The last decade has brought a massive infusion of new talent to crime fiction and its sub-genres. Brilliant young writers all over the world are brushing off stale literary conventions and using their formidable skills to write stories in which things actually happen. And with these guys – they’re usually very bad things.
Carrying the torch are James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, and Ken Bruen – the unholy trinity of modern crime. But coming up fast from the shadows is a fierce new breed of gifted writers. They’re bringing a new level of violence and linguistic excellence to the craft and giving life to some of the darkest visions put to paper since Poe was found floating in a Baltimore gutter.
These are the 10 to look out for the next time you’re out after dark:
1. Charlie Huston writes ultra-violent pulp so fluid it cuts out the middleman and projects itself straight to your brainpan in digital HD. Huston always delivers, but the 3-part Henry Thompson series is a great place to start. It starts when Henry, a typical NY bartender with a coulda-been-a-contender story stumbles into the crosshairs of the Russian mob. By the end, he’s a rusty, pill-popping hitman submitting to indentured servitude to keep his parents alive. Along the way, he discovers a knack for killing and leaves a trail of bodies leading to a Grand Guignol finale that kicks like a tweaker on Cops. Warning: Don’t start a Huston book unless you’re ready to forego unessential activities (like bathing and sleeping) for days. His work is best described as paper crack.
"Why the hell do I want to see a movie about Facebook?" a friend said about The Social Network, the new film about the geeky young entrepreneur who created Facebook. "Don't I get enough of it everywhere else?"
That might be the best reason not to see the movie, but it's quite a film, and possibly even a future classic (I bet it will get nominated for a few Academy Awards too). It's a serious movie that revolves around a moral question: what does it mean that everybody's favorite social network was built by an awkward, alienated college student who had lots of trouble making friends?
Those who resent Facebook's intrusion into our common privacy can enjoy some zuckerfreude here, because young Mark Zuckerberg's personality is splayed out in the most unflattering poses -- and yet he remains, in Jesse Eisenberg's deft impersonation, mostly charming and lovable. Unlike many of his fellow nerds who haunt the social circles around Harvard University during the movie's early scenes, skinny nervous Zuckerberg is naive but never quite shy. He has strange reservoirs of confidence, rooted perhaps in his mastery of Linux and Apache. He tries boldly to puzzle out the social codes -- attitude, style -- that lead to popularity on campus. But these are puzzles he can't seem to solve, and he is forced to face this uncomfortable truth repeatedly. The long journey of coding that ends with the creation of Facebook begins in a desultory dorm-room cloud of romantic misery after Zuckerberg's semi-girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him. Thus was Facebook born.
What happens to a close, loving family when one member of the family starts to go insane?
Writers have dealt with this before. Sometimes it's a son or daughter, or a brother or sister, or a father or, as in Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish or Susan Henderson's new novel Up From The Blue, it's a mother. Up From The Blue is narrated, Scout-style, by an inquisitive and charming little girl named Tillie Harris who lives with her taciturn older brother, her stern military father and her unpredictable mother, whose illness is worse than any outsiders could imagine. We discover the parameters of the problem as frightened young Tillie does, cringing as she wishfully tries to solve the problem herself and negotiate her mother back from the edge.
Bill Vallicella, a former professor who runs a good philosophy blog called The Maverick Philosopher, has written an article called Buddhism on Suffering and One Reason I am Not a Buddhist.
He has every right to not be a Buddhist, of course, but I think his article expresses a misunderstanding of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding I've also heard from others. Vallicella objects to the Buddhist teaching on desire, one of its core concepts, for its essential negativity:
For Buddhism, all is
dukkha, suffering. Allis unsatisfactory. This, the First Noble Truth, runs contrary to ordinary modes of thinking: doesn't life routinely offer us, besides pain and misery and disappointment, intense pleasures and deep satisfactions?
He describes what he sees as the Buddhist attitude towards desire in more detail here, and he captures the prevailing belief well enough:
Each satisfaction leaves us in the lurch, wanting more. A desire satisfied is a desire entrenched. Masturbate once, and you will do it a thousand times, with the need for repetition testifying to the unsatisfactoriness of the initial satisfaction. Each pleasure promises more that it can possibly deliver, and so refers you to the next and the next and the next, none of them finally satisfactory. It's a sort of Hegelian
schlechte Unendlichkeit. Desire satisfied becomes craving, and craving is an instance of dukkha. One becomes attached to the paltry and impermanent and one suffers when it cannot be had.
Yes, this is what Buddhists believe, but if this were the sum total of Buddhist teaching on desire then I would not be a Buddhist either. Taken in isolation, this is too stringent an attitude, too humorless, too inhumane. But is this utter rejection of desire what Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, actually taught, and what he represented to his own direct followers? Let's take a closer look.
