The phrase “Equal parts Gossip Girl and Gravity’s Rainbow” appeared in my Twitter feed earlier this summer, and I immediately clicked on the link. How could I not? Who doesn’t love a good old fashioned Modernist mash of high and low culture? I remember that first season of guilty indulgence in Gossip Girl. The show came out my first year in New York, and I remember watching it, thinking, “I’m only doing this to better understand the city, not because I care about these vapid, gorgeous people and their enviably dramatic lives.” I also remember the first time I read GRAVITY’S RAINBOW and felt relief that American writers were still capable of writing and publishing intellectual novels for people wanting to be challenged. ECHO OF THE BOOM, Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s debut novel, doles out pleasure and pain in a perfect blend of entertainment and art, a great literary blend.
Friends, this is the only book that I have cared about this year. Set in the contemporary United States, mostly in the prep school scene of Washington, D.C., ECHO tracks the lives of four teenagers in the years, months, and eventually days before the Apocalypse. Like Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, THE ROAD, ECHO does not give into the gory details of the Apocalypse; rather, the author presents its coming as fact, and its inevitability as an anchor which fixes the story’s narrative. We know it’s coming, we know it’s bad, and we know that these four kids are in for trouble.
I had the opportunity to speak with Max in NYC a few weeks back, and he said something that stuck with me: “If you get Chloe, you’ll get the novel.” I loved Chloe. She’s the Blair Waldorf of this novel: a gorgeous, secretly intelligent, trapped teenager trying to find meaning in the relationships of her life. A great character wants something tangible, as this drives narrative and plot; a brilliant character wants something intangible, as it pulls you into the character’s heart and mind, so that you ache with their anxieties, fears, and, ultimately for Chloe, her loneliness. It must be difficult to make a wealthy, attractive, popular teenager sympathizable, but Max has done it in this novel. Even if you hate people like this in real life, it’s nearly impossible to hate this character, and the other girls that surround her, in the pages of ECHO. After all, she’s running out of time: just like the rest of us.
Efram’s the next character who resonates. His narrative also takes place in D.C. He’s the tech-savvy, proto-nerd turned rebel, turned rogue absentia, turned popular outcast. His story, along with Molly’s, and Steven’s, intersect with Chloe’s narrative in alternating close third-person perspectives, so that we toggle from character to character, and occasionally interact, so that the story at times feels like a four-frame visual, like Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” where you switch from story to story right as things get interesting, heightening the tension. Molly’s character, like Chloe, was particularly well-rendered. She’s raised by a survivalist freak father who rightly fears the Apocalypse and raises her in the hills of the Western U.S. thinking that it’ll be safer When It Happens if they’re out in the country. We just hope that Molly will make it, and we know that she has the skills to survive, but this doesn’t make it any easier to see her father alienate himself from her while trying to save her.
This is the sort of book that makes me love independent publishers. It’s put out by Rare Bird Books, a Los Angeles publisher. Max did all the creative himself. The book is spare, striking. I found myself telling people about it when they ask what I’m reading. One of the great pleasures of reading fiction is telling someone about a book you know that they will love. I loved this book. Too many critics spend their pages fawning over boring books that get all the publicity, that win all the awards. The job of the thinking, critical reader is to find books that are both entertaining and artful. This book, ECHO OF THE BOOM, is a work of art.