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(with links to the complete reviews)

Selected and reviewed by Ted Gioia

Roberto Bolaño: 2666
How does one begin to describe this writer’s
unconventional work to the uninitiated? I am
tempted to call him a Latin American Kerouac,
given his wandering bohemian protagonists with
their idiosyncratic literary ideals and often
arbitrary itineraries. Yet at many junctures
2666
will remind readers of the very different
sensibility of Cormac McCarthy, with his violent
tales of the US-Mexico borderlands. One critic
has taken a different tack, going so far as to
proclaim this book as the novel that Jorge Luis
Borges might have written. Yet none of these
pigeonholes do justice to the avant garde
sensibility that often lingers below the surface of
Bolaño’s fiction, and often threatens to take
charge of the narrative.
 
[For full review click
here.]

Chuck Klosterman:  Downtown
Owl
If this isn’t the great North Dakota novel, I don’t
know what is. When they teach “Our State” in
Fargo and Bismarck,
Downtown Owl ought to be
on the reading list, enshrined alongside
Lawrence Welk, knoephla soup, Angie
Dickinson.   In his first novel, Chuck Klosterman
does for Owl, North Dakota, what Godzilla did to
Tokyo, albeit over the course of 275 pages.  
[For full review click here.]

Jim Harrison: The English Major
In Jim Harrison's novel The English Major, the
man on the road is sixty years old. That gives
Cliff, our protagonist, two years on John
Steinbeck when that novelist embarked on his
Travels with Charley, and more than two decades
of seniority over Humbert Humbert when the
latter set off on the road with the maiden-child
of his dreams. Cliff has no hopes of getting to
some higher level of maturity on his trip; rather
he would settle for one more taste of the
youthful idealism he had once enjoyed as an
English major back at Michigan State.
 
[For full review click
here.]

Jhumpa Lahiri:  Unaccustomed
Earth
I have spent too many evenings in hotel rooms
in various Asian cities, wasting my time watching
television shows in languages I don't
understand. Then again, I have found that I
don't need to know the native tongue to
recognize a recurring theme in the local dramas
and soap operas. These shows always revolve
around unhappy parents -- stern fathers and
grieving mothers --who constantly try to
manipulate and interfere in the lives of the
younger generation. I can't translate a single
word of dialogue, but just the looks on the faces
of that aggrieved mom and exasperated
daughter sum up decades of inter-generational
conflict. If looks could kill . . . no Bollywood
actress would live past the age of twenty-five.  
This is the world that Jhumpa Lahiri captures so
evocatively in her latest collection of stories
Unaccustomed Earth.  
[For full review click here.]

Toni Morrison:  A Mercy
In a strange sort of way, Morrison’s very fame
may prevent her audience from seeing how
multi-layered this book is. After all, this author
has herself become a symbol and catchword.
Moreover, she releases this novel at a time
when another African-American has taken on an
unprecedented visibility and symbolic
resonance—of ground-breaking historical
importance. “No one talks about the book,"
Morrison recently confided to an interviewer.
Which is both understandable, yet also a
shame; since Toni Morrison has delivered a
book here that is eminently worth discussing.  
[For full review click here.]

Jospeh O'Neill  Netherland
No matter if your favorite cricket was Pinocchio's
sidekick, you may want to give this novel a
chance. Even I got caught up in Chuck
Ramkissoon's plans to convert an old airfield
into the New York Cricket Club, with two
thousand members shelling out a grand each in
dues, plus initiation fees; twelve exhibition
matches every summer, with eight thousand
fans paying fifty bucks per ticket. Just dream for
a moment: India playing Pakistan in New York,
with 70 million watching via TV and Internet in
India alone, and Nike and Coke lining up for
sponsorship deals.  But Ramkissoon, the
mastermind of this scheme, is not everything he
seems.
[For full review click here.]


Donald Ray Pollock:  Knockemstiff
Do you like stories about low-lifes?   Ah, but how
low are you willing to go? If
Knockemstiff, the
debut book by Donald Ray Pollock, were a
contestant at a limbo dance competition, that
stick would be no more than six inches above
the ground. Some folks have compared Pollock
to Raymond Carver. But the trailer park
deadbeats in Carver’s stories look like Parisian
sophisticates compared to the characters who
populate
Knockemstiff.  
[For full review click here.]

Richard Price:  Lush Life
Novelists once looked to the great authors of
the past for inspiration. Not any more. Books
imitate movies nowadays. Face it, Tarantino has
more influence on the contemporary novel than
Bellow or Updike. Students in writing programs
are more likely to check out the brothers Coen
than
The Brothers Karamazov. And when young
writers use the word epic, they aren't referring to
Homer or Virgil; more likely, the three
Godfather
films. Richard Price, author of the recently
published
Lush Life, could serve as poster boy
for this new type of fiction.
[For full review click here.]

