The cult of the debut novel is enough to make a debut novelist want to cower and hide. According to the experts, we only have one shot at a debut, and people keep saying, Make it count! Don’t blow your load on something that doesn’t totally rock! America in particular can be obsessed with a writer’s first novel, and there is mega-pressure to pitch your first experimental scraps for something expansive, something indicative of your million talents, you whole imagination, your voice.
In the past few weeks, I’ve read two super-ambitious debuts. The first is Shane Jones’ Light Boxes, quirky, sure, but it caught Spike Jonez’ attention when he weirdly bought the movie rights right after he made wild things. He quickly reneged. You can kind of see why he didn’t want to make the film Light Boxes; in this book, the bad guy is February and he’s stealing the children in a really freaky way. This ‘short, massive book’ was a Publishing Genius production, the totally rad chapbook and experimental fiction publisher with all the best stuff. This little hipster is really talented. You can tell.
The other debut I’m into is Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado– a super intense literary romp around the Philippines. This book is jerky, and frenetic, and it never lands on one location or era or bit of writing for more than a couple of pages. This puts me on edge, but mostly because this is the way we think: bits of journal, a noir novel, blog. It starts with a dead body and somehow covers two hundred years of Philippine history, parts of it through the dead guy’s memoir “The Autoplagiarist.” It is sort of writerly in its fancy ways. It is about a writer. But c'mon, as if this kid doesn’t completely GIVE IT on this book. He writes his freaking heart out in this one.