This was a quick, light, and well-written cozy mystery set in the world of London publishing. Scott McNulty recommended it on the Recently Read podcast, and my feelings about it essentially reflect his. This is very well-executed fun that is absolutely satisfying.
I’ve had these Martin Beck detective stories recommended to me a lot, but finally got around to them having been triggered on Scandinavian detective fiction by something Warren Ellis wrote about Henning Mankell on his mailing list. As it turns out, Mankell contributed a foreword to the edition of Roseanna that I read. He praised similar aspects of Sjöwall’s writing as Ellis had in his, and perhaps not surprisingly these were the traits that I found most enjoyable in this book. There are a patience and a directness in the writing that make the world and characters feel very real. The tension of the police procedural elements are effective precisely by being couched in this realness; there is very little need for the sensational to heighten the stakes. I look forward to reading the rest.
It turns out this is the second time I’ve read this. I had the sensation off and on in the beginning that I had, but given that the events of this story serve as flashback material for later novels in the series I wasn’t sure. By the time I was certain, I was hooked again and blazed through the whole thing again. One thing I noticed this time was the use of Australian vocabulary and dialect in the English translation in a way that makes me wonder what was done in the Norwegian original.
I generally prefer Eggers’s narrative nonfiction to his novels. The shifts of frame between analysis and characterization, the global and the individual in the medium allow his powerfully concise expression to shine. He also has a strong instinct for taking real individuals and turning them into emblems of a larger moment. In this case, his protagonist Mokhtar’s story is so very 2018 in its elucidation of the growing inequities of urban America (and the Bay Area specifically), the Sillicon-Valley-ization of American business culture, the immigrant experience in America, the fallout in the rest of the world of the American War on Terror, the evolution of consumer tastes, and so many other. There is so much going on here and yet it reads easy.
I bought this based off of a mention by Will Menaker on the Chapo Trap House podcast last year. His recommendation and most of the reviews focus on the insight into the experience of the American working class in the 1980s. It is an interesting portrait of someone moving from under-paying, over-taxing job to job and bouncing between periods of precarity and relative stability, and Helton is both an empathetic and a direct writer. My primary personal interest, however, was in the setting. Helton’s twenties were spent in the Austin I saw as a kid that made me want to move there. It was an Austin that still existed for the most part as I arrived in the late nineties and disappeared over the course of the seventeen years I lived there. I think a lot of these experiences are still there to be had, but they are definitely by no means still one of the basic default lifestyle choices for Austin twenty-somethings. Though most of my experience did not match some of the extremes in here, it was in its outlines absolutely congruent. I don’t miss quite a bit of that, but it was a nice opportunity for reflection.
I saw this recommended in a lot of different venues. I think a lot of the enthusiasm for it in the specific venues I saw it has to do with the fluid sexual preferences and gender roles that undergird a lot of the tensions between characters. That was nice to see, but I didn’t really find much revelatory in it. It was just sort of there, which is good in its own way. There’s something to be said for something reaching the point for its presence in a piece of genre fiction to be rather banal. There’s a lot of over-the-top energy and playfulness in the language. Sometimes I found that fun; sometimes I found it a little exhausting. It’s a big long book full of tons of ideas that I enjoyed but was also a little glad to be released from.
I’ve been meaning to read this for a very long time and having finally gotten around to it regret that it has taken so long. Ullman is such a great, empathetic writer that reading this also highlighted for me how rew novels in which computing plays a major role in plot and setting actually use the computing as a thematic tool. In some ways, this could have been a story about isolation, obsession, and frustrated human communication among people in any occupation; on the other, the peculiar nature of the work of programming and the obsessive tendencies of its practitioners are essential to the protagonist’s individual path to self-destruction. It strikes me that this tension between the universal and the specific would be a defining characteristic of an artful and humane novel.
I enjoyed the first volume of this quite a bit, but realized in reading the second volume that most of what I got out of it was the world-building and characterization. Once those things had been set, I was less interested in the progression of the narrative and character arcs. There was a little bit too much of a heightened melodrama feel. I recognize that it was interesting and ambitious in the context of mainstream superhero comics, but I think I maybe prefer my unconventional-risk-reads in this format to be subversively fun rather than subversively serious.