Just before the school year began, I re-read Don Delillo's White Noise. It is one of the defining books of my lifetime and it's hard to beat for social satire. Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies at a small liberal arts college. He spends most of the book trying to learn basic German while his friend, an Elvis scholar tries to school him on the ways of modern celebrity. When a -- possibly -- toxic cloud (call it "an event") sweeps over the bucolic landscape, the future appears doomed for all of us because no one understands technology, or its specialized vocabulary and no one quite knows how deeply we have already been poisoned by artificial products, synthetic foods, and each other.
Terrence Hayes's Lightheaded is a wonderful book I am happy to say I picked up just before it won the National Book Award. Hayes is a prodigious talent whose opening poem is a word-drunk meditation on love and loss that leaves the reader, well... lightheaded. Another favorite is a poem called Carp Poem, in which Hayes makes a staggering imaginative leap from the orange DOC jumpsuits of prisoners in a program where he teaches to the orange of equally trapped and angry carp in a Japanese koi pond.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is a hilarious social satire of a society where people no longer "verbal" each other. Instead, they resort to computer devices and a savage hierarchical social ranking system where youth and vapidity are the only prizes to be sought. Sound familiar?
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a great young adult novel. Partly autobiographical, and partly covering reservation scenes in a similarly brilliant way to his own previous work, Alexie offers a young protagonist who can only be saved through education and art -- much the same way the author has managed to transcend his own impoverished environment to become one of the most important writers in the U.S. today.
V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River is a great novel about the Congo. Caught between two revolutions, Salim, the narrator, tries to make a living while surviving swings in political fortune he cannot quite understand. He's not alone. No one seems to fully grasp the many Africas present in his tiny town or the mighty pulls of European and Arabian influence, to say nothing of the "old ways" and their inevitable clash with modernity. Naipaul is a Nobel-prize winner and given the psychological astuteness and the historical sweep of this novel, it's easy to see why.