Thursday, March 08, 2012

20 Under 40, Lolita and The Solitude of Prime Numbers

A story collection featuring 20 promising young writers, a literary classic, a fine debut novel from Italy and another visit to The Yoop in an Alex McKnight thriller from Steve Hamilton represents my reading in February and March.

Book 31: 20 Under 40, edited by Deborah Treisman

20 Under 40, a collection of 20 stories from The New Yorker, featuring 20 writers under the age of 40, "who we felt were, or soon would be, standouts in the diverse and expansive panorama of contemporary fiction" is more about marketing than literature.

Feature each writers work in the magazine and then collect it all in a paper-bound edition, create a sense of excitement among readers, a sense that here's something -- at its beginning -- that you don't want to miss out on and sales follow.

But for that excitement to sustain itself, the work must be of a high quality. And that's the problem with these 20 writers.

Place the work on a continuum, ranging from "likely to be read in 50 years" to "sucks much" and most of these stories (or excerpts from novels) tend to fall squarely in the middle. Not that there isn't talent here -- Wells Tower, Z.Z. Packer and Dinaw Mengestu -- stand out for me, but Karen Russell and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum leave much to be desired.

I've read all these stories twice, some three times.  I can't claim any sense that these 20 represent the next great writers of their generation. Odds are someone will emerge, but they're bunched in a pack for now.
Book 32: The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

The protagonists of Paolo Giordano's debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, are misfits. Alice is an anorexic. Mattia, who carries an enormous load of grief and guilt, punishes himself by cutting and burning his body.

Together they fashion an odd, prickly yet tender friendship. 

"The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren't smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other's, through their arms and fingers."

The tension in The Solitude of Prime Numbers derives from this almost mystical attraction between Alice and Mattia. Will their friendship blossom into love?  Can each one dispel the pain, loneliness -- the separateness - that the other feels?

Giordano has written a profoundly sad and insightful first novel in a realistic portrait of two young people who are alone even when they are together.

Book 34: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

What can I say about Lolita that thousands haven't already said? Hell, it ranks fourth on Modern Library's list of The 100 Top Novels.

I didn't like it much. It's not a novel that appeals to modern sensibilities.  While reading it, I couldn't help thinking how the digital world today would light up in outrage over this novel of a child's prolonged sexual abuse. Nabokov faced challenges publishing the novel in the 50s. I think those challenges would be greater now.

I had always under that Lolita, the character, was a pre-pubescent seductress; that it was Lolita who ensnared the hapless Humbert Humbert. 

That's not the case.  Humbert is a pedophile, who violates Lolita when she is only 12 years old and then keeps her a virtual sex slave. Late in the novel, he has, at least, the moral integrity to understand he has destroyed her childhood.

History has already determined that Lolita is a great novel, but I don't have to like it.

Book 30: Ice Run by Steve Hamilton 

Alex McKnight has a love interest in Ice Run.  There should be no surprise that she brings problems -- big problems -- into McKnight's life. 

We also visit Mackinac Island. I've taken the ferry the two times I've been to the island. Alex takes a snowmobile.

It's a lively thriller, with its share of twists and turns -- exactly what we've come to expect from Hamilton.

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