In the second of our summer reading lists, Mark Dionne recommends three books -- 'One is a postmodern thriller, one is a dystopian science fiction masterpiece and one is the story of a closeted Irish lesbian mourning the death of her partner' -- that he simply cannot believe more people haven't read.
A Summer Reading List
My summer reading list is not as a "greatest of all time" or a "desert-island list." If you haven't had The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon or White Noise by Don DeLillo recommended to you, well, consider them recommended. Instead, I've selected three relatively unknown novels, which deserve greater appreciation. One is a postmodern thriller, one is a dystopian science fiction masterpiece and one is the story of a closeted Irish lesbian mourning the death of her partner. All of them get my highest recommendation.
The narrator of Brian D'Amato's 1992 debut novel Beauty, Jamie D'Angelo, is a successful young painter whose work deals with the aesthetics of beauty. He also has a secret. Along with two co-conspirators from his pre-med days, Jamie performs illegal surgery with "artificial skin," sculpting more beautiful and younger faces onto desperate and wealthy women. The long-term effects of their invention are unknown, but in the short-term, the synthetic skin gives Jamie complete control over the look of his clients, as if these actresses and models were his sculptures.
Beauty is a pitch-black satire of our image society, both at the high ends of the pretentious New York art world and the low ends of struggling actress/model/hookers and MTV videos. Although insightful in the ways beauty can work as an intimidation, the book is also funny. According to Jamie, models have entourages because of the consensus opinion that "models are completely handicapped and irresponsible, mentally and emotionally. They're another species, almost like cats, beautiful, selfish, vicious, and retarded."
Eventually, Jamie wants to do more than make actresses look younger. He wants to do a complete reinvention of someone into the Perfect Face. Enter Jamie's girlfriend Jaishree, a performance artist and actress. Jamie comments on the lines around her eyes, tells her the Perfect Face would bring attention to her art and, when she won't listen, goes to a Julia Roberts movie. Though slightly repulsed by the idea initially, as she witnesses too many "fifteen-year-olds around the studio" getting parts and as Jamie begins to prey on her insecurities, Jaishree considers what she could do with the Perfect Face.
Jamie obsessively studies the idea of beauty in film, painting and literature. Fully aware of the precedents, D'Amato drops references to Frankenstein, Pygmalion, supermodels, Barthes and both Madonnas, filtering this intellectual inquiry through his cynical, vain and cruel narrator.
Beauty raises issues about gender and power, beauty and celebrity, art and identity, but also succeeds as an original thriller. After all, Jamie is a criminal. He must keep his clients quiet about the procedure, hide his money and keep tabs on his co-conspirators.
When I first read Beauty, I expected it at the very least to catch on with the collegiate, postmodern set. I anticipated that with its strong characters and twisted plot, a movie adaptation would likely appear in a few years. I would not have been totally surprised had it become one of the most-talked about books of the decade, followed by D'Amato's next books. (sadly, this appears to be D'Amato's only novel.) I never would have believed that almost ten years later the only people I know who have read Beauty are the ones I forced it on.
The Gold Coast
At one point in Beauty, Jamie considers that the Perfect Face could usher in an era of global peace. Although without Jamie's vanity and megalomania, Jim McPherson of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast also wants to push his world into an era of peace.
Kim Stanley Robinson has gotten a good deal of attention and awards for his recent Mars books Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars but I'd like to trumpet the genius of The Gold Coast from 1988. Jim McPherson and his friends live in Orange County, California early in the 21st century. The landscape is dominated physically by elevated highways, spiritually by malls and half-empty corporate office buildings, and politically by the military-industrial complex.
Why read The Gold Coast even once? Well, it's a fine coming-of-age story. Jim McPherson, an underemployed would-be poet, enjoys driving around with his friends, going to parties and taking recreational drugs. He speaks out against the political-military system, but doesn't take action until he's goaded into acts of minor vandalism. As this escalates into sabotage, Jim begins to contemplate the repercussions of his actions and how to keep his sanity in an insane world.
The Gold Coast is also a terrific depiction of community. Robinson populates this dystopia with numerous and generally sympathetic characters. Jim's friends the responsible drug dealer Sandy, the generous, disconnected surfer and hiker Tashi, the burnt-out ambulance driver Abe, the beautiful Virginia, the politically-driven Arthur and the smart painting teacher Hana are all believable both as individuals and as a group. Other characters, such as Jim's father, take us into the military-industrial complex or, like Jim's grandfather in a nursing home, connect us to Orange County's past.
