Message in a Bottle
Fall Fiction

No high-falutin’ philosophizing today, just a rundown of some new releases you should definitely know about.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: The Pulitzer Prize board and I don’t often see eye to eye, but I couldn’t fault them when they rewarded The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon is often awesome and always interesting; even when he released an excerpt of a failed, unfinished novel I wanted to read it. His latest fiction relates the saga of Brokeland Records, “a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland.” The opening of a new mega-store threatens the shop and its longtime owners, but are they really the best arbiters of neighborhood values? How does a community that prides itself on its progressiveness deal with change when it comes? Telegraph Avenue is a 21st-century social novel that stands with the greats of ages past.

NW by Zadie Smith: Smith published her first novel, White Teeth, back in 2000, and I’ve liked her work ever since, despite that she’s a good deal younger and more talented than I am. That first book was referred to by the critic James Wood as an example of “hysterical realism,” a term he coined to describe fiction that pursues “vitality at all costs” and consequently “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being.” I’m not sure how valid that criticism was then, but it’s certainly not now—Smith employs a more mature, less frantic voice these days, but she’s still one of the best at depicting life in a modern metropolis. Her characters are of all colors and classes, and she makes them collide oh-so-creatively. NW follows four childhood friends as they forge adult lives outside of the subsidized housing block where they grew up, and it’s one of the novels I’ve been anticipating most this September.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz: Here’s another Pulitzer Prize-winner that I didn’t hate. Díaz won in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but his literary triumph was offset by a disastrous breakup in his personal life. That catastrophe proved to be the impetus for this collection of stories, all about the travails of relationships. This is not an author who cries quietly into his coffee cup, though. He’s more likely to rage and sling Dominican-inflected profanity about the page. Raw though the book is, it’s never just a screed. Díaz has an insider’s understanding of the machismo that often traps his characters, and he’s remarkably frank and self-lacerating about the costs that mentality inflicts. There’s more real insight here than in a hundred self-help books.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max: It’s not fiction, but a biography of the most iconic fiction writer of this generation. David Foster Wallace enjoyed success from a very young age as the author of many acclaimed works, including his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, but his personal life was rife with troubles, from addiction to crippling depression. He killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46 after having tried to wean himself (with his doctor’s approval) off medication. Wallace was public about his struggles, but never romanticized them the way many of his peers and forebears did theirs. He was rigidly opposed to the myth of the tortured artist and long before his death had become a model and mentor to countless other writers and fans, making his death feel particularly tragic. As a writer, Max can’t compete with Wallace’s style (few could) but this is an essential read for anyone with any interest in Wallace’s once-in-a-generation voice.

All of the above books are out now or will be within the week. Coming later in September are others I’ve got my eye on. The Story of My Assassins by Indian writer Tarun Tejpal is based on real events—it tells the story of a journalist who begins to investigate the five hitmen who’ve been arrested on their way to kill him. It’s a crime novel with considerable depth, and it’s from Melville House, one of my favorite publishers.

                        

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling needs little introduction. This is the first adult novel from the woman who brought us Harry Potter, and I’m eager to find out what kind of literary chops she’s got when her canvas is an ordinary English town instead of an imaginary landscape filled with horcruxes and sorting hats.

In Sunlight and in Shadow is by Mark Helprin, the author of the beloved (by me and many others) Winter’s Tale, and his latest novel seems to be a return to that earlier book’s setting in a phantasmagoric version of New York. A soldier returning from World War II catches sight of a beautiful young woman on a ferry and a romance is instantly sparked that will play out across time and the city. Perhaps it was inspired by one of my favorite scenes from the great film Citizen Kane. I won’t quote the speech to you now, but I remember it as well as that old man remembered his lady in white.

—James

Elementary, My Dear Readers

Adapting literature into films and TV shows is apparently a trend again. The Twilight series was a great success, The Avengers has been an absolute blockbuster (comic books are at least as literary as Twilight, if not more so), and even the art-house crowd is on the bandwagon. Reports indicate that the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is likely to go to an adaptation for just the third time this millennium. The hottest property of the moment, though, is probably the BBC series Sherlock.

In case you’re not already familiar with it, Sherlock updates the classic Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories and brings them into the present day. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is as uncannily capable as the original character, but his performance accentuates Holmes’s prickly arrogance and the strain of dealing with the lesser intellects around him—which is to say, everyone else in the world. Contemporary diagnosticians would call his manner pathological, perhaps assigning him a spot on the autism spectrum, and the show is not afraid to mention that issue. Similarly, modern sensibilities find the intense connection between Sherlock and his sidekick John Watson (played by Martin Freeman) difficult to digest, and the duo becomes the subject of jokes and the object of sidelong glances. Hearing about these updates before the series aired, I was afraid that the result would be a descent into gimmickry, with an essentially Victorian figure who would try to juggle a meerschaum pipe and a cell phone for laughs, but that’s not at all the case. Sherlock's Sherlock pays tribute to his predecessors, but he's his own man, which is as it should be. Why remake something if you're going to slavishly copy it or tear it completely apart in the process?

There’s something special about the character that makes him endlessly renewable. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as the most frequently portrayed figure in film, with over 75 actors taking on the role in 211 movies. Writers, too, have felt free to try on the deerstalker cap and solve the crimes that they commit to paper. There are versions of the great detective who must not only cope with the unusual, but also the fantastical, as in the stories collected in The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, and others pit their hero against ghosts, extinct dinosaurs, and even malicious deities—successfully, natch. The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures is an anthology that plays things a little straighter, if you prefer that your investigations remain on more realistic ground. Maybe the most notable incarnation of Holmes in recent years is Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, in which an aged and misanthropic beekeeper picks up his magnifying glass one last time to unravel the secrets of a young escapee from Nazi Germany, and in so doing, confront the greatest crime of the 20th century. 

   

Of course, the original tales are the place to start, whether you’re newly introducing yourself to the character or paying him a repeat visit. Almost all of them are in the public domain, so there are dozens, if not hundreds of different options available. The most pleasing might be these beautiful, fully annotated versions of the short stories and the novels. When you think you’re ready to match wits with the master, you can pick up Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, which attempts to show how Arthur Conan Doyle himself couldn’t keep up with his creation. None of us can, really, not even the evil genius Professor Moriarty. Sherlock’s been going strong for 125 years now, since long before any of us were born, and he’ll undoubtedly be connecting clues long after we’re gone. 

—James

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