A Riff on What I Read (And Didn’t Read) in 2012

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I didn’t really read that many new books—by which I mean books published in 2012—this year.

The highlight of the new books I did read was Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the moving story of the lives of several people (and a bee!) who live in the titular building (and other places. And other buildings. Look, it’s difficult to describe). Building Stories is a strange loop, a collection of 14+ elements (the big box it comes in is part of the puzzle) that allows the reader to reconstruct the narratives in different layers.

I also really dug the second installment of Charles Burns’s trilogy, The Hive; Burns and Ware are two of the most talented American writers working right now, suggesting that some of the most exciting stuff happening in American literature is happening in comic books.

Speaking of second installments in ongoing trilogies, I also listened to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which I liked, and read Lars Iyer’s Dogma and liked it as well—sort of like Beavis & Butthead Do America by way of Samuel Beckett.

I read Dogma at the beach the same week I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & The Territory, an uneven but engaging novel about art; the novel eventuually shifts into a strange murder procedural before exploring a fascinating vision of what a post-consumer future might look like. I dig Houellebecq and look forward to whatever he’ll spring on us next.

Another strange book I liked very much was Phi by Giulio Tononi, an exploration of consciousness written as a kind of Dante’s Inferno of the brain. A beautiful and perhaps overlooked book of 2012.

Indie presses in general tend to get overlooked—not in the sense that their books don’t have a community of readers, but in that their books don’t always reach the wider audience they deserve. I liked new books this year by Matt Bell (Cataclysm Baby), Matt Mullins (Three Ways of the Saw), and Jared Yates Sexton (An End to All Things). These books are all very different in style and content, but all marked by precise, unpretentious writing. Good stuff.

Like I said though, I didn’t read that many books published in 2012—even when I intended to. Like George Szirtes’s English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, for instance. I was right in the middle of something when I got my review copy, and by the time I started it the hype surrounding it was almost unbearable—the sort of palate-clouding noise (to mix and misuse metaphors) that deafens a fair reading. (To be clear: I blame myself. I could easily refrain from Twitter and quit following lit news online). By the time Hari Kunzru documented the hype in a mean-spirited (but hilarious) article forThe Guardian, I knew I’d have to set Satantango aside for a bit. It’s worth noting here that Hari Kunzru’s own novel Gods without Men had been lingering in my to read stack for some time at that point, but his Satantango article managed to get it shelved. Still, I’m interested in reading it—maybe sometime late next year.

There were plenty of top listed writers who put out books this year that I probably would’ve been excited to read six or seven years ago or at least feel obligated to read and write about two or three years ago. But by 2012 I just don’t care anymore. At the risk of sounding overly dismissive (not my intention), I just can’t make time for another middling Michael Chabon novel, or another bloated tome from Zadie Smith, or another empty exercise in style from Junot Diaz, or another whatever from Dave Eggers.

Most of the great new stuff I read in 2012 was really just playing catch up to 2011—I loved Teju Cole’s Open City, found Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes to be an amusing diversion, and declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella. I also read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and used it, along with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot as a kind of springboard to discuss lit criticism (which everyone in my particular echo chamber wanted to spar about this year) and what I want from books these days.

Two books I pretty much hated: Joshua Cody’s clever but empty memoir [sic] and Alain de Botton’s facile self-help book Religion for Atheists.

On the whole though, most of what I read in 2012 was fantastic and most of what I read in 2012 was published before 2012.

The major highlight of the year was finally reading William Gaddis’s novels The Recognitions and J R. I also read Gaddis’s posthumous novella AgapēAgape, an erudite rant that purposefully echoes the work of Thomas Bernhard, another cult writer I finally got to in 2012. His novels Correction and The Loser challenged me, made me laugh, and occasionally disturbed me.

And while I’m on Bernhard, perhaps I should squeeze in the collection I read by one of his predecessors, Robert Walser, and the poetry collection (After Nature) I read by one of his followers, W.G. Sebald. Both were excellent. And while I’m squeezing stuff in—or perhaps showing how writers lead me to read other writers—I’ll admit that I hadn’t read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (referenced heavily in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn) until this year.

Another book that I finally got to this year that blew me away was John Williams’s lucid and sad novel Stoner. Reading Stoner, produced one of those can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-before moments, which I experienced again even more intensely with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a surreal comic masterpiece which may be the best book I read in 2012. I also finally read—and was blown away by—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (why had I not read it yet? Maybe I read it before. Not sure. In any case, if I did read it before it’s clear to me that I didn’t really read it). I took another shot at Marcel Proust but it didn’t take. Again.

