Whether caffeine is or isn’t actually good for you isn’t actually the point. The point is that if the wild success of the largely pseudoscientific lifestyle brand Goop tells us anything, the rule goes that because caffeine sometimes has negative effects and isn’t tolerated by some people, by now, there should be a full-blown attack against Big Caffeine.
Vern Loomis, a retired structural draftsman in West Bloomfield, Michigan, had a standard office lunch: a peanut-butter sandwich, with various fruit, vegetable, and dessert accompaniments. He ate this, he estimates, nearly every workday for about 25 years.
His meal underwent slight modifications over time—jelly was added to the sandwich in the final five or so years—but its foundation remained the same. The meal was easy to prepare, cheap, and tasty. “And if you happen to be eating at your desk … it was something that was not too drippy,” he told me, so long as one applied the jelly a bit conservatively.
It is often the descriptive details of character, dialogue, style, and rhythm that we pay close attention to when we consider language in fiction, but one of the greatest powers of language is its ability to manipulate time so that its linearity is broken up and we, as readers, are able to witness the “unseen.” We might pause for reflection or return to backstory, get swept up in a character’s reverie or stream of consciousness, or fall into essayistic soliloquies voiced from a collective society.
These literary opportunities—shifting the focus to other points in time, whether real or imagined—are apparent in Salvatore Scibona’s new novel, The Volunteer, out this week. The book spans four generations of a family suffering the consequences of the Vietnam War and sweeps over approximately a hundred years. But the reader feels this expansion, and contraction, of time less in the book’s structure and more in its sentences—how they move in and around the actions of a scene while offering insight into the past, and sometimes into the imaginary.
Max Porter’s second novel is a fable, a collage, a dramatic chorus, a joyously stirred cauldron of words. It follows his startlingly original debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the dark, comic, wild, beautiful prose-poem-novel that was a runaway success in 2015 and won the Dylan Thomas award. Lanny is similarly remarkable for its simultaneous spareness and extravagance, and again it is a book full of love. It plays pretty close to the edge over which lie the fey and the kooky; anyone allergic to green men may need to take a deep breath. But Porter has no truck with cynicism and gets on, bravely, exuberantly, with rejuvenating our myths.
To know another language is also to know more about how others think, since some weakened version of the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that different languages, because they carve up the world in different ways, cause speakers to perceive and think differently – is almost certainly true. Hence the book’s title: in Russian, one is obliged to specify one of four levels of closeness when referring to a friend. Other examples abound of subtle differences that influence thought: Turkish has “evidential grammar”, according to which one must mark whether the information one is conveying is first-hand or not. This might be useful if forcibly adopted on social media.