By Éric Plamondon, translated by Dimitri Nasrallah
Esplanade, 164 pages, $19.95
Janos Weissmuller, born in a forgotten hamlet of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, arrives in America and becomes Johnny, future Olympic swimming champion and Tarzan of the silver screen. In the first book in Éric Plamondon's 1984 trilogy, originally published in French in 2011, our narrator, compulsive writer Gabriel Rivages, tells the story of Johnny Weissmuller (1904-84), his rise and tragic fall, through a series of sometimes contradictory, sometimes only tangentially related vignettes. One French reviewer accurately described it as "a novel for the Wikipedia generation," which may sound like a put-down, but the thing about novels is they're an omnivoracious form – they always have been – consuming all narrative forms around them. So of course we have our Wikipedia novel. (Books 2 and 3 in the series will focus on Richard Brautigan and Steve Jobs, respectively.) "At the age of forty, Gabriel Rivages feared his life hadn't amounted to much." A short book about what makes a life, and the American 20th century.
Into the Current
By Jared Young
Goose Lane Editions, 378 pages, $22.95
Ejected from Bangkok by immigration officials, Daniel Solomon is en route to Tokyo when his jet rips apart mid-flight, sending Daniel hurtling into the stratosphere. That's when time stops – not metaphorically, not psychologically: The plane's debris suspends miles above the ocean as time's arrow pauses, giving Daniel plenty of time to think about what he's done. Although different stories, Jared Young's premise might draw to mind Farzana Doctor's recent depiction of the Air India bombing in All Inclusive. As in Doctor's novel, where a restless ghost seeks closure, Daniel lives in limbo until he can tell the right story to "my love" – and himself. The novel's prose and structure, even its typography, are inventive without being alienating, maybe because we've been taught to read this kind of framing and jumping in time through cinema. Autobiography is self-serving; memory, deceptive – Into the Current's greatest surprise is how it turns these banalities into an incisive novel on gender and what it means to truly love someone.
By Viet Dinh
Little A, 265 pages, $22.95
The 2001 Gujarat earthquake, which killed more than 20,000 people, draws out the personal stories of four rescue workers in Viet Dinh's novel about competing visions of doing good in the world. While After Disasters follows four men – U.S. aid workers Ted and Piotre, Indian doctor Dev and British firefighter Andy – in their race to save lives near the quake's epicentre in Western India, the narrative is unbalanced: Dev bears witness for less than one-fifth of the book (a pity, since he's the most intriguing character). Meanwhile, the well-intentioned but oblivious Ted takes centre stage nearly the same amount as the other three combined. Dinh does establish some ironic distance from the feckless American, and a reader might argue we are meant to be incensed by such Western blindness (a reading with some support in the novel's end). A skeptic might say the lopsidedness reflects the U.S. literary market. Despite the structural imbalance, Dinh's evocative prose shows moments of brilliance.