Clarice Lispector received some much-deserved attention from the English-speaking world this year when New Directions released four new translations of her work. I found her novella The Hour of the Star sad, funny, and captivating. Also on the novellas-by-South-Americans: I’m working my ways through Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and they are fantastic.

I also finally got to David Markson’s so-called “note card novels,” devouring them in a quick stretch. I reviewed the last one, The Last Novel.Markson’s novels are often called “experimental,” a term I kind of hate, but perhaps serves as easy tag for many of the novels I enjoyed best this year, including Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and Barry Hannah’s hilarious tragedy Hey Jack!

Hey, did you know David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Markson? The previous sentence is an extremely weak attempt to transition to Both Flesh and Not, a spotty collection from the late great writer; it showcases some brilliant moments along with undercooked material and a few throwaways probably better left uncollected. I fretted about the book on Election Night.

The posthumous book mill also kept pumping out stuff from Roberto Bolaño, including an unfinished novel called The Woes of the True Policeman that seems like a practice sketch for 2666 (I haven’t read Woes and don’t feel particularly compelled to). I did read and enjoy The Secret of Evil, a book that might not be exactly essential but nevertheless contains some pieces that further expand (and darken and complicate) the Bolañoverse. Going back to that Bolañoverse was a highlight of the year for me—rereading 2666proved to be tremendously rewarding, yielding all kinds of new grotesque insights. I also reread The Savage Detectives, and while it’s hardly my favorite by RB, I got more out of it this time.

I also revisited The Hobbit this year and somehow decided it’s a picaresque novel. Definitely a picaresque: Blood Meridian, which I reread as well. In fact, I’ve reread it at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it gets funnier and richer and more devastating with each turn. I also reread Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and tried to make sense out of it. I will reread Moby-Dick next year, although it’s not “Bartleby” that sparked the desire—chalk it up to Charles Olson’s amazing study Call Me Ishmael.

Olson’s study reminds me to bring up some of the nonfiction I enjoyed this year: Stephen Bronner’s Modernism at the Barricades, Robert Hughes’s Goya biography, the parts of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial that I read, Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids,and big chunks of William Gass’s collection Finding a Form.

Perhaps the most significant change in my reading habits this year was embracing an e-reader. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas last year and wound up reading from it—a lot. About half the books I read this year I read on the Kindle. I also read lots of comics on it with my daughter, including all of Jeff Smith’s Bone, much of Tintin, and all of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stuff. (I also read several hard to find volumes from Moebius via the Kindle).

And while I love my Kindle and it’s become my go-to for night reading (it’s lightweight and self-illuminating), I can’t see it replacing physical books. To return to where I started: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, an innovative, sprawling delight simply would not be reproducible in electronic form. Ware’s book (if it is a book (which it is)) reminds us that the aesthetics of reading—of the actual physical process of reading—can be tremendously rewarding as a tactile, messy, sprawling experience.

Perhaps because I’ve freed myself from the anxiety of trying to write on this blog about everything that I read, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to write traditional reviews on this blog, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to cover contemporary literary fiction on this blog—perhaps because of all of this, I’ve enjoyed reading more this year than I can remember ever having enjoyed it before.

Book Shelves #37, 9.09.2012

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Book shelves series #37, thirty-seventh Sunday of 2012

Eggers, Dave. Beloved, reviled, sainted, hated.

I wrote about Eggers at some length here already, so I won’t repeat myself.

The Myth of The Vollmann

  • Europe Central: 832 pages
  • Imperial: 1344 pages
  • The Royal Family: 800 pages
  • Rising Up and Rising Down: 3352 pages

I still hesitate to believe that William T. Vollmann actually exists. Has anyone ever read one of his super-long books? Can we prove that somewhere around page 700 of Imperial that the text doesn’t just become

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for the next 600 pages? How can we prove this if no one has actually read it? Can we prove that somewhere someone actually read Imperial (and I mean all of it)? What about that seven-volume first edition of Rising Up and Rising Down? Sure we all know about it, but has anyone actually SEEN the thing? I don’t even mean OWN it, certainly not that, none of you OWN the first edition of RURD. Oh heavens no, but have any of you seen it in person, to verify for me its actual existence?

