Barbarian Days: William Finnegan’s Joy-Drenched Reason to Live

No matter what we tell ourselves, we all secretly want to live forever. It follows that a good memoir serves as vicarious life extension, toward this eternally minded, unachievable end. A glimpse into an alternate possibility. Between the pages unfolds what could’ve been — if. If we were born at a different time. If we had different circumstances. If we had different interests. If we were altogether different people through any number of natural or nurtural deviations against our norm.

I’ve long been obsessed with those whose lives are lived on the rough and ragged edges of society. The way in which William Finnegan splits his time between war correspondence and surfing — two extreme lifestyles on their own, together in one individual — was properly interesting. His clean prose and serious storytelling chops certainly didn’t hurt either. There’s a very good reason this book won him a Pulitzer.

Throughout his childhood in Hawaii, he didn’t fit. An outsider, ethnically and socially. As a child his whole personality seemed to ricochet off of the locale, grasping at a world filled with violence for a handhold to guide him. The time period in which he came of age added to his dissociation among his peers. Eventually he found surfing as a wild, violent, introverted escape from his lack of acceptance. It held just enough of a loner mentality to capture those with similar social needs. This conglomeration of loners he met while chasing waves became his friends; a tertiary social net composed of outcasts.


“We were fellow skeptics—rationalists, readers of books in a world of addled, inane mystics.”


He describes surfing as “a consuming, physically exhausting, joy-drenched reason to live”. One that had a “vaguely outlaw uselessness” that “neatly expressed one’s disaffection.” Who doesn’t want something like that in their life? It’s the reason people free climb, skateboard, race motorcycles, and spend time in the woods, running themselves to exhaustion. It’s why marathons are a thing, bull-fighting, spelunking.

Throughout Barbarian days, Finnegan contrasts the intensity of a life spent surfing, with that of a life spent chasing stories across war-torn countries. These are the divisions that comprise his whole. He sees himself as a man who needs to chase danger, and can only relax after having exhausted that part of himself. I can relate to a tiny degree. He can only be calm when he has faced his intense, possible death. I can only truly rest when I’ve exhausted my dual needs for effective productivity and creative endeavor. I need to see evidence of my existence in the world or I can never be still.

Eventually he would settle down: marriage, children, home ownership, and moving to New York City did indeed soften him somewhat, but the fire at his core was never extinguished. It only sat at a simmer, waiting to be flooded with the particular brand of fuel needed to burn up the excess energy of his life.

After writing up a report of those around him — including other reporters — dying in the act of journaling the insanity they were embedded in, he would surf. Every chance he got, he would surf. The fervor with which he expressed his desire to surf, was never repetitive. Surfing, it seems, is part addiction, part meditation. A calming obsession for the soul.

Being not remotely interested in surfing, or living that kind of life, I was still fascinated to see the myriad ways something I had previously thought extremely repetitious — the act of waiting for a wave, catching it, riding it back to shore, again and again — was instead full of rapturous intrigue, and a kind of fascination that I had not previously known associated with any sort of sport.

My favorite parts of this book, again having no interest in surfing myself, were the human moments between surfing sessions. The characters that populate this memoir, were so interesting, simply because they weren’t normal people. They live intense, chaotic lives, left of center, unstable, but full of passion. Something most of our stable, silly lives could use a lot more of.

A life in vans, sleeping on beaches, running from cops, defrauding American Express to pay for hospitalization due to malaria. These are wild lives. People who thrive only through chasing death, and therefore have a better grasp on what a good life might entail. Things most of us are far too cowardly to do ourselves—or I am at least.


“If this was a religion, perhaps it didn’t bear thinking about what was being worshipped.”


A particularly touching moment in Barbarian Days is when William asks his wife why she never gets angry about all of the “stupid risky things” he does. She responds that she simply assumed he needed to do them. “When things get bad, I think you get very calm,” she says. “I trust your judgment.” It’s such a tender moment that illuminates a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

They all seem like intense people, even the girlfriends of his youth and his eventual wife. Artist to lawyer is not a normal career path to follow, but it makes sense for her. It shows an intensity in all things. A life full of passion. And who doesn’t want to read about passionate people?

