Point B – Drew Magary
God damnit, Magary has done it again!
(I feel like he would like that opening line.)
If you can’t immediately place the name, Magary is the all-around excellent writer responsible for things like his annual take down of the Williams Sonoma Christmas catalog, the best mailbag on the internet (once on Deadspin now on Vice), his weekly NFL columns, his political/culture/food writings on various outlets, and his long form profiles for GQ. Also for two novels, a collection of short stories, and a book about fatherhood before this novel. Oh, and a fine Twitter follow as well. Once upon a time I thought Bill Simmons was the writer I wanted to be. Now I think Magary is closer to that ideal than Simmons.
I really enjoyed his previous novel, The Hike, so was expecting good things from this. As with The Hike, it took awhile for my brain to adjust from his goofy columns to a more serious novel. And in this case, the fact his main character is a teenage lesbian had me on extra edge. Magary is a Bernie liberal, seems enlightened about gender roles, but he also shares a lot of dick jokes, so there was the potential for this to go off the rails.
The book is set in 2030–31, in a time where the company PortSys has largely taken over the world thanks to their invention of easy, personal teleportation. Whip out your phone, select a destination, and poof, you are instantly transported there. The company takes credit for eliminating traffic, solving many pollution issues, breaking down barriers between countries, and generally making life better for everyone. The catch is the company also has far too much power thanks to their hold over governments and political leaders.
Anna Huff is a 17-year-old junior just admitted to the prestigious Druskin Academy in New England. She comes from extremely humble means – her single mother teleports around the world to work multiple dishwashing jobs – and her older sister died under mysterious circumstances a year earlier. Her roommate, Lara, is the daughter of PortSys’s CEO, and Anna immediately falls in love with her. Their budding romance is stopped quickly when Lara is yanked out of the school by her mother for unknown reasons.
Anna then falls in with a group of misfits who make finding a way out of the school their main goal. Through some ingenuity the find a way to get around the school’s “Port Wall,” which prevents teleportation from inside the school’s grounds. Soon Anna and her pals are on a mission to find the truth behind PortSys. As a side quest Anna seeks Lara, hoping to tell her how she feels.
The story has a slow wind up and at a few points it feels like Magary could easily lose the plot. But he pulls it together for a very entertaining, compelling, and thoughtful second half. Anna and her friends expose the evil behind PortSys and she finds love with Lara. Magary does a really nice job with their relationship: a guy writing about teenage lesbians has a lot of potential to go horribly wrong. He avoids all that and turns it into a sweet story free of any icky Cinemax overtones.
Magary self-published the book and I bought the early Kindle version. For all his resources, the book does show how self-publishing can cause problems. There are a lot of small typos. There are some formatting issues (but these are often present in Kindle books so they could be an issue of platform rather than creator). These are just minor annoyances, but you wonder if he had a big publisher behind them if they would have been cleaned up. I was fine filling in the occasional word or correction knowing he was making a little more money on the sale than he would have with a publisher as middleman.
Severance – Ling Ma
This book came with both high praise and many warnings. The praise intrigued me. The warnings caused me to wait to read it.
Published in 2018, it is centered on an unsettling premise: a new, unknown disease that began in China has spread and wiped out much of the world’s population. Some folks suggested now may not be the time to read the book.
I found that angle to be less unsettling than those people made it seem to be. While a decent chunk of the book is about the period as the world is shutting down and immediately after, more of the book is about the main character’s life before the pandemic hit.
She is Candace Chen, a millennial who has fallen into a lucrative if unsatisfying job for a publisher in New York supervising the printing of special editions of the Bible by subcontractors in China. She has strange, often unhealthy relationships with men. She struggles to reconcile her life with the path of her parents, who brought her to the US from China when she was six. She struggles to make sense of her background and how different she is from the workers she meets when she tours the publishing plants in China.
Candace is a survivor. While New York slowly falls apart around her, she remains healthy and thrives. She is also pregnant, and holes up in her Manhattan office as long as she can. Eventually she flees, though, driving a taxi as far as it can get her from the city. When the taxi runs out of fuel, she joins a group of survivors who are traveling west to Chicago, where a member of the group claims he has a facility set up where they can find food and shelter and begin new lives. Their leader is abusive and controlling, and eventually Candace has to flee, striking out to make a new life for her and her child on her own.
The pandemic is really a secondary factor in the story. What is bigger is Candace’s search for identity, for an organizing principle that can give her direction as she moves into her 30s. Her pregnancy is obviously one element of that. Another is the fact she is alive. I don’t often write down quotes or highlight books when I’m reading them. But this line struck me as central to the book and to Candace’s search: “Because a second chance means that you have to try harder.”
Candace cruised through her pre-pandemic life, falling into a good job that didn’t require much effort. While she is happy to be alive and of impending motherhood, those gifts come with the reality of having to put more work into whatever her new life brings. Ling Ma leaves the reader confident that Candace is ready for that challenge.
Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
This was a deeply moving book that may be aimed at a slightly different reader than me.
A husband and wife with one child each from a previous relationship jump in a car and begin a slow drive from New York to the American Southwest. The husband (no names are ever given for the four) wants to make a documentary about the final days of the Apaches. The wife has become obsessed with the “lost children” of Central America, the unaccompanied minors who attempt to make their way into the US and are either held in detention camps or wander the deserts without guides attempting to survive. She wants to spend time near the border documenting the lives of these children.
Over the course of their drive the couple realizes that their goals are not compatible, and their marriage may be in its final days. The first half of the book is told from the wife’s perspective, as she shares their methodical progress along America’s highway, which includes many stops to investigate interesting locations. She does her best to keep her five-year-old daughter and ten-year-old stepson occupied as her husband drives.
When the family arrives in New Mexico, the perspective flips to the boy, who sensing that his family is breaking apart, hatches a plan to bring them together again. He and his stepsister sneak away from their cabin early one morning, hoping to find two sisters they have heard the wife talking about who have disappeared near the border. By saving the girls, he believes they can save their parents’ marriage, too.
It is an often compelling story that has some truly harrowing moments, both in describing how unattended minors travel from Central America to the US border and in how the step-siblings survive on their own desert journey. Immigration is a much tougher issue than the black-and-white, this-or-that binary subject our political leaders have turned it into. This book makes you think about the issue beyond those frames.
But Luiselli also writes in a non-traditional manner. I skimmed a couple reviews and a theme that jumped out was that she was deconstructing the traditional novel. That isn’t to say it is difficult to read. It’s just that it isn’t a standard read from A-to-Z book. There are probably metaphors in her structure to the state of the world that younger, more artsy people can really get jazzed about. I didn’t necessarily love those elements. Plus I read it on my Kindle, and I think this book would come across better in traditional form, as some visual elements just don’t translate to the screen well.