IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: The four novels today are great, truly original reads
One of the novels is the latest from Anthony Doerr, who authored “All the Light We Cannot See,” while Graeme Burnet was previously Booker shortlisted for “His Bloody Project.” A Japanese cat-novel about libraries and quests delights, and there’s a stirring satire about technology and corporate life.
‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ by Anthony Doerr
If you perused the novel’s synopsis with its multi-layered storylines and characters spread over space and time, you could assume this is Anthony Doerr’s version of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” There’s Zeno and Seymour in an attack on an Idaho public library in 2020, Anna and Omeir and the 1453 fall of Constantinople, and in the distant future, Konstance on mission year 65 aboard a spacecraft heading to an exoplanet. Connecting all these narrative strands is an ancient text of Aethon who longs to become a bird and fly to Cloud Cuckoo Land—a utopia in the sky. Dedicated by Doerr to all the librarians of the world as custodians and stewards of the written word, and by extension, of the human heart and compassion.
In fact, beyond the shifting narratives, this novel reads very differently from “Cloud Atlas.” And given the structure, it’s inevitable that we’ll have our favorite narrative, the one we find more interesting and immersive. For me, it was the one set in the 15th century, but I have to confess that it fizzles out at the end, and I’m perplexed as to why this happened given that Doerr had managed to keep us gripped in “All the Light.” And this would be my major misgiving about Cloud, that the varied narratives never take flight in our imagination—each one starts off with promise but we don’t feel as invested as we did in his previous work. This may be more grand, more ambitious, and yet, it feels like a minor work. Eminently readable, but a far cry from “All the Light.”
‘Case Study’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Macrae Burnet is the author of “His Bloody Project,” shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago. He’s always been a brave, experimental writer, playing with form and structure to turn his novels into exceptional feats of writing. This latest has to do with a controversial psychotherapist from the mid-1960’s, A. Collins Braithwaite. Charlatan, seducer, a legend in his own mind, Braithwaite considered himself a genius, and claimed that R.D. Laing stole his ideas. But rather than turn this into a veiled biography, Burnet writes that he received these notebooks in 2017, from a man who claimed to be the cousin of sisters who had connections to Braithwaite. The elder sister consulted with Braithwaite and committed suicide, and the younger one believes these sessions drove her sister to her untimely death.
So what follows is a preface about receiving these notebooks, then the notebooks themselves, which include pages torn from the published works of Braithwaite, and sections devoted to the research Burnet has undertaken to delve into the life story of Braithwaite. Veronica/Dorothy is the elder sister while the younger one takes on the name of Rebecca Smyth and poses as a patient, in the hopes of exposing Braithwaite. From the notebooks alone, we’re thrust into a fascinating world where sanity and identity collide, and we’re second-guessing ourselves as a more unreliable narrator would be hard to find. It’s like a open window into schizophrenia; while the sections of ‘research’ betray just how egotistical and deluded Braithwaite was himself. It’s like we’ve dropped in on an episode of “Dueling Lunacies”—and we can’t stop turning the pages.
Down into the silliest details
‘The Cat Who Saved Books’ by Sosuke Natsukawa
Natsuki Books is a wonderful second-hand bookstore run by Rintaro’s grandfather. Raised by his grandfather, Rintaro is of high school age when his grandfather suddenly passes away, and an aunt bravely offers to close the bookshop and have Rintaro move in with her. A loner at heart, Rintaro idly spends his time in the bookstore instead of attending classes, to the consternation of the class rep, Sayo. She gamely drops by the bookstore to bring Rintaro the homework and check on him. But one fateful day, Rintaro encounters a tabby cat that speaks, and talks about imprisoned books, libraries in need of saving, and a literary quest that Rintaro’s grandfather would have undertaken without question.
Spurred to action, Rintaro reluctantly joins the cat and enters the three labyrinths where said imprisoned books are to be found—each labyrinth representing a different manner in which books are being abused. Part fantasy, part fable, the trick to what Sosuke Natsukawa accomplishes with this slim volume, is putting it all into contemporary times and making it all very well—relating to the plight of books and the world of publishing today. For anyone who loves books, libraries, are transported by the written word, and still finds value in them in this world, you’ll derive much pleasure from this little adventure, and how it also chronicles Rintaro coming out of his shell, experiencing life, and learning about compassion and empathy.
‘Several People Are Typing’ by Calvin Kasulke
Written fully in chat room language, here’s a new novel that takes a sci-fi premise then injects it into the person-to-person corporate culture of today. The premise is simple but oh so original. Gerald works in a New York PR firm and in the course of working on a spreadsheet, inexplicably gets his consciousness uploaded into his company’s digital space—“Tron’ed” as it were, if you recall that fantasy movie. Everyone else in the company refuses to believe him, and thinks that he’s just exploiting the firm’s work from home policy. When his productivity goes through the roof, it further cements their belief that he’s just finding excuses for his prolonged absence from physically appearing at the office. Only one co-employee, Pradeep, and Slackbot (the AI assistant) understand his predicament.
What’s entertaining is how the corporate culture is depicted, the different chat rooms and sites created for specific work groups. The premise gets weirder as Gerald is led by Slackbot into “digital adventures” that include becoming a sunset GIF. As the body of Gerald is still in his apartment, it’s left to Pradeep to do maintenance work of a sort. Slackbot eventually sees this husk of a body as an opportunity to experience real life and assumes the identity of Gerald. Then it becomes a race against time, as to whether they can bring Gerald back. What’s hilarious is how during all this time, the work of the PR firm goes on, servicing clients that include a Barf dog food company who’s into crisis mode as pomeranians have been dying from their product. It’s corporate satire elevated into Tron scenario, and it’s smart funny.