The Great Escape

VLS Beach Reads: Relax with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, other people's notebooks, and a carnivorous plant

 The Possibility of a Beach Read

The New York Times recently asked assorted litterateurs to vote on the best novel of the last 25 years. The trickier question: What's the best beach read? Most whippersnappers, torn away from their World of Warcraft campaigns, will tote nothing heavier than a few comic books. A significant percentage recreate with an escapist quasi-religious exposé (i.e., The Da Vinci Code ). And some favor a large-format book that can double as a shade during prime sunburn hours (i.e., The Da Vinci Code: Special Illustrated Edition ). VLS technicians have determined that while no single book of the past quarter-century (with the possible exception of 2003's Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology ) comes close to being the libro de playa to end all libros de playa , the titles below all have a shot at the next competition, to be administered in 2031 by one of my clones—probably Ed251. Ed Park

Apathy and Other Small Victories
By Paul Neilan
St. Martin's, 231 pp., $17.95

The malaise of cubicle culture may be well-trodden comedic territory by now, but Neilan's debut skewers office life with a flourish for the grotesque. Apathy opens with a nod to Kafka's Joseph K., as authorities wake up blasé protagonist Shane and take him into custody for no clear reason. Accused of murder, he bounces like a pinball between a cast of cartoonish characters—insurance company lackeys, crooked cops, and an upstairs neighbor who deals in fireworks and dabbles in bestiality. Shane just doesn't care, spending most of his time sleeping in the bathroom at work and glugging pitchers of beer. Twisted descriptions of coitus cast him as the consummate victim: His controlling girlfriend's sexual temperament is akin to that of "the sadistic older brother who holds you down and slaps your forehead over and over again, lets a string of spit fall until it almost hits your face and then slurps it up, over and over again." Martin Mulkeen

Can't Get No
By Rick Veitch
Vertigo, 352 pp., $19.99

Sued because the ineradicable graffiti from his company's "Eter-No-Mark" pens has metastasized throughout the city, young Manhattan exec Chad Roe spirals into a lost weekend of booze, drugs, and self-loathing; passed out, he is maliciously tattooed with his own bread and butter. A yuppie Queequeg, his appearance repels and fascinates onlookers but is shortly trumped by the horrors of 9-11, from which he staggers to a dilapidated American history theme park filled with squatters partying amid the three-story stucco heads of dead presidents. Sans dialogue, entwining poetic captions—"the slippery meat-dream of life"—with beautifully composed ink drawings, this hallucinatory tale finds a Burning Man catharsis at the heart of a jittery nation. R.C. Baker

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril
By Paul Malmont
Simon & Schuster, 361 pp., $24

Malmont's breezy pulp pastiche, set in '30s New York, charmingly riffs off authorial personae and lets the era's imaginative fictioneers take center stage: H.P. Lovecraft, a pre-Scientology Ron Hubbard, Shadow author Walter Gibson, Doc Savage mastermind Lester Dent, and Chester Himes are all present and itching for adventure. Malmont plays fast and loose with the facts (Hubbard was not, alas, a pallbearer at Lovecraft's funeral), but biographical fidelity is trumped by the air-conditioning qualities of the book's rapid page flip quotient. Ed Park

Double Fault
By Lionel Shriver
Serpent's Tail, 336 pp., $14.95

Photographed kissing the phallic statuette she received when We Need to Talk About Kevin won the 2005 Orange Prize, Shriver wore a look of satisfaction so intense as to verge on impropriety. Now Serpent's Tail has reissued Shriver's 1997 Double Fault, an utterly compelling tale of love and envy in which Willy (short for Wilhelmina) and Eric meet on a Riverside Park court, fall in love, and marry without adequately comprehending the damage their changing national rankings will wreak on this union between two deeply competitive professional tennis players. The short span of an athlete's career means that Willy at 23 considers herself already middle-aged, and a devastating knee injury proves impossible to overcome. Fortunately, making one's mark as a novelist is not subject to the same physiological constraints. Jenny Davidson

The Eagle's Throne
By Carlos Fuentes
Translated by Kristina Cordero
Random House, 335 pp., $26.95

In Fuentes's 15th novel, which takes place in the year 2020, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. president, has blocked Mexico's access to phone, fax, and e-mail. Delirious and overexcited, the country's most influential men—controlled by seductive women who urge them to be ruthless—are forced to leave a written trail of their indiscretions. In a series of hysterical letters referencing Susan Sontag, Mission Impossible, and Hitler, they all scheme to be the next president. These charmingly sleazy characters take much more pleasure in work than sex: Flirty games and betrayals are mere warm-up for the "prolonged orgasm" of political sway. Rachel Aviv

Esopus, Issue 6: 'Process'
Edited by Tod Lippy
168 pp., $15

The cover mimics a stack of battered spiral-bound notebooks, befitting an issue of working notes by everyone from a movie designer to a mathematician. The result is a thick-stocked glossy beauty, crammed with perforated sheets for constructing a stellated dodecahedron, elaborately printed inserts, ancient typescript work journals from Christopher Isherwood, and scribbled observations by comedian Demetri Martin ("People clap when the plane lands. I like to clap the whole time"). Add a CD of songs composed around Help Wanted ads, and you'll find yourself stopping at odd moments just to pick Esopus up and stare—or listen. Paul Collins

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