I REMEMBER THE BOOKSTORE, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become.
JR in fact is a realistic novel–so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Two tremendous novels. And the author maneuvering his car out of a dark and cramped driveway, the last time I saw him, with four or five friends and acquaintances calling out instructions as the car backed onto the country road, headlights shining on our waved good nights.
The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life, a one-act play by Don DeLillo
A MAN and a WOMAN in a room.
WOMAN: I was thinking how strange it is.
WOMAN: That people are able to live together. Days and nights and years. Five years go by. How do they do it? Ten, eleven, twelve years. Two people making one life. Sharing ten thousand meals. Talking to each other face to face, open face, like hot sandwiches. All the words that fill the house. What do people say over a lifetime? Trapped in each other’s syntax. The same voice. The droning tonal repetition. I’ll tell you something.
MAN: You’ll tell me something.
WOMAN: There’s a mystery here. The people behind the walls of the brown house next door. What do they say and how do they survive it? All that idle dialogue. The nasality. The banality. I was thinking how strange it is. How do they do it, night after night, all those nights, those words, those few who do it and survive?
MAN: They make love. They make salads.
WOMAN: But sooner or later they have to speak. This is what shatters the world. I mean isn’t it gradually shattering to sit and listen to the same person all the time, without reason or rhyme. Words that trail away. The pauses. The clauses. How many thousands of times can you look at the same drained face and watch the mouth begin to open? Everything’s been fine up to now. It is when they open their mouths. It is when they speak.
MAN: I’m still not over this cold of mine.
WOMAN: Take those things you take.
MAN: The tablets.
WOMAN: The caplets.
MAN: Long day.
WOMAN: Long day.
MAN: A good night’s sleep.
WOMAN: Long slow day.
[Lights slowly down.]
(Don DeLillo, in a 1982 interview with Contemporary Literature).
- Gordon Lish
- Ed Sanders
- Nadine Gordimer
- Harry Matthews
- Doris Lessing
- Cynthia Ozick
- Philip Roth
- Derek Walcott
- William H. Gass
- John Ashberry
- E.L. Doctorow
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- Harold Bloom
- Gabriel García Márquez
- Joyce Johnson
- Milan Kundera
- Amiri Baraka
- Gary Snyder
- Joyce Carol Oates
- Mario Vargas Llosa
- Joan Didion
- Harper Lee
- John Barth
- Don DeLillo
- Cormac McCarthy
- Chinua Achebe
- Umberto Eco
- Günter Grass
A favorite scene from Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld:
“Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You’d be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from.”
This seemed to animate him. He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.
“Those are ugly things, aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.”
“Name the parts. Go ahead. We’re not so chi chi here, we’re not so intellectually chic that we can’t test a student face-to-face.”
“Name the parts,” I said. “All right. Laces.”
“Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed.”
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
“Sole and heel.”
“Yes, go on.”
I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
“There’s not much to name, is there? A front and a top.”
“A front and a top. You make me want to weep.”
“The rounded part at the front.”
“You’re so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You’ve named the lace. What’s the flap under the lace?”
“I knew the name. I just didn’t see the thing.”
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
“You didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names.”
He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk.
A plain black everyday clerical shoe.
“Okay,” he said. “We know about the sole and heel.”
“And we’ve identified the tongue and lace.”
“Yes,” I said.
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
“What is it?” I said.
“You tell me. What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s the cuff.”
“The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That’s the counter.”
“That’s the counter.”
“And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That’s the quarter.”
“The quarter,” I said.
“And the strip above the sole. That’s the welt. Say it, boy.”
“How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called. What’s the frontal area that covers the instep?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know. It’s called the vamp.”
“The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn’t supposed to memorize.”
“Don’t memorize ideas. And don’t take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?”
“This I should know.”
“Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue.”
“I can’t think of the word. Eyelet.”
“Maybe I’ll let you live after all,”
“Yes. And the metal sheath at each end of the lace.”
He flicked the thing with his middle finger.
“This I don’t know in a million years.”
“Not in a million years.”
“The tag or aglet.”
“The aglet,” I said.
“And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We’re doing the physics of language, Shay.”
“The little ring.”
“You see it?”
“This is the grommet,” he said.
“The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it.”
“I’m going out of my mind.”
“This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs—a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?”
“I don’t know.”
“My head is breaking apart.”
“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.
“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”
From “A Conversation with Gordon Lish,” an outstanding interview between the writer/editor and Rob Trucks. The interview is really amazing—Lish talks at length about his writing process, his sense of competition, his friendships with Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, his interest in Julia Kristeva, his feelings for Harold Brodkey and Barry Hannah—and Blood Meridian. Lots and lots of Blood Meridian.
