I had this idea for a new type of blog entry, to try to infuse some fresh air into it. I hope to do this a bit more often.
What I am thinking of is ... BATTLE OF THE BOOKS, in which I compare two worthy books and declare a "winner." So, here goes.
This week's battle is:
These are two stunning novels by bright lights in the literary sky (how poetic).
I AM RADAR is the story of Radar Radmanovic, a black child who is born to white parents, and the lengths his mother is willing to go to, in order to change her son's skin color. Let's just say that her decision takes her to the fringes of science and has lifelong effects on her son. But there is much more to the novel, which is also about a sort of traveling art installation/"event" that pops up in odd places at odd times, including Cambodia and Yugoslavia as it is falling apart.
Strangely enough, the book is not about race. It doesn't explore racial issues or race relations; and there isn't much of a plot, per se. But the writing is absolutely gorgeous, and the set pieces are as fine as anything I've ever read. In Radar, Larsen has created an under-the-radar hero not unlike a Tolkien hero--one who keeps going in spite of his fears and the challenges that lie before him.
When evaluating a book, I often use "world building" as a criterion. That is, I look at how well the author has succeeded in immersing me in a fictional world whose veracity I do not doubt for a moment. Larsen creates a world and populates it with unforgettable characters, making I AM RADAR one of my favorite reads of the last year. However, those looking for plot twists, a consistent narrative thread, and the staples of genre fiction will not find them here. In other words: Read this book if you are a patient reader who does not need instant gratification.
Next, we have VERSION CONTROL, a novel ostensibly about time travel. Every character in the book (most of them physicists) get quite annoyed by the phrase "time travel." The author is on to something here, because almost every time I describe this book to someone as concerning "time travel," that person rolls his/her eyes, as if to say, "Oh God, not another one." I see the dismissive glance, the hint of "Oh, it's science fiction. Pass."
Those who decide to "pass" on VERSION CONTROL are missing what I think will be one of the most important books of this decade. There's more plot here than in I AM RADAR (there'd have to be, what with the time travel angle), but this is more of an epic observation of what technology has wrought upon our society in terms of friendship, courtship, family relationships, the workplace--indeed, every facet of our existence. Anyone who has watched in despair as some jerk behind the wheel texts while driving, or observes friends at a restaurant on their phones for the entire meal, or who has listened to some braying ass talking loudly into a cell phone in an otherwise quiet place, will read VERSION CONTROL and think, "I am not alone." Dexter Palmer is such an extraordinary writer that the details of particle physics read so clearly and elegantly that you wonder why anyone's confused by the Large Hadron Collider.
I have to take off a few points because the book uses the trope that I detest more than any other: the dead child--the most overused conceit in fiction, second only, perhaps, to those insidious "girls" showing up in titles on a nauseatingly frequent basis. Parts of the book read more like an essay, or a philosophical treatise, than a novel. But I was so entranced by this book that I gladly rolled with the author's ideas, admired his craftsmanship, and yes, found a kindred spirit in his sense of humor, which I can only describe as piquant.
So, which novel wins this week's battle of the books? VERSION CONTROL. I think I AM RADAR is a flight of fantasy for the right reader, probably the type of reader who loved Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE. VERSION CONTROL is 500 pages of THE WORLD NOW (even though it is set in the not-too-distant future). If Dexter Palmer was running Facebook instead of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook would be a force for good, instead of a playground for idiots. I don't know how to give the man any compliment greater than that. I absolutely bow in awe to Dexter Palmer.