The Fatness, by Mark A. Rayner / ****

61iyv8rqaulIt wasn’t until I finished The Fatness, Mark A. Rayner’s satirical novel about obesity and how we handle it both personally and as a society, that I realized that I had read an earlier book by Rayner. Back in 2013, Rayner sent me a review copy of his novel The Fridgularity, another piece of satire, this one focusing on our dependence on social media and the internet. The Fridgularity, I wrote at the time, was “entertaining, if not entirely successful”; it was often very, very funny, but felt a bit spread thin at times, and struggled when it came to plotting. Nonetheless, the ideas and the writing were solid, and the book as a whole was a lot of fun.

I bring this up largely to say that, when I realized that The Fatness was from the same writer, I was really impressed, because it was clear that Rayner had learned from his mistakes in that book while never turning away from what he did well; The Fatness is every bit as wild and funny as The Fridgularity, but its focus, plotting, and character work are all far tighter, and its satirical points all the more effective for that craft.

The Fatness takes place in Canada – but more specifically, it takes place in a mandatory health center known derisively to its occupants as “the Fatness”. In Rayner’s novel, insurance companies, public disgust, and societal pressures have resulted in those above a certain BMI to be more or less forced into these centers until they’re able to reduce their weight. Mind you, as Rayner reminds us in his humorous interstitial notes between chapters, losing weight isn’t as simple as that, and to blame the obese for their weight loss is often to overlook all of the factors that have gone into this modern trend of obesity – factors that range from fast food technology to modern jobs to diets and more.

Rayner reins in some of the more excessive aspects of his style here that occasionally threw The Fridgularity off balance, instead keeping this largely grounded with just enough exaggeration to make his points. (The one exception is the recurring hallucinations plot line, which is sometimes funny but often just a bit odd and out of place.) Instead, he focuses on a society that judges the obese and finds them wanting, preferring to keep them out of sight and judging them for their faults, even as they’re using them to line their corporate and personal pockets. It’s trenchant stuff, but Rayner makes it work by investing us in his characters and their story, and allowing the environment and world to make his critiques.

As with most good works of satire, The Fatness goes for broke sometimes, taking on Weight Watchers, fast food corporations, dating expectations, gender norms, exercise fads, ludicrous dieting therapies, and more; what’s good, though, is that he makes it all feel of a piece, instead of scattering it too far afield. Everything in The Fatness feels like it matters to the story, and Rayner’s ability to both take on so much and make it feel streamlined and focused speaks well to his evolution as a writer. And if those interstitial chapters occasionally feel a bit too on the nose – too much telling in place of showing – he makes them self-effacing and light enough to work, allowing him to bring in some research while still making them feel like humorous asides more than lectures.

The result is a lot of fun, and if it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Fridgularity, that’s to the credit of the book; he’s traded the constant jabs for focus, a grounding in his characters, and a discipline that makes the book more engaging and more effective. More than that, as his afterword shows, it shows a writer who’s reflecting on his strengths and weaknesses, and working to make sure that he doesn’t speak for things he can’t understand. All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun, clever read, one that makes its points with all the barbs they deserve while still telling a fun story.

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain / *****

1_192p19605_7One of my all-time favorite novels is Joseph Heller’s seminal World War II satire Catch-22, a vicious, funny, trenchant take on the insanity of war. So when I heard numerous comparisons between Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Heller’s masterpiece, it would be safe to say that my interest was piqued. I’m fascinated by portraits of war with a satirical bent – it’s no accident that so much of my bookshelf is filled with writings about and from the Vietnam War – and the idea of finding a modern take on all of that was super up my alley.

Having read Billy Lynn finally, I totally understand those comparisons; while Billy Lynn is very different from Catch-22, there’s much of the same DNA to be found there: a horror at the violence of war and the way it kills part of us; the conflict between a desire to support your friends and a disgust at the war as a concept; an unflinching look at the way war changes those who fight in it. But Billy Lynn has a very different primary target than Catch-22; while Heller was primarily focused on the insanity of war, Fountain wants to question American “patriotism,” with its easy platitudes, empty cliches, and pointless grandstanding that has little bearing or meaning on the conflict and those who fight in it.

