Five books Donald Barthelme recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers

I have heard Donald referred to as essentially a writer of the American 1960’s. It may be true that his alloy of irrealism and its opposite is more evocative of that fermentatious decade, when European formalism had its belated flowering in North American writing, than of the relatively conservative decades since. But his literary precursors antedate the century, not to mention its 60’s, and are mostly non-American. ”How come you write the way you do?” a Johns Hopkins apprentice writer once asked him. ”Because Samuel Beckett already wrote the way he did,” Barthelme replied. He then produced for the seminar his ”short list”: five books he recommended to the attention of aspiring American fiction writers. No doubt the list changed from time to time; just then it consisted of Rabelais’s ”Gargantua and Pantagruel,” Laurence Sterne’s ”Tristram Shandy,” the stories of Heinrich von Kleist, Flaubert’s ”Bouvard and Pecuchet” and Flann O’Brien’s ”At Swim-Two-Birds” – a fair sample of the kind of nonlinear narration, sportive form and cohabitation of radical fantasy with quotidian detail that mark his own fiction. He readily admired other, more ”traditional” writers, but it is from the likes of these that he felt his genealogical descent.

From John Barth’s 1989 eulogy for Donald Barthelme, first published in The New York Times.

Barthelme had a longer list too, of course:

A few sentences on every Thomas Pynchon novel to date

Today, 8 May 2021, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 84th birthday. Some of us nerds celebrate the work of one of the world’s greatest living authors with something called Pynchon in Public Day. In the past I’ve rounded up links to Pynchon stuff on Biblioklept and elsewhere. Last year, that weird pandemic year, I finally finished all of Pynchon’s novels. I’d been “saving” Bleeding Edge for a while, but broke down and read it that spring. Having read all eight Pynchon novels (a few more than once), I’ll offer some quick scattershot thoughts.

V. (1963)

I reread Pynchon’s first novel for the first time last month and found it far more achieved than I had remembered. For years I’ve always recalled it as a dress rehearsal for the superior and more complex Gravity’s Rainbow. And while V. certainly points in GR’s direction, even sharing some characters, it’s nevertheless its own entity. I first read V. as a very young man, and as I recall, thought it scattershot, zany, often very funny, but also an assemblage of set pieces that fail to cohere. Rereading it two decades later I can see that there’s far more architecture to its plot, a twinned, yoyoing plot diagrammed in the novel’s title. The twin strands allow Pynchon to critique modernism on two fronts, split by the world wars mark the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a perfect starting point for anyone new to Pynchon, and its midpoint chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story,” is as good as anything else he’s written.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Pynchon’s shortest novel is not necessarily his most accessible: Crying is a dense labyrinth to get lost in. At times Pynchon’s second novel feels like a parody of L.A. detective noir (a well he’d return to in Inherent Vice), but there’s plenty of pastiche going on here as well. For example, at one point we are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy, which serves as a kind of metatextual comment on the novel’s plot about a secret war between secret armies of…letter carriers. The whole mailman thing might seem ridiculous, but Pynchon’s zaniness is always doubled in sinister paranoia: The Crying of Lot 49 is a story about how information is disseminated, controlled, and manipulated. Its end might frustrate many readers. We never get to hear the actual crying of lot 49 (just as we never discover the “true” identity of V in V.): fixing a stable, centered truth is an impossibility in the Pynchonverse.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Unbelievably rich, light, dark, cruel, loving, exasperating, challenging, and rewarding, Pynchon’s third novel is one of a handful of books that end up on “difficult novel” lists that is actually difficult. The difficulty though has everything to do with how we expect a novel to “happen” as we read—Gravity’s Rainbow is an entirely new thing, a literature that responds to the rise of mass media as modernist painters had to respond to the advent of photography and moving pictures. The key to appreciating and enjoying Gravity’s Rainbow, in my estimation, is to concede to the language, to the plasticity of it all, with an agreement with yourself to immediately reread it all.

Vineland (1990)

It took Pynchon a decade and a half to follow up Gravity’s Rainbow. I was a boy when Vineland came out—it was obviously nowhere on my radar (I think my favorite books around this time would probably have been The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and likely a ton of Dragonlance novels). I do know that Vineland was a disappointment to many fans and critics, and I can see why. At the time, novelist David Foster Wallace neatly summed it up in a letter to novelist Jonathan Franzen: “I get the strong sense he’s spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV.” Vineland is angry about the Reagan years, but somehow not angry enough. The novel’s villain Brock Vond seems to prefigure the authoritarian police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen of Inherent Vice, but Pynchon’s condemnation of Vond never quite reconciles with his condemnation of the political failures of the 1960s.  Vineland is ultimately depressing and easily my least-favorite Pynchon novel, but it does have some exquisite prose moments.