It’s sort of like those kids who had pet monkeys when you were in elementary school, always someone’s cousin, or their neighbor’s friend from another school; sometimes the story was accompanied by a thumbprint-smudged Polaroid of the creature, clutching lovingly to some human torso. But did you ever actually see it? No never. Not once. And anyone who says they did is part of the conspiracy. Sure, maybe somewhere in Mexico someone has a monkey for a pet, but not here, no way, and certainly not your cousin. And look, I agree that it’s a weird thing to lie about, but that’s part of what makes good liars good, it’s some sort of weird emotional long-con that you are complicit in by listening to them.

Why would someone lie about writing a 3000 page book about violence? I have no idea. And why the hell would the same guy write 800 pages about Shostakovich and the Russians during World War Two? You got me. It’s a brilliant scheme in a way. If Vollmann is lying about something, then he has avoided attention by writing books so long and esoteric that NO ONE can prove or disprove their legitimacy.

Of course, whatever game he’s playing at, it isn’t money.

I contacted Mr. Bob Amazon (the guy who started Amazon.com) and he confirmed my suspicion that literally no human has ever purchased a copy of either Imperial or The Royal Family. When asked if physical copies of these books were actually housed in an Amazon facility somewhere, just in case someone ever actually did buy one he hung up on me.

So, I’m thinking this thing goes deep, deeper than any of us ever imagined. Obviously Dave Eggers is involved somehow, either as the mastermind behind the whole thing, or just another pawn like the rest of us. I emailed Mr. Heartbreaking Jerk himself, asking if even he of all people can claim to have actually read all of Rising Up and Rising Down, and in return I received an auto-reply, something about the volume of emails he receives blah blah blah—the point is I think I scared him, and now I know I’m on the right trail . . .

The funny thing with all of this is that I’m pretty sure there is no hoax going on. I have no reason to think William T. Vollmann is anything but a real guy, a weirdo dude who writes epically long books that no one reads. But if you read about his life at all it sounds more made up than any of the recently famous literary hoaxes. Maybe only that old asshole with his holocaust apples can really claim to have a bigger imagination, because neither James Frey nor JT Leroy can hold a candle to this (straight from Wikipedia):

In his youth, Vollmann’s younger sister drowned while under his supervision, a tragedy for which he felt responsible. This experience, according to him, influences much of his work.

What? Really? So he’s literature’s own Batman, The Dark Knight . . . or, wait for it: Vollman!

And I’m not even going to get into all the crack smoking with prostitutes and moving to Afghanistan in the 1980s. But I will talk briefly about his “hobby” of aimlessly train-hopping, which he apparently chronicled in Riding Toward Everywhere (a book whose existence I can confirm, as I bought it as a gift for a friend). Honestly though, that’s his hobby?

“So Mr. Vollmann, when you’re not hanging out with prostitutes in Cambodia, smoking crack, dodging bullets in Bosnia, spending 20 years writing a 3000 page book about violence, running around in the desert with a rebel army, or any of your other notable pursuits . . . what do you do for fun? How does William T. Vollmann relax?”

“Oh you know, I hop trains and just go where they take me.”

What? How do we know that Vollmann’s entire “career” isn’t the longest viral marketing campaign ever for a Wes Anderson movie that’s coming out ten years from now?

I’m not really heading towards anything conclusive or coherent here. I have no big point and the answer to all of my questions is that I should just devote the next few years of my life to actually reading these books instead of doubting their existence. But that would take 1) time and 2) money. Maybe I should turn it into some kind of art project and get funding on Kickstarter or something. Or maybe I could get review copies somehow.

Actually I just looked on Amazon and I see that Imperial is no longer the $40 book it once was. A new copy in paperback will run just $3.23 and with that free prime shipping I could be reading this thing by Friday.

So I just did it,  it is on its way, but we all know I’m not going to actually read it, right? It’s gonna go on the shelf next to Europe Central and the abridged copy of RURD and it will damn well stay there until, I don’t know, I become the omega man or something and I literally have nothing else to do and no one to talk to and no pointless articles to write and nothing to do with my boredom besides consume 1300 pages about border-crossing by a guy who looks like a serial killer.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

At some point, almost every character in David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a story. The book teems with storytellers and their stories, overflows with compact bildungsromans, wistful jeremiads, high adventures drawn in miniature, comic escapades, bizarre folk tales, and romantic myths, all pressed into the service of the book’s larger narrative, the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutchman in Shogunate era Japan. In 1799, the relative starting point for this massive novel, Japan limited economic trade with Europeans to the Dutch East India Company, who, with a few rare exceptions, were not permitted to touch Japanese soil. Instead, the Dutch were confined to the man-made isle of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. With its rich cultural mishmash, claustrophobic isolation, and strange hybrid nature, Dejima makes a fascinating platform for Mitchell’s tale.