Set entirely during a Dallas Cowboys football game, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows our title character and his fellow grunts from Bravo Platoon as they are theoretically being honored for wartime valor. Survivors of a battle that was captured on video that became a viral hit, especially on Fox News, Lynn and his platoon mates are on a “victory tour” around the country, which mainly means that they’re used in photo ops, forced to endure awkward handshakes and congratulatory ceremonies, and deal with an agent who’s in the midst of attempting to turn their story into a film. Meanwhile, Bravo Platoon is dealing with their own issues: an inability to fit back into the home front, a rapidly growing disgust at the disconnect between themselves and those who they’re protecting, and their increasing unease at their impending return to Iraq and the battle front.

All of which sounds like heavy fare, and in lesser hands, it could be. But in Fountain’s hands, Billy Lynn is rapid-paced, funny, moving, and just plain incredible. From the pitch-perfect depiction of every platitude every soldier hears to his capturing of the vulgar, violent repartee of the soldiers, Fountain gives us a picture of barely controlled anarchy, as Bravo jeers at the civilians who don’t understand them, leers after the members of Destiny’s Child (from a distance, of course), comments on politics, and find a way to make peace with their largely symbolic role in everything around them. Plunging us into the title character’s running commentary, Fountain gives everything a perfectly arched approach, both understanding the awkwardness of all of these events but also the distance between Billy and a world that only loves the idea of him, not the reality. Lynn isn’t some warrior poet, some complex philosopher; he’s a roughneck, albeit one smart enough to see through the pomp and circumstance and roll his eyes at the ridiculously contrived patriotism on display, and see how it’s all about theater, not true love of country.

But more than that, Fountain never lets his themes and ideas overtake the characters and the emotional rhythms of the story. Yes, this is a book about how American patriotism has become a political necessity, and a ticket for grandstanding; yes, it’s a book that’s entirely focused on how soldiers are often only thought of in theory, of how we cope with war by imagining it as a movie, and of how we so often forget our wars or only think of them in abstract terms. But even with all of that, what sticks out in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are the small moments – the trauma as the PTSD kicks in for our soldiers during an absurd halftime show, the rhythms the soldiers have developed in dealing with older men who have their own stories, the profane but hilarious banter between men who have long since quit caring about social norms, the dead-on capturing of every single cliche (my favorite is Fountain’s repurposing of 9/11 as “nina leven,” a meaningless phrase without clear impact anymore)…it’s these moments that make Billy Lynn so effective. Like Catch-22, its targets are clear, its humor sharp, its chaos perfectly controlled – but more than that, it’s the book’s humanity and heart that makes it so great.

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The Daily Show (The Book), by Chris Smith / **** ½

9781455565351I can’t tell you exactly when Jon Stewart became unmissable, appointment TV for me. But sometime in the wake of 9/11, as The Daily Show started to become the institution that it did, I found myself going out of my way to never miss an episode, recording every night’s episode onto an increasingly battered VHS tape, and never letting an evening’s show go unwatched. And as the show evolved, I stuck with it, finding it a voice of reason and sanity in insane times, and no doubt shaping my opinion in so many ways. It was funny, yes, but it was barbed, and heartfelt, and thoughtful, and incisive. It was satire in a time that needed it, and at a time where it was easy to feel like an outcast in Bush’s America.

I say all of this at the outset because there’s no way I can give you a review of The Daily Show (The Book) that’s not through the eyes of a fan of the show (and Stewart). If you didn’t watch this show throughout the years, watch it evolve from the snark and condescension of the Kilborn era into the earnest, trenchant powerhouse it became, I don’t know whether you’ll find this book as fascinating and compelling as I did. Yes, there’s something rich about hearing all of these creators opine about the show and its evolution, but there’s no denying that it’s more resonant, more interesting, for those of us who love the show already.