Mason & Dixon (1997)

If Mason & Dixon isn’t Pynchon’s best book, it has to be 1A to Gravity’s Rainbow’s 1. The novel is another sprawling epic, a loose, baggy adventure story chronicling Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s Enlightenment effort to survey their bit of the Western World. Mason & Dixon presents an initial formal challenge to its reader: the story is told in a kind of (faux) 18th-century vernacular. Diction, syntax, and even punctuation jostle the contemporary ear. However, once you tune your ear to the (perhaps-not-quite-so-trustworthy) tone of Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (who tells this tall tall tale), Mason & Dixon somehow becomes breezy, jaunty, even picaresque. It’s jammed with all sorts of adventures: the talking Learned English Dog, smoking weed with George Washington, Gnostic revelations, Asiatic Pygmies who colonize the missing eleven days lost when the British moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…Wonderful stuff. But it’s really the evocation of a strange, hedged, incomplete but loving friendship that comes through in Mason & Dixon.

Against the Day (2006)

Oof. She’s a big boy. At over a thousand pages, Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel. Despite its size, I think Against the Day is the best starting point for Pynchon. It offers a surprisingly succinct and clear summation of his major themes, which might be condensed to something like: resist the military-industrial-entertainment-complex, while also showing off his rhetorical power. It’s late period Pynchon, but the prose is some of his strongest stuff. The songs are tight, the pastiche is tighter, and the novel’s epic sweep comes together in the end, resolving its parodic ironies with an earnest love that I believe is the core of Pynchon’s worldview. I forgot to say what it’s about: It’s about the end of the nineteenth century, or, more accurately, the beginning of the twentieth century.

Inherent Vice (2009)

Inherent Vice is a leaner work than its two predecessors, but could stand to be leaner still. The book pushes towards 400 pages but would probably be stronger at 200—or 800. I don’t know. In any case, Inherent Vice is a goofy but sinister stoner detective jaunt that frags out as much as its protagonist, PI Doc Sportello. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation finds its way through those fragments to an end a bit different from Pynchon’s original (which is closer to an echo of the end of The Crying of Lot 49)—PTA’s film finds its emotional resolution in the restoration of couple—not the main couple, but adjacent characters—an ending that Pynchon pulled in his first novel V.

Bleeding Edge (2013)

While Bleeding Edge was generally well received by critics, it’s not as esteemed as his major works. I think that the novel is much, much better than its reputation though (even its reputation among Pynchon fans. Pynchon retreads some familiar plot territory—this is another detective novel, like Crying and Inherent Vice—but in many ways he’s doing something wholly new here: Bleeding Edge is his Dot Com Novel, his 9/11 Novel, and his New York Novel. It’s also probably his domestic novel, and possibly (dare I?) his most autobiographical, or at least autobiographical in the sense of evoking life with teenagers in New York City, perhaps drawing on material from his own life with wife and son in the city. It’s good stuff, but I really hope we get one more.

 

 

 

Books acquired, May Day 2021

Every year, within a week or two of Mother’s Day, our family likes to get a place in a proximal walkable beach town. Some place not too far a drive from our simple ranch home near the mighty northward-flowing St. Johns River, some place not too touristy, some place with nachos and beer and etc. St. Augustine Beach is a favorite and frequent spot, but this year we opted for St. Simons Island, a sea island off the Georgia coastline. We did not do a trip in 2020, for obvious reasons, but the wife and I have been fully vaccinated for weeks now, and we knew we’d be more or less outside for the entire weekend, so the fam drove an hour north. It was the first time we’d been out like this since March of 2020, when we stayed on a houseboat on Jekyll Island (the sea island immediately north of St. Simons). It was a nice, chill weekend—fried fish, golf carts, minigolf, the beach (with thousands of dead jellyfish to amuse the kids).

