One of the hottest books of the year is cool to the touch

Funny how you can admire a book without fully liking it. That’s the case with the lavishly overpraised memoir “Stay True” by New Yorker writer Hua Hsu, which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times and made book reviewers get all moist.  

It’s a baffling response to a book whose prose contains no electricity, no buzz. A book that rather lies there, dry, ho-hum and humorless. 

And yet Hsu reveals authorial gifts by showing what even a mildly engaging story can do: carry you along with raw pathos, stripped of punch and pyros. Though the book sputters at the half-way point — Hsu’s early years at UC Berkeley in the ‘90s aren’t as novel or riveting as he thinks they are — it occasionally grazes the profound with ranging reflection that delivers a spurt of substance. 

Still, missteps abound. Women, for instance, are almost totally absent for most of the book, noted in passing by first names only, granted the vaporous texture of ciphers. I don’t recall one speaking, even when Hsu at last finds a dimly sketched girlfriend.

Not even his Asian identity issues (he’s Taiwanese American), his mania for alt-music, or especially the zines he publishes pop off the page. These are exciting topics, but we’re left thirsting. While a huge fan, I find most New Yorker writing to be self-consciously restrained and prim. Staff writer Hsu suffers from a chronic case of New Yorker-itis.

But at least it feels real, which memoirs like Mary Karr’s aptly titled “The Liars’ Club” definitely do not. Which makes “Stay True” also aptly titled. (I find pretty much all memoirs to be 15-20% made up — there’s simply no way such decades-spanning reportage can be true — but that’s pulp for another blog.)

This book is about friendship and the violent loss of it and the hole it leaves. Hsu meets his friend Ken —  who’s mostly depicted as a one-dimensional cut-out — at college and they become best bros (Ken is in a frat, something initially anathema to the “outsider” Hsu). Ken is soon ripped from the narrative and we’re supposed to be crushed. 

But the loss of a character we barely knew is treated with a remove that makes it hard to share an emotional wallop. Believing otherwise, Hsu writes: “I was a storyteller with a plot twist guaranteed to astound and destroy.”

Not quite. “Stay True” misses its mark, but by feet, not yards. A few sentences jiggle with magic — “Their beats sounded like death rearranging furniture in the underworld,” Hsu notes about a rap group — and the closing passages of this slim volume emanate a cathartic warmth that’s AWOL in the gangly prose of the first 100-plus pages.

In the end, Hsu wants the truth to pierce. Here, it merely pinches. 

***

Ten books I really liked this year:

“Asymmetry” (Lisa Halliday); “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” (Richard Yates); “The Copenhagen Trilogy” (Tove Ditlevsen); “Heat 2” (Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner); “Either/Or” (Elif Batuman); “How Should a Person Be?” (Sheila Heti); “Weather” (Jenny Offill); “Wildlife” (Richard Ford); “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Lucia Berlin); “The Idiot” (Elif Batuman).  

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