So what is The Daily Show (The Book), exactly? It’s an oral history of the show, one that starts back with the inception of the original series and follows it to the end of Stewart’s tenure, with chapters around almost every major event of the series – the Crossfire appearance, the Cramer confrontation, Indecision 2000 (and 2004 and 2008…), the love/hate tension with John McCain – all of it is covered and more. But what’s more, by making this an oral history with undeniable range, author Chris Smith allows us to hear this all from the people involved, both in front of the camera and behind. What’s more, while Smith undeniably loves the show, he allows people to be honest throughout, whether it’s McCain explaining why he quit going to the show, hearing former correspondents and staff speak with bitterness about their experiences, or diving into some of the show’s controversies (think that infamous Jezebel post about sexism in the show’s staff, or the Wyatt Cenac blowup). Even Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck are allowed to get some digs in, making their points and giving them a chance to respond to the show’s (or Stewart’s) treatment of them.

For all of that, though, this is a history for those fascinating by how a little show on a neglected cable network became a political powerhouse, a launching point for careers, and a series that literally changed legislation and policy with its voice. It’s also a history of what it takes to make a show like this, and how the things that represented The Daily Show – contradictory video clips, correspondent pieces, hatred of Fox News, Stewart’s interview techniques – were first conceived.

It’s also, though, a wonderfully funny book, because these are funny people. From John Oliver and John Hodgman trading jabs about whiskey to correspondent pranks to further evidence that Stephen Colbert is one of the funniest people alive, the book is laugh out loud funny, with these people sometimes unable to restrain their glee and disbelief at the things they did and got away with. And sometimes, it’s a reminder that the show was funniest when it was silliest – stories of Steve Carrell’s wonderful “Produce Pete” character, or how puppets became part of the show, are just as important as the creation of The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

In short, I can’t give you an entirely objective review of this book – I’m too big of a fan, too emotionally connected to these times and these memories to be objective. It’s a bit skewed towards the show’s reputation, I think, and tends to let the questioning voices be overpowered. But as a history of a show I loved, and a reminder of the people that shaped so much of my political and personal views, it’s a blast – funny, thoughtful, compelling, and just a great read. Highly recommended for any fan of the show – and if you’re not a fan of the show…what’s wrong with you?

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Get Out / *****

get-out-new-posterThere’s a lot that I love about horror, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the way that it so often reflects the fears and worries of a society. From the way that Vietnam influences so many horror films of the sixties and seventies to the way that technology becomes a source of influence into itself in modern times, horror is often a response to our worries, and a way of making clear fears that we’re already suffering. That’s led to a burst of great horror novels as of late that grapple with racial fears in the guise of horror novels, from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom to Matt Huff’s Lovecraft Country.

And now, you can add to that mix Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb, taut piece of horror filmmaking that’s not always as scary as the best horror, but manages to wring astonishing tension and unease out of its premise, beautifully satirizes and makes explicit its commentary and worries about race relations, and does it all while telling a fantastic story and delivering a brilliant, tight script that only floors me more and more as I pick it apart.

In its early going, Get Out is only a horror film in terms of the discomfort and awkwardness it raises, as it follows an interracial couple home to meet the (white) girl’s family. Once they arrive, things get uncomfortable quickly, although not in the way you might expect. There’s no overt racism here; indeed, the girl’s parents are liberal, and go out of their way to make her African-American boyfriend feel comfortable. They praise Obama, they talk about Tiger Woods, they bring up NBA…in other words, they end up being every bit as racist, condescending, and uncomfortable as more overt racism might be, and the discomfort and awkwardness is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the able hands of Jordan Peele, who’s making his feature debut here, we’re immersed in the perspective of Daniel Kaluuya’s calm, exasperated male lead, giving even (and maybe especially) well-meaning white audiences a taste of what it’s like to put up with this sort of garbage. It’s a bravura piece of directorial work, and does a bang-up job of making its points clearly and carefully, and using its unease to maximum effect.

Because there’s more to Get Out than just this racial discomfort. There’s also the few other African-Americans Kaluuya sees in his time with the family, all of whom are unfailingly kind, and servile…and strange. There’s an awkwardness to them, an unnaturalness that’s hard to pin down. But it adds to the discomfort, as we, like Kaluuya, are forced to wonder, is this just a truly awkward, really bizarre, ultra-white family get together? Or is there something else going on here?

