Lit: A Column About Good Books (June)


Each month, I’m going to recommend my favorite new books. Why should you trust my suggestions? I read a lot of books. I edit Omnivoracious, the book blog of, and The Bygone Bureau. But mostly, I’m extremely optimistic about the current state of books. I believe the best literature is being written right now. There’s just an overwhelming number of books out there, and hopefully, this column will help identify the ones worth reading.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

What if someone discovered an unpublished play by Shakespeare? What if there was no way to tell, with any certainty, that it was actually written by the Bard himself? Would that even matter? These are some of the questions raised in The Tragedy of Arthur, a book that purports to be a long lost Shakespearian manuscript based on the tale of King Arthur. Of course, it’s not; it’s actually a faux memoir in the form of a 250-page introduction to an equally fake Shakespearian play, all penned by Arthur Phillips. The Tragedy of Arthur is a twisty story that plays on the subjectivity of written truth (“I realize I have already misportrayed my youth completely already, because retrospective importance (to me) doesn’t necessarily jibe with what actually happened (to everyone else).”), a genre bender that recalls the structure of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

But while the postmodern hijinks of Arthur are clever, the heart of the book is a touching, often funny portrait of a son who longs for the approval of his father, an imprisoned con man who discovers the unpublished Shakespearian work. But Phillips becomes convinced that the play is just another scam, and the uncertainty wreaks havoc on his personal life, particularly the relationship with his twin sister Dana. Phillips’s self-conscious narration and his own presence as a character bring an affecting depth to the book’s exploration of truth and family. The Tragedy of Arthur is perhaps the finest work of fiction I’ve read this year.

Read If You: Like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, and don’t complain about things that are “too meta.”

Paying for It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being a John by Chester Brown

One of my favorite things on the web is McSweeney’s “Bianca, the Covert Toronto Escort with a Day Job,” a frank, semi-regular column about the life of a 24-year-old sex worker. It’s not something that I have any desire to get close to in real life (the most I know about prostitution is the one episode from The Wire when McNulty goes undercover to investigate a brothel), but I do find the subject extraordinarily fascinating.

Chester Brown’s comic Paying for It is like Bianca’s column, but from the perspective of the consumer (also set in Toronto, coincidentally). It’s a diary of Brown’s experience with every single escort he’s been with since he started seeing escorts, a decision rationalized early in the book when he reads a Dan Savage column and decides that he has no interest in “romantic love.” As it turns out, seeing prostitutes can be awkward, fulfilling, not-so-fulfilling, and often times hilarious.

Paying For It wouldn’t work in the hands of a less talented, less self-aware cartoonist, but Brown is rendered as a largely neutral character—as R. Crumb notes in the introduction, “[Brown’s] facial expression is always the same”—who seems more interested in reporting on his experiences rather than dwelling on the morality of them.

There are a few points when Brown pontificates about the potential outcomes of decriminalization, and the 50-page appendix where Brown writes about prostitution is skippable. Paying For It is better read if you take it at face value and try not to derive too much meaning from Brown’s experiences – an attitude which, not surprisingly, seems to be the right approach to sleeping with escorts.

Read If You: Enjoy self-conscious, autobiographical comics by Daniel Clowes or Adrian Tomine, or wish you liked comics.