Every once in a blue moon you stumble upon a book that is so absorbing, so rich, you feel its aftershock long after you put it down. Life feels a little deeper, a little more illuminated, and your bar for exceptional writing is raised a few notches. Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles was one of these experiences for me. The Explosion Chronicles is a satirical history of Explosion, a burgeoning municipality, written by a not so fictional chronicler named Yan Lianke, who documents Explosion’s growth from village to metropolis. The story is both big and small; Explosion’s history is sweeping, but the novel itself is full of fascinating moments, illustrated by a force that feels mythical in its ability to pull in the natural world. Flowers bloom or die in response to events, weather is subject to persuasion. Explosion’s rapid growth lies at the hands of the Kong family, namely its second oldest son, Kong Mingliang, who will stop at nothing to see Explosion rise to its urban peak.
Sometimes when I’m in a stressful situation or a difficult conversation, I catch myself playing strange little mind games. I’m sure they’re some type of coping mechanism, and hey, they’re a lot healthier than, I don’t know, drinking. (In case I need to clarify this in a public forum, I don’t drink as a coping mechanism.) I might hone in on a pattern, like the fiber striations on my pants, and find myself tracing it with my finger, or I might start creating constellations with the veins in my hand. If I’m holding something in my hands I might start to build something. I’ve been known to create various temporary works of art, for example, with hair bands and my fingers. Yesterday, however, took the cake. I was facing an uncomfortable chat with a glass of water on the table in front of me. The way the light was filtering through the glass created a really intriguing hydro shadow on the table, and after a few minutes of blank staring, I realized I was pondering how I would screw the glass to the table with a power drill.
Subtitle: An Introduction to Talking Cats and Moody Plants
Earlier this week I started reading Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles, and I have been captivated with it from the get-go. At first I was a little nervous, as the book promised to be a sweeping history of Explosion, the book’s fictional town (or city, or metropolis, depending on where you are in the story), and it took a little while to become acclimated with the Kong family, namely to learn and distinguish between the four Kong brothers, whose names took a little time to become familiar to this Western reader. As I recently abandoned a book for greener pastures (thank heavens), I started to tease out my own reading themes. In describing the book to Mr. Brain I said something like “It’s a generational novel with some really great magical realism elements,” to which Mr. Brain replied, “Sounds right up your alley.”
In my experiences with physical endeavors (running and yoga), the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that being able to plow through anything is not the ultimate sign of development or maturity, it’s knowing when to pull back. I’m not sure why I’ve been so hesitant to apply this truth to my reading life as well. There’s always a certain guilt, or maybe just a disappointment, when you pick up a book, especially one that’s been lauded far and wide, and you know you’re going to struggle to stay with it. You don’t connect with the narrator, the style feels too laborious. It reminds you too much of something else you recently read and you’re not in the mood for another book that deals with X, employs the same plot device, etc., etc. Still, we hang in there convinced that we just need to get through those introductory 50 pages to really start to love something.
What if? In a fantastic exploration of the implications of a single kiss, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth asks us to consider how our lives become inextricably connected by one event, one relationship, or how this singular event fans out into decades worth of history in a way that makes it impossible to tease out individual threads. Commonwealth tells the story of the Cousins and Keatings families, and the events that unfold as a result of Bert Cousins crashing baby Fanny Keating’s christening party with a bottle of gin. He peripherally knows her father, and attends the event only as a way to avoid his own small children and wife. The gin is an unlikely gift for a christening, a last minute grab on the way out the door, but it is the vehicle that allows Bert to kiss Franny’s mother, Beverly, and kicks off a relationship that forever alters both families. Beverly leaves Fix Keating, her first husband, to marry Bert, and then Bert and Beverly relocate from California to Bert’s native Virginia. There are six children between both families; Caroline and Franny (Frances) Keating, and Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie Cousins.
I have been in a relationship with Mr. Brain for 10 years to the day. (We count today as our official “we got together” day.) We have been married for 5 and a half of these years, though we’ve lived together for 9 years and 7 months, so I think we’re a fairly seasoned couple. Over these past 10 years, I have gained a much more mature understanding of what a real, committed relationship looks like, and while I’m both grateful and nostalgic for our romanticized, whirlwind of a beginning, I’m much more impressed with our grit. I don’t think true, committed love is really so polite, and without some real tenacity it’s possible I’d be writing a different sort of reflection 10 years later. This is my love letter to the down and dirty.