Thursday, October 27, 2016
Review: "Cannibals in Love" by Mike Roberts
Across 18 brilliantly conceived vignettes, Mike Roberts’ debut novel, Cannibals in Love, tries its best to condense the experience of those first, fresh-faced millennials at the beginning of the year 2000. This great book brought to mind many other great books as well, such as Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a book mentioned on the back cover, as well as other works cut from that same cloth, like John Fante’s Ask the Dust and Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s The Dirty Havana Trilogy: stories of a writer sometimes choosing or sometimes forced to exist on the fringes of society and outside of stable conditions like love, romance and direction. It also calls to mind the brutal works of Donald Ray Pollock and Richard Lange in the subject’s amorality. But what sets this book apart from those writers and the books that I mentioned is its undeniable familiarity. This is a book of this moment, and I feel like I know the people it is talking about: a class of people who have been coddled by the generation before them, and are completely unprepared for a world that is collapsing around them. They make attempts to find themselves, but, as is the case for our narrator, also named Mike, they find trouble and confusion. The plot of this novel is quite loose. It reminded me a lot of the structure of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, where one scene will end abruptly and a new one will take its place just as quickly. It all focuses on Mike, who is just about to graduate college and has no idea what he wants to do with his life, a feeling that many will find mutual. He has his wants and desires, many of which center around women or his unreadable allegorical novel about raising and milking cows, but they never seem to add up to much of anything worthwhile or long term. He has many jobs, such as counting lamp posts in his hometown of Washington D. C. at the beginning, which involves a memorable scene with his sixty year old co-worker Don and a sad trip to an off-track betting site, a gig in Portland, Oregon of babysitting a friendless sociopathic teen and writing spam emails from home in his underwear. But the true heart of this novel, as I see it, is Mike’s tumultuous relationship with a woman named Lauren. They seem right for each other, but through their constant addiction to fighting each other and their tendency to bring one another down, their eventual split and movement away from one another, is quite heartbreaking, even for two people who sometimes don’t have our sympathy. There are a few memorable detours as well, such as one section which talks about the disappearance of someone the same age as Mike and another where Mike’s car breaks down and he lies his way into the house of some well-meaning Christians. This is an energizing almost manic book that is also a perfect, clarifying snapshot of our troubled, ambiguous times.