Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reading Rainbow Roundup: What The Dead Know and Remainder

Two more books I've read recently:

What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman. This is the first of Lippman's many books that I've read, and it was definitely zippy. I'm not a mystery reader, which is Lippman's primary genre, so I know Lippman mainly because of her association with David Simon, the man behind The Wire and Generation Kill (and Lippman herself has a brief appearance in Season 5 of The Wire). Now, I'll grant that it's a shame that this is my primary association for a writer of Lippman's fame, and some may go to a place of sexism or genre-bashing, but, to be fair, I also think first of The Wire when I think of Dennis LeHane or George Pelecanos, who are both arguably more famous. Anyway, self-defense aside, Lippman is, as I said, a zippy writer, and I plowed through this book quickly without really meaning to. In the story, a woman appears from nowhere in North Baltimore, a little shaken from a car accident, claiming to be one of a couple of teenage girls who vanished some thirty years prior. The Baltimore Homicide Department gets involved, and the book leaps around in time as they attempt to uncover who this woman is while she reflects on her past. My main issue with the book was that I figured out her secret almost right away, while the stone-cold professionals in the Baltimore police never even considered the possibility. The narrative kept me hooked, though, as I wanted to find out a) if I was right and b) why she kept this secret. Glancing at the review in the NYT, Janet Maslin apparently didn't figure out the secret, so maybe it's just that I'm a suspicious reader who assumes that the author's game doesn't involve outright deception, but merely sleight-of-hand. And as sleight-of-hand goes, it's a decent trick.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Where Lippman's book was a fun diversion, this book was Nabokovian effort. Which isn't to say that it was a hard read, because like many of Nabokov's books, it was a quick and effortless dash. In fact, I think I read it quicker than I read What The Dead Know. But Remainder is wresting with some deep philosophical problems through the eyes of an increasingly unreliable narrator, and McCarthy manages a neat trick of writing everyday surrealism that reminds me of one of my favorite movies of the last few years, Synecdoche, New York, all of which means that I absolutely loved this book. The book is a first-person account of a man who has been in a terrible accident, something falling on him from above, although he doesn't remember what. In fact, he's lost a lot of memories, as his brain has been damaged. In one of the clever passages, he describes how he's had to learn to use his right side again by rerouting information through his brain, which is a key to the strangeness to follow. Having received a tremendous amount of money from his settlement, he's unsure what to do with his life until he accidentally sees a crack in the plaster at a friend-of-a-friend's party, which triggers an intense memory that might be a vision. He uses his money to recreate his vision in real life, turning a building into an exact replica of what he knows (and the parts he can't construct with his mind are left blank, including the face of the concierge), with people hired to interact with him in mundane ways (so the woman playing the concierge must wear a hockey mask). Since his accident, he's been unable to feel real, and he longs for what he considers an authentic moment. These tiny interactions make him feel authentic. And the narrative gets considerably weirder from there, as his brain damage and money and singular obsessions lead him further into utter insanity, which may also be a form of shamanic holiness. McCarthy is excellent at reproducing this mental state. I felt insane while reading this book. I still feel a little insane from it. Any book that can wiggle into your mind like that is a book to take seriously.


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