I chose this little nugget because I think it reads almost like a perfect little Lish story—or at least, it seems to perfectly express Lish’s voice, which if you haven’t heard it, my god, get thee to his own reading of his Collected Fictions. Again, the whole interview is well worth your time if you have any interest in Lish. It includes this insight into the man’s fiction:
Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.
1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)
Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.
2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)
Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.
3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)
While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.
4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)
Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.
5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.
“Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer” by Gregg Williard (More graphs/via).
[Our West Coast correspondent A King at Night weighs in on the books he read—and didn’t read—in 2011. Where they fit, I’ve linked book titles to my own reviews, or Noquar’s, our Brooklyn correspondent. –Ed.]
All of the books I did read in 2011:
1. The Recognitions – William Gaddis
If more people were able/interested in surmounting this 960 page giant I think it would be roundly considered possibly the best American novel. But as it is Gaddis sabotaged himself by writing a book that is almost literally too good.
2. City of Glass – Paul Auster
I think this one was my favorite of the New York Trilogy, except that I didn’t think of separating them until I made this list. So really I read three books as three parts of the same novel. One which I loved and adored fully. It was my first Auster and a the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
3. Ghosts – Paul Auster
4. The Locked Room – Paul Auster
5. Bright Lights Big City – Jay McInerny
Not sure why I read this one. I think I just had it sitting around and it read fast enough to keep me engaged. I’m also not sure why this was as apparently popular as it was upon release. I know he was friends with Bret Ellis, but it just seems like Ellis but kind of declawed. So maybe that’s a good thing for some people. The use of second person narration was cool, I guess you don’t see that very often.
There is almost literally nothing I can say about this that will have any value. I should mention that it fully lived up to the years and years of personal hype I had built up for it.
7. Powr Mastrs vol. 2, 3 – C.F.
This is a weird comic book series a friend introduced me to. Apparently it is ongoing and I think I would like to continue reading it.
This was my first attempt at DeLillo and I’m pretty sure I chose it because of its minuscule length and awesome cover art. I was totally enthralled and blown away. So much so in fact that Point Omega gets the distinction of the being, so far, the first and only book I have actually read twice in a row. As in I finished it and then flipped back to page one and read it a second time and it was brilliant again.
9. In The Country of Last Things – Paul Auster
I didn’t fully love this as much as I did the NY Trilogy, but I think that is due to a certain lack of detectives and the New York setting. This book kind of reminds me of a big, sad Terry Gilliam movie. Auster is in my opinion the unquestioned master of that meta-text device where what you are reading is actually being written by the character in the book. (I’m sure there is a name for that, but I don’t know it).
I’ll try and cut the hyperbole on this one. I don’t care what any people are saying about this book or the man who wrote it. My enjoyment of this and other DFW books is entirely a personal experience. He may in fact be the smartest novelist who ever lived or whatever but I’m not going to browbeat you into believing me, and somehow trying to make myself look good by extension. This book did things for me that no book (including Infinite Jest) has ever done and for that I am grateful. I’ll say no more.
11. Day of The Locust – Nathaniel West
What a weird, dark, little book this is. And why have I never been told that the name Homer Simpson is used prominently throughout? The end of this book was basically jaw-dropping and could be the best sequence Fellini never filmed. I hear there was a movie made based on this, but I think it supposedly wasn’t very good.
12. The Time Machine Did It – John Swartzwelder
This is the first book in a series written following Detective Frank Burly. And the ONLY reason I haven’t immediately read each and every one of them is because they are self-published by the author and therefore impossible to find used. And since I almost never buy books new it would be a huge price adjustment for me. So I’ll take them slow, but if the rest are as fun as this is I predict I will love all of them.
13. Ubik – Phillip K. Dick
Very enjoyable, packed full of ideas (as usual for Dick) and with a pretty engaging plot to tie it all together.
14. Carpenter’s Gothic – William Gaddis
Last time I was home visiting my family I discovered that a copy of this book in my mom’s bathroom. Apparently she had seen me post about Gaddis on Facebook and decided to take my word for it. She was about a third of the way through this relatively slim book but confessed to having a hard time reading it. She asked what about it appealed to me so much and I told her that I view Gaddis as maybe the greatest American writer who ever lived, but that of the three books I’ve read of his Carpenter’s Gothic is the weakest, (or the least amazing, maybe) but that, you know, good luck telling anyone to read a 700 page book written entirely in unattributed dialogue (JR) or a 960 pager about classical art. So yeah CG is more of a little experiment in storytelling (the goal was to tell a massive sociopolitical epic, but done entirely in one location, a house in the country outside new york) than it is an essential work. But if you want to wet yr feet in regards to Gaddis but won’t/can’t commit to his larger, better books, then this is a decent starting point.
Totally awesome. I started reading it late at night after finishing the previous book and ended up sitting on the couch until 4:30am and did the whole thing in one sitting. That doesn’t happen too often with me and I can’t really account for why it happened this time . . . but yeah this is the most readable McCarthy I’ve read since The Road.
