Last year’s comebacks

NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl, THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt, DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King

I got caught in a lot of hype last year, mostly of the for-the-comeback variety: Good authors who’d taken their sweet time coming out with a new book, good authors who’ve just kept on writing but managed to hit the sweeter spot this time around.

I have this notion about myself that I steer clear of hype, because it’s just the publishing world lying to me, but this is obviously flawed thinking. And so I like to console myself that the comeback-hype is the better kind of hype to fall prey to—one that has basis, plus the odds are with you because you know that it’s worked for you before? It’s more infectious, too: The hype was more of the bookish internet slaying everyone with a celebratory cheer: Marisha Pessl had a new book, Donna Tartt had a new book, J.K. Rowling kicked everyone’s asses and proved she still had a good book under her belt, Stephen King wouldn’t fucking relent and just kept getting better.

One of my best reads of the past year was The Cuckoo’s Calling, a slick crime novel by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. I enjoyed my time with Cormoran Strike, who’s right up there in my personal pantheon of masterful detectives with flaw-some personalities—Sherlock Holmes and, erm, the Batman’s in this pantheon. The Galbraith book was likewise a dip in a genre I’d rarely strayed into, and it’s almost a matter of fact that it will set the bar for contemporary crime fiction I’ll deign to get my grubby hands on. Which is rather unfortunate for Pessl’s Night Film—not crime, per se, but audacious enough to feature a trio of bumbling fools trying to uncover a mystery, headed by a breathtakingly inept investigative [scoff] journalist. Cuckoo, by default, would win over a lot of books, but Night Film surpasses the bounds of blech reading.

The thing is, I was very excited for this book—even if I’d thought Pessl’s debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, acutely insufferable. Night Film was supposed to draw, tonally (if not share the subject matter of), the books of Auster and Hustvedt, and especially Mark Z. Danielewski’s clever and terrifying House of Leaves. Pessl’s book turned out to be a cheap imitation of all good clever-and-terrifying books, with the bonus of embarrassingly lyrical prose and tons of italics, and it was exhausting for me because it wouldn’t let me go. I kept reading and reading and reading even when after I’d realized I’d hated it. It was the ickiest iteration of a page-turner: You’ve been sucked in, and that book won’t spit you out until it’s fucking done with you. Tough.

The book is hinged on a great mystery that’s revealed to be crap but the book keeps on insisting that it’s anything but. It’s a book on shadows, we’re pummeled into acknowledging: “Shadows with wills of their own, killing curses and devil’s curses, rivers that ran black and beasts with bark for skin, a world with invisible fissures that anyone could accidentally fall down into at any time.” But it’s not, and the narrative isn’t even aware of it. Night Film insists on its genius and its ooh-slick-and-complex mysteries, but all it’s been doing is going “awoo” at its readers. No, Night Film, just no. Sit down and think about what you’ve done.

I had the same allergy to Donna Tartt’s backlist—I thought The Secret History a denser but no better version of Calamity Physics, with the “acutely insufferable” tag just as applicable. But The Goldfinch completely won me over, and now definitely stands among the highlights of the past reading year. It was lovely, and unabashedly consuming—it gives so much to the reader, with Tartt indefatigable in giving us the whole of Theo Decker’s life. No detail was too small, nothing was insignificant. And it did not get tedious once. I don’t know how exactly—was it the prose, was I simply the target audience for stories of art and dissolution, was it my absolute need to be consumed by a narrative so divorced from my own? It just felt really good to surrender to Tartt, especially since she never lets up on making that surrender worth it.

If Pessl was disdain all the way, and Tartt was a courtship I stood no chance against—my relationship with Stephen King in 2013 was just this blissful and giddy reunion. I’d devoted myself to his epic, picked off a few more of his classics, and read two of his newest releases—Joyland and Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. Joyland was pure fun, a summer read through and through—give or take a few haunted amusement park rides and the stray serial killer. Doctor Sleep—which I’d read a few weeks after The Shining [which I could have sworn I’d read when I was a wee child]—is King changing gears, focusing more intently on the supernatural. But, again, King’s best works always involve decent human beings caught in circumstances that threaten to overtake them—and Danny Torrance is the latest in King’s collection of reluctant, deeply flawed, secretly-monsters-battling heroes. And it was so fucking good.

My love for Steve grew exponentially last year, visiting his backlist and relying on faith to go through his more recent releases. Stephen King is getting better, dammit, he’s writing more confidently, and with more heart. And I’m so glad it looks like there’s no sign of him stopping. You keep on writing, Mr. King, please and thank you.

I don’t quite have a clear plan for the rest of the year, really—not that the comebacks of Pessl, Tartt, and King were part of a grand scheme in 2013. As usual, I’m just going to be walking into bookstores and let the displays surprise me. I’m terribly excited for Siri Hustvedt’s and Lorrie Moore’s new books, and I’m going to be waiting for the paperback releases of books that have intrigued me in the past few months—but that’s about it. I’ve said it before: Y’all can just expect me to wing it.

