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Sex, drugs, Cocoa Puffs
and mechanical animals.
This month’s hottest books.
by Tobin Levy

he weather today is calm and sunny, but the air is full of bullshit,” bemoans Misty Marie Kleinman, the deliciously despondent anti-heroine of Chuck Palahniuk’s sixth novel, Diary (Doubleday), which takes the form of a caustic journal addressed to Misty’s husband, Peter. A botched suicide attempt has left him in a permanent state of vegetation, and stranded her on Waytansea Island, an idyll turned sour. Thirteen years earlier, Misty abandoned her artistic aspirations — her inclination towards representational art over scatological “visual sarcasm” didn’t bode well in art school — for married life on this island, far away from her trailer-park beginnings. Now she’s lamenting a dream permanently deferred, while waiting tables to support her daughter and mother-in-law. But Misty is destined for a bizarre creative renaissance, and what follows is a paranoiac Polansky-esque fable about art, suffering and the inherently limited power of perception. It’s Palahniuk’s most vivid portrait yet.

Chuck Klosterman also presents a decidedly postmodern picture. His subject: the vast landscape of American pop-culture. And the title: Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (Scribner). In this series of essays, Klosterman exhibits a disturbingly thorough understanding of contemporary cultural phenomena, deconstructing Internet porn, Saved by the Bell, cover bands and reality TV. To hear him tell it, “Porn sites are the window to the modern soul,” Pamela Anderson is the “hyper-accelerated manifestation of contemporary sexuality,” and John Cusack is responsible for the meltdown of modern love. (Steve Perry, Nora Ephron, Chandler Bing and Monica Geller are not also without blame.) Part oratorical rant and part comical critique, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs is filled with irresistible observations about the trivial everyday subjects that shape and reflect our lives, encouraging us to think elevated thoughts while keeping our minds in the gutter.

Novelist and spoken-word artist Maggie Estep transforms unstable and aberrational into enviable traits in Love Dance of the Mechanical Animals (Three Rivers Press). This indefatigable collection mingles various formats: never-before-published spoken-word rants, confessional entries from Estep’s days at Shout magazine, humorous and “highly subjective” articles on Iggy Pop and Jerry Stahl, and several short stories, including one that appeared on Nerve. The madcap assortment of leitmotifs — sex toys, “wonder boys,” horses, and a three-hundred-pound cat — in Estep’s early diary-style accounts give way to equally memorable themes in her later pieces. She continually values honesty over ego and twisted reality over linear ideals. “I sincerely hope that I never start writing heartfelt novels about the self-indulgent agony of overly educated middle-class American white people,” she explains. “If I do, please kill me.”

Which is a not-so-subtle way of saying don’t let her become Vendela Vida. The author’s slim first novel, And Now You Can Go (Knopf), concerns twenty-one-year-old Ellis, a white, middle-class Columbia grad student who is held at gunpoint by a stranger seeking someone with whom to die. How does our young heroine escape? By reciting the verse of Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, of course. Ellis spends the rest of the book in a dreamlike state of hyper-awareness, spouting idiosyncratic descriptions of current and former relationships, physical surroundings, childhood upsets, and her own, increasingly erratic behavior. The story, like the crime that sets it in motion, evades convention: it’s about the psychological complexities — if not impossibilities — of reconciliation.

Matthew McIntosh’s debut, Well (Grove), delves into an American wasteland and the dejected lives of those who inhabit it. Although billed as a novel, it’s an ensemble of loosely intertwined stories set in and around Federal Way, Washington, a dingy suburb in the middle of the Seattle-Tacoma sprawl. These are accounts of disillusion made bearable by episodic binges, benders, sex and physical abuse; collectively, they’re a provocative cultural tableau. McIntosh’s bold confection of literary styles — stream-of-consciousness, free-form, and linear narrative — prove him a gifted new chronicler of quiet desperation.

What’s the distinction between male and female orgasms? “It reminds me of the difference between Spanish and Italian,” says Jennifer Finney Boylan in her memoir She’s Not There (Broadway). And Boylan should know. Until the age of forty-three, Jennifer, an accomplished novelist with four works of fiction under her belt, was a man named James. This account of a two-gendered life isn’t a sensationalist tale or another short-lived byproduct of a compulsively confessional culture. It’s an artful rumination on the passage of time and growing up trapped inside the wrong body; it’s a love story; it’s an evocative description of what really means to be a woman. Turns out, “the line between male and female is rather fine. Although we imagine our genders as firm and fixed, in fact they are as malleable as a sand castle.”

Which will be good news to the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous artists who foment against sexism and racism while wearing gorilla masks. With Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes (Penguin), the Girls set out to commandeer negative labels (Spinster, Ho) and celebrate positive ones (Tomboy, Bombshell) with characteristic bluster and biting humor. Although their commentary can be a tad puerile (“Be tough, get what you want, be a real Bitch. But don’t let anyone else call you one!”), the tidbits about sapphic utopianists, Barbie’s sordid origins, and the etymology of "bimbo" will keep the pages turning.

Imagine a macabre rendition of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and you might be prepared for Dan Rhodes’ laudable debut, Timoleon Vieta Come Home (Canongate Books). The title character is a mongrel with eyes “as pretty as a little girl’s.” The dog’s owner, Cockroft, an aged composer and retired bon vivant, lives in self-imposed exile in the Italian countryside. He spends his days contemplating suicide, mourning lost loves and lavishing affection on his four-legged friend. It is an unconventionally happy household until the arrival of a handsome drifter, who accepts the elder man’s offer of free accommodation in return for weekly oral sex. The only condition: the dog must go. Cockroft abandons Timoleon outside Rome’s Coliseum, and what follows is a series of deeply peculiar vignettes that land us in the broken hearts and disturbed minds of a lovesick Welsh girl, a deaf Italian teenager and a Cambodian landmine victim — each comes into contact with Timoleon while the loyal pooch makes the long journey home.  

©2003 Tobin Levy and Nerve.com.