This is the (sort of) conclusion to PKD’s VALIS trilogy, which I started reading last year. It was the last book he wrote and is I think a pretty wonderful swan song for a guy as freakishly imaginative as him. It isn’t even really sci-fi even, but more like “spi-fi” (the term I just made up for Spiritual Fiction) which is sort of what all of his latter work was I guess, and is a thing that really resonates with me personally.
17. Leviathan – Paul Auster
My fifth Auster of the year: I picked this up because it had a cool cover and I read it mostly on flights to and from a wedding I attended in Wisconsin. This is totally wonderful and probably my second favorite Auster novel (behind NY3). I think if I were to write a longer piece on PA I would probably use this book to talk about his interest in choosing protagonists who are frequently less interesting than a supporting character whom they idolize. And also his interesting views on marriage and adultery. It’s worth noting that the book is dedicated to Don DeLillo and upon seeing that I was inspired to pick up some more of his books and finally some of the others that were piling up on my shelf.
18. White Noise – Don DeLillo
I’ve had a copy for this for like ten years and somehow could never make it past the first two pages, even though they are a really good two pages. Honestly in this case I think it was the edition. I had one of those scholarly ones with all the annotation and stuff that make the book look twice as long and 10x more boring. And then I found the newly printed Penguin paperback and burned through it in like a week. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read and was really a gateway drug into a binge of DeLillo that was incredibly fulfilling.
19. Running Dog – Don DeLillo
This was probably the least mind-blowing (and the earliest) of the DeLillo I read this year. But still a good time, slightly Pynchonian (Pynchonesque?) probably as a result of DD still finding his own voice at that point. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already pretty well-into DeLillo but for fans of his I think it would be a good read.
20. Libra – Don DeLillo
Two things in life constantly threaten to destroy me: The Zodiac Killer and JFK. There is always this looming sense that if I were to ever really, fully commit to researching either case I would be entering rabbit-hole I’d never find my way out of. This book was simultaneously the most tempting experience but also the most satisfying. Because even if DD had to invent some of this he still presents a version of the story that is totally plausible. So maybe it’s a placebo but at least I can sleep at night.
It was all a rehearsal for this one though. This big guy had been taking up space on my night stand for months and I’d had a number of friends basically begging me to read it for years. When I finally got around to reading it I was pleased to discover that it is NOT difficult at all, it’s just long. There is a sort of genre of these “big, complex, post-modern(?)” type of books. It’s a thing that I have a weakness for: Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against The Day, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, JR, Infinite Jest, etc. And I mean while Underworld has some things in common with these books I would actually characterize it as almost more like a Norman Mailer book or something. Yeah, I’d put it somewhere between a more-sober Thomas Pynchon and a less-horny Norman Mailer. Does that make sense at all?
22. The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy
I was hoping for a repeat of my Child of God experience with this one. And while that didn’t quite happen I still enjoyed this book a lot. Major props to McCarthy for mentioning Melungeons in the first chapter, being descended from that obscure ethnic group myself, with my dad’s family from east Tennessee, I can tell you that that is exactly the type of super-esoteric, colloquial reference that he later got a lot of praise for utilizing in his more-celebrated western novels. I guess it’s just neat to see that as a part of his style so early and is further proof that he is not in fact a writer of westerns at all, but just possibly the best writer of any region, just wherever he decides to dedicate his interest.
23. Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
I love Denis Johnson so much. I don’t usually buy hardback books but when I saw this cute little book I knew I had to have it. It reads super fast and is really just a great little character piece, telling basically the whole life of this one particular guy. Johnson could write two dozen of these things and I would read every one of them. But he won’t because he’s busy doing whatever other random thing he decides to write brilliantly—-
—-Like this little crime novel he wrote. I don’t think anyone who was around when his first few books would ever have thought he would end up trying to write a pulp novel. I certainly wouldn’t have. But boy am I glad he did. This book was so totally fun to read, with some of the most enjoyable dialogue I’ve ever read in my life. It isn’t as tightly plotted as any of the Coen bros. movies that it reminds me of, but for sentence-by-sentence writing it was one of the best things I read all year.
25. Wild at Heart – Barry Gifford
I had seen the movie a few times and knew I wanted t try the book. I heard that Lynch wrote the script in six days and having read it now I can say that I completely believe that is true. It’s probably one of the closest adaptations I’ve ever seen and really I’m just stunned by how Lychian Gifford’s book already was. It makes so much sense that these two collaborated on Lost Highway and my only wish is that they would work together again sometime.
26. Travels in The Scriptorium – Paul Auster
So I guess with this one Auster officially beat DeLillo for the most-read author of the year prize. I wasn’t even intending to buy another one until I saw the cover of this and instantly knew I had to. Anything that is this visually reminiscent of Twin Peaks has to be good right? It ended up being a great, easy read, which I am learning is typical of PA.