15 thoughts on “Last year’s comebacks

  1. I know exactly what you mean about surrendering to Tartt’s prose and I just let myself go. I also have a copy of both of Pessl’s books to read which I’m looking forward to. And I think I’ve only read a couple of King’s books, so I must remedy that.

    1. I thought I’d have a hard time with the Tartt, just because it was so dense—but now, I’m frankly apprehensive about picking up Tartt’s backlist, because The Goldfinch just seemed so tailor-made for me. Would love to know, too, how my experience with the Pessl compares to yours—I’ve always been a bit of a grumpy reader, hahaha. Happy New Year, Sakura!

  2. Oh nuuuuuur. I have Night Film sitting on a shelf here somewhere. All desire to read it has gone poof. D: Although, I did like Special Topics. I have 1 Stephen King book here—Carrie—and my copy looks dangerously haunted (i.e. old). Also, yay Donna Tartt! I have yet to pick up The Goldfinch, but I also loved The Secret History, so there’s that.

    1. Galit sa akin si Xander kasi ayoko ng Night Film, hahaha. The Goldfinch is wonderful—your cup shall overruneth on art and history and dense dense dense beautiful prose. If anything, baka mas pumatok sa’yo yung dalawang libro, since you’re already on good terms with both authors, haha.

  3. Night Film was one of my favorite books of the year. It wasn’t perfect, and the italics killed me, but I loved the atmosphere, and the eeriness.

    1. The atmosphere was one of the reasons I kept reading; Pessl does know how to whip up a mood. Ultimately, though, I just got really bothered at how put-on everything was, but that’s just me being my ornery, impatient self, I suppose.

  4. I keep getting this impression that 2013 was a fantastic year for fiction, and so I feel so immensely sad that I was in a terrible reading rut and barely read anything. I know it sounds like a humblebrag to say I was too busy with travel to read (and the epitome of first world problems), but it’s the honest to god truth. Constantly moving from place to place really tired me out, mentally and physically, and I just found it really hard to make time for a good book.

    That said, I’m ready to dive back into reading with a hunger and ferocity I haven’t felt in a while. I’ve made a list of all the books from last year that I somehow missed and want to catch up on, several of which are ones you listed here. My feelings about Pessl and Tartt pretty much exactly mirror you own, so reading your thoughts makes me excited for Goldfinch and apprehensive about Night Film. Now I’m also super keen to try the Galbraith/Rowling as well (which I actually downloaded on our ipad and yet have not even attempted to read it… not even once!).

    Did you ever talk about The Luminaries here? I know a lot of people have finally picked up on the fact that Catton is a fantastic writer, but her book (which I haven’t read yet either) is the one that I was most excited to hear about this past year.

  5. I’ve been sucked into the hype of books quite often in the past few years and I think my ginormous reading slump has a lot to do with that propensity. In my experience, books seldom live up to the buzz created by all the PR, which is a lesson I’ve finally learnt. I’ve been glancing at Night Film from the corners of my eyes, but I haven’t tried it yet. I was one of the three people who loved Special Topics and I’ve been waiting for the next book, so I guess I’ll give it a go one of these days. I’ve never read Tartt or King. I know. Sacrilege, right? I’m glad that you enjoyed two out of three!

    1. What guides me through all the PR muck—having been burned by it too many times–is that, hell, I will read what I would’ve read without all the rabid marketing. Thus, the Tartt, even if I was ambivalent about her previous work. It takes more reflection, a longer pause before taking the book out of the bookstore—and it’s not always fool-proof, but that’s all I have, haha.

  6. I’m reading The Goldfinch now and feeling totally immersed and loving it as much as you did. We also seem to have the same thoughts and feelings about Night Film. I thought I just disliked it as I was reading it, but now I’m pretty sure that I out and out hated it. It was so frustrating and nothing like I wanted it to be. And those italics!!!! Ugh. Why didn’t an editor sit her down and tell her that they were a bad idea? I haven’t read The Shining yet, but I plan on reading Doctor Sleep right after. I have never even seen the movie The Shining, so I’m miraculously unspoiled for it. I know there is a hotel. And twins. And snow? Anyway, I’m pretty sure Stephen King is always a good idea. I’m glad that you loved at least some of the books you were anticipating!

    1. I told myself I’d restrain myself re Pessl, but yes—it was a very, very, very irritating book to me. I hated it all the more because I kept wanting to read it, hahaha, just to see if she where she was going with all that. About those italics: Sometimes I have a suspicion that there are instances where editors are willing to let things slide if you’re a big-name author? But that’s the Pessl-victim cynic in me.

      And that’s exactly what I did with the King books—one month it was The Shining, and then I told myself I’d wait for the paperback of Doctor Sleep, but that didn’t work out so I read it anyway, haha.


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