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


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


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


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.

In Brief: Beach’s Epistles, Vollmann’s Mummy Sex, and Eggers’s Wild Things

Sylvia Beach was the nexus point for Modernist and ex-pat literature for much of the first half of the twentieth century, running the Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare & Company until the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941. She was the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, she translated Paul Valéry into English, and was close friends to a good many great writers, including William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Ernest Hemingway. In The Letters of Sylvia Beach, editor Keri Walsh compiles many of Beach’s letters from 1901 to just before her death in 1962. Framed by a concise biographical introduction and a useful glossary of correspondents, Letters reveals private insights into a fascinating literary period. There’s a sweetness to Beach’s letters, whether she’s inviting the Fitzgeralds to come to a dinner party or asking Richard Wright (“Dick”) how much he thinks a fair price for a record player is. The Letters of Sylvia Beach is out now from Columbia UP.

I’m a couple of chapters into William T. Vollmann’s 1993 novel Butterfly Stories, one of his (three? four? Dude’s prolific) books about prostitution. The bullied butterfly grows up to be a boy who wants to be a journalist and then a journalist/inept sex tourist in southeast Asia. Good stuff. Here’s a mordantly elegant passage:

Once he began to combine cutting his wrists and half-asphyxiating himself he believed that he’d found the ideal. Afterwards he’d dream of mummy sex with the gentle girl, by which he meant her body being suspended ropelessly above him, then slowly drifting down; when her knee touched his leg he jerked and then went limp there; her hands reached his hands, which died; her breasts rolled softly upon his heart which fibrillated and stopped; finally she lay on top of him, quite docile and still soft . . . He knew that the others didn’t like mummy sex, but that was because they didn’t understand it; they thought that it must be cold; they thought that she must paint her mouth with something to make it look black and smell horrible and soften like something rotten . . . He wanted to open her up until the pelvis snapped like breaking a wishbone. Would that be mummy sex?

Here’s a one-star review of the book from Amazon: “This book is a sordid collection of junk. I picked it out at random from a library shelf and did not enjoy/like/sympathize with even one thing about it. Don’t waste your time.” Guy didn’t like the mummy sex, I guess.

Been working through my reader’s copy of Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things, new in trade paperback from Vintage. I’m having a hard time envisioning a kind of review of the book that escapes the context of the book; that it’s a novelization of a movie script of a Maurice Sendak book of maybe a few dozen words. I loved that book growing up, so no reason that it should be adapted into a feature film, but hoped for the best due to Eggers’s involvement and the fact that the incomparable Spike Jonze was at the rudder. Or helm. Or whatever naval metaphor you wish. Anyway, I absolutely hated the movie–it was mostly melancholy and downright depressing at times. Whereas Sendak’s book channels the joys of transgressive energy while reiterating the need for stable familial order, Jonze’s movie was all sorrow and loss, the hangover of youth, each ecstasy overshadowed in darkness. Too much yin, not enough yang. Anyway. I’ll try to give the book its proper, fair due on its own terms without all that baggage. Full review forthcoming.

The Anxiety of Influence

In her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted,” published in today’s New York Times, Katie Roiphe suggests that “we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century. It has become popular to denounce those authors, and more particularly to deride the sex scenes in their novels.” By the Great Male Novelists she is, of course, referring to Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. She continues: “Even the young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.” Roiphe picks a relatively slim sample of “young male writers” to prove her thesis, including David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Franzen. Slim sample, but still, quite representative. Her big claim: “The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex.” Hmmm . . . Perhaps. Makes us think about how writers like Dennis Cooper, Wells Tower, Junot Díaz, or Stephen Elliott might fit into this scheme . . .

Away We Go — Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida


Away We Go is the story of Verona and Burt, an unmarried couple in their early thirties expecting a child. After discovering that the child’s only living grandparents will be moving to Belgium, Verona and Burt realize that there’s nothing anchoring them in Colorado. The pair set out on a cross country journey in their boxy old Volvo, meeting up with old friends and family in an attempt to find the right place to start their new family.

“We’ve attempted to make this readable to a non-screenwriting population, from whose ranks we’ve recently come,” write Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida in their introduction to their screenplay for Away We Go. Released last week in conjunction with the film, the screenplay, with its vivid cover and prestige trade format, seems to physically back up Eggers’s and Vida’s wish–they’re hoping that you’d want to, y’know, actually read it, like, a book, and not just watch Sam Mendes‘s filmed version. There’s that hopeful, informative introduction, for starters, and they really do make good on their claim of readability; stage directions and location shifts are clear but never overbearing, allowing the reader to engage the characters in his or her own imagination. The book also includes scenes (apparently) cut from the movie–should I mention now that I haven’t seen the movie?–as well as an alternate “admittedly radical Bush-era ending.” Still, it is a screenplay–not a novel, not a play, but a text intended for a movie, a movie out there getting reviewed now, a movie with physical entities playing the key roles. “Verona and Burt were written with Maya Rudolph and John Krasniski in mind,” Eggers and Vida state in their introduction, and, between this admission and press for the movie, its almost impossible to read the script without imagining these actors’ mannerisms and tics. Not that that’s a bad thing, it just limits any nuance in (and in between) the lines, and again brings up the question of why one might want to own this book.

