From Libya to an existential detective story, Rachel Aspden picks June’s highlightsby Rachel Aspden / May 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
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.”
Where Why Does the World Exist? is expansive and rambling, The Guardians (Granta, £12.99), by the American poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso, is superbly condensed. Its 160 pages are divided into lapidary passages of as little as a paragraph or two. Set in New York against the echoes of 9/11, it follows her attempts to make sense of the suicide of her friend Harris, a musician who “eloped”—escaped—from a psychiatric ward during a psychotic episode. As the book unfolds, Harris is transformed from the “unidentified white man” of a local newspaper report to a well-loved friend, complete with filing-cabinet furniture and home-made mandolin. Manguso’s writing gravitates towards the minute and particular—The Guardians recalls Joan Didion in its forensic account of the effects of loss and pain—but its brilliance is all her own.
Detail is also the strength of Alison Pargeter’s study Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (Yale, £20). This history of modern Libya is a vital aid to understanding its current conflicts, from the reaction against centralism by its three disparate regions—wealthy and cosmopolitan Tripolitania, conservative, tribal Cyrenaica and the impoverished desert Fezzan—to the legacy of its savage colonial history. In the recent conflict, both Gaddafi and his opponents claimed the mantle of the resistance to Italian oppression—the eastern rebels proudly calling themselves “the grandsons of al-Mukhtar,” a nationalist hero executed by the Italians in 1931. Pargeter’s insightful account of the Colonel’s bizarre schemes and their bloody unravelling ends on a sombre note, his country left “utterly unprepared for life beyond him.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a fearsome reputation, but Ben Rawlence’s Radio Congo (Oneworld, £12.99) is an unexpected broadcast of hope. Rawlence, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, travels through the rarely-visited heart of the country, documenting its people’s attempts to emerge from the shadow of conflict and repression. He meets militia men, entrepreneurs, pygmies, refugees and former child soldiers and, for light relief, gets drunk with priests from the ubiquitous Catholic missions and dances to east Africa’s irrepressible guitar pop, bolingo. Rawlence is clear-eyed about DRC’s problems—rapacious mineral extraction, the uneasy truce between former oppressors and their victims, the ambiguous presence of the international aid community—but he shows ordinary Congolese tackling them with courage and generosity. After the histrionics of the Kony 2012 viral video, this is a much-needed introduction to a misunderstood country—and a welcome glimpse of sunshine.