As a journalist I prefer a crisp dividing line between fact and fiction. But some other part of my brain — the part that reads books, watches movies, and hopes to see a convincing Bigfoot photo one day — can appreciate the blurry border between what is and what could be.
Have you seen Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams? It’s like 95% about a treasure trove of prehistoric art discovered in France but ends with a strange detour about albino crocodiles who’ve been mutated by a nearby nuclear power plant.
I was disappointed, only briefly, to learn that Herzog had made up the crocodile part, chalking it up to his pursuit of some “ecstatic truth” rather than the dull and artless “accountant’s truth” of the real world. It’s a clear violation of what documentaries are supposed to do. It’s also a low-stakes fictional outburst that momentarily made me believe in a more interesting world than this one. I am in a way happy to have been lied to, though it has left me suspicious of Herzog’s other works. (Example: That coroner in Grizzly Man always felt like a B-movie mad scientist character to me. I looked him up; he was a real dude.)
Just last month Herzog published his first novel, recounting the harrowing true story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese WWII soldier stationed on a small island in the Philippines who famously didn’t surrender until 1974. Herzog met with Onoda in 1997, and there’s plenty of information about the man out there, including his own 1999 autobiography. So why is it filed under fiction?
The Twilight World is a slim and single-minded book. No subplots, no irony. With deliberate and unadorned prose, Herzog describes Onoda and the three men under his charge as they navigate the pitiless jungle. They patch up their tattered uniforms. They soak their ammunition in coconut oil to keep it from rusting. They move camp often. They perform sometimes deadly raids on local villages to steal food and supplies.
And every once in a while they pick up hints at the pointlessness of their mission: strange planes in the sky, scraps of newspapers saying the war is over, no confrontations at all with American forces. Eventually it’s just Onoda alone in the jungle, having lost his mates to death or desertion and telling himself that the messages he receives that implore him to surrender are enemy trickery.
It’s precisely the sort of thing Herzog makes movies about — a quixotic quest, driven man vs. indifferent nature, etc. — and it probably would be a movie if Onoda had brought a camera with him. Instead we have this novel that tells a fascinating, true-enough story and leaves us pondering the bigger questions: Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Is it a story of loyalty and duty? Of delusion? There are no easy answers when it comes to the messy, complicated truth.
The Twilight World, Werner Herzog (Penguin Press, $25, June 14)
And now, more books to take on your own quixotic quest.
‘Little Rabbit,’ Alyssa Songsiridej
Reading Alyssa Songsiridej’s kinky, knotty debut novel, one can’t help but consider its place in the literary romance landscape. She’s miles away from Debbie Macomber (whose courtship yarns are so chaste a friend recommends her audiobooks as a sleep aid) but way more sensuous than salacious and so makes uncomfortable bedfellows with the raunchy, silly, and single-minded stuff. You’ll find more than 50 shades of nuance in Little Rabbit, which joyfully interrogates the power dynamics of a blossoming BDSM relationship between a queer thirtysomething journalist and the muscular, monied, and unnamed choreographer she seduces. (Bloomsbury, $26, out now)
‘Hidden Pictures,’ Jason Rekulak
West Philly writer/editor Jason Rekulak worked for years on other authors’ stylish, high-concept projects at Quirk Books, so it makes sense that his own novels are stylish and high-concept as well. His latest, Hidden Pictures — an immersive horror story about a babysitter in recovery from addiction who notices something increasingly disturbing about 5-year-old Teddy’s drawings — is enhanced by playfully sinister illustrations by Doogie Horner and Will Staehle. The result is something that embraces the hallmarks of the genre while pushing its bounds with sneaky humor and inventive menace. Pro-tip: Skip the e-book and get yourself a hard copy. (Flatiron Books, $27.99, out now)
‘The City Inside,’ Samit Basu
