Literary humor, fraud, and high drama

Published September 2, 2021, 4:21 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

If You Could Read My Mind: Two novels today, ‘The Echo Chamber’ and ‘Little Siberia,’ are humorous and playful. ‘The Sweetness of Water’ is a dramatic depiction of post-Civil War and ‘The Plot’ is about literary fraud and the consequences paid.

‘The Echo Chamber’ and ‘Little Siberia’

‘The Echo Chamber’ by John Boyne

Here’s the perfect novel for those who’ve been confused, stymied, and aggravated by this digital age of wokesters and the politically correct police that troll the internet. It starts off with a crazy epigraph attributed to the late Umberto Eco about how social media had become the “invasion of the idiots.” And then we get an extremely funny yet savage cautionary tale about this digital age of ours, and our preoccupation with social media platforms. From Facebook to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, each section opener coincides with the founding of those aforementioned apps. And at the center of the novel is the Cleverley family, both proponents and victims of this madness that seems to consume anyone with a smartphone.

George is a renowned TV host who considers himself a national treasure, while wife Beverley is a romance novelist who employs ghostwriters. Their children are all social catastrophes: there’s Nelson who dresses up in uniforms to hide his social inadequacies, then Elizabeth who only cares about her followers and generating social media output that gets traction, and lastly, there’s pretty boy/idiot Achilles. All three still live at home, sponging off George, and yet ready to throw him off the bus when he becomes the target of wokesters. This stems from an unfortunate misuse of a pronoun when he tweets about the brave journey a transgender receptionist is undertaking. It’s about tolerance, being reasonable, and flexible—or the absence of all that in this digital age. Extremely smart, angry, and funny, which make for a potent combo.

‘Little Siberia’ by Antti Toumainen

Antti Toumainen was formerly known as one of the masters of Finnish noir, with dark brooding crime mysteries his speciality. Then suddenly, two novels ago, he began crafting tales that bear some relation to crime fiction, but would have wonderful shafts of humor and craziness. Critics loved these “new” novels, comparing them to Fargo and Carl Hiaasen. While I see those comparisons, I’d also like to say that there’s a lot more humanity and compassion in these new mystery stories of Toumainen. This one starts with an eight kilogram meteorite landing in Eastern Finland, dropping onto the roof of a car in a small border town.

Then we’re introduced to Joel, the local pastor who’s just got the wonderful news from his wife that he’s going to become a father. Only problem is that it’s only Joel who knows he’s impotent, having had an accident with a land mine while stationed in Afghanistan. When the meteorite is kept at a local museum, and word spreads that the value of the rock could reach up to a million euros, Joel’s stint as the night guard of the fallen treasure becomes a minefield unto itself. Various locals and even visitors from nearby Russia express their interest to take off with the rock, and Joel is forced to take sides. This is made even more complicated, of course, by his jealousy and desire to know who the father of the baby in his wife’s tummy is. There’s soft humor, a very human quandary, and things going on in this novel that knows how to set its pace and keep reengaged.

‘The Sweetness of Water’ and ‘The Plot’

‘The Plot’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the authoress of the novels “Admission” (turned into a Tina Fey film) and “You Should Have Known” (adapted for TV and retitled as “The Undoing” with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant), so you know her works will attract a lot of attention and expectation. With this new novel, she takes on a theme—literary plagiarism—that’s been done by so many authors before her. So it becomes a matter of what she brings to the table with her treatment. Will it actually be different, will we be surprised and suspend disbelief, and for her, will it be optioned for a film or TV treatment? Unfortunately, other than the optioning, I have to say that while entertaining enough, the answer to those questions would be”no.” Let’s try and dissect why, so you can decide if you still want to read the book.

Jake Finch Bonner had a well-received first novel but has since slipped into obscurity. He’s now teaching creative writing at an upstate college when he encounters Evan Parker, a smug student who claims he has a surefire plot not even the worst of writers can get wrong. Conveniently, Parker only discloses the plot to Bonner and, more conveniently still, overdoses and dies soon after. Jake proceeds to write a novel based on Parker’s plot and it becomes a hit—and just a matter of time before he gets cryptic messages saying he stole the story and will face consequences. For much of the novel, we’re in the mind of Jake, and his “poor me” attitude, followed by an imposter syndrome state of mind. Only the truly blind won’t see where we’re headed so I don’t know why it takes so long for the reveal. The second half of the book is much better and entertains, as it deals with literary vanity, entitlement, and fraud.

‘The Sweetness of Water’ by Nathan Harris

People have criticized “Gone with the Wind” for its supposedly phony depiction of the Civil War Reconstruction period and of the racism that existed beyond the end of hostilities. No such accusation can be made of this assured debut novel of African-American Nathan Harris. An Oprah Book Club pick last month, literary critics and early readers have been raving about the beautifully descriptive prose, the engrossing narrative, and how first-time author Harris manages to put things together with such ease and assuredness—some are astounded that this is in fact his very first published novel. Most of the action takes place on a plot of farmland in Georgia, where George and Isabelle Walker reside, waiting for their only son, Caleb, a Confederate soldier, to return from the war.

Two emancipated slaves who are brothers, Prentiss and Landry, stumble upon George one day and he offers them a decent wage to help him plant peanuts in a section of the land he owns. Of course, this upsets the town of returning soldiers in need of jobs and the freedmen’s former owner. A second narrative strand follows two young Confederate soldiers and the trysts they have in the forest, how it’s bound to scandalize the town, their respective families, and lead to grave consequences. What’s potent here is the unflinching look at this period in American history, one that doesn’t over-dramatize or exaggerate, but doesn’t sugarcoat or gloss over things. If “Gone with the Wind” was all romanticized hokey, “The Sweetness of Water” is social realism but imbued with strong literary sensibilities.


 
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