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: The World Made Flat

Exit West, by Mohsin HamidMohsin Hamid has created something wonderful with this endearing, and perfectly formed short novel. What an evocative and striking way to discuss refugees, ideological war, tribalism, and love. This book broke through my exterior barriers and nurtured something tender inside of me. It seems for the most part, people are really the same, and we all want the same things regardless of where we come from: security, companionship, and the means to better ourselves. The things we’ve lived through, our experiences, coalesce and form us into who we are, shaping the basis of what we might become.

“We are all migrants through time.”

Windows and doors feature heavily in Exit West. The dangers of the ongoing war between the militants and the government in our protagonists’ unnamed middle eastern country, enter through windows. As the war grows more serious, every glass pane holds within it the potential to become lacerating shrapnel. The ongoing fighting perverts everything into something it was never intended to be. Windows into shrapnel. Streets into battlegrounds. Characters are killed accidentally through the glass windshields of their cars by misguided munitions. Windows are boarded up, taped up, or obscured for security, limiting the light available indoors.

Doors are where the magical aspect of the story comes into play. Most of the time doors operate as normal, allowing passage from one room to another, from outside to inside, or inside to out. But sometimes, at seemingly random and unpredictable moments, certain doors have started leading elsewhere, to adjacent doors in other lands. Offering a means of escape from local dangers, and passage to the relative safety and wealth of the West. Doors like these are opening up all over the world, and just as the relative size of the world was flattened and reduced dramatically with the invention of the internet, these doors literally fold and flatten the space between the Eastern and Western, Southern and Northern corners of the world. The myriad ways in which this change impacts the societies in the novel was the most interesting aspect of the story for me.

As the effective distance between continents diminishes, the realities of the world that were once far away from the wealthy and fortunate, were once nebulous and ethereal to them, are made vividly real and close. Travel, particularly meeting and interacting with those unlike ourselves, is said to be one of the best ways to overcome existing prejudices and preconceived notions about those from human tribes different from our own. With these doors that have started connecting us, everyone, everywhere has now come into contact with several individuals unlike themselves. Millions begin fleeing from the poorer nations to the richer ones, and this starts to cause a rapid change and instability among the natives of the richer lands.

“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

This change is met with a variety of responses: fear, compassion, intrigue, curiosity, hope, etc. What Exit West does so well is give a glimpse into the daily realities of refugees fleeing from war torn countries, the sorts of terrors they can be running from, the sort of hope they often subside on. It broke my heart, and I think will go a long way toward making me a better, more compassionate person.

In addition to the wonderful social commentary, Exit West is also a love story of the highest caliber, a magically real fairy tale, unafraid to shy away from the realities of love, loss, and the changes quickened or postponed by devastating circumstances. The relationship between Saeed and Nadia grows and expands as the narrative progresses. They are one thing to each other in the beginning and another thing entirely by the end. They meet as students of higher education in their country of origin, and I found it interesting to compare and contrast their story with that of a western couple meeting for the first time at a college in America. In a lot of ways, the extreme situations they find themselves in, possibly hold them together for longer than would be ideal had they been born into different circumstances.

As someone who has never had a similar experience, I found the ways in which Nadia was able to insulate and protect herself in a culture she felt somewhat apart from, particularly interesting. The ways in which a system sometimes inadvertently makes available tools with which we can protect ourselves from that system is a fascinating area to examine. I think it speaks toward the ingenuity of humans to utilize everything that is available to us to better our prospects and secure the future we desire.

“He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.”

All of my friends who have previously read Exit West specifically mentioned to me that the ending crushed them, brought them to tears or reduced them into a weeping, bumbling mess. It didn’t have that effect on me at all. Instead, I found it unbelievably beautiful, and I sat in contemplative awe, marveling at how perfect the ending was, that the author had pulled it off so elegantly. How in retrospect it was the only possible real ending, and the one I hoped the book would arrive at. It was an evocative, emotionally satisfying scene to finish the story.

To me, Exit West is overall, a hopeful novel, but it touches on deadly serious themes and the brutalities of human existence. I found it moving and beautifully expressed. It is a book that I plan on revisiting many times throughout my life.

