We read for a lot of different reasons: to learn something new, to immerse ourselves in new worlds, to escape for a bit from a troubling reality. As I understand it, some people like to read to scare themselves, to make themselves squirm a little. I don’t generally read much that would be considered horror (though I do like a good thriller or some exciting action scenes), and I don’t always have a high tolerance for books that just make me uncomfortable without some expectation of some positive outcome. These past few weeks, though, I’ve read a number of books that were just a bit unsettling in one way or another, though in many cases I’m still glad I read them.
Why Don’t You Love Me? by Paul B. Rainey
This is a sci-fi graphic novel disguised as a comic strip collection. Each page looks like a Sunday-edition comic strip, with that oversized first panel with the logotype “Why Don’t You Love Me?” below the artist’s name, followed by three rows of panels depicting a miserable family. The mom is disheveled, wearing a bathrobe and smoking, while the dad attempts to take care of the kids even though he can’t remember the boy’s name. The strips aren’t really funny, either: some of them kind of have a punchline, like when the dad finally gets the kids to school but realizes it’s Saturday, but in most cases there’s no laugh at the end, not even a mean, cynical one. So what’s the deal? Is this one of those strips like Andy Capp or The Lockhorns where it’s just about a couple that hates each other and we’re supposed to be entertained by that?
As you continue reading, you get the sense that things are definitely a bit off with Mark and Claire. Claire questions reality and Mark just seems to be playing a role where he doesn’t know all the lines. At the beginning you see that Mark sleeps downstairs on the couch and Claire is verbally threatening to him; things continue to deteriorate to the point where she’s having an affair with another parent she meets at the school. And then, about halfway through the book … there’s this big shift. Various allusions that Mark and Claire have made about their lives take on new meanings; the two of them—as well as the reader—are challenged to figure out what the heck is going on.
I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll say that once I hit that second half I got hooked (and stayed up too late to finish it). The reveal of what’s behind their strange behavior was both gradual and unexpected, and I found myself caring more for Mark and Claire (though there were still some things about them that bothered me). What I’m not entirely sure of, though, is whether the payoff of the ending is worth the painful trauma that happens in the first half—I think some readers may give up before then, particularly if the toxic relationships depicted there bring up painful memories of your own. Mark and Claire’s resolution isn’t one that you would be able to mirror or seek in your own life, so it makes for a good story but could be unsatisfying for somebody wanting more practical answers. Still, if you can stomach it, there’s a fascinating story here about the nature of identity and the role that chance plays in our relationships.
Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen
I’ve enjoyed several of Mike Chen’s novels; since 2019, I’ve read one near the beginning of each year: Here and Now and Then, A Beginning at the End, We Could Be Heroes, and Light Years From Home. His books have included time travel, a global pandemic, superheroes and villains, and alien abduction, but one of the big topics that ties them together is relationships, usually within a family. Vampire Weekend, which comes out this week, is about family trauma, and about being rejected by your family. And it’s also about vampires.
Louise Chao has been a vampire for several decades, and it’s less exciting than you may think. She narrates the book, and many of the chapters begin with various untrue myths about vampires that you may have learned from books and movies. She doesn’t bite people and instead subsists on blood bags surreptitiously stolen from her janitor job at a hospital. In fact, biting people is really difficult and messy, and the vampire community is a bit more like Fight Club: you don’t talk about vampires, and you do whatever you can to keep attention away from them. It’s more like having an extreme sensitivity to sunburns and a really bad (and somewhat bloody) allergy to garlic.
Much of Louise’s life—both before and after becoming a vampire—has been in pursuit of music, specifically punk. There’s a special sort of meaning she finds in live shows, and she really wants to perform but has had some issues finding bands that work with her weird, no-daytime schedule. Now, this part of the book is a bit lost on me—I’m one of those people who can’t really remember song lyrics and there’s a lot of music I just don’t know, but this book tosses around references to music and traces back a particular band’s influence through a string of artists … and I’m sure it will resonate with some readers but those parts didn’t really hit me quite as much.
Some strangers show up on Louise’s doorstep, looking for her deceased aunt, claiming to be relatives in need of help. A grandfather, sullen teenage boy in tow, explains that his daughter is dying and they’re in town to be closer to the hospital. Louise doesn’t recognize them and isn’t really interested in letting them in, but music sparks a connection between her and Ian, and Louise sees an opportunity to share her love of punk with a kindred spirit. That eventually leads her to some revelations about her family, who had a falling out long before her vampire days. These are the parts that are uncomfortable about this book: a dying mother/daughter, and the rejection Louise feels from her family (which is reflected by the rejection that her aunt had felt, though for different reasons).
Oh, and on top of that, there’s this subplot about Eric, a sort of leader in the local vampire community, who is constantly trying to get the vampires to install his new app and makes sweeping promises about making things better for vampires. What’s going on there?
Despite not feeling a strong connection to the music portions of the story, I did enjoy Vampire Weekend, both for the relationship between Louise and Ian and for its fun spin on vampire lore, which has a great payoff in the last act.