Peele has been vocal about the way he’s using The Stepford Wives as a tonal inspiration for the film, and it shows here, giving us a weirdly placid society that seems like it would be utopia for some people, but truly unnatural for others. And like Stepford Wives, much of the film’s unease comes from that careful balancing act, where we’re never quite sure if the film is going to become a true horror film, or if the horror is more personal and less actual, if that makes sense. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Peele does a masterful job here, foregrounding his character’s unease, answering questions satisfyingly but leaving doubt, and turning the screws carefully but unrelentingly.

Because, yes, Get Out isn’t ever quite truly scary, but it’s monstrously tense and unsettling, with some true knockout scenes that work like gangbusters (my favorite is the bizarre image of one of the servants doing his running at night, although Peele’s visualization of the therapy session with his girlfriend’s mother is a beautiful, spectacular image). More than that, Peele has a gift for pacing, letting our discomfort and unease with the racial tensions build, then pushing into more and more upsetting moments before finally giving us some elements that feel beyond what could easily be explainable.

I don’t want to get into what is or isn’t going on; suffice to say, though, that Get Out ends up being a thematically rich film, one where there’s so much metaphorical and thematic depth that you could unpack it for days. Even beyond the satire of well-meaning liberalism, there’s material here about cultural appropriation that’s pretty stunning, to say nothing of the way the film engages with historical and contemporary racial flashpoints. That the film does all that is spectacular; that it does so while never forgetting that it’s telling a story, and a thriller, is even better. The film holds its metaphor together tightly, trusting the audience to pick up on the themes it’s laying down without ever feeling the need to hold our hands. That goes doubly for some of the film’s rich, complex foreshadowing, which delivers payoff after payoff, often so subtly that you won’t realize them until afterward.

(At this point, I’d like to pause and say how much I recommend The Next Picture Show podcast’s episode about Get Out, which features not only some incredible analysis and discussion of the film, but unpacks much of the script’s cleverness, and left me sitting with my jaw agape half the time at the brilliance of it all. And as I read more and more about the film, I realized not just that every single moment is weighted with meaning, but that it’s the rare film that never hammers home its points, trusting its audience to unpack its secrets and be rewarded.)

Yes, Get Out is ultimately a little more successful as a dark satire than it is a horror film. But given how rich that satire is, how thoughtfully complex it is, and best of all, how well executed it is – from the directorial choices to the great acting, from the brilliant script to the tight pacing – it’s hard to complain too much. I loved it when I finished watching it, but as I’ve gotten further and further from it, and thought about it more, I’m all the more swept up by it, and just want to see it again to take it all in a second time. And the fact that Peele says he has several more horror films to come – as well as a TV series based off of Lovecraft Country? Even better.

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The Killbug Eulogies, by Will Madden / ****

34596837There’s something great about a book that embraces a constricting, careful conceit and finds a way to make it work, telling a story that couldn’t be told any other way. (For a great example of this, see Joe Hill’s superb short story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”.) What’s even better is when the conceit is instantly appealing, and Will Madden’s The Killbug Eulogies manages to do both. The idea here is simple: in a war initially reminiscent of that in Starship Troopers, soldiers are asked to deliver eulogies for the fallen, and the book consists solely of those eulogies, with no outside context. That’s a great idea from the get-go, but Madden really runs with it, creating, in effect, a series of short stories that collectively make up a larger arc, story, and novel.

Even better, though, the disconnected nature of the novel allows Madden to take on a wide variety of modes, tones, and ideas, ranging from hilarious to darkly satirical, from reverent to melancholy, from profane to sacred, and sometimes all of them at once. Within pages of the first eulogy beginning, we’re introduced to a soldier½ named Oogo (whose name was supposed to be Hugo, but the letter H was under strict rationing for the war) whose addiction for video game achievements leads to his death as he strives to cap the leaderboard for harvesting the left hand of the bugs. The result is gloriously silly and funny, making digs at so many social trends while still building its world, but it doesn’t prepare you for the next one, or the one after that, or the one after that, each of which finds their own voice, their own themes, and their own sensibility.