The Literary Guild of St. Simons was also having their annual spring sale–basically a Friends of the Library sale, if you know what that is. If you don’t: outdoors, lots of flat boxes of books, books, books. I ended up picking up more than I should have—I haven’t even done any of these stupid “books acquired” posts for the last three books that came in (including the lovely book I was reading this weekend, Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds)–but I have it on no small authority that these semi-annual Guild sales help fund most of the SSI library’s budget. (Also, as is often the case with these things, it was cheaper to add a book or two than not to.)

So: Top of stack to bottom:

The Finishing School, Muriel Spark. This is, I believe, the last novel Spark wrote. It came out in 2004; I read a bunch of her earlier stuff last year (and her early novel The Bachelors this March), but it was the mid-period novel Loitering with Intent that I thought the best. I’m not sure if this last novel has the best reputation, but Kakutani hated it, so maybe I’ll dig it. (Oh, and this edition is an ARC!)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind (trans. by John E. Woods). I loved the 2006 film adaptation. No idea if the book is any good, but the story is all kindsa fucked up.

This Is Not a Novel, David Markson. Look, I already own a copy. But I have a friend who doesn’t (I think).

Outline, Rachel Cusk. I think this is the first of these, right? Admittedly I avoided Cusk’s trilogy, which seemed overhyped (like Knausgaard, maybe?), but for a dollar I’ll give it a shot.

The Middle Ground, Margaret Drabble. A pristine first edition of a mid-period Drabble novel which is perhaps a take on Mrs. Dalloway. Drabble was nowhere on my radar until a few weeks ago when I read that the experimental British novelist B.S. Johnson included her on a list of (then) contemporary British writers he esteemed as writing “as though it mattered.”

Private Lives in the Imperial City, John Leonard. I mostly knew Leonard’s work as a reviewer for Harper’s—his column “New Books” was a go-to for me for a decade, and I wouldn’t presume to say I learned anything from him about writing book reviews (he would be horrified if he cared enough to be horrified), but I thought him an exemplary critic. But mostly fun to read. I didn’t even know about his New York Times column, “Private Lives,” which he wrote between 1977 and 1980. I had no idea what Private Lives was about—I just loved the spine (and then the great cover, featuring a Frank Stella painting)—but most of all I knew I wanted a book by John Leonard. I ended up spending a nice chunk of Saturday reading through the columns, which read like witty, snarky, intimate blog posts—stories about friends, relatives, exploits in New York and abroad. Leonard hates parties; Leonard hated Blow-Up; Leonard finds compassion for a loudmouth on a coast-to-coast flight. This might be the gem in the batch.

The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Hey. Look. I own it. But I don’t own it in first edition hardback, right? I recall it as my favorite of the so-called “Border Trilogy.”

Picked Up Pieces, John Updike. I’ve never been a big fan of Updike’s fiction, but I’ve always found something to admire in his criticism and nonfiction. He’s holding a turtle on the cover of this edition. The final section is called something like “One Big Interview,” and the last question asks him which animal he most admires, and he answers that it is the turtle.

I’m pretty sure that the Leonard and Updike (and probably the Drabble) all came from the same collection—there was basically a near-complete set of pristine first-editions of Updikes and John Cheevers, as well as a heavy dose of Philip Roths—all in impeccable condition, tidy jackets, no foxing, clearly read, but unmarked.

Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco. There was also a first-edition of Foucault’s Pendulum in hardback, which I should’ve picked up instead.

List with no name #65

  1. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  2. Rushmore
  3. Moonrise Kingdom
  4. The Royal Tenenbaums
  5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. The Darjeeling Limited
  7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  8. Bottle Rocket
  9. Isle of Dogs

 

Happy New Year! // Some books I’ll try to read/re-read in 2021

Happy New Year!

Time for the cliched “Stuff I May or May Not Read This Year” post!

Bottom to top–

A Frolic of His Own is the only Gaddis I haven’t read. I read the first fifty or so pages a few years ago, but got distracted with something else.

I haven’t re-read Moby-Dick in a few years, but I found myself sifting through it a bit at the end of 2020. Time for a re-read, sooner than later.

I’ll continue the Walker Percy reading with The Last Gentleman.

I actually finished Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers about 45 minutes ago—it’s a wonderful mix of breezy brutality and brutal humor. This one had an unexpectedly sweet ending. More Himes in 2021.

I’ve been reading through Anakana Schofield’s novel in “warnings,” Bina, and I really dig it so far—very different stuff. It reminds me a bit of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond or Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai or David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but also unlike those things.