Recent SF: Hidden Gems from Mainstream Publishers

There are tons of science fiction and fantasy publishers these days. From Tor to Orbit, Del Rey to Night Shade Books, EOS, ACE, Solaris, etc, chances are you’re familiar with at least a few of these. Some of the SF publishers you’re familiar with are independent, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Most of them are owned by just five publishing houses (the big five).

As readers, we become familiar with the names of these publishers and trust them as marks of quality or as indicators that we might like a new book. I have particularly loved recent titles from Orbit and Tor, whose books have deservedly dominated the Hugo, Nebula and Locus award nominations and winners in the last few years. The flip side of this affinity for the same few publishers is that a lot of great SF novels published by non SF imprints can go under noticed by the SF community.

There have been several terrific recent science fiction and fantasy novels from mainstream literary imprints and independent publishers that I think deserve much more attention than they received. I’ve put this list together to remind readers that there is quality SF all over the place. Most of the books in this list are still from the big five, but I’ve included some from smaller, independent publishers as well. They are all wonderfully well rounded stories, told through beautiful language. Hopefully you’ll find something you like, or maybe even a new favorite. Enjoy!

Version Control, Dexter PalmerVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016, Pantheon/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

Although Rebecca Wright has pieced her life back together after a major tragedy, she can’t shake a sense that the world around her feels off-kilter. Meanwhile, her husband’s dedication to his invention, “the causality violation device” (which he would greatly prefer you not call a time machine) has effectively stalled his career—but he may be closer to success than either of them can possibly imagine. Emotionally powerful and wickedly intelligent, Version Control is a stunningly prescient novel about the effects of science and technology on our lives, our friendships, and our sense of self that will alter the way you see the future—and the present.

Why it’s awesome:
Dexter PalmerThis was one of my favorite reads from the last few years. It came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass in 2016. It’s a slow burn novel with one of the most emotionally fulfilling conclusions that I have ever read. It’s a highly character driven, yet cerebral examination of causality, physics, and concepts like parallel worlds and time travel. But it never loses it’s core focus: humanity, and human relationships.

It’s set in a near near-future, and does a fantastic job of telling a beautiful story about the far reaching effects that advances in technology might bring to our lives, particularly the collision of the Maker/DIY community and advanced self driving vehicles.

Version Control is a masterpiece of literature, SF or otherwise.

Void Star, by Zachary MasonVoid Star, by Zachary Mason (2017, FSG)

Publisher Synopsis:

Not far in the future the seas have risen and the central latitudes are emptying, but it’s still a good time to be rich in San Francisco, where weapons drones patrol the skies to keep out the multitudinous poor. Irina isn’t rich, not quite, but she does have an artificial memory that gives her perfect recall and lets her act as a medium between her various employers and their AIs, which are complex to the point of opacity. It’s a good gig, paying enough for the annual visits to the Mayo Clinic that keep her from aging.
Kern has no such access; he’s one of the many refugees in the sprawling drone-built favelas on the city’s periphery, where he lives like a monk, training relentlessly in martial arts, scraping by as a thief and an enforcer. Thales is from a different world entirely―the mathematically inclined scion of a Brazilian political clan, he’s fled to L.A. after the attack that left him crippled and his father dead.
A ragged stranger accosts Thales and demands to know how much he can remember. Kern flees for his life after robbing the wrong mark. Irina finds a secret in the reflection of a laptop’s screen in her employer’s eyeglasses. None are safe as they’re pushed together by subtle forces that stay just out of sight.

Why it’s awesome:
Zachary MasonIt not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jump-start your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

Read the full Heradas review of Void Star

Little Sister, by Barbara GowdyLittle Sister, by Barbara Gowdy (2017, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman’s body.
Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister.
In Little Sister, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood.

Why it’s awesome:
Barbara Gowdy Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Read the full Heradas review of Little Sister

Gnomon, Nick HarkawayGnomon, by Nick Harkaway (2018, Knopf/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.
When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.
Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.
A dazzling, panoramic achievement, and Nick Harkaway’s most brilliant work to date, Gnomon is peerless and profound, captivating and irreverent, as it pierces through strata of reality and consciousness, and illuminates how to set a mind free. It is a truly accomplished novel from a mind possessing a matchless wit infused with a deep humanity.