27. The Bailbondsman – Stanley Elkin
This is the first novella is book of three called Searches and Seizures that I just bought the other day. I was sold when I saw that William Gass had a blurb on the back cover saying something like “the three books contained in this volume are among the greatest in our literature” to which I mentally responded “well jeez Bill, I guess we’re going for the hard sell today, fine, I’ll buy it, say no more.” So I’m not ready to agree or disagree with Gass on this one, but I can see why he would like Elkin’s style, which sort of reminds me of a funnier more playful version of what Gass does.
28. The Making of Ashenden – Stanley Elkin
The second novella in Searches and Seizures is shorter and packs a bigger punch than the first. It’s one of these things where if I told you what happens in the story you would probably want to read it, but knowing what happens would reduce the impact when it does happen, so just trust me and read it. The writing is just terrific and it’s really funny. Humor isn’t really a quality that I value in visual entertainment as much, but when someone can write literary fiction that actually has me laughing out loud I tend to think it’ s worth mentioning.
29. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July
So I was fully ready to finish the third novella in that Elkin collection until I found myself at a friend’s apartment cat-sitting on Christmas Eve and this book was sitting on the shelf. So in keeping with the name of this blog I just went ahead and stole it. I proceeded to read it very quickly and I laughed out loud more than I expected to (remember when I mentioned literary fiction that elicits laughter? This was like that too). I confess that I don’t read a ton of short stories, (a truth this list will generally attest to) but I found this whole collection just wonderful. It might also be that this is the only book written by a woman that I read all year. In the past few years I have generally been on a strict diet of books that fit loosely to the idea of “American Post-Modern Novels” but generally means “Books published after the 60s by white guys mostly from new york.” And while I am proud of the big reading accomplishments this focus has helped me attain, (how else does one read Gaddis if not through sheer force of will?) this slight, sad, funny, collection of contemporary short fiction written by a young-ish female writer has shown me that I definitely need to broaden my palate.
Some of the books I did not read in 2011:
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah blah blah blah blah blah blah glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses smug smug smug smug smug smug smug. I think I’ll let this one age a bit more before I attempt to read it. Granted his short “Breakup Stories” may literally be my favorite piece of fiction to appear in the new yorker in the past ten or twenty years… but, I have read the first page of The Corrections on three separate occasions (in three different sized editions, so now I know the physical copy is in fact NOT the problem) and each time I woke up in the spring, without having read the book. If I ever did decide to crack this one it would probably be in audio form, and maybe as part of a long road trip alone, specifically without a cell phone or cigarettes so that I would have nothing else I could possibly do.
I’m sorry Ed. I really am. It will happen, I swear it. But every time I pick this book up I am baraged by random four-part spanish sounding names that are indistinguishable for me, sample sentence: “What Jaun-Carlos Hernandez Jr. admired most about the poetry of Jullio Valdez-Herrara was the tactility of words. They leapt off the page with such precision and style that Jaun-Carlos was transported from the dusty villa where he sat to candlelit hut with a thatched roof, where revolutions are planned. He tried in vain to explain the power of the work to his professor Guillermo-Carlos Nunez but he scoffed at the work of Veldez-Herrara, calling it unworthy of the literary crown of the great Gabriell Marco San Flores.”
After all the other McCarthy I read this year, I kind of thought I might just push on through with this one. I’ve been told by a number of people that it is one of his best. But the first page just stopped me dead in my tracks and I instantly knew it wasn’t the right time. No big deal, I’ll get around to it and then the border trilogy afterward.
Yes another year busy not-reading Ulysses. I feel I’m in good company on this though so oh well. It can’t really be that difficult can it? I enjoyed both Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest so my hope is that when I finally do get around to this big guy it will somehow seem quaint and easy. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration though.
5. Anything by David Mitchell
Because seriously fuck this guy. That Cloud Atlas movie adaptation is going to be a huge pile of shit too.
6. Middlesex – Jeffrey Euginides
This book has been haunting me for years, seemingly begging to be read and for some reason I am just 100% uninterested. But it has this weird habit of managing to show up on the bookshelves of people I like and trust, oftentimes sitting very close to other books I like. And sometimes these people tell me to read it. But it never seems very dire does it? No one is rapterous about this book and that makes me think that the Whatever-Prize sticker on the front is causing more people to read it than the actual urgency of the content. Somehow though last year Middlesex managed to get itself into a thrift store in the 50 cent bin, atop a pile of romance novels and pamphlets about Mormons. So now it sits on my shelf, tucked away on that hard to reach, shitty corner next to Cloud Atlas and whatever Dave Eggers books people insist I borrow but that I will never read (because: fuck that guy too). Sometimes though I hear a noise at night and when I wake up Middlesex is lying next to me on the pillow. So I’m pretty much going to have to read it at some point . . . not this year though.
