Book Reviews From The Future part 1: Franzen, Whitehead, Diaz.
Dear James Franco,
I’ve decided to beat all the other book reviewers to the punch. Here are short reviews/ plot synopses for books that famous writers haven’t written yet, but will.
Junot Diaz leaves behind modern urban realism in his 1,753 page historical novel, Streamlined Daydreamers. The narrative follows the 18th century Indian pirate, Kanhoji Angre, and his twelve year old son, Kanhoji, over the course of three days. Diaz’s novel focuses on a specific historical incident: Angre’s blockade of an East India Company port. Readers will find Diaz’s compelling tour de force highly readable, yet subtle in its nuanced way of metaphorically illuminating the subjective, economic class-contingent ethics of modern software and music piracy.
Colson Whitehead’s Men with Utensils, set in Saigon in 1968, follows a platoon in the army’s culinary division. The Utensil Guards, as they call themselves, overlook the shipment of all cooking and eating utensils and storage containers arriving in Vietnam. While the book’s first half brings to mind Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 insofar as the story demonstrates the platoon’s mundane, day-to-day operations, the second half offers a dramatic shift toward a riveting, fully realized plot. The Utensil Guards are sent to the demilitarized zone to intercept a truck full of stolen Marilyn Monroe plates. The V.C. had ambushed the delivery at the Cambodian border. To the platoon’s surprise, the truck isn’t full of plates, a Yeti captured from Nepal. Whitehead devotes sixty pages to the Utensil Guards’ effort to subdue the creature, and in the tradition of Melville, meanders toward the didactic. Readers will learn much about nets; that is, the particulars of meshes and knots, the woven materials like cotton, plant fiber, nylon, and other polymers. Whitehead then explains, over ten pages, the various techniques and methods for throwing a net over a large animal. Suffice it to say, the Yeti escapes, and runs off toward the VC-controlled north. The platoon receives special orders to pursue the Yeti and protect the beast from the Communists. Clearly, Whitehead is creating an ironic parallel between the technological conveniences of modern domesticity and the difficulties—if not the impossibility—of living organically, but he does not succumb to easy-target satire. Readers expecting to see these soft-handed, kitchen specialists perish in the wilderness, will find the shocking opposite: the soldiers’ survival—and, ultimately, the Yeti’s—is contingent embracing the ideology that the Americans are fighting.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Elephant Trap shows Franzen’s continual struggle for versatility after having trapped himself in the genre of domestic realism (2010’s Freedom and 2013’s Courage Came Before the Antidote). The Elephant Trap, much like 2015’s Valium Hotel, is a flirtation with Beckett-style postmodernism and the bleak naturalism of Frank Norris. The Elephant Trap follows a 1960s American UFO cult missionary named Derwin as he travels through India in search of “the beacon.” We never find out what the beacon is, though we can assume it’s a device that hails our “space brothers.” Derwin walks from Warangal to Chandrapur, where the beacon is said to be buried in a recently deceased elephant’s ribcage. Derwin cannot find the elephant, so he sits. He refuses to move, eat, or drink. After eleven days, he dies. Reader’s are not privy to Derwin’s motives, but can assume he’s either lost hope, or he’s come to believe that he is the beacon. In the final scene, an elephant stands over Derwin’s dead body for a few moments, then lies down on top of him. As in Franzen’s previous novels, readers will be captivated by the beautifully authentic dialogue at the beginning of the book, especially a riveting scene between Derwin and his travel agent (who turns out to be the babysitter who molested him twenty years prior) but, unfortunately, once Derwin embarks for Chandrapur, not a single word is uttered. Franzen’s descriptions of India’s back roads are beautifully wrought: in one scene, Franzen compares a dirty puddle to the pancakes Derwin ate as a child growing up in Utah. It’s these local pleasures that keep us turning pages in Franzen’s highly ambitious novel.