I loved Turkish-American writer Jarett Kobek’s debut novel, 2017’s I Hate the Internet. I think I called it something like a hilarious, caustic satire on modern America, with the frustrating knowledge that I wasn’t halfway to describing the unique, radical, possibly insane, new voice which had entered the hall of leftist American culture commentators. I probably wondered if the book was a one-off, and whether Kobek would have the brio, the rage, the sheer energy, to successfully follow it up.
He must have pondered that question himself; after his bestselling debut came the much slower-selling The Future Won’t be Long, whose flaccid commercial performance baffled its writer, noting that, unlike its predecessor, The Future had been published by ‘multibillion-dollar multinational corporation’ Penguin Random House. Yet somehow that corporate behemoth had failed to prioritise the promotion of dissident Turkish-American Kobek’s compelling new novel. “My book was backed by Nazi money!” he rails. “And yet it failed!”
Kobek is as wildly unconventional, ruthlessly confrontational and brilliantly funny as he ever was.
This is just one of the modern-day dilemmas Kobek confronts in his latest novel/rant/stand-up routine, Only Americans Burn in Hell. And I’m happy to report that, three books in (including a “screwy” period in which he says “it’s possible that I had a nervous breakdown”), Kobek is as wildly unconventional, ruthlessly confrontational and brilliantly funny as he ever was.
The difficulty of describing Only Americans is testament to the form-defying nature of Kobek’s combination of storytelling (here, an immortal fairytale princess travels through contemporary America accompanied by her short-fused, excessively violent escort Rose Byrne), and essay-style diversions. The Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy – a “sorry bullshit” genre chosen due to its current popularity among bestseller readers – is constantly interrupted by spewed-up diatribes against everything from a lack of erectile dysfunction in swashbuckling war fantasies to the vapid love/live/laugh trill of logos on book festival tote bags.
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Kobek despairs of every somnambulistic illusion on which America thrives, skilfully picking apart the mesmeric over-the-counter culture which allows flush-faced liberals to imagine they’re skewering corporate corruption by trashing its gatekeepers on word-limiting platforms owned by rich old white guys.
His scathing, Bill Hicksian contempt for sadistic Christians, murderous capitalists, hashtag movements, self-congratulating intellectuals, lazy consumers, pugnacious misogynists, myopic racists, insipid narcissists and almost everyone else served by a media run by “depraved beasts that will say anything for money” maintains admirable zeal for a furious 300 pages. He is in anguish at global fucked-upness and the universe offers no escape, no saviour, no magic. Thank God he’s funny. “The only things they can’t monitise are individual acts of kindness,” he concludes, in a rare moment of what almost sounds like faith. Amen to that.
It is not to belittle Kobek’s kvetches (his targets are spot on) that I also recommend One Hundred Miracles, the extraordinary memoir of a world-famous harpsichord player who got through three WW2 concentration camps armed with little more than a dog-eared slip of Bach sheet music.
Czech musician Zuzana Růžičková was only a teenager when her happy childhood in a musical family was ripped apart by the 1939 Nazi invasion. The horrendous story of what followed – terror, bereavement, starvation, Terezín, Auschwitz, Belsen – is only matched by her immeasurable tenacity and optimism; her memoir is full of ‘kind’, ‘sensitive’, ‘beautiful people and until she died in 2017, at the age of 90, she almost never refused a request for an interview.
Only Americans Burn in Hell by Jarett Kobek (Profile Books, £12.99)
One Hundred Miracles by Zuzana Růžičková with Wendy Holden (Bloomsbury, £18.99)