7. Zodiac – Robert Greysmith
Bought it at the Farmer’s Market book stand and held it like a dark version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or some kind of box that when opened unleashes Chaos and Evil into the otherwise peaceful world. Right now I have a wife and an apartment and two cats, but I’m pretty sure I would somehow lose all of that the moment I cracked this book. Part of me is delusionally convinced that if I just dedicate my life to the cause that I could solve the Zodiac mystery. NOT reading this book has kept me from indulging that dark obsession for another year.
8. The Beckett Trilogy
Read ten pages or so and just felt like I wasn’t smart enough. Give me a few years and I’ll try it again.
9. Anything by Dennis Cooper
This dude sounds intense and disturbing, but also maybe really awesome. I heard about him first while googling interviews with the band Whitehouse and found Cooper’s blog and a massive post he did on them. Anyone who likes Whitehouse has to be okay right? Well at least I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I plan to get ahold of some of his books but I have no idea where to start, or where to find a bookstore that will give them to me in a plain brown paper bag so I don’t feel weird taking the bus home, as though by holding a Dennis Cooper book I’m sending some strange signal to all the secret sexual deviants around me every day.
10. Crime Wave – James Ellroy
Because I thought it was a novel when I bought it and since I have never read Ellroy I didn’t want to start with a collection of essays.
11. Paradise – Donald Barthelme
I am thrilled to still have a rainy day Barthelme novel left. So as much as it sounds hilarious I am going to hold off reading it for as long as I can.
12. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
Granted I read it three years ago, but every year that I don’t re-read it I get sort of sad. I live vicariously through the one friend every year who reads it for the first time, and every time I listen to them rave for an hour I get it in my head that I’ll snatch it up and give it a quick once over. But when faced with the actual commitment involved I never do it. One day, one day.
From a 1982 NYT profile of Don DeLillo. DeLillo talks Pynchon, Gaddis, and reader responsibility.
THE writer to whom Mr. DeLillo has most often been likened and for whom he has great respect is Thomas Pynchon. ”Somebody quoted Norman Mailer as saying that he wasn’t a better writer because his contemporaries weren’t better,” he says. ”I don’t know whether he really said that or not, but the point I want to make is that no one in Pynchon’s generation can make that statement. If we’re not as good as we should be it’s not because there isn’t a standard. And I think Pynchon, more than any other writer, has set the standard. He’s raised the stakes.”
Mr. DeLillo also praises William Gaddis for extending the possibilities of the novel by taking huge risks and making great demands on his readers. Yet many readers complain about the abstruseness of much contemporary writing.
”A lot of characters,” Mr. DeLillo says, ”have become pure act. The whole point in certain kinds of modern writing is that characters simply do what they do. There isn’t a great deal of thought or sentiment or literary history tied up in the actions of characters. Randomness is always hard to absorb.”
Mr. DeLillo believes that it is vital that readers make the effort. ”The best reader,” he says, ”is one who is most open to human possibility, to understanding the great range of plausibility in human actions. It’s not true that modern life is too fantastic to be written about successfully. It’s that the most successful work is so demanding.” It is, he adds, as though our better writers ”feel that the novel’s vitality requires risks not only by them but by readers as well. Maybe it’s not writers alone who keep the novel alive but a more serious kind of reader.”
In his essay “In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time utterly banal—of course it was too soon to measure the effects of the 9/11 attacks. But could time’s distance somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”
In retrospect—what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act—DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, I remember that immediate, overwhelming shock, that paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted—needed—to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s“ states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.
In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion—both temporal and spatial—as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. The victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, forcing the living to wallow in grief. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s displaced milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.
DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.
David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying take on 9/11, although to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article—on September 10th, 2001—about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster to which his characters are so oblivious. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches out of Schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.
To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize—I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (perhaps the absence is purposeful; perhaps not). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.
Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” and “In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.
[Editorial note: We ran a (somewhat sloppier) version of this essay on 9.11.2009]
Hey. Do yourself a favor and listen to Iambik’s first podcast, a raucous, rambling conversation with legendary editor/short story author Gordon Lish. I finally got around to listening to the discussion between Lish and his publisher John Oakes. (Why the delay? I’ve been listening to and very much enjoying another Iambik recording, an audiobook of Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and I needed to get to a decent stopping place before the Lish (review of the Millet forthcoming)) . I had already listened to Lish reading a selection of his own stories which was nine kinds of awesome (thanks again to the good folks at Iambik, whose hooking me up with the sweet mp3age has in no way affected my fondness for their operation (review of the Lish selections forthcoming)).