Why it’s awesome:
Nick HarkawayGnomon is simultaneously many different things: A cautionary tale about our modern moment’s convergence of technology, surveillance, and human hubris. A matryoshkian novel, as narratively complex as it is straightforward and readable, that is itself ultimately all about storytelling, narrative, and books. A satisfyingly self-aware postmodern book that wants access to your mind as a tool to self-propagate. A beautifully designed physical book (Chip Kidd doesn’t mess around). A book that teaches you how to read it as you read it.

Gnomon is also staggeringly vast in its scope and ambition: It’s about math, immigration, surveillance, sharks, encryption, ancient Rome, video games, economics, hive minds, the near future, the far future, liberty and security, mirrors and parallels, disconnection, right angles, mythology, time travel, social manipulation, the human connectome, steganography, racism, intertextuality, detective novels, religion, castouts, manipulation, our ever changing definition of reality, interrogation, torture, and so many, many other things.

If you like books by Borges, Neal Stephenson, Cherise Wolas, David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace or Ted Chiang, this is one I think you will immensely enjoy.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeerBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer (2016, MCD)

Publisher Synopsis:

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.
One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.
“He was born, but I had borne him.”
But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Why it’s awesome:
Jeff VanderMeerJeff VanderMeer is a literary author, writing almost exclusively speculative fiction. He’s at the center of that illusive Venn diagram containing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Literary Fiction, and belongs in whatever section of your bookshelf Octavia Butler, Adam Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Dexter Palmer and Gene Wolfe inhabit.

All of the VanderMeer story staples are here in full force: Ruinous ecology, strange bioluminescent life, forgotten memories, a misplaced sense of self-identity, life that might not be human, animals that (maybe) used to be human, a hint of something much larger happening on the periphery, a creepy company meddling in things they shouldn’t, and a perfect mix of mystery and resolution in the story. All told through beautiful prose that itself lends an eerie literary landscape for the rich characters to inhabit.

The most obvious comparison here is VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, being his most recent work. I can guarantee that if you enjoyed those novels, you’re very much going to enjoy Borne. Maybe even more so. I could even make a case that it is entirely possible, and doesn’t take all that much head canon, to connect Borne to the Southern Reach novels.

Read the full Heradas review of Borne

Mort(e), Robert RepinoMort(e), by Robert Repino (2015, SOHO)

Publisher Synopsis:

The “war with no name” has begun, with human extinction as its goal. The instigator of this war is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who, for thousands of years, have been silently building an army that would forever eradicate the destructive, oppressive humans. Under the Colony’s watchful eye, this utopia will be free of the humans’ penchant for violence, exploitation and religious superstition. As a final step in the war effort, the Colony uses its strange technology to transform the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.
Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions and fighting the dreaded human bio-weapon EMSAH. But the true motivation behind his recklessness is his ongoing search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will take him from the remaining human strongholds to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the source of EMSAH and the ultimate fate of all of earth’s creatures.

Why it’s awesome:
Robert RepinoA terrific, wholly original story. Brutal, straightforward and unflinching yet really fun at the same time. It had elements of Planet of the Apes and the better works of Heinlein, but with a lot more heart.

Mort(e) did that thing that only SF can do so well. It told a story about humanity and all the things that we get wrong, transplanted into a completely alien, unfamiliar point of view, so as not too come across as obviously preachy. Repino removed the “serial numbers” from a great story about humanity, and turned in a thrilling science fiction tale.

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch (2018, Putnam)

Publisher Synopsis:

Inception meets True Detective in this science fiction thriller of spellbinding tension and staggering scope that follows a special agent into a savage murder case with grave implications for the fate of mankind…
Shannon Moss is part of a clandestine division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In western Pennsylvania, 1997, she is assigned to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL’s family—and to locate his vanished teenage daughter. Though she can’t share the information with conventional law enforcement, Moss discovers that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra—a ship assumed lost to the currents of Deep Time. Moss knows first-hand the mental trauma of time-travel and believes the SEAL’s experience with the future has triggered this violence.
Determined to find the missing girl and driven by a troubling connection from her own past, Moss travels ahead in time to explore possible versions of the future, seeking evidence to crack the present-day case. To her horror, the future reveals that it’s not only the fate of a family that hinges on her work, for what she witnesses rising over time’s horizon and hurtling toward the present is the Terminus: the terrifying and cataclysmic end of humanity itself.
Luminous and unsettling, The Gone World bristles with world-shattering ideas yet remains at its heart an intensely human story.

