These are very different books, but since I read them one after the other, of course I was going to end up seeing similarities. In particular, both present convincing, complex characters in unbelievable worlds.

Salt Lick is a near-dystopia in which rural life in England has become almost impossible, forcing all but a few hold-outs into the city. Its central character, Isolde, discovers a family she never knew about living on a cooperative farm, and learns to accept and embrace her need for other people. Her emotional journey is rich and convincing, but the setting is thin. In places this is effective: Isolde’s city life is so bland and empty that the work she does there is abstract and unspecified, while the rope-making she takes up at the farm is detailed and enriching. Elsewhere, it makes the world seem incoherent. The politics of the situation are unclear and the characters seem profoundly incurious about it (despite one of their number having been murdered by the government in a false-flag operation for which another was imprisoned). The loss of the private car is mourned; the bicycle seems to have been forgotten. Travel to rural communities is difficult, but seemingly not for the pedlars who facilitate its barter economy. Characters for whom the earth and its riches hold something profound have no thoughts at all about the radical rewilding of their country.

In The Moustache, a man shaves off his moustache for a joke and is perplexed when nobody seems to notice. Over a few pages, this premise is silly and comical, but Carrère keeps going until it becomes horrifying. The horror is that of being a character at the mercy of an author who has decided that one daft whim is more important than the very coherence of your reality: everything in the story bends and breaks to prevent anyone admitting that the central character once had a moustache. At times the logic is that of a dream: in one chapter, the man has no VCR; a little later, he does, although nothing has changed. You can’t suspend your disbelief with this story: your disbelief is part of how it works. Instead, you can choose to allow its unreality and see what it feels like.

I could have tried to suspend my disbelief in Salt Lick; nothing in it is impossible. But I think I would have had a fight on my hands, and that fight would have distracted me from the novel’s better qualities. Instead, I accepted my disbelief and allowed myself to enjoy Isolde’s rich emotional life. When you do this with a willfully unreal work like The Moustache, it makes you a big clever literary type who doesn’t need verisimilitude to hold your hand. When the unreality was not intended, it makes you an undiscerning fool with limited critical faculties. Life is too short for such distinctions. I enjoy almost everything I read and I plan to continue doing so.

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