory to explore, but Johnson soon ratchets things up. To further his knowledge, Jaynes launches an expedition to the Antarctic in the company of a deranged sea captain, a pal from the streets, and his old girlfriend. Traveling through a portal, the expedition finds a lost world where a desiccated, drunken Arthur Pym lives, protected by strange beasts (“Snow honkies,” Jaynes dubs them). It all leads to some very funny moments of enlightenment for the conflicted professor. “Turns out though that my thorough and exhaustive scholarship into the slave narratives of the African Diaspora in no way prepared me to actually become a fucking slave,” he says.
An acutely humorous, very original story that will delight lovers of literature and fantasy alike.
Never trust anyone under the age of 25: That cute-as-a-button intern just might be trying to blow your brains out.
Couched as a piece of evidence in an FBI investigation, this debut novel by B-movie screenwriter Kuhn is an inventive, profane and violent comedy that strongly recalls Duane Swierczynski’s office farce Severance Package (2008). The narrative is disguised as an assassination manual written by one John Lago, the real purpose of which is to confess his sins. Creeping up on his 25th birthday, John is a long-time employee of Human Resources, Inc., a shadowy firm that employs broken youngsters and soul-damaged orphans as assassins. Their gig is to infiltrate the highest levels of corporate malfeasance as interns, disappear into the machine and whack the target. “If you’re going to do this, you can’t ever try to justify it,” Lago warns. “You are the bad guy, and that is your role. Without you, there is no benchmark for judging bad guys. We are the yin. Civilians are the yang.” It turns out that John’s last assignment from his boss, “Bob,” just before mandatory retirement kicks in, is to infiltrate an exclusive law firm and ferret out which of the three partners is selling the identities of turncoats in the Federal Witness Protection Program to the highest bidder. Along the way, he falls madly in love with Alice, an entry-level associate who may also have other motives for working at the firm. It’s a propulsive, well-written black comedy that apes a variety of other killer comedies, ranging from Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper to the film Grosse Pointe Blank, while also exploring tender subjects like what happens to children who are raised without parents. Believable dialogue, a whip smart and cynical central character, clever reversals and an entertaining amount of bone-crunching violence help wrap up this nasty package with a pretty little bow.
An entertaining, ferociously violent romp about a morally bankrupt killer trying to find his way home.
A raucous black comedy about corporate management that’s tailor-made for anybody who’s ever gone to the office feeling like a lab rat.
When Stephen Jones, fresh out of college, arrives at the Seattle headquarters of Zephyr Holdings, he’s understandably eager to learn more about his new employer. Alas, Zephyr’s official mission statement (“to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets”) is no help, and his coworkers seem to spend more time investigating who stole a donut than actually working. In the first 70 pages, Barry (Jennifer Government, 2003, etc.) takes whacks at dysfunctional office culture, and the gags rarely rise above sitcom-level wackiness—one employee’s attempt to claim stupidity as a disability is taken seriously by the HR department, for example. But the book enters some sublimely Kafkaesque territory once Jones discovers his employer’s real purpose: Zephyr is, in fact, a training lab where new management theories are secretly tested on human subjects. If you change a project team’s goals every few hours, how long will it take them to break? What’s the best way to humiliate smokers and make them more productive? How do you threaten employees with layoffs while keeping up morale? Jones signs on for Project Alpha, under the wing of Eve Jantiss, a corporate functionary who’s as callous and cutthroat as they come. But once Zephyr requires whole departments to be consolidated or garroted, a disgusted Jones begins to sabotage Project Alpha and foment open revolt at the company. Much of the rhetoric in later chapters about how Zephyr workers are human beings, not fungible parts, would pack a stronger punch if we got to know the characters better—many of Jones’s coworkers are locked into simple subplots. But the author’s shrewd observations about corporate life still register.
Comic relief for any b-school grads (or Office Space fans) who’ve had their fill of Collins, Drucker and Peters.