Incredibly, Robinson follows these characters through interconnected stories and various settings without bogging down the plot or hitting a single false note in tone or believability. Whether describing the joys of a hedonistic party, the fun of a pick-up ballgame, the stunning complexity of congressional appropriations or the anguish of a father-son confrontation, the writing is beautiful and clear. You should read The Gold Coast because these characters are likeable and their stories interesting.
You should read The Gold Coast because of the politics. This is the best book written about "autopia" and "mallsprawl." Whenever I come across the postmodern tenet that capitalist societies can co-opt rebellion, I think of this book. The depiction of the military-industrial complex is scathing, but without predictable rhetoric. The industry will take contracts for a price they have no intention of keeping to build a system they know won't work to fight wars with no discernable objective. Robinson connects the underground drug trade, small-time revolutionaries, an unworkable missile defense system and a grudge between generals and links it all to the actions of one young man. The Gold Coast is a story about the impact of community, history and individual rebellion.
A friend of mine claims that reading Robinson will make you a better person. I'm not sure if this is true. But really, it couldn't hurt. Small synchronicities and deft touches are revealed with each new reading, so I could say you should read The Gold Coast more than once, but I don't want to seem pushy.
[Although it depicts a dystopia, The Gold Coast is ultimately hopeful and fun and thus perfect for summer. If I were doing a winter list, I might have gone with Robinson's Icehenge. It explores similar themes of community, history and rebellion. In the future, we live to be 800 years old or more but our memory hasn't expanded with our lifespans. We take up journal writing and become amateur historians to discover who we are and who we have been. This is a somber, sad, beautiful and criminally neglected book.]
As with The Gold Coast, I can't claim Emma Donoghue's Hood is completely unknown, but it never achieved the mainstream success in America it deserves, either. Perhaps it never broke out of the ghetto of being a "gay and lesbian book." The first blurb on the back of the book, from The Guardian "The issues she tackles are not just gay ones" is true enough, but it comes off as a plea.
Hood takes place over the course of a week. The seven chapters correspond to seven days, beginning on Sunday, the day Pen learns that her lover Cara has died in a car accident. Pen tries to reflect on the loss and define the complexities of their relationship, which began in school. In their conservative suburb of Dublin, the girls did not speak of their love even to each other for years. This secrecy denies Pen some of the normal comforts of the bereaved. In public, she must act like she lost "only" her housemate. And private space hardly exists for Pen, considering she lives with Cara's father, who never learned about Pen and Cara's relationship. Also, Cara's sister Kate, similarly in the dark, arrives from America for the funeral.
Donoghue describes real, powerful grief of the sort we don't normally encounter in books or movies. There is no mystery to be solved or killer to bring to justice and no ghost to tie up loose ends. Cara does not return with a tale of mistaken identity. There is just loss.
Flashbacks and memory dominate Hood. For much of the novel Cara is alive and funny, charming and frustrating until we return to the present and her inescapable absence. Cara is beautiful, kind, outspoken (although closeted at home) and unapologetic about her pursuits of freedom. In the flashbacks, we get a sense of Pen and Cara's long relationship. Pen relives the banal moments, the sexual highs and the confrontational lows. Cara and Pen both have good senses of humor, making Hood a funny book, but one tempered by tragedy. Donoghue's achievement is bringing to life a love already lost and expressing the humanity of a character often denied it.
By presenting a non-idealized relationship between Cara and Pen, Donoghue avoids button-pushing and sentimentality. Cara had no use for monogamy. Although she kept her excursions discreet, Cara forced Pen to accept her occasional infidelity. In fact, she may have been returning from one of these forays when she died. Cara was often obsessed with unattainable things, making Pen's accommodation and availability a bedrock of their relationship.
Pen even considers Cara's wishes after her death. She wonders, "(I)f you ran after the one you love into death, like a squalling child, she might easily be angry and say, you're always following me, give me space to miss you in, back off a bit, all right? If I stayed here . . . and lived out however many years were allotted to me, then surely by the time I got to heaven Cara would be impatient to sweep me off my feet?"
Rather than plot twists, Hood derives its power from the honesty of its emotions, the beauty of its writing and the humanity of its characters. Given its depressing subject and rain-soaked locale, Hood might not make ideal summer reading, but most people don't spend the entire season on a beach blanket anyway.
I've recommended these three books again and again in the past and I can't remember a disappointed reader. Enjoy!