Head to the bookstore or pick up your Nook or Kindle or iPad, and prepare, if you will, to make some decisions about your summer reading life. My suggestions this year tend to be fine new fiction, the kind that not only flows on the page but also makes a sort of music in your mind. So, word music it is! Strike up the orchestra! It's going to be a big summer for big broad American literary voices, voices that leap from the page and linger with you, echo through your summer and perhaps even beyond.
Toni Morrison's idiosyncratic short novel Home is full of lush, lyrical, memorable language. The book takes place in that odd time just after the end of the Korean War, when an understandably disturbed veteran named Frank Money comes marching, stumbling sometimes, toward his Lotus, Ga., home. The narrative rhythms, and narrative strategy, seem quite eccentric, if not erratic. But sequences directly out of memory and short chapters that focus on Money's little odyssey make for a memorable, if a bit raggedy, short narrative by one of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction. Morrison shows in her opening page a dramatic sight out of Money's childhood: some horses in a field raising their hooves and "crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes," biting each other like dogs and making the young witnesses hold their breath in wonder. All readers stand forewarned that we will do the same.
Voice, that's what novelist and story writer Richard Ford has called "the music of a story's intelligence." His new novel Canada gives us music aplenty. It's a long, symphonic piece of work set in Montana and Saskatchewan, about a pair of prairie teenagers, Dell Parsons and his twin sister Berner. Their parents, befuddled and in debt, set out to rob a bank — and fumble it — leaving the children to fend for themselves.
Dell Parsons, telling their story some 50 years after the events in question, strikes up a memorable tone, a signature voice of Ford's invention, broad enough to include both past regrets and current knowledge. In this passage, for example, Dell describes their father's physical state and state of mind just before the robbery:
I will say this about our father. All during the night when we were a family, laughing, joking, eating — ignoring what was hanging over us — his features had changed ... When he'd left home two days before, he'd looked fleshy and exhausted. His features had been loose and indistinct and washed out — as if his every step was reluctant and unpracticed. But when he came back that night and strode around the house declaring on what interested him — satellites, South American politics, organ transplants, how all our lives could be better — his features looked sharpened and chiseled. In the grainy light above our supper table, he'd become intent and precise-looking.
Lauren Groff is a new voice out of the territory of the American imagination. In her second novel, Arcadia, she adds greatly to the resonance of this summer's reading. Groff invents a great American project — a commune, peopled by hundreds and hundreds — in upstate New York in the 1970s. As she narrates the story of its many inhabitants, seen through the eyes of a fellow named Bit over the course of his young life, she tells us a larger story about our country and ourselves. "It isn't important if the story was ever true," she says. "Bit manipulates images: he knows stories don't need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves." Or, in a voice as lyrically powerful as hers, and with a story as vital as this, we are gaining, always gaining.
The Queen's Lover
The voice of history rises up out of the pages of a persuasive new novel, Francine du Plessix Gray's The Queen's Lover. Lush music emanates from the lives of high figures at court during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history. This lively, incredibly readable, definitely R-rated version of the life and death of Marie Antoinette — as told by her lover, the Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen — grows out of Gray's deep familiarity with the historical documents. The novel reads like a seamless account of von Fersen's not-so-secret romance with the queen, life at court (with the corpulent Louis XVI presiding over a mob of free-loading courtiers, a mob of rats who thrive on the cast-off meals, and then encountering the revolutionary mob that upends his life and rule), the pathetic last weeks of the royal family, and von Fersen's own downward trajectory. His voice swings from ecstatic accounts of his lovemaking with Marie Antoinette to the dark and devastating record of her last hour when, as he put it in his memoirs, "the vision of the open tumbrel drawn by two farm horses seemed to startle her terribly" and she asks the executioner "to untie her hands so that she could relieve herself. This she did, squatting in a corner of the prison wall. Then she offered her hands ... so that he might tie them again."
From sublime affairs of state to the stark and vulgar popular culture of our own contemporary lives, let's make this descent into the lower tones together and recognize the dark entertainment in the voices of both a complaining husband and an aggrieved wife. This good nasty fun comes to us in Gone Girl, Chicago writer Gillian Flynn's novel about the mysterious disappearance of a clever and deceptive young Midwestern housewife. It's a noir he-said-she-said, and all the lamenting, confessions, and plotting and police work leads to an ending you'll never be able to predict. Here, the two voices riff on each other:
Nick Dunne: When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it ... She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily ...
Amy Elliot, diary entry: Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this ... I met a boy!
Gone Girl is a beach book you won't mind being seen with this summer.
May all of these fictional voices, these stories, echo through your summer. I wish you good listening.