It's finally here! I'm talking, of course, about "Crust," the hotly anticipated novella by Lawrence Shainberg, author of "Memories of Amnesia" (a neurosurgically acute piece of fiction in which a brain reports on its own deterioration), not to mention one of the most entertaining books I've ever read about Zen Buddhism, "Ambivalent Zen." The literati have been buzzing about this book for a couple of years now, so I almost thought it was an April Fool's joke when it arrived in the mail.
Published by Two Dollar Radio, Shainberg's footnote-laden, Vonnegut-worthy satire recounts how one Walker Linchak, a highly decorated but bored author in his late 40s, accidentally helps pioneer and promote a Scientology-like movement that combines science, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and theology. The movement is called Nasalism, for reasons which immediately become obvious, and George W. Bush is one of its fervent adherents. In the book, I mean; I don't know where the president comes down on this issue in real life.
Shainberg's expertise in the area of neuroscience -- in the early 1990s, he published a well-received book about the life and work of a world-famous neurosurgeon, Dr. James Brockman -- is put to excellent use, here. If the surgery-obsessed J.G. Ballard had written the fictional science journal excerpts which pepper the novel (about "crust expansion and descent through the superior turbinate and eventual coagulation in the maxilla," for example) he couldn't have improved on them.
If poking fun at academic jargon floats your boat, you'll enjoy reading about how "each of our nasal secretions is an opportunity to confront the essential ambiguities of self and identity," and how the great gift of Nasalism is "dialectical incongruity," which is to say a near-effacement of the distinction between inside/outside and pleasure/pain.
But what the book really satirizes is American culture and media -- the way trends are conjured out of nothing, thanks to a few blog posts here, a tenure-track academic looking for a hot topic to theorize about there, and of course, newspapers like this one.
I can't reveal any more, at this time, because the book is embargoed until October. But let me just add my two cents to the excited blurbs contributed by the novelists Jonathan Lethem ("One of the most perverse and single-minded satires I've ever read") and Norman Mailer ("It's wild as sin and revolting as vomit and as exceptional as the lower reaches of insanity itself"). I think that Two Dollar Radio has picked a real winner.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.