Samit Basu’s wild new dystopia is set in a future we can sorta see coming, where “smart” tech aims to keep us comfortable, safe, and advertised to but doesn’t even take a stab at the big problems like climate change, poverty, pollution, etc. Our protagonist, Joey, has a tattoo that monitors her stress, an app that tells her to avoid an antiauthoritarian protest due to a high probability of bloodshed, and a sweet gig as a “reality controller” in charge of her web celeb ex-boyfriend’s “multimedia multi-reality livestreams.” Her morning jog is enhanced by dry-fit clothes to cope with the extreme heat, a mask to ward off the smog and plague, and pepper spray on her belt to deal with assailants, stray dogs, and rogue monkeys. Part cyberpunk thriller and part lunatic satire, The City Inside imagines a surveillance-state version of Delhi beset by futuristic traps and wonders, at once claustrophobic and brimming with possibility. (Tordotcom, $25.99, June 7)
‘Greenland,’ David Santos Donaldson
At the start of David Santos Donaldson’s dazzling debut novel, desperate author Kip Starling — a nerdy “truth seeker” whose resume includes unceremonious exits from both an MFA program and a monastery — has locked himself in a basement with a desk, a laptop, a bathroom, and lots of coffee. He has three weeks to rewrite his historical gay romance novel to impress the only editor who’s ever shown any interest. Meanwhile, his ex-BFF and his soon-to-be-ex-husband are on the other side of the basement door begging him to be reasonable. Oh, and there’s also a gun in the desk, but he assures us he’ll do his best to keep it from going off, Chekhov be damned. Is Kip unhinged? Sure seems like it. But we’re in good hands with Donaldson, who keeps us hooked from the start with snappy prose and tense but humane storytelling. (Amistad, $26.99, June 7)
‘Lapvona,’ Ottessa Moshfegh
If you’re only familiar with Ottessa Moshfegh via the modern Manhattan malaise of 2018′s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, her vividly brutal and low-key fantastical new historical novel might blow your mind a little bit. Set in a medieval village where peasants suffer in grim servitude under a despicable feudal lord (the damningly named Villiam), Lapvona is a sardonic multi-perspective exploration of a society ruled by barbarity, ignorance, corruption, and religion. Is it a comment on contemporary existence and the human condition? Of course. But that’s not what you’re thinking about during the comically gruesome depictions of cannibalism. (Penguin Press, $17, June 21)
‘Break This House,’ Candice Iloh
Philly-based author Candice Iloh will give you a good cry with this lovely and emotional YA novel about a 16-year-old girl grieving the loss of her mother even as troubling family secrets are brought to light. (Dutton Books for Young Readers, $17.99, out now)
‘Counterfeit,’ Kirstin Chen
All the “Best Beach Read of 2022″ lists are giving shout-outs to this snazzy page-turner about two Asian American women who build an international criminal operation selling knockoff handbags. (William Morrow, $27.99, June 7)
‘Asylum,’ Edafe Okporo
In this eye-opening “memoir and manifesto,” the Nigerian-born activist writes frankly about the difficulties he faced as gay man in his home country and as an asylum seeker in Trump-era America. Politicians who claim to be serious about immigration reform need to hear Okporo’s story. (Simon & Schuster, $26.99, June 7)
‘Ordinary Monsters,’ J.M. Miro
This Dickensian adventure about kids with paranormal powers signals the start of the highly anticipated new fantasy series The Talents. A pricey bidding war broke out over the publishing rights, leading some to speculate that J.M. Miro is the pen name for an already popular author. My guess? Elena Ferrante. Or Thomas Pynchon. Maybe David Mamet? I’m bad at this. (Flatiron Books, $28.99, June 7)
‘The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier,’ April White
Longtime Philly journalist and current senior editor at Atlas Obscura (not to mention an old college colleague of mine) April White breathes life into an almost forgotten era in American history, when 19th-century women traveled from all over to the small South Dakota town with the country’s laxest divorce laws. (Hachette, $30, June 14)
More books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in The Inquirer on the first Sunday of the month.