Most reviews of Mitchell’s new book have squared it against his earlier novels, particularly his experimental opus Cloud Atlas (The Guardian‘s review even begins by asking “Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? Should readers need to know an author’s preceding works fully to grasp the new one?”). The reason for this is plain. By and large, Thousand Autumns is a conventional historical novel, a straightforward linear narrative that combines a forbidden love triangle story with elements of high adventure. There are good guys and bad guys, Enlightened thinkers and scheming crooks, warriors and spies, and even an evil monk who may or may not have supernatural powers. Thousand Autumns (like its main setting Dejima) is richly detailed but hermetically sealed; what leaks from that seal are its myriad stories, its capacity for storytelling. This effusion of stories also marks the novel, I believe, as something more than the conventional historical novel it is purported to be. Even more interesting though is the space the novel is occupying in a current literary debate–is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a postmodern novel or not? The rest of my review will discuss this issue, along with James Wood’s review at The New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s review at The New York Times. The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether the book is postmodern or something else–it’s a very good book, I enjoyed it very much, and you probably will too. I encourage you to read Wood’s precis, which I’ve excised here, and then pick up the book. Anyone else interested in the foolish minutiae of what may or may not make a book postmodern or post-postmodern or something else may wish to continue (or not).

Here’s James Wood, using Mitchell’s oeuvre to dither over the fact that “The serious literary novel is at an interesting moment of transition” —

If postmodernism came after modernism, what comes after postmodernism? For that is where we are. “Post-postmodernism” tends toward an infinite stutter. “After postmodernism” suggests a severance that has not occurred. We might settle for “late postmodernism,” a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering—not unhappily—between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism, the mass audience and the élitist critic. Thus David Mitchell can follow a “postmodern” novel with a “traditional” comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel. It is hard to know whether this statelessness is difficult freedom or easy imprisonment, but the more ambitious contemporary fiction will often blend a bewildering variety of elements and historical techniques [. . .]

Dave Eggers, however, feels no need to look for machinations beyond straightforward storytelling. He claims that Thousand Autumns retains the

[. . .] narrative tendencies [of Mitchell’s earlier works] while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it’s not.”

There’s a certain reticence in Eggers’s review to situate Thousand Autumns against anything but itself, including even the rest of Mitchell’s works. In contrast, Wood spends the first half of his review positioning Mitchell’s postmodernism, throughout both his novels (against each other), and as the oeuvre of one author (against other authors). For Wood, Thousand Autumns, because of “its self-enclosed quality [. . .] represents an assertion of pure fictionality.” He continues, arguing that “although the book contains no literary games, it is itself a kind of long game.” Wood would like to see in Thousand Autumns‘s discrete self-containedness a kind of literary gesture, perhaps a sort of conventional historical novel (in scare quotes) that is so conventional as to efface all signs of self-awareness (and thus erase the scare quotes around the gesture). At the same time, Wood recognizes the power of storytelling in the book, asserting that this feature is what makes it a “representative late-postmodern document.” Wood continues:

In place of the grave silence that was the great theme of early postmodernism (or late modernism, if you prefer), language announcing a postwar exhaustion, its own impossibility, as in the work of Beckett or Blanchot, there is a confident profusion of narratives, an often comic abundance of story-making. Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.

These last sentiments are where I strongly disagree with Wood (as perhaps my lede attests)–the greatest strength of Mitchell’s work here is the fabulous fortune of its abundant storytelling. Far from being a metaphysical deficiency, the characters in Thousand Autumns, major and minor, repeatedly transcend their social, spiritual, economic, psychological, and physical confinement via storytelling. Again and again language breaks characters away from their isolation or imprisonment, gives them access to adventure and romance–to spirit. Ultimately, Wood condemns the book for this “metaphysical deficiency,” arguing that “the reader wants a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure that is absent, and that has ceded all the ground to pure storytelling.” (In Wood’s critical body, it is always “the reader,” never “this reader”). I think that the pleasure and power of pure storytelling is its own end, and perhaps it is this recognition that leads Eggers to pronounce of the book simply that “Postmodern it’s not.” And while this declaration is ultimately a more reader-friendly take on Thousand Autumns, it’s also clear to see how the experimental nature of Mitchell’s previous work calls for Wood’s need to place the novel, to situate it against a developing canon (even if Wood chooses ultimately to deny its status).

