As 2019 bears down on us, I’ve been reading up a storm. I just finished The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis – a gift I’d gotten T. A day or so earlier, I finished Draft No. 4, by John McPhee. And just a few days before that, The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem.
I like Lethem – Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude had entranced me. I’d never been able to finish anything else he wrote, though I did once hear him read a story that was pretty spectacular. The Feral Detective was a gift from T for me, and I was excited. I have to hand it to Lethem – he has chutzpah (that’s Yiddish for “balls” [not really – it’s Yiddish for “guts,” in the way that “guts” is a euphemism for “balls”]. Writing a novel in the voice of a female protagonist at this particular moment takes a certain… hubris? And writing about this particular moment always is chancy, when it comes to fiction. In this case, Lethem made two bad bets: his female protagonist feels more like a middle-aged man’s sketch than an actual woman – a bad look, for a novel. And his evocation of Trumpian dysphoria rings superficial – and unnecessary. I wish his editors had stripped the Trumpian musings and allusions away, and had demanded a fully three-dimensional – and somewhat less leering – rendering of the protagonist (and of her view of her foil in the novel, the feral detective himself). The book has good bones, I think; the story itself is a good one. But its author got distracted by his aspirations.
The middle book, Draft No. 4, changed how I read, and how I (will) write. From start to finish, it had me enthralled. I’ve had a writing project that’s been thwarting me for a month or two. It’s thwarted me directly, in that I’ve written its first few paragraphs eight or ten times, but have gotten no further; it’s thwarted me indirectly, in that I’ve written almost nothing else while I’ve been busy not writing it. McPhee shook my writing loose, and I’m now well on my way (both with that long-delayed piece, and, as you can see, writing here).
And the book I just finished: The Fifth Risk. If you want to feel abject terror at the most likely long-term consequences of the Trump debacle, read this. The good news: terror will coexist alongside amusement, engagement, fascination, and learning.
May 2019 bring us all happiness, health, and learning. And sex: here’s hoping it’s got a bit more of the sex than 2018 did.