Aside from the growing stack of New Yorker magazines that I can never quite seem to whittle down, I have spent the last couple of weeks reading Sewer, Gas, Electric: the public works trilogy, by Matt Ruff. Ruff is kind of a cult writer in the U.S., crossing the boundaries between literary and genre fiction. Sewer, Gas, Electric is firmly in the science fiction epic mode, offering a gleefully mad vision of a futuristic New York, where beleaguered public servants hunt mutant sharks in the sewers while vast conspiracies are hatched in the gleaming skyscrapers above them. The nominal plot involves some kind of murder mystery (encompassing homicidal robots, a rogue A.I and Walt Disney), but it’s more or less buried in a web of detail, digressions and side narratives, involving characters like a violence averse eco-terrorist and the crew of his submarine, The Yabba-dabba-Do, a 186 year old, one armed, chain-smoking female veteran of the American Civil War, and (my favourite) an electronically resurrected Ayn Rand, who serves as a reluctant and stridently humourless Watson to the novel’s detective. The blurb describes the book as ‘in the tradition of Pynchon’ confirming my long held suspicion that I enjoy ‘Pynchonesqe’ novels more than the novels actually written by Pynchon himself (though I did adore his latest, Inherent Vice). Ruff’s other novels are worth tracking down as well, particularly Set this House in Order: a Romance of Souls, which delves into a love affair between two characters with multiple personality disorders.
I’ve been on a bit of a genre fiction kick for the last couple of months, having also read Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning classical fantasy The Song of Achilles, and Kate Atkinson’s mystery novel When Will There Be Good News? Though of course very different in their themes and subject matters, they both play around with the conventions of their respective genres to deliver stories that are moving, evocative and utterly original. Other fiction that I’ve recently read and would recommend includes Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel (a short novel about the drudgery and tedium of military life in late nineteenth century Russia), The Incubator Ballroom, a story collection by the sadly neglected American writer John Rolfe Gardiner (his novel In the Heart of the Whole World remains one of my favourites ever since I stumbled on it by chance in a university library), and Philip Hensher’s early novel Pleasure, which is set in Berlin at the end of the Cold War and makes and interesting contrast to the rural English settings that have defined his later works. Alongside the fiction, I’ve been dipping into Nobody’s Home by Croatian novelist and critic Dubravka Ugresic, a fascinating collection of writing which ranges from brief mediations on subjects like ‘Identity’, ‘Gardening’, ‘Stereotypes’, and ‘Celebrity’, to travel writing, to longer essays on European literature and literary geopolitics. On the growing pile of books that I intend to read, I have Signs and Wonders by Melvin Jules Bukiet (I read an excellent article by him in The American Scholar a few years back and always meant to track down some of his fiction, but haven’t until now), Augustine: a new biography by James J. O’Donnell (impulse purchase from Readings’ sales table), and Amy Espeseth’s critically acclaimed debut novel Sufficient Grace.
Julian Novitz is a New Zealand born writer living in Melbourne. He is the co-editor of Geek Mook (with Aaron Manion), and his latest novel Little Sister was published by Random House NZ earlier this year.