Sometimes, that can be a problem. Madden occasionally lets his eulogies turn into exposition, and it feels like he loses track of the thread, particularly in a late eulogy which gets into a long story thread about a captured bug who serves as a poet of sorts. It’s a great story, but gets away from the book’s conceit, and feels like it’s information he wanted to convey but couldn’t quite do organically. Similarly, those disconnected stories can lead to confusion – it’s not clear for some time that each of these eulogies is actually done by the same soldier, even when the tone and verbiage changes drastically in some of them.

And yet, those are both forgivable flaws, given how engaging, how funny, how rich these stories all are. Taken as a whole, Madden’s creating a complicated world, one that only slowly reveals its nuances and unreliability as it goes along. What seems like a cut and dry military conflict reveals itself to be something messier and more savage; the bugs rapidly become more than just cannon fodder; and our heroes…well, there may be a reason there’s so much depravity in these stories. And all of that doesn’t even get into the final chapter of the book, where Madden changes our perception of the whole book with some great – but completely fair – revelations that pull together all sorts of loose threads into a coherent whole, all without ever dodging the dark and silly humor that the book does so well.

The Killbug Eulogies isn’t just great science-fiction, though it’s undeniably that; Madden may seem like he’s just making jokes at first, but by the time you reach the end, you’ll realize just how sprawling, how complex his world building has been, even if it’s only carefully revealed. No, it’s also fantastic – and genuinely funny – satire with a dark bent, a thoughtful take on war, and a great piece of writing, one where form and function are intertwined in a way that leads you to realize that this book couldn’t have been done in any other way – at least, not without being this good, this fun, and this rich.

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Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.

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Pastoralia, by George Saunders / *****

europastoraliaThere may be no short story writer alive than George Saunders, and that’s no small praise; indeed, you could even argue that with his talent, he ranks among the great writers of the day, full stop. (How his talent will hold up in novel form, I look forward to discovering when his first novel is released next week.) Veering between social commentary and dark satire, between biting comedy and empathetic character studies, Saunders brings his bizarre, off-kilter worlds to life with his rich, fascinating prose and compelling dialogue. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, is no exception, making me laugh out loud frequently while never shirking from his craft.

As always, Saunders love of bizarre, excessive amusement/theme parks is evident, whether it’s the recreated Stone Age cave of the title story (where the actors are expected to stay in character even when no one else is around, and the corporate management communicates through bizarre, rambling memos) or the intricately structured strip club of “Sea Oak.” But he also loves his misfits, whether it’s the bullied young man of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” the harried title character in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” or the motivational speaker attendee of “Winky”, who just wants to work up the nerve to kick his sister out. Indeed, pretty much every character has their struggles, their neuroses, their fears, and all of them fear that life has passed them by – and in most cases, it has.

In lesser hands, that would depressing, bleak fare. But Saunders’ prose and observational style make his stories uproariously funny at times, as characters lose themselves in imagining how others will treat them, engage in long dialogues with themselves, or the situations just get increasingly bizarre. From actors playing cavemen trying to ignore faxes to ghosts that do little more than angrily yell at everyone, from unlikely heroes to fantasy lives that far surpass anything in waking lives, Saunders infuses all of it with a sense of wry wit, but also affection for his characters that keeps the stories from being bleak. Instead, they become universal, clinging to big feelings and emotions that we all have, satirizing human (and corporate) foibles beautifully, and just generally entertaining with their absurdity, heart, and soul.

In other words, it’s more typical greatness from Saunders, who seems incapable of doing anything less than creating rich worlds and complex characters, all without missing a beat with his offbeat prose and rich descriptions. And if you can’t empathize with his flawed, failing, but still human characters, then I can’t imagine that you’ve lived any kind of life at all, because these are universal tales. Off the wall, funny, and satirical, and yet universal in the best way.

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