We—malcontents, I mean—often find the modern world infuriatingly flawed without knowing quite where to direct our anger. So thank God for Matthew Vincent’s snappy rants (though Vincent says he’s “agnostic or atheist or whatever”). For this L.A.-based Hoosier writer/designer hath provided us with a place for our righteous anger in his indignant new book [you] Ruined It for Everyone! 101 People Who Screwed Things Up for the Rest of Us. In a sharply designed series of comic micro-essays, he takes aim at a wide range of “ruiners,” people who changed our world for the worse, from the celebrated yet reviled (Tiger Woods, BP); to the politically wrongheaded (China’s one-child policy, Guantánamo Bay); the environmentally stupid (the inventor of the plastic grocery bag); and the ugly and time-wasting (fluorescent lights, the MLA Handbook). Even when his targets seem bizarre (the FDA? Really?), he’s got an interesting reason (they approved the pasteurization of almonds, which eliminates “the valuable nutrients your body needs”). What’s more, he has woven a few real eye-openers into these entertaining polemics: Who knew that the wine cork shortage was a fallacy, or that sunblock might actually cause skin cancer? We risked “cell phone overexposure” and called Vincent up to take some responsibility for our idiotic civilization.
You don’t seem that angry in real life. I’m like Pagliacci, the clown who’s sad and angry on the inside. The book isn’t about being angry, it’s about laughing at the horrible things these people have done and trying to get a refund of some kind.
Which came first: the book or the website, YouRuinedIt.com? I did it backward—I’m a “book-to-blog” person. Technically, I’m not a writer. I’m an architect, or a designer—well, I studied architecture and worked for architecture firms, then I got sacked. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I took freelance work, and one night I was having dinner with friends and we were talking about people who sue people for stupid things, like the man who sued Michael Jordan for looking like him, or the woman who sued Toyota because her drunk daughter couldn’t unbuckle the seatbelt while underwater.
But it’s not always clear where to put the blame. It came back to Stella Liebeck for spilling coffee on herself and suing McDonald’s, because she won lots of money [$2.9 million]. Is she really at fault, or is McDonald’s, or are all the people who now sue for frivolous reasons? Anyway, I thought of all these ruiners and I typed the facts into my iPhone, and it was kind of fun. I didn’t think of it as a blog—it was just something to do. Then my wife said, “Why don’t you write some more and see if you can make a book out of it?” Writing these was difficult because I found myself wanting to blame everyone . . . and that’s essentially what happened.
Who ruined it for everyone the most? Originally, it was Adam, but we had to back off and say it was the apple, for making sin so tasty. That really ruined it. Since the dawn of our supposed creation, when human beings have the chance to ruin something, nine times out of 10 we will jump on that opportunity.
Name some people who are not ruining things for everyone. [Long silence.]
‘[you] Ruined It for Everyone!,’ by Matthew Vincent, Soft Skull, 240 pp., $14.95, October
Fall Books Picks
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
By Georges Perec; translated by Marc Lowenthal
Those Oulipo pranksters seem so charmingly crazy to American writers. After all, their literary movement became famous for turning creativity—which we over here keep praying is a business—into a silly game: Write a novel without the letter E! Tell the same boring story 99 times! How daring! How unfathomable! Oulipo ringleader Perec’s Attempt finds the author sitting in Paris’s Place Saint-Sulpice in October 1974, making a long list of everything he observes over a three-day period. Most of the entries concern the movements of public buses and pigeons. Deliciously quotidian! Wakefield Press, 72 pp., $12.95
The Physics of Imaginary Objects
By Tina May Hall
You Do Understand
By Andrej Blatni
This strange pair of slim volumes straddles the boundary between prose and poetry. Hall’s award-winning book moves sensuously through a landscape both dreamlike and mundane, creating mystery even as it scratches its dirty feet. From “Last Night of the County Fair”: “The crocodile pit is just an oval of damp sawdust.” Blatnik’s miniatures examine the confusion and pathos of fleeting modern relationships. Try the entirety of “Misunderstanding”: ” ‘You’re even more beautiful when you come,’ he said. How would you know? she thought.” The University of Pittsburgh Press, 160 pp., $24.95; Dalkey Archive, 112 pp., $12.95
By Michael Cunningham
Critics seemed to dislike Cunningham’s most recent novel, Specimen Days, for trying to repeat, with Whitman, the author’s wildly successful riff on Woolf in The Hours. But they don’t have that ammo here. By Nightfall describes what happens when an unwanted ne’er-do-well brother-in-law comes to visit, a guy nicknamed “Mizzy,” as in “mistake.” Gradually, the wastrel slices up the wobbly marriage of an art dealer and an editor and puts it on a slide—talk about specimen days. Here, without a literary forebear breathing down his neck, Cunningham sounds looser on the page, and Peter, the art dealer, who narrates, has a delightfully, unexpectedly bitchy/funny voice. Maybe the precedent is Albee? FSG, 256 pp., $25
By Brock Clarke
Known for being more savage to his literary forebears than Cunningham, Brock Clarke (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England) uses Frederick Exley’s “fictionalized memoir” as the basis for a fan’s notes on A Fan’s Notes, essentially following boy hero Miller and his therapist as they attempt to figure out why the kid’s father abandoned his family, and why Miller needs to find Exley, the writer of his father’s favorite book. As books about books go, it probably won’t read much like The Hours. Algonquin, 320 pp., $24.95
The False Friend
By Myla Goldberg
Celia is haunted by the memory of her betrayal of a childhood friend, Djuna, with whom she had a particularly bad fight just before Djuna disappeared into a spooky wooded area of their neighborhood and went missing for 21 years. Cinematically weaving together Celia’s uneasy present with her disturbing past, Goldberg, the author of the highly acclaimed Bee Season, explores the intensity and volatility of friendships between young girls as well as the slipperiness of fidelity and memory. “We are,” says the narrator, “because we remember.” Doubleday, 272 pp., $25.95
Listen to This
By Alex Ross
Alex Ross’s unlikely bestseller The Rest Is Noise grabbed us by the ears and challenged our assumption that 20th-century concert music was elitist and ugly. For his encore, he has taken a sneakier approach, compiling and expanding upon a number of his New Yorker essays that link modern composers to popular music: examining Verdi’s mass appeal; profiling Björk with respect to her love of Stockhausen and Icelandic composer Jón Leifs; tracing the “walking bass line” through history. Is the distinction between classical and pop a specious one? Ross may convince you. FSG, 384 pp., $27
By Adam Levin
One of the more troubling legacies of high modernism is that it caused many people to think that “great book” meant “inscrutable brick by a white guy.” In the past few years, however, there’s a new brick-making paradigm—J.K. Rowling has changed the game. Like Paul Murray’s recent Skippy Dies, a fat Irish tome populated with naughty, non-magical boarding school boys, The Instructions is another long story about short people. Adam Levin’s Foster-Wallacian effort concerns Guiron Maccabee, a 10-year-old delinquent and scholar who gets kicked out of many a private school, and eventually becomes a notorious revolutionary. Are books getting longer because everyone’s unemployed? I guess it’s a good time to finish those Bolaños. McSweeney’s, 924 pp., $29