Spring Book Reviews: 3 of 3
The closest we can come to the truth about reality is in the fictions that we create about it.—Introduction to the Counterlife—Philip Roth
What can you trust of what you can’t see? Alexander Chee asks this question in his beautiful book of essays. The question pertains to both the books reviewed below. In Rouprian’s collection of short stories the reader must suspend belief to “see” the kernel of truth in these characters. In Chee’s collection, the reader is shown how this author comes to his own fiction.
YOU KNOW YOU WANT THIS by Kristen Rouprian
Reading these 12 stories reminded me of visiting the Fun House at a carnival. Riveting, but only in doses. Curious and a little freaked out. If you enter this collection on tiptoes and mindful of the dedication: For my mother, Carol Roupenian, who taught me to love what scares me, you’ll admire (or not) the author’s detached and cruel take on relationships. Some of the stories read like fairy tales, others like an episode of “American Horror Story.” One, “Cat Person” went viral after it was published in the New Yorker in 2017. In it, a twenty-something woman has sex with an older man she really doesn’t want to have sex with. In “The Good Guy,” the sentence “Was there a point at which your ego was crushed so completely that it died, and you no longer had to lug around the burden of yourself?” summed up how many of Roupenian’s characters live their lives. The collection is refreshing in its originality.
Favorite line(s): Maybe I will bite Corey Allen, Ellie thought after the meeting. Ellie worked in communications, which meant that she spent 90 percent of her time crafting emails that no one ever read. She had a savings account and life insurance, but no lover, no ambition, no close friends. Her entire existence, she sometimes felt, was premised on the idea that pursuing pleasure was less important than avoiding pain. Perhaps the problem with adulthood was that you weighted the consequences of your actions too carefully, in a way that left you with a life you despised.
HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL by Alexander Chee
By far, one of my top favorite books of the year. A collection of 16 personal essays covering everything from Chee becoming fluent in Spanish during his study abroad in Mexico to waking up the day after the election and wondering if Trump’s presidency was the beginning of the end of the world. The author begins many of these essays as if he’s discussing the topic with you, the reader, before he renders an opinion. In “After Peter” Chee shows us how it feels to fall in love: The weight of him pressed me out. I felt covered, safe; something dark in me retreated and for what felt like the first time in the arms of a man I felt safe. I was still me—the switch was not flicked, but the terrible feeling haunting me then didn’t reach me. Which is one of the things that love can feel like. Much of the collection examines issues of identity, as a half white/half Korean gay man living through the AIDS epidemic and as a writer and teacher trying to understand what he gives and takes from both professions. Chee does a masterful job at building up his experiences as a writer with self-doubt, perseverance, and self-analysis; sometimes with humor, most times with a confessional honesty. All of my stories lacked action or ended in inaction because that was what my imagination had always done to protect me from my own life, the child’s mistaken belief that if he stays still and silent, he cannot be seen, and this was wrong. And yet I had believed it, without quite knowing I believed it. In light of this insight, I knew I needed a new imagination. I needed to imagine action. There’s so much good stuff going on inside these pages. Chee’s activism, his love of roses, working as a waiter for William and Pat Buckley and subletting an apartment with a skyline view of New York City. The book should be required reading for writers everywhere.
Favorite line(s): Mixed. I think of it as a Mexican word, a word for the Americas—the secret self of the whole continent, north and south. And to me, it felt like the word for what I was. In the United States, if I said I was mixed, it meant too many things I didn’t feel. Mixed feelings were confusing feelings, and I didn’t feel confused except as to why it was so hard for everyone to understand that I existed. Living this way felt like discovering your shoe was nailed to the floor, but only one of them, so that you paced, always, a circle of possibility, defined by the limited imaginations of others.