Well-Read is a monthly book recommendations column by book critic and novelist Catie Disabato.
This month, I haven’t been able to stop talking about what I’m reading with everyone I know, even to people with whom I don’t usually discuss books. I’ve recited the plot of Sara Gran’s The Infinite Blacktop to at least three people, with enough detail to bore them (though, bless my friends, they’ve all pretended I didn’t go on too long). All my bookish friends are talking about Jia Tolentino, about how she apparently doesn’t have anxiety and about the crab rangoon joke in her Grub Street eating diary and how that article called her the Joan Didion of our times. At Skylight Books, my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles, a bookseller friend of mine scoffed at the shameless hero-worship — then we both quickly added a coda to our moment of negativity. We love her work, we’ve been reading her essays for years, we admire her, we have read the book.
I didn’t think I would find a through-line between the books I’m recommending this month. I thought that their only points of connection would be that they were good books written by talented women, whose prose was a pleasure to read on these bright, sweet August days. But when I was reading the introduction to Trick Mirror — the last of these books that I read — the connection bloomed in front of me as naturally as Claire DeWitt discovers clues in Gran’s novel series.
All these books are about truth, or rather, the elusive nature of truth. Truth as the answer to a mystery. In the introduction to her book, Tolentino describes her reasons for writing the book like she was solving a mystery about herself, in a series of lines that easily could’ve been in any of Gran’s detective novels:
I began to realize that all my life I’ve been leaving myself breadcrumbs. It didn’t matter that I didn’t always know what I was walking toward. It was worthwhile, I told myself, just trying to see clearly, even if it took me years to understand what I was trying to see.
My own breadcrumbs perhaps gather most closely around the book I haven’t mentioned yet, Valerie, a fictional reimagining of the life and death of Valerie Solanas, who is mostly known for attempting to assassinate Andy Worhol. Like a lot of people my age, 33, I went through a Warhol phase in early high school, which led me to a very gendered and shallow discourse around Solanas; the explanation for her attempted murder is often the bland “because she was crazy.”
As a teenager I didn’t yet understand the ways that women have been historically been institutionalized as a way to remove their pesky little agency and personhood. I also didn’t understand that having a mental illness doesn’t de-person someone or render their truths automatically inaccurate. What I did know as a teenager was that something was wrong with the way people talked about Solanas, and maybe my whole reading life has been a way to understand that unsettled feeling and find new ways of thinking about the world.
Pub. Date: August 6, 2019
Online, people I know pass around links to Jia Tolentino’s essays in The New Yorker. When I meet other women for drinks on a day a new piece has gone up, we ask each other if we’ve read it. For anyone who loves Tolentino’s pieces, Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion is a treasure trove: nine original pieces and enough space to tease out her ideas even further than she can at her day job. Trick Mirror captures the worst parts of being online, the cesspit parts, without moralizing about either the internet itself or about the people who live on it, which is rare.
“I’ve been telling myself that I wrote this book because I was confused after the election, because confusion sits at odds to my temperament, because writing is my only strategy for making this conflict go away. I’m convinced by this story, even as I can see its photonegative: I wrote this book because I am always confused, because I can never be sure of anything, and because I am drawn to any mechanism that directs me away from that truth.”
Pub. Date: August 6, 2019
In a brief forward at the beginning of Valerie, Stridsberg says that the book is literary fantasy and that few facts are known about Valerie Solanas. It is because we don’t have an intimate culture-wide understanding of Solanas that we need a literary fantasy to fill in the gaps. A cliche about novels is that they are able to tell the truth because they aren’t beholden to the facts.
Stridsberg’s novel takes the form of modular paragraphs and transcripts of imagined conversations, which initially gives the reader a fractured understanding of the novel’s subject. Then, at the end, the pieces come together like finishing a puzzle.
“There’s no reason to tell the truth when it’s so easy to lie.”
Claire DeWitt And The City of the Dead, Claire DeWitt And The Bohemian Highway, and The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran.
Pub. Date: June 6, 2019
I’ve read some fun detective novels in the past, but few if any have felt like they were written for me or had lead characters that I connected with. Gran’s books give me both of those things, and compelling mysteries besides. Each one has a new mystery that the book is ostensibly about: a respected DA goes missing in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a punk musician is found dead in his home in San Francisco, an artists’ car goes off the road under mysterious circumstances.
Each of these mysteries is just a framework for Gran to explore Claire’s past and her nature, and to explore what it really means to solve a mystery and hunt for the truth. Through all of the novels, Claire is guided by the words of enigmatic forefather of her tradition of private detection, a man named Jacques Silette. Claire can recite from his book, Détection, and the quotations we get to read give the books both their sense of humor and their thematic weight.
Though each book builds on the previous ones, you can read any of them solo or read them out of order and still understand what’s inside.
“Kill all the wise men. Burn all the books. The kingdom of truth is your birthright, and the only thing standing in between you and the kingdom is your own monstrous, idiotic, self. — Jacques Silette, Détection.”