The Idiot by Elif Batuman
With a lively wit and honesty, Selin is an engaging late-adolescent narrator as she shares her preoccupations across a year of her life, raising intellectual questions in an accessible and amusing manner. With events rather than a plot, and very few answers at the end of it, The Idiot is almost the antithesis of the coming-of-age novel and much truer to the mess of real life. Although for me, it could have been shorter, I did enjoy the journey even if, at the end, I find it hard to sum it up. Thanks to Jonathan Cape for my review copy. For another recently reviewed novel about an American university, see The Devil and Webster.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Billy isn’t stupid. He knows there’s something phoney about this war. But he’s learnt to compartmentalise and find a sense of safety in his lack of choice. As the tour trundles towards its climax, and it becomes increasingly clear that, even as a hero, he’s a pawn, there’s a perverse comfort amid the terror in knowing he’ll soon be going back. When not battling his headache, or gulletting the alcohol he’s officially still too young to buy, he uses his temporary association with the wealthy to try and figure out how the system works.
And yet. There’s an eleventh hour tension in Billy’s situation, and likewise it wasn’t until the eleventh hour of the novel that I felt its real emotional pull. The backdrop to the tour has been a hope that things might be different: a psychological or physical avoidance of the return, albeit with the odds of a lottery win. The film deal that will make their fortune; losing his virginity; meeting Destiny’s Child. Being whisked away from the stadium by the anti-war activists his sister has contacted. Is any of this is going to happen? The blatant cynicism of the soldiers’ conscription into the commercial-break porn-fest that is the half-time entertainment, complete with fireworks, noise and strobe lights (yeah, exactly what men who’ve been in a war zone are going to love), gives a clue. And yet these adolescents continue (more or less) to remain polite to the members of the public who want to shake their hands and thank them for their service, and then immediately turn around and forget.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an angry novel about capitalism, war and sacrifice (that spoke to me in such an unexpected way it actually had me dreaming anger, a very rare occurrence). But I think the dynamic it captures doesn’t only apply to military service: we distance ourselves from anyone forced to bear the unbearable by turning them into heroes, telling them they’re brave. First published in 2012, I wonder what Billy would think of my copy, courtesy of Canongate books, being a 2016 movie tie-in. My own short story ”Heroes” is on a similar theme.
The Carrot Ranch is having a break from weekly 99-word stories, but that doesn’t mean we can relax. Quite the contrary, with two flash fiction contests a week during October (and I, fully immersed in another draft of my current WIP, was struggling to keep up before). The first, 100 words on when I grow up, set by Norah Colvin, runs until 10th October, and I’m honoured to be an assistant judge along with Robbie Cheadle.
Alongside the eight contest prompts, flash-fiction queen and editor of the forthcoming Rough Writers’ anthology, Sarah Brentyn, is running a flash fiction fundraiser for hurricane relief. I felt rather smug yesterday, finding inspiration in an extremely windy walk, but I failed on two counts: the word limit is 50 and I couldn’t manage to tell the story I wanted in that space; the prompt is help not hurricane (although I did manage to squeeze that in retrospectively). Given that Brits will recognise an impending thirty year anniversary, and a friend’s son (although not the one who joined the army) did develop a fear of wind after their roof was blown off in a storm, I thought I’d share my attempt anyway.
Winds high enough to rattle the windows, to shake him from sleep. He slakes his fear with a beer from the fridge. A soldier more spooked by storms than snipers? Galled less by guerrillas than by gales? Cleaning up after Harvey, he’s bugged by the breeze that blew the roof off his childhood. “Britain doesn’t get hurricanes,” scoffed the weatherman. Seems he got his forecast wrong.