It’s hard to have summer fun without something funny. Summer might be a great time for breezy beach reads, but it’s also an awesome time for sharp, pointed satire that scorches, memorable characters, and quirky situations. The three novels in this week’s book club have some serious moments. Mostly, though, they’re memorable for witty observations and flashes of insight into the human condition that can only come from a bit of laughter.
1. South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby ($26): The antidote to a scorching July day may just be this South Pole-based romantic comedy. Cooper Gosling, the heroine of Shelby’s off-kilter novel, passes the psychiatric portion of the fitness exam (“the pelvic exam of the mind”) to go to Antarctica as part of the 2003 National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers program… well, sort of. Cooper, a 30-year-old MFA grad and painter from the midwest with a deeply sardonic sense of humor, only gets a conditional pass after her consultation at Veritas Integrated Defense Systems (“much more than a defense contractor”), but she’s on her way anyway. It’s a great opportunity, but what is there to do in Antarctica, anyway? (Besides developing her “interesting juxtapositions” and “frenetic color palette”?) Her polar-obsessed father merely hands her a familiar childhood book detailing the doomed Scott expedition, a haunting reminder of her twin brother David’s obsession with Captain Oates’ “philanthropic suicide” before he ended his own life.
Cooper finds a certain kinship with the rest of the “Polies,” as each one of them is off in his or her own way; as the director, Tucker Bollinger, says, “If you don’t fit in anywhere else, you will work your ass off for us.” Bollinger himself enters a room “like an android whose design hadn’t included joint flexion” and has “a kind of beauty that had been coaxed into existence.” She’s pretty sure she can build a decent life for herself, even with the occasionally -54 Degrees Celsius weather. This suddenly becomes a whole lot more attractive when she meets a hot astrophysicist who can’t keep his eyes off her — well, if it’s a choice between her or the penguins, she definitely comes out on top.
Things are heating up in this frigid world when a climate-change denier comes aboard the station, and must be fought with a combination of wit and science. Shelby balances her romance, intrigue, and scientific musings with the mundanity of bureaucracy and email. She captures the particular powderkeg that is created when a bunch of oddball humans are trapped together in a small, hostile environment with no means for escape, where the only outlets are work, play, and each other. Like Cooper, to stay that long in Antarctica, you have to have a funny way of looking at the world.
2. Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam, illustrated by John Cuneo ($27): Rich Fischer, the “hero” of Klam’s novel, is a bit of a sad-sack, considering he’s a relatively popular cartoonist. This popularity, however, doesn’t necessarily equate to money or satisfaction; Rich is painfully aware that his best work is a few years in the past, and the ritzy New England artist retreat he teaches at allows him to retain the illusion of importance and “show off in front of strangers” while not paying him all that much. To top it off, he doesn’t find his marriage satisfying either, and he’s been cheating on his wife with a student at the retreat. This student just happens to be the wife of a billionaire, so Rich sees an additional value in potentially continuing this relationship; it’s at the expense of his wife, sure, but it could deal with all his other expenses. Or, at least, he could write a bestselling book about it. You might have picked up on the fact that Rich is not a particularly nice guy, but his story is an entertaining one.
This is mostly because author Klam has no intention of taking Rich too seriously; Rich may himself be devoted to navel-gazing, but Klam plays the worst of Rich’s nauseating self-pity for laughs, potentially refreshing to those who may have had enough of middle-aged white male tears. The artist retreat itself is also ripe for satire, with its clothing-optional beach drum circles and the wealthy desperately trying to rub elbows with the semi-famous and talented.
This is not to say that the people in Klam’s book aren’t people, layered and occasionally sympathetic, but they sure have their flaws: “On the faculty,” Rich relates, “were many friends I’d come to know over the years as intellects, historians, wordsmiths, talented performers, storytellers with big fake teeth, addicts, drunkards, perverts, world-famous womanizers, sufferers of gout, maniacs, liars-embittered, delusional, accomplished, scared of spiders, unable to swim, loveless, and cruel.” Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Meg Wolitzer have all penned raves for Who Is Rich? It’s a question you’ll want to have answered.
3. Made for Love by Alissa Nutting ($27): What’s funnier than love? It’s absolutely bizarre, if you think about it and the trouble it can cause. Nutting’s novel is all about the crazy lengths people will go to for love, either to get it or to get out of it. Set in the not-too-distant future of 2019, the novel mines the comic possibilities of the intersection between technology, sex, and love. Hazel is on the run from her wealthy and powerful husband, Byron Gogol of Gogol Industries, because she feels that he has taken his desire for intimacy to a disturbing level. He’s insisted on using their marriage as the guinea pig in the first couples’ “mind-meld,” but when he brings out the brain chips to connect them wirelessly, she’s decided she’s had enough. The only problem with running from a technology scion, however, is that they come with ways of being able to track you.
Hazel moves in with her septuagenarian father in his trailer park for seniors in an attempt to remain on the lam, but she has to deal with his new companion. Diane is an incredibly realistic sex doll, “The kind designed to provide a sexual experience that came as close as possible to having sex with a living (or maybe, Hazel thought, a more apt analogy was a very-very-recently deceased) female. Its arrival crate bore an uncanny resemblance to a no-frills pine coffin. It made Hazel recall the passage from Dracula where he ships himself overseas via boat.”
Suddenly adrift from her society of wealthy, technological, and intellectual oddballs, Hazel begins to realize how strange her world inside the “family compound” really was. Nutting takes us into a world of intrigue with a dry wit and a raised eyebrow. Read Made for Love to see what’s in store for us in the next couple of years; technology changes, but love remains the same hilarious force it’s always been.
What books crack you up? Tag us in your next offbeat read @BritandCo.
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