I read a bunch of Muriel Spark in 2020 and I aim to read more in 2021. The ones I have (unread) by her are Robinson and A Far Cry from Kensington.

I also look forward to Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s short novel Fra Keeler as well.

I hope this year is better for all of us than the last one. Peace and love &c.

Annotations on a list of books I read in full in 2020

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Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

A frenetic, zany achronological satire of the American Civil War. I wrote about it here.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Jackson gives us a quasi-idyllic-but-also-dystopian world delivered through narrator Merricat, an insane witch whom I adored. Merricat hates with beautiful intensity. The novel’s premise, prose, and mood are more important than its plot, which is littered with trapdoors, smoke and mirrors, and gestures toward some kind of greater gothic paranoia. It’s a slim novel that feels like 300 pages of exposition have been cut away, leaving only mystery, aporia, ghostly traces of maybe-answers.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

The first of Mervyn Peake’s strange castle (and then not-castle trilogy (not really a trilogy, really)), Titus Groan is weird wonderful grotesque fun. Inspirited by the Machiavellian antagonist Steerpike, Titus Groan can be read as a critique of the empty rituals that underwrite modern life. It can also be read for pleasure alone.

926 Years, Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson

The blurb on the back of 926 Years describes the book as “twenty-two linked stories,” but it read it not so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. My review is here.

Anasazi, Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan

One of the best books I read (and reread) all year. The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. This graphic novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

Machines in the Head, Anna Kavan

I have a longish review here.

Machines in the Head was the first book I was able to write about after the onset of the Great Quarantine of 2020.

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

Probably the best novel in Peake’s trilogy, Gormenghast is notable for its psychological realism, surreal claustrophobia, and bursts of fantastical imagery. We finally get to know Titus, who is a mute infant in the first novel, and track his insolent war against tradition and Steerpike. The novel’s apocalyptic diluvian climax is amazing.

Gringos, Charles Portis

Gringos was the last of Portis’s five novels. I read the other four greedily last year, and pulled them all out when he passed away in February. I started in on Gringos, casually, then just kept reading. Sweet and cynical, spiked with strange heroism, strange grace, and very, very funny, Gringos might just be my favorite Portis novel. But I’d have to read them all again to figure that out.

Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake

A beautiful mess, an episodic, picaresque adventure that breaks all the apparent rules of the first two books. The rulebreaking is fitting though, given that Our Boy Titus (alone!) navigates the world outside of Gormenghast—a world that doesn’t seem to even understand that a Gormenghast exists (!)—Titus Alone is a scattershot epic. Shot-through with a heavy streak of Dickens, Titus Alone never slows down enough for readers to get their bearings. Or to get bored. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to the novel. Does Titus want to get back to his normal—to tradition and the meaningless lore and order that underwrote his castle existence? Or does he want to break quarantine? 

The Wig, Charles Wright

Hilarious stuff. I read most of it on a houseboat in Jekyll Island, right before lockdown.

Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer

 Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult novel Nog is druggy, abject, gross, and shot-through with surreal despair, a Beat ride across the USA. Wurlitzter’s debut novel is told in a first-person that constantly deconstructs itself, then reconstructs itself, then wanders out into a situation that atomizes that self again.

I should’ve loved it, but I didn’t.

I reviewed it here.

Herman Melville, Elizabeth Hardwick

Typee, Herman Melville

Like a lot of people I was going out of my mind in April of 2020. Elizabeth Hardwick’s lit-crit bio of Melville isn’t necessarily great, but she does work in big fat slices of his texts, making it a kind of comfort read. It also led me to read Typee for the first time, a horny and good novel.

Fade Out, Rudolph Wurlitzer

I liked it more than Nog and wrote about it here.

Welcome Home, Lucia Berlin

A slight and unfinished collection of memoir-slices that will appeal to those already familiar with Berlin’s autofiction.

Reckless Eyeballing, Ishmael Reed

Reed’s 1986 novel skewers Reaganism, but there’s a marked shift from the surreal elastic slapstick anger of Reed’s earlier novels (like 1972’s Mumbo Jumbo). That elastick anger starts to harden into something far more bitter, harder to chew on.

Lake of Urine, Guillermo Stitch

A very weird book. I felt awful that I could never muster a proper review of it. Weird book, indie press, all that. I felt less bad when Dwight Garner praised it in The New York Times. What is Lake of Urine? That was my trouble in reviewing it. The plot is, uh, wild, to say the least. Zany, elastic, slapstick, and often surreal, Stitch’s novel is all over the place. He seems to do whatever he wants on each page with a zealous energy that’s difficult to describe. Great stuff.

