Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young
It’s too bad that Bunk, published just last month, had the misfortune to come out during a time that finds hoaxes and lies to be no longer releva—just kidding. Kevin Young’s rich history of fakery could not, in fact, be more urgent: This is a moment of deeply earned anxiety about the fate of truth itself, one in which science and fact and empiricism are threatened by the same choose-your-own-reality impulses that have been presaged by the forces Young outlines in his subtitle.
Young is a poet as well as a critic, author, and professor—he directs the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and recently became the poetry editor of The New Yorker—and Bunk is accordingly deep in its research, profound in its insights, and lyrical in its prose. It begins with the “winged men on the moon” stories published in the New York Sun, the 1835 version of fake-news-y clickbait, and from there offers a wide-ranging biography of B.S., from P.T. Barnum’s “humbugs” to the false fairies of Cottingley to the familiar fakers of the present day: James Frey, Jayson Blair, Lance Armstrong, Rachel Dolezal. While the details of this chronicle are revelatory in themselves—Bunk offers nearly 500 pages’ worth of folly to explore—the book is even more compelling as an argument: that hoaxes, so tangled with stereotype and systemic lies, are inextricable from race, “a fake thing pretending to be real.” As Young puts its, in one of the many sentences I underlined and margin-starred and will keep thinking of for years to come: “The hoax reminds us, uncomfortably, that the stories we tell don’t just express the society of the self.” Instead, “they construct it."
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Feel Free by Zadie Smith
— Megan Garber, staff writer
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The best books are like the best meals. After the last word, the reader must hunger for more, a sensation that always exists in opposition to the fullness of the work. So it is that in subsequent visits to the same entrée, it’s possible to pick out new flavors and subtleties each time, and that in each rereading of a great book there are new morsels to digest and in which to delight.
Three tours through Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, I find myself still delighting, and still digesting. On its surface, the book is an award-winning novelist’s take on the “road novel,” a bildungsroman that uses a trip as a sextant for a character’s development. But Ward’s effort is so much more than that. It’s a whirlwind that manages to dredge up generations of black pain and joy in the Mississippi Delta. It’s a haunted narrative that ventures into the realm of voodoo and ghosts. The protagonist Jojo’s growth through familial trauma in the American South is a story that resonates with me as a black southerner. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is also broadly familiar for all readers in the way that the best coming-of-age novels are.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
— Vann R. Newkirk II, staff writer
The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s novel is not about Charles Manson and his electric pull on girls. It’s about those girls themselves and their electric pull, their sexuality, and their desires at a time when any kind of suburban female anarchy was shocking. A 14-year-old Evie first spies Suzanne and her retinue—all young followers of a Manson-esque figure named Russell—at a park and immediately recognizes their power (“sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water”). But more than recognition, Evie is bewitched: How can she be like Suzanne? Forget the neuroses of teenagedom, forget being “pretty,” forget mores, forget the fumbling rites of teenage sex, forget crippling self-doubt—in Suzanne, Evie sees a way to opt out of all of it; she sees pure potential and wild freedom. And she decides to claim some of that for herself.
The inverted expectation here is spectacular. Step aside Manson/Russell—who are these astonishing girls? As the novel spirals toward the inevitable murders, Evie’s flush of passion for Suzanne crescendos. Then slowly, inexorably, the patina wears off and Suzanne and the others are revealed in a more complicated and dangerous light. The girls have traded something for all this freedom, to the point that freedom is not liberating—it’s just chaos. Evie loses Suzanne, but her life will be forever entwined with Russell’s—a lasting insult.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2018 arrives: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
— Sacha Zimmerman, senior editor