Liberation Day: Stories by George Saunders
When I first saw this book, I thought, “Oh, George Saunders—I like his writing!” but then upon further reflection I realized I’ve only read one thing by him: The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a picture book I bought long ago primarily because it was illustrated by Lane Smith. But that book evidently made an impression on me, because I still remembered it positively (and thus Saunders’ name). The story in that book, which involved these weird screaming spiky creatures (the gappers) and some unfortunate goats, felt a lot like a parable of sorts, and I got a similar feeling from most of the stories in Liberation Day.
The settings in the stories varies: some of them are a bit more like our real world, but Saunders focuses in on our foibles and magnifies them to the point of absurdity. Others are dystopias in a range of plausibility. Most of them are disconcerting to some extent.
The title story, “Liberation Day,” is told from the point of view of Jeremy, a person (perhaps? You aren’t sure for a while) who is plugged into a machine and made to speak as a sort of performance, along with two others. Mr. Untermeyer fiddles with the settings, selecting a topic and dialing in various options, and then the three of them spool out a story, like a bizarre physical chatGPT puppet. They rehearse and “jam” and then put on a show for guests invited by Mr. U, who seems desperate to impress his visitors. The more we learn about the technology behind Jeremy’s stories, the more horrific it becomes, and it’s evident that there are some other characters in the story who think so, too.
“The Mom of Bold Action” is narrated by a mom figuring out how to respond when her son gets hurt by a stranger downtown; she and her husband react, then second-guess their reactions, then overcorrect, then correct again. “A Thing at Work” jumps between the point of view of a few different characters who work together, each one overthinking what everyone else thinks of them. “Love Letter” is a letter to a grandson who finds himself in a tricky position in some sort of authoritarian regime, and is the story that comes closest to an explicit comparison to current American politics. “Elliott Spencer” is about an old man who has been brainwashed and reprogrammed to work as a political protestor, and it combines the ugliness of political media with the dehumanization of capitalism. (Side note: no relation to Eliot Spencer, the character from “Leverage.”)
Most of the stories tend to have a sort of stream-of-consciousness delivery, with run-on sentences that veer abruptly, throw up defensive arguments and counterarguments, and get caught up in trivial details. It can be a little hard to navigate, but it also does feel like the way some of our brains process the world, constantly thinking about how we’re perceived. Not all of these stories have happy endings, either, which is part of what makes them uncomfortable, and even moreso when you see yourself reflected in a character who doesn’t come off in the best light. But they’re still quite good, perhaps as cautionary tales.
Flux by Jinwoo Chong
Flux was one of the books on my Reading Resolutions list, and although it doesn’t come out until March, I started reading this advance proof and couldn’t put it down. The story jumps around between three characters: 8-year-old Bo, who has lost his mother in an accident just before Christmas. His dad is trying to hold things together for Bo and his little brother, but Bo hates the way that his dad has decided the best way to get through it is not to talk about it at all, to pretend it away. Brandon (who narrates his portions of the story) has just lost his job and feels a bit aimless—but then a stranger approaches him at the mall and offers him a job at a hot tech startup that makes the promise of unlimited clean energy … though it’s a bit unclear how the technology actually works. Finally, we meet Blue (not his real name), a key witness in a criminal trial against Flux, that hot tech startup that apparently flamed out spectacularly.
One twist is that Brandon’s portion of the story are being told to Thomas Raider, a fictional character from an ’80s TV show. Brandon watched the show as a kid and it left a big impression on him, and he processes a lot of what’s going on by talking about the show. It was a gritty detective story that had its problems, but was notable for having significant Asian representation for its time; Brandon always saw himself in the kid sidekick character. The show was canceled after only two seasons, leaving a lot of unanswered questions, and more recently the star has been accused of a string of abusive relationships, making Brandon’s relationship to the character even more complicated.
These parts of the story, especially the way that Brandon refers to specific episodes of the show, reminded me a little of Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, which dives deep into how Asians are portrayed in Hollywood as well as their shifting status as citizens of the United States. Brandon’s relationship with his family is strained, with a lot of unresolved pain, and now that his father’s health and memory are failing, there’s not much time to figure things out.
The parts about Flux itself feel very much like the pie-in-the-sky of Big Tech. In this case, it feels like it borrows a lot from the real-world story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos—a charismatic young woman with a miracle tech that was going to change the world, and then the subsequent implosion when it turned out that things didn’t actually work as promised. In this case, however, there’s a weird sort of time travel side effect, and without spoilers I’ll just say that it’s pretty mind-bendy how all three of the threads fit together in the end. The book isn’t perfect—I feel some characters and relationships were developed better than others—but it was a thrilling ride and it kept me engaged throughout.
My Current Stack
I’ve started (and am about halfway through) Colin Meloy’s latest kids’ book, The Stars Did Wander Darkling, which would also fit today’s topic. It has a bit of a Stranger Things feel: it’s set in the ’80s in a small seaside town in Oregon, and some construction has uncovered a deep cave in a cliffside. Four middle school kids find themselves caught up in some weird events surrounding the cave and what’s inside. I’m enjoying it so far, but it has a pretty high creepiness level compared to what I generally read, and I’m curious to see where this goes. Next up on my list may be City Spies: City of the Dead by James Ponti, because that’s another series I like and I may be needing something a bit lighter as a palate cleanser.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books mentioned in this column. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support independent booksellers and my writing!