Wood is perhaps right in his assertion that the term “post-postmodernism” leads to an “infinite stutter.” Still, post-postmodernism ultimately seems more fitting to describe Thousand Autumns than Wood’s “late postmodernism.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet cunningly sets the spiky traps of language and then gracefully leaps over them. Like David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann–two writers who I believe mark the beginnings of post-postmodernism–Mitchell wants to transcend postmodernism’s ironic vision, and storytelling–giving his characters voices–is a means to this end. Perhaps it is Mitchell’s earnestness in conveying the power of storytelling leads Wood to conclude Thousand Autumns “a kind of fantasy [. . .] Or, rather, it is a brilliant fairy tale; and even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales.” If, finally, Thousand Autumns is not a late postmodernist historical fiction but indeed a fairy tale, then it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly enjoyable and nourishing one. Highly recommended.

“—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil” — Or, We Return from Vacation

After five five fun-filled (mostly) sun-soaked days on Florida’s glorious Gulf Coast, Biblioklept returns from July 4th reveries. I found time to finish Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan–full review forthcoming, but now, I’m still in a lazy-loungy mood: so, links and vids and so forth–

First, I ripped my title from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which you obviously knew of course, gentle reader, because of course you’ve read it, but maybe you haven’t seen Jan Svankmajer’s 1981 film adaptation. Creepy stop motion that completely dispenses with actors. Ignore the subtitles.

Another great little film I saw this weekend is Oliver Laric’s Versions (2010), an essay that playfully updates Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Watch Versions. A choice line–perhaps appropriated?–from Laric’s essay: “There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things and more books about books than any other subject.”

Still on film: watched John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby-Dick on a lazy post-July 4th demi-hangover. Melville’s novel is unfilmable, really, but Huston’s effort isn’t half bad, although the tone of “high adventure” and the downright jaunty soundtrack hardly fit the grisly images of whale killing that permeate the work. The climax doesn’t really read as big as it should either. Key scene: Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon–

Finally, I listened to a good chunk of the audiobook of David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Good stuff so far (great stuff, really), and a full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s Dave Eggers’s review.

The Joys of Random Reading

The New York Times published a little piece yesterday on the pleasures of finding–and reading–random books in vacation spots. From the article: “There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing.” They ask eight authors, including Wells Tower and Dave Eggers about some of their random reading encounters. Here’s Tower on The Bridges of Madison County:

“The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, found in a beach house in Brooklin, Me. Strenuously unrecommended as a novel, but if you strike every third verb and noun it converts into a superb volume of Mad Libs with which to pass idle hours by the sea.

I’ve picked up many weird books over the years, at guest houses, hostels, and other places I was staying: a cheap novelization of old Annie Oakley magazine serials (at a beach condo); H.G. Wells’s A Short History of the World (at a river house); too some mild shame, sundry trashy V.C. Andrews novels (they must have been my older cousin’s); any Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. Probably the best random reading experience I’ve had though was when staying at a friend’s grandfather’s house in Miami. I stayed in his mother’s old room–she had all kinds of cool books, including John Barth’s slim second novel The End of the Road, which I devoured in one sleepless night. I did not steal it.

Granta 110 Features Roberto Bolaño, Tom McCarthy, Dave Eggers, Sex

Subtly titled Sex, issue 110 of the long-running literary journal Granta hits stands this week, and it looks like a doozy. There’s a story by Roberto Bolaño called “The Redhead” about “a disturbing encounter between an eighteen-year-old girl and a narcotics cop.” Charming. No description for Tom McCarthy’s “The Spa,” but presumably it will involve sex, and Dave Eggers’s drawings “Four Animals Contemplating Sex” promises to be self-descriptive. Lots of other stuff too, of course. Order Granta 110 here. The journal has also produced short videos for four of the pieces in Sex, all directed by Luke Seomore and Joseph Bull. You can see them at the oh-so-cleverly titled website This is not a purse; the vid for Bolaño’s “The Redhead” is embedded below.