I don’t think of myself as one of those people with a stack of books on my night stand waiting for me to read. But the fact is that I buy two or three books at a time, usually at a bookstore, have them spiral-bound (so I don’t have to hold them open if they’re paperbacks) and then read them one at a time. I am definitely not of those people who read more than one book at a time. So I guess the books are waiting for me to read, but they aren’t waiting in vain.
I’ve recently begun to read Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, and I can tell you it’s a loopy hoot. Told through diary entries, e-mails and instant messages (so far), it seems to be a love story between a mis-matched young man and a younger woman, set in a not-too-distant future in which America is a shabby, militarized state and, among other things, everyone knows each other’s credit rating and communicates with and reads each other through devices, sometimes even when they are with each other in person. The novel is quirky and definitely different, outrageously funny even as it’s depressing, if not tragic - not unlike its over-the-top, half-joking title.
The really weird thing is that a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately have been quirky and definitely different, hilarious and off-the-wall, sort of sci-fi but not sci-fi (Mark Haskell Smith’s Baked, Christopher Moore’s Bite Me, etc.). I’m not complaining - I laugh out loud reading these books - and it’s nothing new (Alice in Wonderland, A Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Universe, etc.), but, after a while, it does feel like the weird and wacky, if not always hilarious, is the new normal.
Then there’s John Irving, who can be quite weird and wacky and funny but is squarely grounded in everyday reality, down to the kitchen sink, being today’s Dickens. I did enjoy reading his reading his recent novel, Last Night in Twisted River, finding it a good, meaty read, but I have to say that he is getting tiring. I have enjoyed his books (The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, Cider House Rules, A Son of the Circus, A Prayer for Owen Meany, etc.), but they are getting to be the same. Irving’s novels, as rich and enjoyable as they are, are obsessive and cloying, taking an idea and hammering it, hammering it, hammering it to death. It recently occurred to me that Irving writes novels like Wes Andersen makes movies. Both are obsessive in their work, and both drive me crazy, despite, or maybe because of, their charm.
Having said this, I never get tired of Larry McMurtry, whose output I find astounding (something like 50 novels, many quite hefty, plus other writings, including the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain). Yes, he writes a lot about cowboys and the Old West, but he also writes novels like Terms of Endearment (the film covers only the last twenty pages) which are quite contemporary and sometimes remarkably female-oriented. His novels set in Hollywood are a lot of fun.
When I bought Super Sad True Love Story, I also found a huge McMurtry novel, published decades ago, that I never knew about called Moving On. At over 700 pages, it was a pain to lug around, but it was remarkable, even brilliant, in a laconic, meandering ways. Set mainly in Texas, with side trips to L.A and San Francisco and even Altadena not too far from here, it is about a woman in a stormy marriage with a man who tries doing everything from rodeo photography to graduate school in literature. I kept thinking of a cross between Lonesome Dove and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?