I didn’t read anything this week. I couldn’t. I pulled together a stack of hefty thrillers to get me through the next month or so, the kinds of books into which a frustrated American might escape in moments of desperation. But this week I stumbled through in a kind of daze—surface-calm while emotionally experiencing something akin to the final scene in Se7en. Kevin Spacey is Donald Trump, Brad Pitt is America, and Morgan Freeman is the rest of the world. We’re all just waiting to see what’s in that fucking box.
But books aren’t far from my mind. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking back to things I’ve read that resonate just as strongly, or more strongly, now as before. Books that seem prescient in light of Tuesday’s results, even if (and I sincerely hope this is true) the specter of a Trump presidency proves scarier than the actuality.
I know, aggregating yourself is a bit douchey. But I hope you’ll cut me some slack in these trying, exhausting times.
For as long as there have been disasters, there have been disaster stories. Sometimes they’re natural, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes militaristic. Sometimes a disaster story is only personally devastating—a sudden death, a fatal illness. And sometimes it’s national, or global, or even inter-planetary.
Catastrophes have long since been molded into narrative archetypes, such that any new movie or book or television show centered on the unraveling of human society after [fill in life-changing event here] can be easily folded into a pre-existing canon of work ruminating on those same hypotheticals. There is clearly something in us that experiences a perverse glee imagining the upending of everything, perhaps because such thought experiments cast in blissful relief the advantages and conveniences of a charmed life in the modern, real world.
But even in our imaginations, economic collapse ranks low on the list of fictional conjectures, somewhere between friendly aliens and symbolic single-symptom afflictions (see: mass blindness). The world’s somewhat recent flirtation with financial crisis has produced some emergent economic fiction, but it tends to focus on financial firms—who runs them, how, and whether they should be held accountable (see: Margin Call, Arbitrage, Money Monster.) Rarely is there a story centered on the machinations of an economic undoing as experienced by normal people; usually that kind of homey cast is reserved for plagues or earthquakes or the zombie apocalypse.
From the perspective of the weight-gainer, there’s something socially bizarre about getting fat. About facing, day in and day out, acquaintances for whom fat is a culturally endorsed obsession and yet still a conversational taboo. Next to sex, size might be the thing we think about the most in general and talk about the least in mixed company. Which makes gaining weight, for the gainer, sort of like dyeing an inch of your hair pink each month, both hoping and resenting that no one will mention it. That is, if pink hair could be mitigated by Spanx.
Big Brother is excellently concerned with this and other facets of the American obesity epidemic. The novel is centered on Pandora Halfdanarson, a married stepmother of two who has spent the last few years running a successful business while also settling into the trivial stalemates of a stable marriage (she’s gained weight; her husband Fletcher has become a fitness fanatic). Strapped for cash and in between jazz gigs, Pandora’s older brother Edison comes to stay with her, but when he arrives at the airport, Pandora doesn’t recognize him. Since they last saw each other, Edison has grown from a longstanding 160 pounds to nearly 400; the flight attendants insist on rolling him out in a wheelchair.
Well guys, 2012 is drawing swiftly to a close and I have nothing to show for myself except a sweet new job and the collective knowledge of ~53 finished books (52.3 if I’m being honest about Les Mis, 58.3 if I count the Gone series and all three FSOG books). A productive year indeed.
Last week I posted the mathematically irrefutable Best Books of 2012, a labor on which I spent an undisclosed number of hours (like five) but after a little rest, relaxation, and weirdly mortifying perusal of my own ramblings from the last 12 months, I’d now like to share a more important list: the books I read this year that made the biggest impact on my little reality-TV-filled brain. Few of these titles were released in 2012, a byproduct of my resigned refusal to spend $27 on hardcovers, but sometimes it’s nice to read a book a few years after its release, when you can absorb it in the vacuum of irrelevance.
So here are the books that touched my shriveled-up heart this year, in dramatic countdown order. Happy reading!
It’s difficult to pick out favorite quotes from We Need to Talk About Kevin, both because every sentence is truly beautiful and because repetition seems to somehow imply endorsement, a hard pill to swallow when the topic is mass murder (or even just rampant cynicism). But here are some tidbits I enjoyed.
“I always prefer socializing at night—it is implicitly more wanton.”
“Only a country that feels invulernable can afford political turmoil as entertainment.”
“Hitherto, I had always regarded the United States as a place to leave. After you brazenly asked me out—an executive with whom you had a business relationship—you goaded me to admit that had I been born elsewhere, the U.S. of A. was perhaps the first country I would make a beeline to visit: whatever else I might think of it, the place that called the shots and pulled the strings, that made the movies and sold the Coca-Cola and shipped Star Trek all the way to Java; the center of the action, a country that you needed a relationship with even if that relationship was hostile; a country that demanded if not acceptance at least rejection—anything but neglect. The country in every other country’s face, that would visit you whether you liked it or not almost anywhere on the planet.”