It’s a strange thing to know a person online long before you meet them in real life, but more and more it seems to be the norm. It’s how we socialize, how we date, and, these days especially, how we work. This dynamic between the virtual and physical worlds is at the core of Kevin Nguyen’s breakout debut novel. New Waves follows Lucas, a customer-service rep at a start-up who steals data with his programmer colleague Margo. When Margo suddenly dies in a car accident, Lucas is left with big questions about who his friend really was and what she did with the information they stole.
Nguyen is a former GQ editor, now working at the Verge. To celebrate his new book this month, we asked him to share some of his literary wisdom and give us some recommendations. To no one’s surprise, he provided a diverse range of awesome reads, from upcoming fiction to Marvel comics to the incomparable Joan Didion.
GQ: What’s the last book you read in a single sitting?
Kevin Nguyen: Memorial by Bryan Washington. The book is simple in its setup: Benson’s boyfriend, Mike, has his mom come visit them in Houston from Osaka, but then Mike finds out his dad is dying and suddenly travels to Japan to see him. So Benson is stuck with Mike’s frustrated mom in Houston; Mike deals with his asshole dad in Osaka. Everything about this book clicked for me, partly because Washington’s work is sparse and mean in a way I find very comforting, but also because every gut-level emotion is buried between lines of dialogue. In Memorial, every character says how they’re feeling—except they don’t, or won’t, or can’t. Strained relationships depicted with, well, restraint.
That’s probably not a great recommendation, since Washington’s book doesn’t drop until October. The single-sitting book before that, for me, was Apartment by Teddy Wayne. I’ll be honest: The concept off the bat didn’t seem like my kind of thing. It’s about two boys in New York in the ’90s getting their MFA. But Wayne is such a careful, funny writer that I stuck around and watched the book transform from a story about male friendship and competitive anxiety to one of privilege. One turn, that I haven’t seen done often, is how Wayne’s central character—upper-middle-class, doesn’t have to pay rent—is self-aware of his advantages and somehow thinks being generous (a.k.a. feeling guilty) about them will solve all his problems. Spoiler: They don’t! But rarely is that rendered so hilariously in a book.
What’s an older book that you wished got more recognition?
I was surprised there wasn’t more love for Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, given all the love for his comic boarding-school novel Skippy Dies. The gist: There’s a very boring man named Claude who works at a bank in Dublin. He’s contacted by an author, also named Paul Murray, who wants to profile him as the basis of a novel. It turns out the writer is a con artist who is trying to rob the bank. (It’s an investment bank, though, so there is…no vault to speak of?)
For me, Void is even better than Skippy Dies—full of absurdity and just the right amount of heart, especially for a book about the recession. Sure, it’s a little long and gets trapped in its metafictional elements a bit. But it was still the best thing that came out in 2015. And more than anything, The Mark and the Void is one of the funniest things I’ve read, ever.
What’s a book you’ve stolen?
I was at an Airbnb a couple summers ago, picked up a book of collected Joan Didion essays, which features some of her most prolific magazine writing. I didn’t finish it before the stay was up, so I accidentally ganked it by putting it in my bag. Yep, accidentally. Mmm-hmm.
What’s a book you’d recommend to read before bed?
I keep being tempted to watch Disney+ before bed. I don't even like most of the Marvel movies, and yet I've seen them all—some multiple times, despite the empty feeling they leave me with. Instead of watching an Avengers, I'd recommend Tom King and Gabriel Walta's The Vision, which takes the expansive, convoluted trappings of the Marvel Universe and stuffs them into a domestic, suburban drama. It's an unnerving (and very funny) look at what American normalcy is, and a far more thoughtful deconstruction of superheroes than, say, The Boys or Deadpool. Plus, it's available in a brief two volumes, which will take you less time to read than it would to watch Endgame, and maybe you’ll get to sleep at a reasonable hour.
What’s a book you’re proud to have finished?
The book I’m proudest to have finished was the one Roberto Bolaño never did: his posthumous masterpiece 2666. It’s a five-part beast, each one disparate in plot, tone, and structure. But they all circle around an idea—one of existential horror—expressed with varying degrees of intimacy and scale. It’s a tough read, especially the fourth book, “The Part About the Crimes,” which details the atrocious murders of women in the fictional factory city of Santa Teresa (based on Ciudad Juárez) with such unflinching detachment that the exercise numbs the reader. It’s an incredible, audacious gamble.
Obviously, it’s hard to consume 2666 and wonder what a complete version of it might’ve looked like. But maybe it’s those gaps that are the most powerful parts of the book—imagining things that could have been.