Why it’s awesome:
Tom SweterlitschThis is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

Read the full Heradas review of The Gone World

The New and Improved Romie FutchThe New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott (2015, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

A debut novel that is part dystopian satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale: a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a surreal New South where newfangled medical technologies change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape.
Down on his luck and still pining for his ex-wife, South Carolina taxidermist Romie Futch spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet before passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he replies to an ad and becomes a research subject in an experiment conducted by the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia. After “scientists” download hifalutin humanities disciplines into their brains, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs start debating the works of Foucault and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. The enhanced taxidermist, who once aspired to be an artist, returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his work and revive his failed marriage. As Romie tracks down specimens for his elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he develops an Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog that has been terrorizing Hampton County. Cruising hog-hunting websites, he learns that this lab-spawned monster possesses peculiar traits. Pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists, Romie becomes entangled in the enigma of Hogzilla’s origins.
Exploring the interplay between nature and culture, biology and technology, reality and art, The New and Improved Romie Futch probes the mysteries of memory and consciousness, offering a darkly comic yet heartfelt take on the contemporary human predicament.

Why it’s awesome:

Julia ElliottA glorious postmodern tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

Julia Elliot’s prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

Tin House is one of my favorite smaller independent publishers in the business today. In addition to publishing ten or so terrific books each year, they also run the Tin House literary magazine, which recently published a new all time favorite story by Julia Elliott in their Candy issue.

Read the full Heradas review of The New and Improved Romie Futch

The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschSometimes the best way to experience a novel is going in completely blind. I found The Gone World at my local library bookshop and had no idea what I was getting myself into, in the best way. Reading it split my head clean open. From the first page to the last, I was enthralled. After finishing the novel, it left me in this kind of fugue state that I haven’t been able to escape. It completely blindsided me. Usually I dislike the phrase “compulsively readable” but it definitely applies here. I couldn’t put it down, I had to know what was going on in this story.

The Gone World is a bit of a genre-bender, so I’m going to back up and talk about genre a little. Several years ago the visual artist Ward Shelley created a piece chronicling the history of science fiction. He began with the roots of the genre: Fear and Wonder, Speculation and Observation, and traced them down through Philosophy and Cultural Criticism all the way to our current moment, marking notable works along the way. Forgive my oversimplification of this magnificent piece of art (you really should check it out for yourself, it’s quite a thing), but there’s a moment along the visual line where a branch occurs, Science and eventually Science Fiction coming through The Enlightenment, the Gothic Novel and eventually Horror following from the Counter-Enlightenment/Anti-Rational thread. These disparate lineages, one born of Fear, the other of Wonder, branch out into genres and sub-genres, staying mostly separate. What The Gone World does so expertly is marry the pre-horror Gothic novel “fear” back together with Science Fiction’s “wonder” in perfectly equal measure.

War Shelley's History of Science Fiction

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

“The totality of human endeavor is nothing when set against the stars.”

Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World’s prologue begins with a hell of a hook. I haven’t been hooked like this in the first few pages of a novel in a long time. This is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Neill BlomkampI little googling revealed that both of Tom Sweterlitsch’s novels have been optioned for film adaptations, and that The Gone World is set to be written/directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium). In addition to this, Sweterlitsch co-wrote several of those incredible Oats Studios short films that Blomkamp directed last year. If you haven’t seen them yet, check them out. They’re terrific. It’s been recently announced that Blomkamp’s next film will be a direct sequel to the original Robocop, which makes me worried his adaptation of The Gone World may be on the back burner for now. Only time will tell.

The Gone World gut-punched my head over and over again, which is enough to solidify my interest in everything that Sweterlitsch does from here on out.

