A dense, ambitious social saga with a sci-fi tinge.

DISPOSABLE THOUGHT

A literary novel chronicles a young man’s peculiar relationship to objects.

In a near future where increasing levels of technology have made people both interconnected and more isolated, Cole Scott-Knox-Under chooses a different path. A 27-year-old with eyes that “embody the observant fearful gaze of the autodidact: deep skepticism fused to emotional vulnerability,” Cole has chosen to work at Burger King, taking lunch orders while (mostly) avoiding the invasive demands of modernity. He has been instructed to wear virtual reality glasses at all times (which allow him to view his customers’ online lives as presented in clouds around their heads), though he refuses due to a strong aversion to VR that goes back to his teenage years. Cole is more attracted to the analog than the digital, compulsively collecting objects—cup lids, papers bags, plastic utensils—and storing them under his bed in his mother’s apartment. He is already balancing the pressures of family, identity, and a host of social expectations demanded by the colorful characters that populate his life, but things get really strange when the garbage Cole collects begins to speak to him. A plastic cup named Jason thanks Cole for picking him off the ground, but tells him, “There are more. They need to be rescued as well.” Cole isn’t sure if he’s crazy or uniquely sane, but whatever his neurological state, it is driving him to exhaustion. In a world where everything, both animate and inanimate, is made to be disposable, Cole desperately seeks something permanent on which to anchor his life. Bramble’s (Grid City Overload, 2012, etc.) work evokes that of many 20th-century authors who sought to grapple with their eras’ technological tumult. His postmodern maximalism calls to mind Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollmann; his grim dystopianism, Orwell and Margaret Atwood; his overt social criticism, Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut. The prose is clear and precise, though it accumulates with the heft of bricks piled to form a wall. The author possesses a particular interest in the physicality and unnaturalness of the objects in Cole’s world: “Aerosol deodorant cans; wasted steel shells burnt from escaping xylyl bromide; stockpiles of burned CDs now too scratched and so laid to death; lungs withered and crusted with sulfur.” Cole may be the protagonist, but the story’s strongest personality is its authorial third-person narrator, who routinely pulls the reader away from the hero to offer essayistic digressions on the nature of technology and society using frequent (and sometimes-multipage) excerpts from sources as varied as scientific studies, Salon articles, and Will Self novels. On its own, the book represents an impressive intellectual feat. As the third volume in a triptych of novels concerned with technology’s impact on the way humans think and feel, the work confirms the prodigious talent of its author. Cerebral and often funny, this is by no means a tale for everyone. But those readers who like their fiction built on heady concepts will find this book to be a challenging and gratifying experience.

A dense, ambitious social saga with a sci-fi tinge.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5087-7263-7

Page Count: 444

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2017

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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