Hearing Lish in this conversational, easy manner is revelatory. Wise and funny, erudite and crafty, you’ll learn something and be entertained:
What does he talk about? I’ll crib from Iambikist Miette’s write-up, which hardly sums it up but does a nice job of surveying the discussion–
In the first part of the conversation, Lish covers Beckett’s boils and other afflictions of our literary heroes, remembrances of Neal Cassady, and the writer as witch doctor.
The second part focuses on Lish’s (as always, uncensored) assertions on the state of contemporary American letters, in which we’re imparted with opinions on Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth, achieving religious experience through DeLillo, the finer points of book blurbing, and encouraging the further crimes of Tao Lin.
Biblioklept already busted out our Best Books of 2010 list, selecting ten of our favorite novels of the year. Such limitations help to generate lists, which internet folks love to circulate–you know the ritual–but those limitations can also prohibit a discussion of some of the other important books of 2010. So, without further ado–
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has, for some reason, topped all kinds of year-end lists already, and been hailed by writers, critics, and readers as book of the year, decade, and even century. We pretty much hated it, saying–
Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl.
Still, we felt the need to defend Franzen when he caught flak for, gasp!, getting attention. Other writers had to work hard to get noticed, including Tao Lin, whose novel Richard Yates we found baffling. Lin smartly hijacked Franzen’s Time cover, parlaying it into the kind of media attention a young novelist needs in this decade to get noticed.
David Shields also garnered a lot of attention after publishing his ridiculous “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a book that cobbled together citations from superior writers to make a point that Henry Miller made over half a century ago and every novelist worth his salt has always known: great writers steal. Although Shields’s points about copyright laws and who can “own” stories are salient in world two point oh, his call for the death of the novel is absurd and offensive.
Lee Rourke’s brilliant début novel The Canal is as good an answer as any to Shields–The Canal is a thoroughly modern reconsideration of existentialism in the post-9/11 world, a new kind of novel in the nascent tradition of Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder (of course, as McCarthy–and David Shields–would point out, these novels are “plugging into” other novels). Similarly, Adam Langer’s witty novel The Thieves of Manhattan pointed to the ways that novels can still be meaningful; Thieves jauntily riffs on adventure and mystery genre fictions, squaring them against a parody of literary fiction and the hermetic world that produces it.
Langer’s novel tracks the quick rise and fall of more than one literary star; Yann Martel might have felt such a falling sensation in 2010–Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to the wildly successful book club classic Life of Pi, received mostly scathing reviews. He’ll have to console himself with the piles of money that Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi will likely generate. In our review of Beatrice and Virgil we declared the book “a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences.” We think too many folks mistook Martel’s aims for something higher.
Martel wasn’t the only big name writer whose 2010 novel found critical disfavor. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega was met with a mix of critical shrugs and outright dismissals, with very few champions. We seemed to like it better than most. In our review we said that “Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.”
DeLillo’s friend Paul Auster also received mixed reviews for his novel Sunset Park. We loved Auster’s winding syntax and his keen observations on high and middle culture, but found his take on twentysomethings in Brooklyn unrealistic and perhaps a bit pandering (Picador’s updated version of his Collected Prose that came out this year was a far more satisfying read).
The worst novel we read in 2010 though was quite easily Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a calculated attempt to make money, not literature. We have no problem with writers making money, of course–we don’t even mind writers ripping off other writers’ ideas to make money–but Cronin’s book is a shallow, sprawling laundry list of clichés and stolen-set pieces, a failed synthesis of post-apocalypse tropes, and a naked grab at commercial appeal. It seems to have been written expressly to be sold as a series of franchise movies. Because of Cronin’s earlier literary fictions, many critics mistook The Passage for a work of literature; indeed, many praised it. They were wrong.
Of course, our targeting of The Passage feels like backlash of some kind, common to both the internet and the book world. If we’re hating on Cronin for his overexposure, it might be because we feel that there are a host of neglected and overlooked books out there. We put two on our Best Books list: Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan are both novellas in translation, not the sort of thing that usually tops critics’ year end lists (let alone get read by the public). We could add Yoko Ogawa’s bizarre, slim novel Hotel Iris to the list. Available for the first time in English this year, Ogawa’s novel is effectively a reverse-Lolita, a David Lynchian-riff on BDSM in a small Japanese coastal town. Not for everyone, but strange, disturbing stuff.
Critics also seemed to roundly ignore the full publication of Ralph Ellison’s second, unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , which we wrote about twice (here and here) but never managed to finish, which doesn’t really matter because he didn’t finish it either. A much shortened version of the novel was published as Juneteenth in the ’90s to mixed reviews, but it seems strange that this version, collecting all of Ellison’s manuscripts and notes, should go so unremarked upon (still, it’s a big long sucker of a book; perhaps someone out there is still unpacking it all).
So what did we miss? What other books of 2010 remain thus-far neglected? What books did you love? Hate? Let us know.
