Overlooked Books of 2012: The Fault in Our Stars, People Who Eat Darkness, and More
For our final Books of the Month feature of 2012, we’ll be spotlighting some notable releases we may have missed this year.
Threats, by Amelia Gray
Threats bears a lot of similarities to Gillian Flynn’s surprise blockbuster thriller Gone Girl (which I’d also recommended — and am about to spoil, slightly). Both are about husbands trying to understand how their wives died. The central question in Gone Girl is whether she’s really dead; in Threats, though, it’s about how sane one can stay when coping with grief. After his wife Franny dies, David begins to find bizarre notes hidden around his home. For example:
YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB.
Threats is a gritty psychological mess where hallucinations bleed into reality. The stream-of-consciousness prose can be inaccessible and dense in places, but Threats is a novel meant more to be experienced than fully understood. It’s less of a page-turner than Gone Girl, but for the patient reader, Gray’s debut novel is full of literary trickery, grotesque images, and an unsettling sense of humor and horror.
I’ve had several conversations about the ending of Gone Girl, and my overall impression is that it’s divisive in how neatly it wraps everything up with a tidy bow. Without giving too much away, I found the final chapters unbelievable and, worst of all, I thought it unraveled a lot of the smart narrative threads that Flynn sprawls throughout the novel. For every disappointed Gone Girl reader, I recommend Threats, which isn’t interested in explanation or resolution. It’s a harrowing, twisted novel about mourning. There’s no neat ending that wouldn’t simply be disingenuous.
TL;DR: Gone Girl, but way more fucked up.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
In early 2011, a coworker of mine — really, a close friend — was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27. Up until then, I’d been lucky enough that no one in my life had ever been diagnosed with cancer; on the other hand, I found myself mostly unaware of what it means to have cancer. We IM’d a lot, mostly me seeing how she was doing (usually OK, considering) and asking very stupid questions, like if Stage IV cancer was better or worse than Stage III (definitely worse). I read The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning “biography of cancer,” which gave me a very grim insight into cancer as a disease but not as something people lived through.
For a book about getting cancer at a young age, The Fault in Our Stars is surprisingly uplifting. John Green is often considered the best working young-adult novelist, but there’s talent here that can appeal to older audiences. He writes terrifically empathetic teenagers who struggle with very real things by imbuing his novels with heart and with levity. Looking for Alaska is about searching for meaning in the death of a friend; An Abundance of Katherines attempts to map relationships on a graph. The Fault in Our Stars is concerned with the weirdness of mortality. It’s maybe the best book I read in 2012. I only wish I could have read it in 2011.
At the center is a love story between Hazel, who has terminal cancer, and Augustus, whose cancer is in remission (they meet at a cancer support group for adolescents). They are precocious teenagers, likely the most charming characters to ever regularly reference Foucault. Given that the title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the fact that it’s, well, about cancer, there’s no illusion throughout the book that there’s going to be a happy ending. And neither Hazel nor Augustus believes there will be, either. Their romance is based on fleeting moments rather than an ideal of everlasting love (Hazel says that “Love is keeping the promise anyway”).
It’s hard not to admire someone who survives cancer, but that coworker has become the person I admire most. Throughout all of her painful tests, treatments, and surgeries — and the way those things affected her work, marriage, and life — she never resorted to self-pitying. She confronted cancer with humor and humility, and after her tumor was successfully removed, found that cancer had helped her prioritize what was important in her life. Green’s entire portrayal of cancer is similar. The Fault in Our Stars recognizes that cancer threatens life as much as it affirms it.
The stickiest line in the book: “Even cancer isn’t a bad guy really: Cancer just wants to be alive.”
TL;DR: The most uplifting cancer story since Lance Armstr— never mind.
People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry
In 2000, Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old British expat living in Tokyo, disappeared and was found, in pieces, several months later. In People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry, the Tokyo bureau chief for The Times of London, provides a fascinating cultural history and context of modern Japan, a profile of a disturbed and apathetic murderer with a knack for taking advantage of the Japanese legal system, and a portrait of a family seeking the whereabouts of their daughter and, later, justice on the criminal who took her away.
In fact, the best-drawn character isn’t Obara, the killer, but Lucie’s father, Tim, a man who is both brave and built with a questionable moral compass. Tim actively tries to influence the media coverage of Lucie, reinforcing to reporters that his daughter was a former flight attendant, not some Roppongi bar girl; later he makes a selfish choice that would affect the outcome of Obara’s trial.
Japan has fewer violent crimes reported every year than any other first-world country. But the key to this statistic is reported. Parry uncovers so much incompetence in Tokyo’s law enforcement that we’re left with the impression there may be more horrible things going on. It’s revealed that Obara has been drugging and raping women for years, and that while many hostesses at bars similar to the one where Lucie worked had come forward to report him, the police never prosecuted Obara.
With such pace and complexity, People Who Eat Darkness may be one of the great true crime novels of the decade. When I put the book down, I was left with the same chilly sensation that I felt the first time I read In Cold Blood so many years ago. The world suddenly seems like a place where evil hides in the periphery, waiting to reveal itself as something horrible and surprisingly familiar, almost human.
TL;DR: The perfect gift for that obnoxious friend who won’t stop boasting about his/her upcoming trip to Japan.
A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
Alan Clay, a stand-in for the American middle-class everyman, is sent to Saudi Arabia to sell King Abdullah a contract on a teleconferencing service that resembles Will.I.Am’s appearance in CNN’s 2008 election coverage. The technology, owned by a global corporate behemoth called Reliant, is similarly laughable, but it’s Clay’s last chance to make enough money to get himself out of debt and pay his daughter’s college tuition.
Eggers’s vision of Saudi Arabia exists as a recession-proof parallel of the United States, one that has adopted the American ideal of capitalism at its core. But this isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as some of Eggers’s previous work. This is his sparsest novel to date, and arguably his best. Gone are the self-conscious, postmodern trappings Eggers became known for with his debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; in its place is a strong narrative arc, filled with eccentric and likable characters. Hologram reads like a modern fairy tale with strong allusions to Waiting for Godot.
The brilliance of Eggers is how he can write characters convincing enough to withstand sentimentality. Eggers possesses the earnestness of David Foster Wallace, a literary sincerity that, today, seems to be our strongest elucidation of the modern human condition: to be overwhelmed by choice, communication, people, and yet still find ourselves feeling so lonely. But Eggers distinguishes himself from Wallace with his belief that the inherent good nature of Americans will triumph over the self-interest of capitalism. He writes, “Again the greatest use of a human was to be useful. Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that improved their life, even for a few minutes.”
TL;DR: A Kafkaesque elegy to pre-recession America.
Overlooked in Fiction
- How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti
- Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Overlooked in Nonfiction
- The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen) is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. His writing has also appeared in The Millions, Nieman Journalism Lab, and Kill Screen.