Reviews > Published on November 5th, 2013

Bookshots: 'Want Not' by Jonathan Miles

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Want Not

Who Wrote It?

Even when we try to escape 'want' possession-free becomes a want in itself, imposing a codified system of behaviour as burdensome in its way as a heap of shopping bags.

Jonathan Miles, former NYT columnist, author of Dear American Airlines and expert on squirrel braising.

Plot in a Box:

Loosely interlinked characters grapple with life, love and the excesses of modern consumerism in today’s America.

Invent a new title for this book:

Dumpster Diving for Gourmets

Read this if you liked:

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, but wished he wasn’t so far up his own ass he needed a visit from a proctologist. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris have Miles’ light tone, but perhaps lack his depth.

Meet the book’s lead:

Want Not is multicharactered, but the lynchpin is probably Erwin Cross Jr, 320 pounds of recently-separated midlife crisis.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Paul Giamatti, or in a few years, Seth Rogen.

Setting: would you want to live here?

I filled two skips with unwanted possessions when I left the UK for Norway and a simpler life. Living in the US of Want Not would mean taking all that crap out again. No thanks.

What was your favorite sentence?

To hear Tal and Micah tell it, however, it was like some barely known wormhole into another dimension of society, the flip side, the ass end, where everything is genuine and raw because it’s not meant to be seen – that garbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced, because that’s where all the dirty secrets went, all the adulterous love letters and the murder weapons and the abandoned poems and the unflattering photos and the never-to-be-counted empty booze bottles and the wads of Kleenex dampened by a woman who can’t understand why she goes creeping by her perfect husband and children to weep at the kitchen table about imperfections she can’t quite name.

The Verdict:

Miles is a new author to me, Dear American Airlines having flown past my radar with nary a blip, so I came to Want Not without expectations, bar a blurry unease evoked by a blurb which told me to expect something ‘deeply human’ and ‘bighearted’, code in my experience for ‘soggy’ and ‘longwinded’.

My unease was unfounded. Miles does not write short, but he does write crisp and fresh and funny. The theme (as suggested by the title) is want, not desire. This is not a novel about passion, it is about the more basic thrum of everyday acquisition, the low level need to possess which spurs us to the mall every weekend or has us browsing the pages of Amazon like hunter-gatherers unearthing roots. Want says Miles, propels us all, often unwisely, into marriages, bad relationships, over-consumption, over-sharing... and even when we try to escape want like Micah, a Manhattan squatter raised off the grid in backwoods Tennessee, living possession-free becomes a want in itself, imposing a codified system of behaviour as burdensome in its way as a heap of shopping bags.

If Micah represents the sharp end of the consumer pyramid, then at the fat end we have Dave, cigar chewing czar of a debt-collection empire, attracting money in iron-filings-to-magnet fashion, while at the opposite pole his nuclear family flies apart. Balanced between Micah and Dave is Erwin – curator of dying languages, recently tasked with inventing time-resistant danger warnings for future civilizations who might encounter our nuclear waste, son to Erwin Sr., who is rapidly losing all his words to the steady drag of Alzheimer's. There’s a throng of minor characters too, who Miles manipulates with tender wit and love. Although it’s described as a satire, Want Not is too humane for that title. But it isn’t soggy, either. As Erwin and the others collide and flocculate, Miles coaxes his audience to a finale so bleakly uncompromising (doesn’t want not actually mean unwanted?) that it had me desperately turning the pages all the way to the end notes.

Want Not left me wanting more.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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