Percival Everett once said, "Every novel is experimental." To make the most of the novel is to push the boundaries of the form itself (space, time, language), to create alluring and elusive structures that seem to hang together as if by magic.
Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death (Riverhead, February 2016) explores history in service of the present. Though the novel is deeply researched, it prizes imagination over fact. Its tone is playful. Fierce, quick chapters weave disparate storylines. We follow, among many threads, a tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo using a ball made from the hair of Anne Boleyn (fiction). We discover that tennis originated as a game of "angels" versus "demons" playing for control of the soul/ball (fact). As the Counter-Reformation unfolds in the Old World, another major thread reimagines Cortés and La Malinche's relationship, following the trail of bodies that begins to shape the New World. How these threads hold the book together will confound and dazzle, even as you wonder (along with the author, who shows up at one point to wonder with you) what the book is actually about.
In interviews Enrigue is not so uncertain, casually dropping maxims like "a novelist has the right to be a prophet looking backwards." This quote is a key to Enrigue's intentions in Sudden Death, as well as Hari Kunzru's in White Tears (Knopf, March 2017), a novel equally concerned with history's influence. White Tears begins as a traditional realist story about young white record producers obsessed with the "authenticity" of "black music." But when they record a man singing in a park and try to pass it off as a rare blues record by an undiscovered Delta talent, the musical past they cherish begins to literally haunt them, the narrator becomes less and less reliable, and, about halfway through, the book performs a stylistic 180 as Kunzru deftly collapses time to overlay historical parallels of systemic racism and cultural appropriation. The result is not didactic, but rather a mashup of ghost story, noir, dark satire and double-edged revenge tale.
Kunzru's trick is subtle, immersive, incredibly effective and, like a gunpowder-guzzling Daffy Duck, can only be performed once. Or in Enrigue's words: "Every great novel is the first and last of its kind." Yes. And for a novel to be the first of its kind, it must begin as an experiment to discover its matchless form. Which brings us back to Everett, whose massive bibliography is proof of concept. His latest novel forms a tighter braid than Sudden Death and plays with genre (and cliché) like White Tears.
Kevin Pace, the narrator of So Much Blue (Graywolf, June 2017), is a middle-aged abstract painter (married, two children) working on a canvas he won't let anyone see – one secret in a novel full of them. Pace's story flashes back to a decade-old affair in Paris and a 30-years-ago trip to war-torn El Salvador. Though each storyline could be a separate book (family drama, love story, buddy-picture), the triptych amounts to a braid narrative held together by an extended metaphor: the color blue. The realism is masterfully executed, the literary trope perfectly deployed, and though it may seem like pedestrian territory for Everett, there is an underlying meta-joke: a story following fairly strict form, held together by metaphor, is told by an abstract painter who is skeptical of metaphor. Pace rarely used the color until his secret painting, which is exclusively blue, and about which he says: "The colors all mean something, though I cannot say what." Pace resists meaning throughout the book, but uses this secret painting to work out his issues and make sense of his life.
Hopefully I have failed to summarize these books. Hopefully you will read them. Oh, and the beach. I forgot to mention the beach. You can read these books at the beach. Hopefully you will bring sunscreen.