Mr. Pye, Mervyn Peake

I recall enjoying it but thinking, Oh, this isn’t Gormenghast stuff.

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

I wrote about it here. What may end up being the last Pynchon novel was also the last one I read. It turned out to be much, much better than I thought it would be. It also made me very, very sad. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.

São Bernando,Graciliano Ramos; translation by Padma Viswanathan

I enjoyed São Bernardo  mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself.

The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The CastleThe Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman.

The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner

I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.

Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo; translation by Frank Wynne

Animalia begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends at the end of the twentieth century, chronicling the hardships of a family farm. The preceding sentence makes the novel sound possibly hokey: No, Animalia is a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I had to read Animalia in stages, essentially splitting its four long chapters into novellas. Animalia made me physically ill at times. It’s an excellent novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Loved it! Can’t believe I hadn’t read Spark until 2020. Went on a binge.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

I liked it even more than PrimeSlender Means unself-consciously employs postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The climax coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the title takes on a whole new meaning, and the whole thing unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany.

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

My favorite of the four I read by Spark this year: funny, mean, angry postmodern perfection.

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark

A novel that about aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark inhabits their consciousnesses with a level of acuity that surprised me. The weakest of the four I read, but still good.

Cherry, Nico Walker

I initially liked Walker’s war-drug-crime-romance-autoficition Cherry–the sentences are zappers and the wry, deadpan delivery approximates an imitation of Denis Johnson. Halfway through the charm starts to wear off; its native ugliness fails to compel, even Walker keeps pushing for the sublime in each chapter, only to puncture it in some way. I probably would’ve liked it at 20.

Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson

A mixed bag of fantasy and sci-fi stories based on Caribbean myth, some more successful than others. “A Habit of Waste” and “Slow Cold Chick” are standouts.

Zeroville, Steve Erickson

An excellent novel about film. Does in fiction what Peter Biskind’s history of New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls could not. Zeroville’s unexpectedly-poignant ending transcends the novel’s parodic parameters. It makes you want to go to the movies.

Citizen, Claudine Rankine

A discursive prose-poem-memoir-essay on racism, erasure, bodies, and more. I read it in two afternoons. Highly recommended.

The Divers’ Game, Jesse Ball

I kept waiting for the chapters of Ball’s “novel” to explicitly tangle together, but they never did. One of the very few cases where I feel there should be more pages in a book.

Nova, Samuel R. Delany

I couldn’t make it through Delany’s cult favorite Dhalgren a few years back, but Nova was easier sledding. The book is a riff on Moby-Dick, tarot, monoculture, and the grail quest. It’s jammed with ideas and characters, and if it never quite coheres into something transcendent, it’s a fun quick read (even if the ending, right from the postmodern metatextual playbook is too clever by half).

Zac’s Drug Binge, Dennis Cooper

I don’t know if Dennis Cooper’s gif novels are really novels or something else. I’m not sure if putting this gif novel on a list of books I read is any different than adding, say, a list of paintings by Mu Pan that I viewed over the year. The inclusion of ZDB also helps highlight the artificiality of a numbered list of books read in a year. (I know this list isn’t numbered, but it’s countable. I think it’s fifty-seven or fifty-eight.) It took me maybe 10 or 15 minutes to “read” ZBD while novels by Ishiguro, Pynchon, and Brunner are like 500 pages. The Ishiguro is actually pretty “easy” to read though, in a way that Zac’s Drug Binge is not. The Brunner is much “easier” than the many, many stories I read this year in The Complete Gary Lutz. The Lutz is 500 pages, and I read more of those pages than I did of some of the shorter works listed here like Rankine’s Citizen or Ball’s The Divers’ Game—but I didn’t “finish” the Lutz (and I don’t want to ever “finish” the Lutz), so its not on the list. Ditto Brian Dillon’s essay collection Suppose a Sentence, another collection that I’ve used to cleanse my palate between books. I could probably do a whole post on books like that (John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb, the Charles Portis MiscellanyThe Minus Times Collected, etc. etc.)

You can read Zac’s Drug Binge here (and, uh, careful who you’re around if you click this link!).