Tim Winton:  Breath
The waves in Breath are as memorable as the
characters in other books. Here we encounter
the enticing but precarious surf at Barney’s
Beach –- Barney is the name of the 14-foot
great white shark who patrols the waters. Or we
learn of Old Smoky, massive white waves that
break off coast in a location so inaccessible that
surfers need to scale cliffs to reach them. But
the return trip is even more hazardous. Best of
all is the Nautilus, where a devastating wave
breaks on a huge lump of rock far offshore, and
even the most skilled surfer can only ride it for a
few seconds.  
[For full review click here.]

Tobias Wolff:  Our Story Begins
Almost every Tobias Wolff story has a strange,
unexpected moment when everything changes.
And I mean
everything. Characters, conflict,
setting, chronology - all of these are up for
grabs. You might even think you have
accidentally fallen into a different story, or
placed your bookmark on the wrong page.  A
Wolff tale might start out with a student running
into her art professor on campus -- but by the
end the story has morphed into a meditation on
the moral dilemmas of a soldier in the Middle
East. Another Wolff offering might begin with the
gripping account of a bank robbery, but
strangely evolve into a recollection, from
decades before, of boys arguing over the
relative merits of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
[For full review click here.]
Daemon by Daniel Suarez

Is cyberpunk fiction dead?  Or are those lowlifes
with high tech just hiding out on a zombie
computer somewhere near you?

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Here’s a phrase you haven’t heard for a while: cyberpunk fiction.

Yes, you’re starting to yawn. Maybe this joystick-and-rad-guns
stuff was hot when William Gibson published
Neuromancer back
in 1984. The very
idea of cyberspace was cool back then. But we
live, breathe and eat cyberspace
now. (Excuse, me while an order a
pizza online. . . Okay, I’m back
now.) What have these punks done
for me lately?

Yet Daniel Suarez’s
Daemon not
only revivifies the basic cyberpunk
combination of high tech in low
places, but brings the genre to the
next level. The advance of
technology since 1984 allows
Suarez to take a much more
realistic bent in his novel.
Daemon
is set in the present day, and relies
on current or plausibly current technology. Yet the end result
envisioned is more chilling—no doubt as a result of that very
plausibility—than what you will find in far more extravagant
fictions.

The back cover alone tells you how different this novel is. When is
the last time you bought a work of fiction with blurbs from Craig
Newmark (founder of craigslist), Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth
Catalog fame), and assorted executives from Google, The Gap,
etc.? Obviously Michiko Kakutani didn’t have enough stock
options to get invited.

The basic premise here is simple enough—although there are more
plot twists and turns along the way than in a month's worth of The
Young and the Restless: Matthew Sobol is an immensely wealthy
and brilliant high tech entrepreneur, who has made a fortune
selling his MMORPGs to a willing audience. You don’t know about
MMORPGs? That dates you, my friend. These are
Massively
Multi-player On-line Role-playing Games
. Yes, we have
come a long way since Pong.

Sobol is dying with brain cancer, but before he kicks the bucket he
focuses his intellect and immense financial resources on creating
an artificial intelligence system that will transform the real world
into a type of video game. He distributes his pernicious software
on zombie computers around the world, pre-set with instructions
that kick his evil game into play upon his demise.

The book starts with the villain's death—something that usually
happens at the
end of other stories—but then Sobol’s twisted
posthumous fun begins. The first casualties of his assault are the
key employees who helped him build his malevolent system. The
media has a field day with the concept: dead man kills people via
the internet.  But things get even stranger from there. The
confrontation quickly escalates between Sobol and federal
authorities, who are placed in the unusual situation of fighting an
adversary they can neither arrest nor punish.

The pacing and plot construction in Daemon come straight from
the world of traditional thrillers. You can label Daniel Suarez as
Tom Clancy for the Grand Theft Auto generation. But his book
also has an intriguing philosophical undercurrent that sets it apart
from your usual slash-and-burn adventure story.  Humans
evolved into advanced societies, Suarez suggests, because they
lived in widely scattered communities all trying different things.
Survival of the fittest assured that a small number of these groups
would develop healthy, growing institutions and mechanisms for
self-propagation. But the situation has now reversed in our
shrinking global village. Instead of many communities trying
many different things, almost everybody in the world relies on the
same computer operating system, the same web browser, the same
search engine, the same types of computer chips.

The very standardization of technology will be the reason for its
collapse. At least this is the message Suarez weaves throughout his
novel. Global standardization invites viruses, parasites and—
ultimately large-scale extortionists such as Matthew Sobol. The
way these vulnerabilities will be exploited in real life may not be as
flamboyant as the tale told in
Daemon, but the exploitation itself
becomes inevitable once systems become as calcified and
inflexible as at present.

Is this true? I’m not sure. Does it make for an exciting premise for
a cyberpunk novel? Absolutely. And this one has “big movie deal”
written all over it. Suarez thinks cinematically, with car chases,
explosions, and enough over-the-top gadgets to put agent Q to
shame. He even leaves room for a sequel, in an eerily under-stated
ending that violates every rule of the genre. No, cyberpunk is
definitely not dead . . . those lowlifes with high-tech are just hiding
in a zombie computer somewhere near you.