A couple of weeks back I wrote about being drawn towards “comfort food” reads, books rooted in regular folks attempting to be decent to each other but running into trouble because we are all annoyingly (and interestingly) human.
This week my mind has been on the kinds of books that attempt to deliberately discomfort us by holding up those individual or societal flaws to a kind of scrutiny that is critical, even reaching towards a place of ridicule.
These thoughts were triggered by a terrifically sharp new novel by Grant Ginder, “Let’s Not Do That Again,” which works as a kind of combination of family drama and political satire. It is the story of the Harrison family – mother Nancy, who is a longtime US representative now running to become the next senator from New York; Nick, the eldest and Nancy’s former chief fixer who is trying to forge a life of his own; and Greta, the youngest, who has fallen in with right-wing extremists in Paris, primarily to spite her mother.
Messy stuff, made even messier by a political milieu that is, well… you know what’s going on in the world, and Ginder makes expert use of it as a backdrop for a novel that skewers society and his main characters, but still manages to maintain sufficient affection for all involved for the reader to care about their fates.
It is a tricky balance, and would be easy to go so dark as to tip the reader into despair, but Ginder maintains the right amount of light.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the best books in the history of the English language are satires that have left me in a state of semi-despair, saved only by my admiration for the artistry of the books themselves. “Catch-22,” “White Noise,” “Infinite Jest” and Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo” all had a profound effect on me when I read them, but for the moment, I’m not sure I want to experience those effects .
Satires like Ginder’s that retain a warmth and perhaps just enough of a spirit of farce can point out the wounds without hurting too badly.
Similar books include Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout,” in which a Black man desperate to save his disappeared California town, reinstitutes slavery, winding up before the Supreme Court.
Another that comes to mind is Douglas Adams’ classic, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which opens with a zoning dispute when Arthur Dent’s home is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a hyperspace express route. The juxtaposition of the mundane and absurd shows how absurd the mundane can be.
Julie Schumacher’s duo of campus satires, “Dear Committee Members,” and “The Shakespeare Requirement” walk a similar line between affection and ridicule as we follow the misadventures of Jason Fitger, a creative writing professor at a middling small liberal arts college. Schumacher manages to simultaneously make us see why the work of academia matters, and call to question how such places still exist.
For an even stranger look at work, I recommend Hilary Leichter’s “Temporary,” in which a “temp” employee tries on a series of jobs (including being a pirate), all told in the driest deadpan you can imagine until any job seems absurd .
Before I run out of space, I must mention “Oreo” by Fran Ross, the only book she published before her death, and a book that works as a mashup of mythological drama, African American pop culture in the 70′s and Borscht Belt comedy.
These books aren’t upbeat, exactly, but the underlying playfulness of the satire leavens the critique in a way that makes the message even stronger.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
2. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr
3. “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” by Dave Grohl
4. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara
5. “The Last Flight” by Julie Clark
– Susan A., Chicago
Susan seems like a fan of psychological suspense (among other things), so I’m going to go back a bit to a Noah Hawley novel, “The Good Father.”
1. “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate ” by Naomi Klein
2. “Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit
3. “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert
4. “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates
5. “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams” by Matthew Walker
– Gloria Y., San Diego
All nonfiction that wrestles with literal existential dilemmas, which brings to mind Marilynne Robinson’s searching essays about finding meaning, “What Are We Doing Here?”
1. “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles
2. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
3. “Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee
4. “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë
5. “Young Mungo” by Douglas Stuart
– Lisa P., Chicago
I need a good, involving, emotional story for Lisa, which takes me to one of my favorites from last year, “Morningside Heights” by Joshua Henkin, a family story that really sneaks up on you.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.