"Let's Be Scared Together": New Year's Recommendations

There was a lot of cathartic meme-ing about the relief of kissing 2016 goodbye, and we’re still in the part of the New Year where resolutions are unbroken and the rituals of a new beginning have maximum power. But at the same time, without the distraction of the holidays (and without whatever unhealthy coping mechanisms we’re all trying to give up or cut down on), this particular January also seems a little darker and more confusing than December was.

I wrote a little after the election about my habit of looking to stories in times of crisis. I know the impulse is a common one, and many of us must be turning to narrative now as to church or to mediation. Just a few works that have resonated with me already in 2017, for reasons large or small:

I just finished Death’s End, the final volume of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy. I’ve written before about how the first two books affected me—the series is incredible, taking science fiction tropes I thought I was pretty familiar with (particularly first contact) and reimagining them at a sophistication and scope that is completely mind-blowing. Though it’s just one aspect of the books, I’m most haunted by Liu’s consideration of what might happen geopolitically if we were to definitively discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence—no matter what the aliens did or didn’t do, what havoc we on Earth might wreak among ourselves. I remember being so relieved to hear that Obama was reading The Three-Body Problem—it felt right that world leaders should have these books on file, be considering Liu’s hypothetical scenario. Now, it’s…a somewhat darker thought. But it still felt important and, yes, good to spend time in Liu’s world, a universe in crisis, as he considers for instance ‘the explosive amplifying effects of a hyper-information society when fed sensitive news.” There’s also something soothing right now about reading a book that takes place over 18 million years—it lends perspective bordering on escapism.

This weekend Julia and I saw Falsettos just before it closed on Broadway, and it was delightful—great performances, a really charming and creative use of a minimalist set. I’d had multiple people recommend the show album to me before but had never been able to get into it—it took seeing it on stage to get me there. It’s a dense and complicated show—a little paradoxically so, since the actual plot is very simple and easy to summarize verbally. But characters are woven into and out of one another’s lives in a way that doesn’t always make sense to them, let alone the blind listener. And there are elements of the soundtrack that feel dated until you can see, and thereafter imagine, the production’s visual style—a combination nostalgia/eye-roll for the 1980s, sanding it down into a self-aware period piece, and making it extra touching as the audience sees certain historical curveballs coming before the characters do. Confronting AIDS, which is already tearing through their own lives and the larger world despite a lack of terminology or acknowledgement, the company of Falsettos sings, “Let’s be scared together / Let’s pretend that nothing is awful.” Although in a very different way, it was as poignant to experience this week as Liu’s novel.

I’ve been watching the Australian television show Please Like Me, and it’s hitting a sweet spot in authentically handling both drama and comedy; both queer and straight characters; and themes of ambition, love, and mental illness in a way I’m not sure I’m seeing anywhere else on television. I think I’m getting out of Please Like Me what I’m supposed to get out of Girls—it’s a show about the struggles and charms of twenty-somethings (and their parents) where the characters are flawed but not in a way that makes you hate them, the show, and/or yourself for watching. So many of the show’s characters are self-loathing or battling demons or disorders of one kind or another, and I’m a little shocked by how deeply I’m rooting for them. It also feels right now like America is even more obsessed with itself than it has ever been, and it’s just an enormous pressure release to watch something made and set on the other side of the world.

In one way or another, Death’s End, Falsettos, and Please Like Me all confront a darkness that it’s tempting to hide from or avoid thinking about—mental illness, war, self-sabotage, a human tendency toward cruelty and bald self-interest—but in telling stories about darkness on every scale, from the individual to the literally universal, these works also bring perspective, and hope.

I’m hoping we can make 2017 the best year it can be.