Lately, Zoli, The Pride of Baghdad and The Unbinding

Here are four new books I’ve been spending time with:

Lately by Sara Pritchard

Sara Pritchard has got to be the most whimsical, least self-important postmodernist on the scene. Her new Lately is a slim, bright story collection with something like a black velvet Lassie painting on the cover. The characters in these stories are very witty and very self-aware, so much so that Pritchard manages to spin off one good story after another with barely a touch of plot, suspense or symbolism. The people just say funny things and think funny things, as in the story about a fabulous “divorce party” with a black cake, a wedding dress dyed black in a laundromat, and a Bob Dylan theme song. Nothing surprising happens in this story; the characters have a great time planning the party, and then they have a great time at the party. Somehow, it works as fiction.

Basically, Pritchard’s secret is that she writes characters you want to hang out with. It’s a good technique, though I do feel the absence of any visible cutting edge in these stories, and I do find the absolutely languid pace sometimes aggravating. One of her characters daydreams about Raymond Carver — that’s the whole story. Sara Pritchard is sort of a virgin Pina Colada version of Ann Beattie. And somehow the stories work.

Zoli by Colum McCann

Zoli is a historical novel about a young Gypsy (or, Romani) refugee girl in Czechoslovokia who is persecuted by fascists, and then co-opted into a celebrity singer and poet by the Communists who take over after World War II. Her gypsy blood is drained out of her, first by her lovable Marxist grandfather (who hid Das Kapital so nobody would catch him reading it) and then by the Stalinist bureaucrats who manage her career. This is a tough, hard-hitting book about an important small ethnic segment of the world’s population that we hear very little about.

My only gripe with Zoli is in the byzantine narrative structure. We hop back and forth between decades and between narrators, and with each hop the story gets slightly more difficult to follow. I think a straight narrative would have served these characters and this plot better. Still, if you like historical fiction you will find this book very satisfying.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

I don’t read a lot of comic books (or “graphic novels”) but this one was specially recommended to me. It’s a beautiful short volume that spells out a simple story. When Baghdad is bombed in 2003, a few talking lions escape captivity (as they’d dreamed of doing their entire lives) and roam the city in a paroxysm of curiosity and anxiety. They are then shot down by American soldiers. This is apparently a true story, and the artistry here is all in the economy of the telling. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, and the blunt ending perfectly captures the desolation of the whole tale.

The Unbinding by Walter Kirn

I like Walter Kirn’s articles in the New York Times Book Review very much, so I was disappointed that I couldn’t get into his experimental cyber-composed novel about love in the age of satellite personal safety networks. The story is told by multiple overlapping narrators, but most of their prose voices are surprisingly flat and undistinguished.

Kirn regularly composes powerful sentences of acidic perfection for the New York Times Book Review. There’s no question that he can write well, so why is this prose so plodding?

Perhaps Kirn is trying to get into the heads of his inarticulate and repressed characters, but if so I’d have to say that the strategy doesn’t play to his strengths, and I’d suggest he write a novel from the point of view of an erudite book critic next time, so he can let his style flow.

* * * * *

It’s interesting that both Colum McCann and Walter Kirn stumble over their overly complicated narrative structures, which must be a big fad these days. I hope future writers will remember that the phrase “Keep it simple, stupid” works for novelists too.

Beyond that, all four of these books have something to offer. If you’re going to read just one, make it Zoli, but you may like them all.

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