Oreo, Fran Ross

Loved loved loved Oreo. The novel is thoroughly overlooked as a metafictional masterpiece. In my review, I wrote:

“Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.”

A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley

I read it after OreoOreo is neon zany polyglossic hijinks, crackling, zipping, and zapping. Kelley’s first novel, despite its rotating set of viewpoints (and conceit of an invented Southern state), was much more down to earth—modernist, not postmodernist—rendered in rusty oranges, dusty browns, muted greens. I enjoyed Kelley’s later novels dem and Dunfords Travels Everywheres more, but A Different Drummer could be his best book. I wrote about it here.

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes

Gonna read more Himes in 2021. Any tips? I loved loved loved it.

dem, William Melvin Kelley

From my review:

“As its subheading attests, dem is, like Drummer, a take on white people viewing black people, and over a half-century after its publication, many of the tropes Kelley employs here still ring painfully true. His “hero,” Mitchell Pierce is a lazy advertising executive, bored with his wife, a misogynist who occasionally longs to return to the “wars in Asia.” He’s also deeply, profoundly racist; structurally racist; the kind of racist who does not think of his racism as racism. At the same time, Kelley seems to extend little parcels of sympathy to Pierce, even as he reveals the dude to be a piece of shit, as if to say, What else could he end up being in this system but a piece of shit?

Sátántangó, László Krasznahorkai; translation by George Szirtes

Years ago I put Sátántangó on a list of books I started the most times without finishing.  This summer I listened to the audiobook version while I painted the interior of my house. The novel’s postmodern ending made me pick up the physical copy I acquired like eight years ago, making Sátántangó the only novel I re-read this year.

Edition 69, Jindřich Štyrský, Vítězslav Nezval, František Halas, and Bohuslav Brouk; translation by Jed Slast

Hey yo you like horny Czech interwar surrealism?

Lancelot, Walker Percy

The first Percy I read, and so far, my favorite–a postmodern Gothic screed against postmodernity. I reviewed it here.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Percy’s first novel is probably much better than I credited in my review, but I was disappointed after the claustrophobic zany madness of Lancelot. I think if The Moviegoer were the first Percy I read it would have been the last.

Dunfords Travels Everywheres, William Melvin Kelley

My favorite of the three Kelley novels I read this year.

Edisto, Padgett Powell

 I read most of Padgett Powell’s 1984 debut Edisto in a few sittings, settling down easily into its rich evocation of a strange childhood in the changing Southern Sea Islands. I’d always been ambivalent about Powell, struggling and failing to finish some of his later novels (Mrs. Hollingsworth’s MenThe Interrogative Mood), but Edisto captured me from its opening lines. The story takes two simple tacks–it’s a coming of age tale as well as a stranger-comes-to-town riff. Powell’s sentences are lively and invigorating; they show refinement without the wearing-down of being overworked. The book is fresh, vital.

When I finished Edisto, I thought I’d go for some more early Padgett. I picked up his second novel, A Woman Named Drown, started it that afternoon, and put it down 70 pages later the following afternoon. There wasn’t a single sentence that made me want to read the next sentence. Worse, it was turning into an ugly slog, a kind of attempt to refine Harry Crews’s dirty south into something closer to grimy eloquence. I like gross stuff, but this wasn’t my particular flavor.

The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich

I remember buying this book very clearly. The yellow spine called to me; the fact it was a Two Dollar Radio title; the title itself; and then, the blurb from Steve Erickson. From my review:

“Krilanovich’s novel is coated in brown-grey paste, an accumulation of scum and cum and blood, a vampiric solution zapped by orange bolts of sex, pain, drugs, and rocknroll. It’s a riot grrrl novel, a psychobilly novel, a crustgoth novel. It’s a fragmented, ugly, revolting mess and I loved it. The Orange Eats Creeps is ‘A vortex of a novel,’ as Steve Erickson puts it in his introduction, that will alternately suck in or repel readers.”

The Silence, Don DeLillo

In my unkind review, I wrote:

“The Silence is a slim disappointment, a scant morality play whose thinly-sketched characters speak at (and not to) each other liked stoned undergrads. At least it’s short.”

Motorman, David Ohle

David Ohle’s lean mean mutant Motorman is a dystopia carved from strange stuff. Ohle’s cult novel leaves plenty of room for the reader to wonder and wander around in. Abject, spare, funny, and depressing, Motorman sputters and jerks on its own nightmare logic. Its hapless hero Moldenke anti-quests through an artificial world, tumbling occasionally into strange moments of agency, but mostly lost and unillusioned in a broken universe. I loved it.

