What do ennui in suburban Connecticut, a murder in the Basque country of Spain and a colony based on sun worship and coconuts in the South Seas have in common? Not much really, except the fact they feature prominently in three novels I recently read and enjoyed. I can usually find some kind of link between the books I like but I’m at a loss on these three, alas. So I will resort to expressing myself like the grammatically challenged Frankenstein’s monster (the one played by Boris Karloff not the Mary Shelley version): Three books. Me like.
The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora
The characters in this series of interlocking short stories, set in the fictional Connecticut town of Old Cranbury, may seem very familiar at first. Much like the characters that inhabit the stories of John Cheever and Richard Yates, they tend to suffer from the classic east coast suburban turmoil of suddenly questioning their roles at work and at home. But in many of the stories, Acampora adds a touch of the odd that makes this collection stand out. There is the wealthy business man who bribes his wife’s surgeon to get closer to her than ever before in the operating room, the aging art professor who risks life and limb to decorate his neighbor’s house with large synthetic insects, and the colonial history reenactors who resort to breaking and entering to preserve the neighborhood’s architectural integrity. While these tales can be strange and at times disturbing they are also funny and entertaining in a ‘misery loves company’ sort of way.
All That Followed: A Novel by Gabriel Urza
The murder of a Spanish politician in the small village of Muriga by a group of Basque separatists serves as the central event in this debut novel. The book isn’t a ‘who done it’, however, but rather a ‘why did they do it.’ In getting to the why, it becomes clear that politics is of minimal importance. Instead the reader gets a multilayered view of the village and its inhabitants with the story jumping in time and place to better get at the complexity of the situation. There are three narrators, each offering a unique perspective: Joni, an English teacher from the U.S. who has been living in Muriga for half a century, Mariana, the widow of the slain politician and Iker, a former student of Joni’s and a participant in the murder. The multiple perspectives, combined with the author’s excellent use of language and tone, help to peel back the layers of meaning. A truth, of sorts, is revealed that feels authentic but gives no easy answers.
Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht
Based on an amazing but true story, this novel tells the tale of August Engelhardt who in 1902 set sail for German New Guinea in the south seas to found a colony based on the worship of the sun, an exclusive diet of coconuts, and nudity. As you might guess, things didn’t turn out so well for Mr. Engelhardt and the author uses his plight to create a satiric fable skewering the allure of extremism and its inherent danger. The absurdist tone of the book is enhanced by the author’s writing style which often uses the language of classic adventure tales and at its best, a bit of Joseph Conrad. The story is mainly set on Engelhardt’s coconut plantation as things begin to fall apart but it bounces around in place and time to include cameos by odd figures such as the inventor of Vegemite spread and a fraudulent guru who believes he can live on sunshine exclusively. While difficult to categorizes, it is safe to say that Imperium is a playful and biting satire about an ultimately serious subject.
While the connections between these three books elude me, I do know one thing: They are well worth your limited reading time.