New Orleans I don’t read much fiction anymore, not necessarily because there isn’t some good stuff, but simply because in the preciousness of time there are so many things I’m trying to learn in the constant wrestling to make sense of facts and weld them into plans, policy, and just plain sense that I have little time left. Luckily, I have a friend on the West Coast who annually looks across the table as I’m having breakfast at her house and asks if I’ve read any good books recently, and she’s only asking me about fiction. As a firm believer in sweat equity, I make sure that I’ve given a fair shot to some titles that speak to me for some reason or another, so I can try to make a recommendation from my peculiar taste.
Recently, I used some of my endless hours on airplanes to start paying my dues in readiness for this perennial question. Of the current crop I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, a finalist for the National Book Circle Award and a winner of extensive prizes in the UK and a Times Notable Book. I also read Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, a finalist for the National Book Award. I caught up with Lost City Radio, a 2007 book by Daniel Alarcon as well as The Informers a 2008 first novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a National Book Circle winner in 2009, roughly a book running between the violence of missing women in Juarez on the border of the United States and life in Mexico City, had given me a greater interest in the depth and contributions of writers working on Latin American themes, and I’ve now read quite a number of Bolano’s novels, which I find unendingly powerful.
Now all of these books are very different. Americanah is the story of a Nigerian woman’s search for self and place in both the highs and lows of the American immigrant experience and the conflicting claims and ambitions of life, love, and home in a complex city like Lagos and country like Nigeria. The subtext of the book though as importantly is a frank look at the contradictions and importance of race in both the United States and elsewhere. Flamethrowers purports to be about a classic American girl from Reno trying to find herself as well in Nevada, New York City, and Italy, and being both lost and found in all three places in the time of the Red Brigades. Both are interesting books with interesting issues, though I’ll recommend Americanah to my friend as the easier and more valuable climb.
But, Lost City Radio by Alarcon, the Peruvian-American writer born in Lima and living in the Bay Area, was the best of my recent crop. The book follows a young man from the country snared in a minor mess with the government who becomes a messenger for a guerrilla formation modeled on Sendero, the Shining Path, from that period, and a woman whose melodious voice finds her moderating a radio show where families, friends, and others look for the lost and disappeared. We are no longer in the era of “magical realism” in dealing with these issues, but excellent, beautiful and powerful writing evoking the layers of life and identity in trying to live, love, and stand for something in oppressive times. I couldn’t help wondering if KABF should have a similar show.
My recommendations aside, I started to believe I was seeing patterns, despite my narrow reading focus. Does current literature almost require a global focus in order to speak to the curious nature of America today? Are we best educated about ourselves through the prism of the exotic? Is the narrowness of our politics and the provincialism of our experience being taunted by the devastating and cataclysm experiences of others overshadowing the mundaneness of so much of contemporary culture and concern?
In fact, do I need to make sure I’m sprinkling more fiction into my reading? And do you need to do the same as well?