From Libya to an existential detective story, Rachel Aspden picks June’s highlightsby Rachel Aspden / May 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
What should we read on the longest, brightest days of the year? Publishers’ answers for June are counterintuitively gloomy. Before the season of more lighthearted travels, this month’s books follow quests and journeys of a downbeat kind—with the occasional glimmer of light.
Aside from his cult experimental story collection The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus is best-known for a fractious essay in Harper’s magazine attacking Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novels for being just too easy and enjoyable to read. The Flame Alphabet (Granta, £14.99)—“an urban ironist’s reply to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,” in the words of novelist Jonathan Lethem—seems determined not to relinquish this reputation for difficulty. In the novel’s dystopian future America, first children’s speech, then all language, becomes fatally poisonous to adults. Amid the carnage that ensues, one suburban Jewish father, Samuel, embarks on a desperate search for a cure. In obedience to the gruesome plot, skin shrivels, flesh rots and fluids gush from orifices. But the lovingly detailed sufferings of Samuel, his wife Claire and their teenage daughter-turned-killer Esther are oddly unmoving: little more than pegs for Marcus’s real interest, the torment language inflicts on its would-be users. His fans have no need to fear his writing lapsing into mere entertainment.
Any existential despair brought on by The Flame Alphabet is unlikely to be cured by Why Does the World Exist? (WW Norton, £12.99), which follows the essayist Jim Holt’s quest to solve this mystery. Holt makes the rounds of famous universities, interviewing the men who meet his criteria for “versatile and wide-ranging intellects,” summarising the thought of canonical figures from Plato and Wittgenstein to John Updike. The resulting soup of theories and counter-theories ranges from the familiar consolations of religion to the wilder fringes of maths and physics. But Why Does the World Exist? flickers into life less in its dutifully detailed abstractions than in its rare specifics: the meals Holt eats alone in “the good restaurants” of university towns, the poignant account of his mother’s death that ends the book, and his comically merciless manner of accosting off-duty professors: “After some small talk about psychoanalysis, I asked him whether he would be willing to concede that the concept of nothingness at least made sense.”