The Elephanta Suite
By Paul Theroux, Houghton Mifflin, $25
What makes India so menacing to American travelers in this trio of tragic novellas is not its chaotic variety but its mystical cohesion. It’s a giant, unfathomable organism, one that “attracted you, fooled you, subverted you, then, if it did not succeed in destroying you with the unexpected, it left you so changed as to be unrecognizable.” Most of these set-upon Americans have it coming: the oblivious wealthy couple in a full-service spa in “Monkey Hill,” the lawyer exploiting India’s cheap labor—and its desperate women—in “The Gateway of India.” Only Alice, a spiritual seeker and call-center language instructor in Theroux’s most developed story, “The Elephant God,” is genuinely undeserving of her fate, and fittingly in Theroux’s world of rough justice, she gets her revenge. A revelatory book about a transformative place.
Maynard and Jennica
By Rudolph Delson, Houghton Mifflin, $24
Maynard wears old hats and makes art films. Jennica indulges in more-standard haut bourgeois cultural signifiers (though her obsessive list-making is a signature “quirk”). In short, irritating boy meets differently irritating girl. September 11 intrudes inconveniently on their relationship, making them more irritating to each other and to us. Which is not to say that this former lawyer’s debut is Along Came Polly redux. Here and there, characters develop, family conflicts emerge, the nature of evil is fleetingly explored. But the real problem is the format: a fictional oral history that quotes long-dead ancestors and characters in intimate situations in a way that’s both implausible and, less forgivably, superficial. Every time a speaker threatens to string together events in a meaningful way, another chatty friend or relative interrupts. Style is subverted by voice, as when even Jennica’s most astute observations are ruined by her generational overuse of “like.” Whatever.
If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work …
By Irvine Welsh, W. W. Norton, $14.95
This would almost be worth buying on the title alone, but it gets off to a dismal start. The first of the five stories, called “Rattlesnakes,” is crap, a stupid, gory, dark-porno fantasy that reads like the scribblings of an M.F.A. grad drunk on vintage Welsh (nobody but a trained potamologist should use words like rivulet). Our heroically profane author, beloved for the classic Trainspotting, pulls it together on the next one, the title story, which is written from the perspective of a British expat bar owner on the Canary Islands whose ex-wife has just foisted their teenage daughter on him. Welsh’s gutter charm works its customary wonders here, though even this tale eventually blunders off the rails. Not the book with which to get acquainted with Welsh; only die-hards will take full pleasure in its precipitous ups and downs.
Songs Without Words
By Ann Packer, Knopf, $24.95
Packer’s follow-up novel to The Dive From Clausen’s Pier is a classic of the domestic-turmoil genre. It stars Sarabeth and Liz, two best friends in Palo Alto brought even tighter in teenagerdom by the suicide of Sarabeth’s mother—and then, years later, wrenched apart (although the wrenching happens more in the form of unreturned phone calls than dramatic confrontations) by a cry-for-help crisis in Liz’s own family. Some of the insight here is gratifying; some of it seems like the product of a very unsatisfying therapy session, in which neither patient nor doctor gets the pleasure of feeling like they’re breaking new ground. Why, Liz wonders at one point, has it always pleased her to see her husband in a shirt and tie? “That’s because he reminds you of your father, Sarabeth had remarked about this, in her usual perspicacious way.” That’s perspicacious? And after a while, reading this novel—in which people mope in bed and drive past appropriate exit ramps—is like spending too much time with a depressed person, or being depressed yourself. Are you okay?, characters keep asking each other, over and over. Yes, fine, thanks. Now let’s talk about something else, all right?
WAIT FOR THE PAPERBACK
By Ann Patchett, Harper, $25.95
Three-quarters of this book is just about perfect. It’s a story about a Boston family (Dad’s the former mayor, Mom dies in Chapter 1, and two of their three kids are adopted and black) that abruptly crosses paths with a working-class mom and her daughter, with complex and unexpected results. One particular scene, where the girl joins one of the sons among the thousands of bottled preserved fish in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, is so vivid that we’ve already shot the movie in our heads. But smack in the middle of all this graceful writing is a dream sequence—a visitation by a dead friend who Tells It Like It Is, Movingly—and it’s way too treacly and squishy for its own good. So: Run is strongly recommended, provided that you speed-read your way through Chapter 8.