The Guardian profiles Don DeLillo. The profile is pretty silly, referring to DeLillo as an “All-American writer,” and mistakenly referring to his 2007 novel Falling Man as The Falling Man (this reminds me of the way that grandparents love to add a definite article to pretty much anything, e.g. “I have to go to the Wal-Marts”). Here it is –
After Underworld, an 800-page tour de force, DeLillo’s career turned towards the miniature: The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), The Falling Man (2007) are much slighter books, a rallentando that suggests a writer moving inexorably into the minor key of old age. Not that you’d find this in the demeanour of DeLillo.
The writer makes up for the error by using the word “rallentando,” of course.
(Thanks to A Piece of Monologue for directing our attention this way).
The Paris Review interviews David Mitchell in their new issue. An excerpt from their free excerpt:
INTERVIEWER I noticed this sentence in Number9Dream: “The cloud atlas turns its pages over.”
MITCHELL Wow, is that in Number9Dream? Then the phrase was haunting me earlier than I realized. “Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title. It pleases me that Number9Dream is named after a piece of music by Yoko’s more famous husband, though I couldn’t duplicate the pattern indefinitely.
INTERVIEWER The epigraph to Number9Dream is from Don DeLillo: “It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.”
MITCHELL The best line in the book and it’s not even mine.
Before I get into the details of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, I implore you to stop reading my review and simply get a hold of the film and watch it. It’s a marvelous, rewarding, dreamy experience. That’s not a very convincing argument of course, but I think that the best way to see this gorgeous film is with no preconceptions, with as little information as possible–not because there are plot twists that a review might give away, but rather because the pleasure of Russian Ark is its narrative immediacy–and any review will seek to mediate that immediacy. So I’ve hemmed and hawed. If you need further convincing, read on.
It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll let Don DeLillo do it for me. In his latest novella, Point Omega, his filmmaker protagonist describes it as an ideal for the kind of truth he’d like to capture in one of his own films:
There’s a Russian film, feature film, Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov. A single extended shot, about a thousand actors and extras, three orchestras, history, fantasy, crowd scenes, ballroom scenes and then an hour into the movie a waiter drops a napkin, no cut, can’t cut, camera flying down hallways and around corners. Ninety-nine minutes.
That was enough for me to get hold of Russian Ark and watch it, or rather experience it (I think experience is the best verb here, corny as that sounds), but perhaps, gentle reader, you’d like some plot details. Let’s give it a shot. The film begins in darkness, with its unnamed/unseen protagonist describing the vague details of his last memory, a violent accident that he remembers little about. But before we go on, I should point out a few things: this protagonist is unseen because he is essentially the camera; his movement propels the film–is the film–and although he is his own character, he is also a surrogate for the audience. His first-person experience dictates the film, is the film, and although he has ghostly access to the characters who float through the gorgeous halls of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, they cannot see or hear him. There is one character who can see him however, an unnamed black-clad 19th-century French aristocrat who the protagonist comes to call “the European.” Neither the European or the protagonist understand why they are in the Hermitage or how they got there; the European is even more perplexed to find that he now speaks perfect Russian. Unlike the protagonist, the European can interact with the denizens of the Hermitage, and interact he does, by turns offending, menacing, or charming (or at least attempting to charm) the characters that the pair encounters as they drift through the ballrooms, galleries, and courtyards of this beautiful palace. Initially, the European repeatedly insults Russian culture, which he believes a pale imitation of European aesthetics. He even protests that one of the fine orchestras that they stumble upon must be manned with Italian players, as Russian musicians simply couldn’t be so skilled. But as they wander the halls, the European slowly succumbs to the rich beauty and opulence of the Hermitage; although he never states it outright, he relents his prejudice against Russian culture, and perhaps even learns a new way of seeing beauty.
And who wouldn’t be moved by the beauty here? Russian Ark functions in some way as a guided tour of the Hermitage, although that term, “guided tour” implies a stuffiness that’s antithetical to the looseness of this film. The camera lingers on a painting or statue; the protagonist offers his thoughts, the European his; perhaps an erstwhile docent steps in to explicate a point of technique or symbolism. It’s wonderful. In one stunning moment (scene would not be the right word for this movie which is of course one long scene), the European argues violently with a boy over a painting of the apostles Peter and Paul. The boy admits to knowing nothing of the scriptures, yet he’s deeply moved by the wisdom and promise that the painting connotes; the European cannot understand how the painting’s aura alone can transmit its meaning to the ignorant lad. The scene begins at 6:38 in the clip below:
The European’s clash with the boy echoes the larger (and yet subtle) clashes of the film, as characters, artworks, and musical styles of different epochs float into or burst out of or parade around in the grand rooms of the Hermitage. There’s Pushkin, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Anastasia. There’s an incredible scene where Tsar Nicholas I is offered an apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of an ambassador; there’s a wonderful ballroom dance that moves the European to great joy. In one of the film’s pockets of horror, a layman labors in a strange utility room building his coffin; it is the siege of Leningrad in WWII where over a million people died at the hands of the Nazis. The European, of course, has no knowledge of these events, being after his time, and the disjunction between the protagonist’s contemporary perspective of history and his own provides for a fascinating, if not wholly fleshed out, conflict.
Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of Russian Ark is its refusal to narrativize or philosophize history beyond a first-person perspective walk through the halls of the Hermitage. The movie erupts into little pockets of exuberant joy or strange, desperate violence; sometimes the protagonist is drawn in, but just as often he’s repelled, and looks for another avenue, like a dreamer willing his own escape. To call the movie dream-like would be an understatement, and like a dream, Russian Ark‘s divergent set pieces overwhelm the senses in their rich splendor. Like the protagonist and the European, I found myself repeatedly entranced by a painting or a concert or a dance or a strange little moment, only to be interrupted by another character intruding into the frame, bearing new information, discordant news that disrupts the dream logic (while paradoxically ushering in a new set piece). Russian Ark distracts its audience, sending them inward; in contemplation, the viewer loses the thread–but is there a thread? Is real life a narrative? Are dreams even narratives? Some of my favorite moments of the film happened when my anxiety at having been distracted by some gorgeous detail was confirmed by the protagonist, who all of a sudden has lost the European, or who is startled by the bustling arrival of new people. But of course, in this film, the viewer is the protagonist.
But writing about Russian Ark is no good, not really. You have to just see it (but I already said that, right?) To quote again from DeLillo’s Point Omega, “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Sokurov’s film collapses history and art and beauty into a beautiful, edifying, sometimes terrifying dream, a dream that, in its adherence to first-person perspective, is a marvelous approximation of true life. Highly recommended.
I went to my favorite local bookstore this afternoon and for reasons beyond me I was compelled to pick up Jonathan Littell’s divisive 2009 novel The Kindly Ones, a massive tome running to almost 1000 pages in its trade paperback edition. Okay. The reasons I bought it are not completely beyond me: they mostly stem from Paul La Farge’s essay “A Scanner Darkly,” published in the May, 2009 issue of The Believer. Previous Believer feature essays have led to me picking up excellent books by writers I’d never heard of, including 2666 and The Rings of Saturn. Anyway, the book is massive, and I don’t really have time to read it any time soon. There is a hobbit-sized stack of review copies lingering by my nightstand, more arriving all the time, not to mention the books I habitually pick up weekly. Which, more often than not, tend to be pretty big like, uh, The Kindly Ones.
Why is this? Why the attraction to big books? In his essay included at the end of Bolaño’s 2666, Ignacio Echevarría cites a passage from the book where literature professor Amalfitano wonders that:
Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
The “bookish pharmacist” in question has explained that he favors the preciseness of “Bartleby” over Moby-Dick, the polish of The Metamorphosis over The Trial. Amalfitano, Bolaño’s stand-in, points out that it takes “the great, imperfect, torrential works” to “blaze paths into the unknown.” Put another way, the masters need space; space to overflow, make errors, experiment, joust with other masters, play in and with time. Obviously, the passage (as Echevarría and a million other critics have noted) is a defense for the sprawl of 2666 itself, but I think it speaks to why many readers are drawn to the big books. They can be ragged and overflowing but they also have more room to take the measure of spirit, soul, life. They can evoke this world and others. They can be grand.
Not to say that the smaller books can’t do this in turn. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is masterful in its precision and humor. But Tree of Smoke is the better book. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest trumps everything else the man wrote. White Noise is more manageable than (and perhaps superior to) Underworld, but the bigger book allows Don DeLillo the space he needs to explore so much of American history and American psyche. And these are just contemporary examples. There’s James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Sterne. Cervantes. Supply your own names.
But I also love novellas and those long short stories of strange size like Joyce’s “The Dead” or, yes, “Bartleby” (sidebar: Really, what is “Bartleby”? A long short story? A short novella? What is it?). There’s something pure and refreshing about them, especially when consumed quickly, especially when consumed between a few of those long books. And a confession: I love it when review copies come in that hover around 200 pages, particularly when the novel is the writer’s first or second. There’s a glut, a horrendous, miserable glut, of first-time novelists who feel they must say everything about everything in 380 or 450 or, God forbid, 500+ pages. It’s really too much. I suppose the rule, if there has to be a rule (there doesn’t) is impossibly simple (and perhaps just impossible): if you’re going to write a really, really big book, make sure it’s addictive, compulsive reading. I’m not sure if The Kindly Ones is great art or a potboiler posing as art, but I am pretty certain that its length alone, for whatever reason, is part of its attraction.