A Riff on Stuff I Wish I’d Written About In the First Half of 2014

1. Leaving the Sea, Ben Marcus: A weird and (thankfully) uneven collection that begins with New Yorkerish stories of a post-Lish stripe (like darker than Lipsyte stuff) and unravels (thankfully) into sketches and thought experiments and outright bizarre blips. Abjection, abjection, abjection. The final story “The Moors” is a minor masterpiece.

2. Novels and stories, Donald Barthelme: A desire to write something big and long on Barthelme seems to get in the way of my writing anything about Barthelme. Something short then? Okay: Barthelme is all about sex. He posits sex as the solution (or at least consolation) for the problems of language, family, identity, etc.

3. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley: I gorged on these precise, sad, funny stories, probably consuming too many at once (by the end of Little Disturbances I had the same stomach ache I got after eating too much of Barthelme’s Sixty Stories at once).

4. Concrete by Thomas Bernhard: Unlike the other novels I’ve read by Bernhard, Concrete seems to offer some kind of vision of moral capability, one which the narrator is unable to fully grasp, but which is nevertheless made available to the reader in the book’s final moments, accessible only through the novel’s layers of storytelling.

5. Middle C and Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas by William H. Gass: I loved Middle C—its musicality, its balance between invention, playfulness, and a (perhaps conservative) attention to plot arc and storytelling. The novel strikes me as deeply American—about the performance of identity, about con-artists, the long game, etc. In the novella collection, I enjoyed most Bed and Breakfast, which is also strangely sweet for Gass, and also features a con-artist of sorts. (I shared some stuff from Middle C here, by the bye).

6. Tom Clark Tom Clark Tom Clark Tom Clark Tom Clark Tom Clark Tom

7. “Police Rat” by Roberto Bolaño: So I wrote about the title track in Bolaño’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho, but I wish I’d managed something about “Police Rat,” which, if not his strangest story, is singular in his oeuvre—a funny animal story, a sewer noir murder mystery by way of Watership Down. The story seems like it could be the dream of one of the characters of 2666.  

8. Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Cole’s first “novel” points toward the ambition and brilliance of Open City, with which it shares an ambulatory vibe. The story of an unnamed narrator who returns to Nigeria a stranger, Every Day is a rambling riff on culture, crime, memory, and more. There’s a danger to reading one book by one author about a place you’ve never been and thinking you understand that place, and Cole builds an apprehension of this danger into his narrative.  

9. That last episode of True Detective: Despite riffing obsessively, fanboyishly about True Detective, I could not bring myself to write about the ending, in part because of the (perceived) negative backlash the conclusion received. I felt the need to address haters and doubters, when what I really wanted to comment on was the sheer beauty of the episode—its aesthetics, its greenness. Critics emphasized the bromantic ending, or the moment where Cohle seems to retreat (uncharacteristically) to metaphysics, but for me the signal moment was achieved when Hart is asked by his ex-wife and children, who attend him in his hospital bed, if he is alright. This question links back to a domestic lull in the middle of episode four. We see Hart and Cohle as roommates, as Lucinda Williams’s gentle song “Are You Alright?” plays. This is the middle of the series, and also the central question of the series: Are you alright? At the end of the series, Hart attempts to affirm that he is alright, but it is clear to everyone—audience, family, and Hart himself—that he isn’t.

10. Top of the Lake: Jane Campion’s miniseries uses a detective story to explore rape culture and misogyny. The series is beautiful, set in and around Lake Wakatipu, on the South Island of New Zealand. (I was fortunate enough to live on the South Island for a few years as a child, in Dunedin, and my family and I were able to vacation a few times in Queenstown, one of Top of the Lake’s primary settings). The series is amazing, strange and dark; Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss is excellent as the lead, a young female detective who battles indifference and sexism from the locals as she tries to find a missing pregnant twelve year old. The series twins True Detective, exploring similar themes of power, sex, and crime.

11. Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann: At just 200 pages, Riding is downright breezy for Vollmann, and unlike his novels, it’s a quick, easy, and ultimately disappointing read. Riding is a memoir-essay, in which Vollmann recounts riding the rails with two friends (this despite his age, his poor physical health, the wife and child who depend on him, etc.). Shades of Vollmann’s hero Steinbeck sift in, but the anger is largely incoherent and unfocused. As usual, Vollmann seems incapable of editing any part of his adventures, and thus we are subjected to every detail from his adventure, no matter how trivial or boring. This could’ve been condensed into a fifty page essay—or better, absorbed into one of his fictions.

12. Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector: It took me forever to finish Lispector’s first novel. She was only twenty-three when she published it, which shows—there’s verve here, a fluidity of language that overwhelms the reader, as Lispector moves from object to consciousness to memory and back. That same fluidity though can become overbearing in long stretches; our heroine’s unrestrained profundity is difficult to absorb. We are never given a break from a series of epiphanies that flow over each other, the next washing away the former.

13: Current reading: Alasdair Gray’s bizarre novel Lanark, which shifts from a Kafkaesque sci-fi picaresque to a conventional modernist Künstlerroman. I am addicted to this novel. Also: Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, and the The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villatranslated by Dominic Siracusa and forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press.

10 thoughts on “A Riff on Stuff I Wish I’d Written About In the First Half of 2014”

  1. FWIW: Rectify and The Returned are two other shows that pair nicely with True Detective. Both on Netflix instant.


      1. I was just about to comment about the show you said pairs up with True Detective, since I absolutely loved TD, and then I read this comment. And now I have three TV series to look into.


  2. Nice! I will have to read “Police Rat.” “The Insufferable Gaucho” is classic. I’ve been watching “Top of the Lake” and enjoy its intensity. I tried to get into (for a second time) “The Killing,” but it’s just so… I don’t like it at all. We’ve talked about “True Detective,” which is a classic. As a shameless self-promotion, I got an article published about “True Detective”: http://culturecountermag.com/the-un-oedipal-narrative-cont/


  3. I had been following your True Detective posts with almost as much excitement as each new episode, but when nothing was said about the final episode, I feared you—like some other fans—had felt betrayed by the ending. (I liked it.)

    It’s nice to see your true final thoughts on the series are not negative and sulky, but intelligent, uniquely analytical, and still a little fanboyish. Thanks.


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