1. We told you about artist Malcolm McNeill's Ah! Pook Is Here, a vast extended collaboration with William S. Burroughs, two years ago. Great news -- the work is going to be published by Fantagraphics.
2. Sean Michael Hogan was one of the five winners of a writing contest we held on this site in 2003. He's an excellent writer, and also an opinionated sports nut, and he's combined both inclinations into an e-book, It's Not Just A Ballgame Anymore. Here, also, is a short story by Sean about the frustrations of being a writer.
Yeah, just like Oprah Winfrey, I totally fell for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Sure, the massive media hype is a turnoff, but what does that have to do with the quality of the novel itself? Freedom, it turns out, earns the praise.
I've written a review for another publication, but I also want to write about the novel on my own blog, so I thought I'd mention four other excellent novels that Freedom called to mind for me, each representing a different aspect of Franzen's big novel. If Freedom stimulated your mind (as it did mine) and left you eager for more, here are four related paths you may want to follow.
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
The cerulean warbler in Freedom, the sandhill crane in The Echo Maker, Richard Powers' epic novel about a young man with a brain injury in Nebraska. Both books contrast the tawdry lives of humans with the idyllic innocence of nature (and both books frankly lecture their readers on ecology, and manage to toss metaphors for the Iraq War into the mix too).
Powers is a more intellectual and philosophical writer than Franzen, and he's also nowhere near as funny (in fact, I'm not sure if Richard Powers is ever funny). But neither writer is afraid to show his vast ambition, or to write with purpose and force; both The Echo Maker and Freedom are heavy bricks designed to break open your skull and get you to think harder. Oh, also The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006, and Freedom is going to win it in 2010.
We live in a world suffused by the awareness of Evil. Not so much "evil" as described by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked; arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct
but rather a notion of complete, essential and immutable Evil -- more like the definition in The Catholic Encyclopedia, which begins:
Evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings at least, the sufferings in which life abounds.
This is Evil with a capital E, a singular thing, a characteristic that is applied to humans but seems to originate beyond nature and beyond the bounds of normal life. Like a villain's superpower, this Evil is not a compound object but rather a basic element. It can be defeated but it can't be destroyed. And this Evil walks among us. It has a human face.
Jonathan Franzen's much-awaited novel Freedom hits bookstores tomorrow morning.
I'm about to start reading this book, and will be reviewing it for another publication. I've also been enjoying (for whatever humor value it can provide) a nascent Franzen backlash including a gender-minded protest by Jennifer Weiner and a Twitter parody that pokes fun at the author's perceived arrogance.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction.
I wrote an article this week for the Second Pass as part of a series honoring the great philosopher William James on the centennial of his death. This centennial has also been observed at The Atlantic (which was kind enough to note my piece) and The Daily Beast (by Robert Richardson, whose new collection of selected essays ought to help spread the Jamesian gospel.)
My article is about the historic meeting of William James and Sigmund Freud in at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909. Other pieces at the Second Pass this week include a choice quote from The Varieties of Religious Experience, a piece by J. C. Hallman and another by Levi Stahl (one of only two other people named Levi I've ever heard of in real life -- if we could get Levi Johnston over here we'd have the whole set).
I've been reading and appreciating William James for a long time, and have always considered his theory of truth to be his crowning achievement. By the time James arrived on the scene in the late 19th Century, philosophers from Rene Descartes to David Hume to Immanuel Kant had been long grappling with the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth, and had been grouped into regional/ideological clusters known as Continental Rationalism, British Empiricism and German Idealism according to their positions on this question. William James provided the most modern and, arguably, the most credible and satisfying entry in this race: American Pragmatism.
It's amazing the way obviously flawed ideas and beliefs can become widely accepted as certainties. Take, for example, the certainty that war is inevitable. I hear over and over that there is absolutely no chance -- zero, nil, nada to the power of nada -- that there can ever be true peace between, say, Israel and Palestine.
Likewise, India and Pakistan will continue to fight forever, and so will North and South Korea, Russia and Chechnya, Iraq and Iran, Tamil and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, China and Tibet, Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia and Kosovo. Or, as one variation on this belief goes, if these hatreds were to ever stop, they'd be replaced by others as bleak and violent.
We hear this everywhere. We hear it from our friends and our relatives, in blaring newspaper headlines or in scholarly books by authorities like Victor Davis Hansen. We see it on the morning and evening news (and, on this rare topic, it doesn't matter whether you watch Glenn Beck on FOX or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC -- the lead story is not going to be about the possibilities for long-lasting global peace).