I’ll admit it, Arthur Nersesian is one of my favorite writers. Not because he is the hoity-toity wordsmith Ian McEwan can be or the hipper-than-thou Douglas Coupland who seems to shit out bundles of well-phrased ideas, but because Nersesian crafts interesting stories with strong characters with fun to read prose that grapple with issues relevant to New York life. I also love the fact that his characters are assertive and take control of their lives for better or worse…even if their choice is to be a burnout.
His latest novel, The Swing Voter of Staten Island, takes a leap into a sci-fi alternate reality. Nersesian suggests that if the Weathermen or one of those other loopy 60s counter-culture groups had set off a dirty bomb in New York the U.S. would be very very different today–the echoes of 9/11 today are obvious.
Nersesian’s main character, Uli, finds himself in a reconstituted New York in the Nevada desert, set up by a U.S. government eager to separate radicals from the rest of the population.
It is a strange place packed with pseudo-authenticity. Union Square has become Onion Square, Rockefeller Center is now Rock ‘n Filler Center, and in this parallel universe the Republicans (known as Crappers, a bastardization of Created Equalers) are the good guys fighting for individual freedom, while the Democrats (called Piggers or We the Peoplers) are locksteppers that verge on the fascistic. Adding to the mix are historical counter-culture figures, like Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary and the Berrigan brothers.
The world in his face-paced book is filled with smelly streets, roving gangs, hippies, makeshift street markets, Mad Max touches and anarchists in Staten Island (it is an alternate reality after all).
Uli ends up in this detention camp in the sand with a foggy memory and a command to assassinate a city leader that keeps looping in his brain.
The book has so far received mixed reviews from the mainstream press (NY Times, Village Voice), mainly because reviewers don’t seem to realize that it is the first is a series (think Dune or Lord of the Rings).
Nersesian has embarked on an ambitious series and I for one finished the last page (which has an unexpected twist) cursing him for leaving us hanging…ARGH!!!!!!
Moneyquote from Arthur in the Rail interview:
It’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations about culture, but I went by Barnes & Noble the day the new Harry Potter book came out, and I saw the lines in Union Square. The first guy that bought a book in that line came by Thursday at noon, and waited until Saturday at midnight. I mean, I’m not knocking Harry Potter—but what’s going on with our culture where you see people in their 30s and 40s buying this stuff up so that 12 million copies are sold on the first day? If the same amount of fascination occurred about China, or the war in Iraq, or Katrina, if there was any of this level of concern that there was with Harry Potter…It just says so much about the time that we’re living in and what’s wrong with it.