Nothing annoys me more than people who associate summer purely with frivolity and, like, simple pleasures. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Summer is about death. It is about recognizing that what you see as being alive has actually already begun the inexorable march to decay and, ultimately, erasure. But that doesn't mean we can't have some fun while we're still here. It's just that it shouldn't be experienced without always being aware, even if only in the very back of your mind, that we're all going to die someday and that life feels meaningless more often that it does not.
And so: beach reads. I feel about most beach read lists the way I do about people who think summer is only about light and laughter; I hate them. The very best beach reads are actually more like anti-beach reads in that they make you feel cold and gray on your insides even as the world is bright blues and yellows on the outside. (Look, was I the the teenager who brought Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism with me on a tropical vacation? Yes, yes, I was. It gave me... a lot to think about.)
The following is a list of books that I think are perfect for your beach reading needs. Are they all happy and cheery in a way that makes you feel good about yourself and the world? No, not exactly. Except sort of they do. Because they are intelligent and provocative and compelling and heart-rending, and what feels better than knowing that art like that exists? And will continue to exist even after we're all dead and gone. Nothing. Nothing feels better than that.
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Is there any question more pressing, more vexing, more desperately in need of an answer than: How do you solve the problem of being a woman? I mean, it is a problem, right? That's what we're taught to believe anyway, via the constant insidious messages inundating our lives, telling us that it's not okay to feel or look or think or act the way we do, telling us that there are ways we can fix ourselves, empty out all the complications that make us who we are, all the better to just be... nothing, erased.
Erasure is central to Catherine Lacey's exquisite second novel. Main character Mary Parsons has all but erased her past, including leaving behind her birth name (Junia Stone), constantly traveling, because "the first thing you learn when traveling is that you don't exist—I didn't want to stop not existing," and selling off just about every single thing she owns, so that she, a seeming shell of a woman, can live in an apartment as scraped out as she is. Of course, she's also sold off all her worldly possessions to pay for the medical treatment she needs for her chronic, undiagnosed pain, for which the only cure appears to be a mysterious, mildly mystical treatment called PAKing. And in order to pay for that, Mary enters into something called the Girlfriend Experiment (GX), a Hollywood star-conceptualized way of solving the problem of relationships; in other words, the GX attempts to answer the question: How do you solve the problem of being with a woman?
If all of this sounds sort of heavy and dark, borderline nihilistic, well, that's because it is. It's also a profound meditation on the ways in which young women today not only have erasure forced upon them, but also how they erase themselves, all the better to deal with the pain the world visits upon them. Lacey's incisive look into the state of young womanhood today will feel like its echoing in your head and rattling around in the depths of your body long after you've turned the final page and gone running toward the ocean, unsure if you're ever going to want to come back to shore once you've left.