Two Stories, Osvaldo Lamborghini; translation by Jessica Sequeira

Not sure if I found a book so baffling all year.

Stand on Zanzibar, David Brunner

John Brunner’s big fat dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar frankly overwhelmed me and then sorta underwhelmed me there at the end. This sci-fi classic is a big weird shaggy dog that managed to predict the future in all kinds of ways, and it’s mean and funny, but it’s also bloated and booming, the kind of novel that sucks all the air out of the room. It’s several dozen essays dressed up as sci-fi adventure—not a bad deal in and of itself—but there’s very little space left for the reader

Fat City, Leonard Gardner

Fat City is about an “old” boxer (he’s not thirty) on the way out of his career and a young boxer on the rise. (Rise here is a really suspect term.) I really can’t believe I was 41 when I read this. I should’ve read it at 20. I wouldn’t have understood it the same way, of course, and the biggest sincerest compliment I can pin on the novel is that I would’ve loved it at 20 but I know that I would’ve appreciated it more 20 years later. There are plenty of novels that I read and think, Hmm, would’ve loved this years ago, but now, nah, but Fat City is wonderful. It’s a boxing story, sure, but it’s really a book about bodies breaking down, aging, getting stuck in dreams and fantasies. Gardner’s only novel (!) is simultaneously mock-tragic and real tragic, pathetic and moving, and very very moving. Great stuff.

Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone

I read Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers on the late David Berman’s recommendation) and loved it. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, Dog Soldiers is about a heroin deal going sideways. The CIA is involved, some twisted Hollywood folks, and a fallen cult leader. Everyone’s a bit grimy. I guess it comes from the Hemingway tree, or really, maybe, the Stephen Crane tree—Denis Johnson’s tree, Leonard Gardner’s tree, Raymond Carver’s tree, etc. It reminded me a lot of Johnson’s Angels (and, to some extent, Tree of Smoke), but also Russell Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift—and Gardner’s Fat City.

Dog Soldiers gets better and better and ends with an ecstatic punchline—a big Fuck you to God in the whirlwind. Great stuff.

Nothing but the Music, Thulani Davis

In my review, I wrote:

Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.”

Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy

Loved this one—more in line with the madness of Lancelot than the ennui of The MoviegoerLove in the Ruins posits a USA falling apart to reveal there never was a center.

The Hearing Trumpet, Leonora Carrington

From my review:

“Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet begins with its nonagenarian narrator forced into a retirement home and ends in an ecstatic post-apocalyptic utopia “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats.” In between all sorts of wild stuff happens. There’s a scheming New Age cult, a failed assassination attempt, a hunger strike, bee glade rituals, a witches sabbath, an angelic birth, a quest for the Holy Grail, and more, more, more.”

The Oyster, Dejan Lukic and Nik Kosieradzki

I still need to write a proper review of this one. It’s something between an essay and a prose-poem and an aesthetic object.

Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter

One of Carter’s earlier novels, Heroes and Villains takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where caste lines divide the Professors, the Barbarians, and the mutant Out People. After her Professor stronghold is raided, Marianne is…willingly abducted?…by the barbarian Jewel. Marianne goes to live with the Barbarians, and ends up in a weird toxic relationship with Jewel, marked by rape and violence. Heroes and Villains throws a lot in its pot—what is consent? what is civilization? what is language?—but it’s a muddled, psychedelic mess in the end.

Just Us, Claudia Rankine

A short, sometimes painful read, Just Us is a mix of essaying and poetry that documents the horrors of the past few years against the backdrop of the horrors of all American history, all in a personal, moving way.

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Starts subtle and ends sharp. A mix of satire and earnestness, purely modern, wonderful stuff. Our hero surmises at the end that Satan might actually be quite stupid. I love her.


[Ed. note–some of the language of these annotations has been recycled from previous posts.]