The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis: Trapped in Subjectivity

The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton EllisWhenever I’m the mood for fiction about first world problems, unloved rich kids and the fucked up lives they lead, I reach for something by Bret Easton Ellis. I get on a serious kick for this kind of stuff sometimes. Transgressive fiction, I’ve heard it called. Maybe it’s soothing to my soul to think that an abundance of money doesn’t necessarily alleviate our problems. Maybe I get a heavy slathering of schadenfreude by reading representations of the most fortunate among us enduring harrowing emotional torment. Whatever the cause, when I’m in the mood for this type of stuff, Ellis hits the spot perfectly.

As a teenager, Chuck Palahniuk was my go to when I felt the creeping dread of the unfairness of the world, the uncertainty of life and our lot in it. I quickly grew out of Palahniuk after his fourth or fifth book, I can’t remember precisely which one. He hit some truly brilliant highs from time to time that resonated deeply with my angst riddled teenage mind, but it quickly became apparent that he had already said what he came to say and wasn’t working in an interesting space any longer. Anyway, I feel like Bret Easton Ellis is probably who Palahniuk was most inspired by. They touch on a lot of the same themes, but Ellis does it with a lot more subtlety and grace. Where Palahniuk beats the reader over the head with a theme, Ellis writes his way around it, guiding them toward the conclusion he’s striving for.

“No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other. You’re not ever gonna know me.”

The Rules of Attraction is mostly told through a series of short, unfiltered, internal, first person POV narratives that often contradict one another. They read almost like journal entries or summaries of events. Where these disparate points of view don’t quite align, where they butt up against one another, something more interesting is revealed: how subjective everyone’s reality is, how deep the well of self deception runs within us. We simply can’t see through another’s eyes. Our accounts of reality, our retellings of history, will never align with anyone else’s. We are all fully alone within ourselves, but crave social connection and understanding. It’s a sick joke that we cannot escape.

Bret Easton EllisI didn’t find this story nearly as disturbing as Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero, something that I greatly appreciated, however it’s still pretty messed up: The novel begins with what is arguably a date rape, and continues on to accidental overdoses, suicide, suicide attempts, and continual emotional manipulation. The most disturbing element for me though, was that none of these events seem to phase any of the characters involved. They’re all dead inside, lying to themselves, in heavy denial of something or other, and entirely self-centered. Their apathy is palpable, and drips all over every aspect of their lives.

My suspicion is that this novel is a reflection on the futility of love and relationships, the improbability of knowing one another well enough to communicate from within the infinite walls of experience and subjectivity that separate us from everyone else. We become trapped in our personal experience of the world, each of us wandering around in our locked down boxes, misunderstanding one another as we inadvertently help to reinforce their own boxes.

“What else is there to do in college except drink beer or slit one’s wrists?”

The unfiltered internal thoughts of these characters highlighted for me a youthful period of my own life, a time where my desire for belonging and acceptance within peer groups was paramount. I cared so much what others thought of me, where I stood in relation to them. These needs, only expressed internally, desperately hidden externally, or so I thought. I loved this glimpse into the characters’ emotional lives. It rings true for anyone who remembers being young and caring so much about things that matter so little. I imagine this book would read a lot differently in your twenties, than your thirties or forties.

American PsychoI enjoy the shared universe in which Ellis’ novels take place. “That kid from LA” that is occasionally referenced in The Rules of Attraction is Clay, the protagonist from Less Than Zero. One of the main POV characters, Sean Bateman, is the younger brother of the titular American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, pro/antagonist of Ellis’ follow-up to The Rules of Attraction. Patrick even narrates his own short chapter near the end of the novel. From what I hear, there are little crossover moments like these peppered throughout all of Ellis’ novels, and the connections are not always limited to his own work, but occasionally those written by his contemporaries such as Donna Tartt or Jay McInerney.

I look forward to suffering through all of his stories, along with his coterie of broken, apathetic, wealthy, unloved characters… when I’m in the mood for them that is. Just like a quality psychedelic experience, set and setting are crucial elements with his writing. These novels can be a dreadful, disheartening experience if you’re not in the right state of mind. If you’re up for it though, they’re a blast.

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