I'm having a hard time deciding how to talk about this book. There's a plot -- eventually, if you look hard enough. But it really doesn't matter if there is one, it's not that important to the novel. There are characters other than the protagonist, but by and large, they're little more than names and or two behaviors. If the setting is mentioned is before page 80, I missed it -- it plays a very minor role in the last couple of chapters, so it's good that it came up, but otherwise, it's meaningless. There's a vague sense of time, but there's some jumping ahead -- maybe some jumping back, too (I don't think so, but, see my comments below about reliability).
So, no setting, no plot to speak of, pretty much no characters other than the protagonist. What are we left with? Well, the protagonist, really. Johnny Gomez, an amateur astronomer with a lunar fixation, business owner (of a small, struggling concern), father of very young children, and general anxiety sufferer.
One quick example of how little other characters matter: Johnny has children, we're told that a lot. Beyond the fact of their existence, we know almost nothing about them, we spend no time with them, we don't even learn their names. Johnny tells us that he thinks he was a great hands-on father to them at the diaper stage, and says he enjoys being around them now. But that's it. And that actually works for this novel.
I don't know if you could call Johnny an unreliable narrator. I am certain you can't rely on what he tells you, however. Johnny Gomez spends a lot of time in his own head -- more than he should, really. And that's where we readers spend the overwhelming majority of our time with him: in that messed up little brain of his, as he gives us a stream-of-consciousness-ish narration of his activities. Whether it's a lack of honesty or lack of self-awareness, I'm not sure -- but I lean towards the latter -- you can't count on much of what he says, and have to read between the lines about pretty much everything. This includes his health, his mental state, his finances, his job, his ex, his friends.
Essentially, he's a mess, and he's convinced that the only thing that keeps him grounded in life is gazing at the moon. I think his self-diagnosis is faulty, because it's only when he can't see the moon that he shows signs of improving his life (and by "improving" I mean taking the kind of steps one would take to conform to societal norms). But I think there's room for debate on that, and I'd look forward to hearing other takes.
Other than Johnny's mental state, the only thing we have to hang on to is Newport's language. Early on I started comparing the experience of reading this to reading Mark Leyner. Now, I am not saying that Newport is like Leyner. Leyner's prose is more aggressive, testosterone-fueled, absurd and funny; Newport has other priorities. But there's the same kind of meticulous, scrupulous, attention to word choice -- a saturation of sesquipedalian words that draws attention to itself and becomes a defining characteristic of the prose. Most of us have suffered through reading student essays/stories that were clearly composed with an open Roget's next to the keyboard, and for a moment or two I wondered if that's what was going on here. It didn't take me long to decide that this was purposeful use of language and not an attempt to show off the fruits of his Dictionary.Com Word of the Day subscription (although I think he whiffed it a couple of times, but that could just be me most of those).
In addition to thinking about what I was reading, I was conscious of thinking a lot about what I thought of what I was reading, which is pretty unusual for me. Truth be told, most of the time I wasn't sure if I liked it or not -- but there were times it had me under its spell. It was different. It made me think. I reread paragraphs and pages more than usual, trying to squeeze a little more out of them. I don't know if I can say that I enjoyed reading it, but I'm glad that I did. I realize this says more about my experience reading it than it does the book -- but sometimes that's all I've got.
I think this is one of those books that I could see very differently if I read it again. I was tempted early on to just start over as soon as I hit the ending, but I decided that I wanted some distance first. I'm not making any promises, but I'm going to try to read this again in June and see what I think then.
At the end of the day, when this is published, I'd encourage you to give it a shot -- you won't read much like it this year.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this ARC from the author in exchange for a review. Hopefully this one hasn't disappointed him enough that he won't think of me when his next novel is ready.