The answer for many readers, of course, will simply be Eggers, a modern literary luminary. For the record, we’re a huge fan of Dave Eggers, even when his writing isn’t the best. Eggers is perhaps the most visible of a whole crop of post-David Foster Wallace writers (for lack of a better term), a linchpin of a (non-)movement whose literary house McSweeney’s, and its attendant magazines, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, and the video journal Wholphin frequently feature some of the best writing and art out there today. His 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius might be a bit overrated, but it’s also one of the first post-DFW books to grapple with irony and earnestness in a moving discourse. Besides all of that, Eggers is the founder of 826 National, a nonprofit organization that tutors kids in writing and reading across the country. In short, Eggers is all about making reading and writing fun and cool and demystified for lots and lots of people, and because of that, he’s a hero of ours. Of course, he has his haters; there are many who claim that McSweeney’s is form without substance, all show, fancy design without good writing. This is a pretty silly argument, because all you have to do is sit down with an issue of McSweeney’s or The Believer and actually, y’know read it to realize that 99% of the writing is fantastic. Better yet, check out one of the books they’ve published, like Chris Adrian‘s The Children’s Hospital. Eggers’s haters generally don’t have a lucid argument because what they hate is an attitude, a vibe, a feeling. I’ll readily admit that I’m hip to what they’re describing, and something of that backlash has come out in reviews of the film–especially New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s overly-analytical takedown of Away We Go. There’s a preciousness, a smug quirkiness, an awareness that people simply do not have discussions in the manner that Verona and Burt do, and this puts people off. Of their fictional parents-to-be, Eggers and Vida–who were pregnant with their own child October when they wrote the screenplay–write: “When we conceived them, we thought of a couple who was as different from ourselves as we could muster.” People who read into things deeply might find it hard to believe that Verona and Burt are anything but stand-ins for Vida and Eggers, and that couples casual resistance to the extreme drama of having a child is, honestly, a bit offputting. (If you really want to see some visceral Eggers-hating/Eggers-defending, check out the comments on this recent A.V. Club interview with the pair).

But back to the screenplay, which I suppose was the occasion for this writing. I enjoyed it. It was funny. At times there was an irking quirk to the characters, a certain shallowness that doesn’t do justice to the intensity of pregnancy. I read it in two short sittings–less time than the film would take to watch, I suppose. It also made me want to watch the film, rather than putting me off. Eggers completists might want to add the screenplay for Away We Go to their collections; newbies interested in his work should check out his novel What Is the What, Eggers’s remarkable novelization of the life story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan.

Away We Go is now available in trade paperback from Vintage.

Stuff You Can Buy/Stuff That Is Free

Fiery Furnaces latest, Widow City drops today. I love it. It’s really good rocknroll. It’s great. You should buy it. You’ll love it. Or maybe you hate music? You don’t hate music, do you? Then prove it, sucker.


Also, read today’s Village Voice interview with chief-Furnace Matt Friedberger. Prove you’re cultured, damn it!

Also out today: the Vintage paperback edition of Dave Egger’s sorta fictionalized memoir What Is the What? I haven’t read this yet, but my copy should be showing up by next week via Amazon. So I can’t say if you should buy it or not. A lot of folks tend to hate on Eggers without having read his work (I’ve seen people on the net identify his writing as extremely ironic: all one has to do is read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (an overrated, completely self-indulgent, but still enjoyable read) to see that this guy is completely earnest. But: many who have read Eggers hate on him as well. So. Granted: McSweeney’s tends to be pretty hipster-smartassed-ironic at times. Still. Earnest, people, earnest). I think it’ll be pretty good though. Will let you know.


If you’re ordering all this stuff online, you might as well pre-order the paperback printing of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital: it drops later this month. I read it and loved it, despite the fact that my edition was hardback (I find hardback books, particularly those of epic length, awfully difficult to read). You can read all about my love for The Children’s Hospital here.

And while I’m completely shilling for McSweeney’s, and championing capitalism in general, I should point out that the October issue of The Believer has a pretty cool interview with Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (or maybe he’s just Panda Bear’s Panda Bear, after the shining genius of Person Pitch) as well as a great essay weighing psychoanalysis against neuroscience. But this is really just a segue to an attempt to redeem my rapacious shilling for the industrial-military complex that is propped up on book and CD and magazine sales. Said segue:

You can read the aforementioned essay without shelling out eight bucks by simply going here, to The Believer‘s website. The current issue’s interview with Optic Nerve writer-artist Adrian Tomine is also up.

But “So what?” you say, “there are plenty of interviews and essays out there. Who cares? Give me something substantial!”

Something substantially funny: Clarke and Michael, the not-so-real-life (but-maybe-sort-of-real-life?) adventures of Clarke and Michael as they shop their screenplay around LA. I love this show.

Also, great archive of free e-books here, if you’re into permanent eye damage.

