Underachievement, irresponsibility, disease: some recent fiction

Everything is interconnected, or so it seems, reflecting on recently published fiction I’ve read over this past few weeks; some topics capture the Zeitgeist more than others.
Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Paul Auster’s Sunset Park both feature protagonists haunted by their brother’s premature death. The Great Gatsby is quoted in By Nightfall, and is a plot device in Sunset Park. In their own way, Sunset Park, Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered and Philip Roth’s Nemesis all feature a deliberately underachieving male character: Miles in Sunset Park, Hector in The Surrendered, Bucky – after his disease – in Nemesis.
And disease is a protagonist in Nemesis, as polio; in The Surrendered and in So Much for That, by the excellent Lionel Shriver, as variations on the theme of abdominal cancer, plus a rare genetic condition in So Much for That; and as cervical cancer in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, my only non-fiction selection of the season.
Asbestos plays a major role in So Much for That, but also makes an appearance in Henrietta Lacks. Both Glynis in So Much for That and Patty in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, at one point, start working jobs below their abilities in order to spite their husbands. And both So Much for That and Freedom feature a major character’s irresponsibly underachieving artsy sister, a documentary filmmaker named Beryl for Glynis’s husband Shep and an avant-garde theater actress named Abigail for Patty.
Everything talks to everything else, I think sometimes.

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