Aging writers still have the Peter Pan complex.
This is the literary season for Generation X, it seems. Sure, this fall brings new releases from old masters like E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth, who is experiencing a pretty decent late-career renaissance. But this season’s flood of new books is dominated by writers who’ve spent the last 15 years ruling “best writers under 40” lists. Now these former wunderkinds are the literary establishment—and unsurprisingly, their offerings are dominated by themes of lost youth and awkward adulthood.
Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem helped strengthen the argument for the artistic and literary merit of superhero comic books with a pair of celebrated novels earlier this decade. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay traced the rise of the industry in the 1930s and ‘40s, driven by fugitive Jews who arrived in America with stories to tell. Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude grafted superhero tropes onto an interracial friendship set in New York in the 1970s. Now both men are back—Chabon, who releases a book a year, never really left—offering new and very different books about how to deal with the disappointments of adulthood.
Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son puts its conundrum right there in the title. A series of non-fiction essays explores how to be a grown man (and an artist) in a world that doesn’t really encourage it. One answer, he suggests, is to stop providing children with a “door-to-door escort service” and let them explore their neighborhoods and the wider world the way their grandparents did. “If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” he asks.
Lethem’s Chronic City, meanwhile, offers us a novel chock full of improbable Dickens-style names—Perkus Tooth? Chase Insteadman? Oona Laszlo? Really?—in which a washed-up former child star meanders through Manhattan social life while pining for his lover, an astronaut trapped aboard the International Space Station by a series of low-orbiting mines. We’re guessing the plot will matter less than long passages of dialogue contemplating the meaning of life.
After writing High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, among others, you’d think Nick Hornby might have exhausted his literary exploration of rock ‘n’ roll, superfandom and how both can get weirdly mixed up with love. Not quite. His new effort, Juliet, Naked, is about a woman who takes up a correspondence with a faded singer-songwriter—what’s the deal with all these washed-up entertainer characters this season?—a man itching for a big comeback with an acoustic version of his biggest album. High Fidelity explored the Peter Pan complex that often afflicts young men who remain rock obsessives into their thirties. Juliet, Naked looks to explore how damaging that complex can be to relationships when it endures into middle age.
Jonathan Safran Foer gave us two of the great almost-too-treacly-but-not-quite novels of the decade: Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—the first dealing with the Holocaust, the second with 9/11. Fresh out of disasters to mine for fictional material, he’s turned to non-fiction instead with Eating Animals, an Omnivore’s Dilemma -type exploration of what we eat and where it comes from. Beware: the publisher is promising that Foer will “dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood,” which makes it sound like we’re going to get all misty-eyed thinking about mac ‘n’ cheese.
If all this navel-gazing isn’t your cup of literary tea, don’t worry. This fall also brings a set of fantastic new graphic novels, of which Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is probably the most lauded. (Dave Eggers, another former Gen X wunderkind, covers the topic in his recent book Zeitoun.) It’s not a work of imagination, but of journalism—and it really shouldn’t be surprising anymore that such efforts are possible in graphic novels—in which Neufeld chronicles the stories of seven New Orleans residents who survived Hurricane Katrina. On a smaller scale, David Small gives us Stitches, the graphic novel treatment of his unhappy childhood, when cancer of his vocal chords left him unable to speak louder than a whisper.
If political books are more your taste, there’s some good options for you. Sure, two of the four top-selling political tomes on Amazon are by Glenn Beck—the other two were authored by the execrable Michelle Malkin and conservative radio talker Mark Levin—but there really is some stuff for liberals out there. We recommend staying away from Congressman Henry Waxman’s The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works—he was the most boring guest ever in a recent edition of The Daily Show.
Instead, try Sam Tanenhaus’ new The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus is conservative, but he doesn’t belong to the Fox News “death panel” wing of the Republican Party; he’s not crazy. He advocates a “mature, responsible conservatism that honors America’s institutions.” Unsurprisingly, that’s not what he finds in today’s conservative movement. Even liberals can hope that his type of conservatism re-emerges as the future of the GOP. n