Finally, you probably don’t know about this yet: Biblioklept has a major scoop: British band Radio Heads plans to release their new album, In Rainbows, tomorrow, for free (technically, you can pay what you want to for it. Which, if you are like me, is probably nothing).

That’s right, folks: you can get music on the internet for free. More italics to emphasize this point. You can get that Radio Heads album here starting tomorrow October 10th.

More Alphabet Soup: Brought to You Today by the Letter H


H is for Humbert Humbert, the rascally narrator of Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. Throughout the novel HH, a sardonic European, provides a running critique of conformist 1950s America, his adopted home. Pining for the haunting, ineffable feeling associated with a brief, tragic childhood love, HH engineers a series of unfortunate events in order to abscond with (and eventually seduce) twelve-year old Lolita Haze. Yep. That’s right. A child-molester made this list. But if you’ve ever read Lolita, you know how charming and funny this son-of-bitch is. Lolita is in a special class of books in the Biblioklept library; it’s one of those books that I’ve read in full at least four times, and one that I pick up and read parts of every year. The first time I read Lolita, I didn’t even realize what a monster HH was–in fact, I tended to sympathize with him, even to the point of sharing his condemnation of Lolita’s bratty, manipulative nature toward the end of the novel. Like Catcher in the Rye, I first read Lolita when I was 16; like Catcher in the Rye, Lolita was an entirely different book when I read it at 21. Somehow the book managed to change again, four or five years later. I’m sure Lolita will be completely different in a year or two when I’m thirty. In fact, I vow here and now to re-read it in full right after my 30th birthday. Who knows what will have happened to it by then? How these books change on you…

Narratological shape-shifting aside Lolita deserves to be read, and read repeatedly. Nabokov’s highly alliterative prose reverberates with lyrical gymnastics, multi-lingual puns, and allusions that will make you feel oh-so clever (if you are indeed oh-so clever enough to get them, of course). Neither Kubrick’s toothless 1962 film adaption or Adrian Lyne’s gauzy 1997 attempt do any justice at all to Nabokov’s words–this is one you simply have to read. Great stuff.


H is also for Hand, zany foil to Will, the tormented narrator of Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity!. In this book, the pair embarks on a futile attempt to travel the globe giving away an enormous amount of money Will has recently received as part of an injury settlement. This scheme turns out to be much more difficult and much more complicated than they had imagined. Hand is one of my favorite characters because he’s just really damn cool–a strange combination of someone’s hip older brother mixed with someone’s annoying younger brother. My favorite part of Velocity is the fifty page section where Hand takes over the narrative, casting doubt on everything that Will has previously told the reader. Will then resumes the narrative, but at that point, the book–and Will’s status as a reliable narrator–has taken an entirely different shape. Although the story ends at a wedding, Velocity is ultimately a tragedy; the very first page announces Will’s death. But again, the whole narrative is cast in ambiguity and doubt. I loved this book so much that I bought it for a friend.

(Incidentally, Hand also tuns up in “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” one of Eggers’s short stories collected in How We Are Hungry).

Dave Eggers on Infinite Jest


Last week Little Brown published a new edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest featuring a new introduction by Dave Eggers. You can read the whole introduction here (thanks to Bob Tomorrowland for sending me the link).

Eggers’ intro weighs in on the current “readability” debate in contemporary fiction. In his 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections) attacked “difficult fiction,” focusing on writers like William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, whom Franzen views as “Status” writers who don’t really care about their audience. Franzen posits that “Contract” writers (like himself) take a more humanist, social approach. In his intro, Eggers avers that DFW’s work denies these classifications; the content of DFW’s work may be complex and weighty and downright philosophical, but DFW’s tone and his humor and his pathos ultimately allow for an accessible, fun read.

This blog has previously come out against Franzen’s argument: biblioklept is a fan of both the difficult and the more accessible–and the work of authors like Eggers and DFW prove that Franzen’s types are empty models. It’s too bad for Franzen that Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses require more work on the part of the reader than say, Stephen King or Tom Clancy. The Bible and Shakespeare and Moby-Dick and Gabriel García Márquez also require work from the reader, and no one could make a legitimate argument for removing them from the literary canon. One day, Infinite Jest will take its place in that same canon, alongside the work of Pynchon, John Barth and Don DeLillo–all authors whose work requires some effort on the part of the reader.

Eggers disscusses the effort required to read Infinite Jest, noting that it’s not a book you can simply put down and come back to a few weeks later. From my own IJ reading experience, I know this to be true: I made three attempts before finally getting into it; once I was “into” it, I was addicted, reading well past my bedtime, lugging the large object around on the Tokyo subway, reading snatches during my lunch break. IJ made me laugh loudly, it made me cry a few times; I even found myself so excited that I had to stand up during the climactic fight between Don Gately and the mysterious guys in Hawaiian shirts. When I finished the book, I immediately started re-reading it, sifting through its dense language for added meaning. And one day (month), when I have the time, I plan on reading it in its entirety again.

If you have any interest in this book, read Eggers’ foreward–he does a much better job selling this book than I could. I will say that this book is a favorite of mine, and that if you put the time and effort into it, you won’t be disappointed.