The essence of a great novel is that somewhere buried under pages of description and dialogue, there is a nugget of truth. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (most likely named after the Camper Van Beethoven album) is about Brian, a man who ends up at a Brooklyn grad school more through pushing by his ex-girlfriend and less to search for the journalistic voice he wants but can’t find. He meets a string of weird students, like a Viking who enjoys stalking, a Marxist women obsessed with performance art, and a shy Korean student who he eventually falls in love with, and that’s just the surface.
What makes the book genuinely good is the fact that while the events are somewhat absurdist or fantastical, the emotions behind them are genuine. The feeling of being stuck, of feeling out of place amongst eccentric strangers, the feeling of total confusion and desperation with professors who make no sense and lovers who come in and out of the picture, all feel real. Brian as a character is fundamentally broken – we relate to him but we do not want to like him because he epitomizes what we do not love about ourselves (bad decisions, feeling helpless, producing sub-standard work, etc.) The book is smart enough to understand that life is not a series of happy endings and ends with Brian taking yet another unexpected turn in life, but at least a turn he made himself rather than being persuaded by others. It’s not as much about what happens as it is about representing an emotional life experience.
As a debut novel for a mainly academic writer (but the best kind of academics: punk music and TV), this is a solid effort from Brian Cogan. The writing shows care for the characters and their inner psyche – there is little idealization here, and that’s what kept me reading. Whether or not you will come to see the events as too bizarre (admittedly it’s a little Chuck Palahniuk-esque), there is a truth to be found here. For me, it was that ultimately life is a series of wandering and collecting – people, memories, Star Trek plates, and that even when alone, we are never truly lonely. For you, it could just be “never to replace statues with Jell-O replicas.” Whatever the case may be, I encourage you guys to get your hands on this book and give it a shot!