It's possible that my essay last week on BookExpo America may have given you the wrong impression; the point isn't that there are no good books coming out. It's that the great books could be promoted more vigorously than, say, the upcoming memoir by Madonna's brother that will have a 300,000-copy initial print run.
In the past month, two novels have been tossed into the void to fend for themselves; being inanimate objects, they don't do such a good job. James Meek's We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is a classic example of an amazing book that you haven't heard about. And, appropriately enough, it features a main character named Kellas who, tired of toiling in the obscurity of journalism, decides to write a formulaic-but-controversial thriller about Europe declaring war on the United States in the hopes of tremendous popular success. Fittingly, he stole the idea to sell out from a friend who writes unpopular, brilliant novels: "You're thinking I've sold my soul," he tells Kellas. "Have you seen my soul lately? It's something the kids kick around the lounge when the telly's bad. Its eyes are hanging out."
There's more to the book than just a consideration of popular success: Kellas is embedded in Afghanistan and he falls in love with an American woman. After he leaves, he becomes obsessed with her and tries to track her down. Along the way, there is an encounter on a Greyhound bus with exactly the same Americans that Kellas has declared his fictional war against, and a dinner party that collapses into one of the most awkward scenes ever put to paper.
Ed Park's Personal Days deals with the awkward, too, but in a more playful way. Park plays with the strange language that has developed in the modern golden age of office work: One chapter is titled "Can't Undo" and a great portion of the book is devoted to the cheesy, stupid writing found in management how-to books ("Are you an Ernie—or a Bert?").
Personal Days is divided into three sections, and the stylistic choices that Park makes—first-person plural narration, a narrative told in PowerPoint-style outline, and one continuous run-on sentence of an e-mail—are the kind of sustained formal play that often characterizes an eager, and occasionally amateurish, talent. But Park's love of language elevates the novel to that rarest of levels: the vocabulary becomes almost another character in the story. Every word belongs exactly where it is.
Descent's publisher, Canongate, is a British-based outfit with a relatively small hold on the U.S. market, so it's understandable why more people haven't heard of the book. But Personal Days' publisher, Random House, can make no such claims; to dump this novel as a paperback original with almost no promotional support on an overcrowded market ought to be a crime.