A list of twenty novels I loved in 2020, presented without comment and in no particular order

Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

Anasazi, Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan

Gringos, Charles Portis

The Wig, Charles Wright

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo; translation by Frank Wynne

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

Zeroville, Steve Erickson

Citizen, Claudine Rankine

Oreo, Fran Ross

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes

Satantango, László Krasznahorkai; translation by George Szirtes

Lancelot, Walker Percy

Dunfords Travels Everywheres, William Melvin Kelley

Motorman, David Ohle

Fat City, Leonard Gardner

Blog about “Authors’ Authors,” a 1976 round up of various authors’ favorite books that year

The New York Times published “Authors’ Authors” on 5 Dec. 1976. The piece “asked a number of authors, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to John Dean, to tell us the three books they most enjoyed this year and to say, in a sentence or two, why.”

There’s of course something silly and even gossipy about such articles, which fall far from literary criticism, of course. But, simultaneously, these kinds not-really-lists are fun. I came across the article looking for something else, and ended up reading it all. There are plenty of my favorite authors as well as notable authors who contributed to the piece: Ishmael Reed, William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Maurice Sendak, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, and loads more. What’s most interesting to me are the “new” books many books include—I mean books published in (or around) 1976. Some I’ve never heard of, others are classics (of one fashion or another) and many are long long forgotten.

John Cheever’s answer opens the list with an appropriate warning:

I’ve always thought the response to these questionnaires cranky and pretentious and associated them with the darkest hours of Sunday. I mention this only to make it clear that you are free to throw my reply away.

He selects the only book by John Updike I’ve retained, Picked-Up Pieces, cites Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate as an airplane read, and reflects on Daniel Deronda:

It may be a reflection on George Eliot’s refinement or my grossness but my most vivid recollection of this estimable classic is a scene where Deronda enthusiastically seizes the oar of a wherry. It seemed the only robust gesture in the book.

(I had to look up the word wherry.)

Cheever’s pick Updike is on the list, providing a bit of satire on the whole business:

I also found some of Nabokov’s response amusing, although I don’t think it was his intention. He gives us “the three books I read during the three summer months of 1976 while hospitalized in Lausanne”: Dante’s Inferno (“in Singleton’s splendid translation”, The Butterflies of North America by William H. Howe (natch), and his own book, The Original of Laura. Nabokov describes it as

The not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some 50 times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.

Nabokov never finished The Original of Laura. A version of it was published in 2009.

Conservative commentator William F. Buckley picked books by John McPhee, Hugh Kenner,  and Malcolm Muggeridge. Joyce Carol Oates liked Ted Hughes’s Season Songs. Despite having “has no taste for contemporary fiction,” Maurice Sendak recommends Leonard Michaels’ collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Maxine Hong Kingston breaks the rule of three, adding Nabokov’s Ada to her trio. Philip Roth includes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, which was part of a series of translations Roth “edited.” Robert Coles liked Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. Lois Gould lists Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, possibly one of the most enduringly popular books of 1976. Saul Bellow enjoyed Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade. Richard Yates enjoyed Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment. Nora Ephron loved Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion loved Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Cynthia Ozick gives only one title, Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James.

Henry Miller kept it short and sweet:

James Dickey loved something called Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith:

A book of gentle meditations on death in the remote English village: the quietest book of essays I know. To read it is like sinking under the leaves and views and grass of a gentle and caring cemetery and being profoundly glad to be there.

Eudora Welty sticks mostly to Virginia Woolf, recommending the second volume of Woolf’s letters (“Nothing in this book to get between the reader and the writer: Virginia Woolf in her own words, her own mind, speaking for herself”) as well as Mrs Dalloway’s Party. Welty also references Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I now must track down.

William H. Gass cites two bona fide postmodern classics and an oddity I’ve never heard of:

J R by William Gaddis. Perhaps the supreme masterpiece of acoustical collage. A real contribution to the art of fiction.

The Geek by Craig Nova. A hard, brilliantly visual novel which is equal in quality to early Hawkes. Few American writers have such a sensuous yet masterfully controlled style.

The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is a genius. I am happy he is also a friend. There are paragraphs in this book in which the language leaps from the page and flies away. The critics owe Elkin much bowing and scraping.

Ishmael Reed describes a book called Dangerous Music by by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, a writer I’d never heard of until now:

While the boys were drawing graffiti what were the girls doing? They were writing “Ditty Bop” books, black and white speckled composition books usually, full of gossip, desire, fashion, recipes, proverbs and boyfriends. Written in fire-engine red lipstick “Ditty Bop” books spell “cause” c-u‐z. Nikki Giovanni (“Gemini”) and Alison Mills (“Francisco”) have written classics of the genre. Now Jessica Hagedorn, who makes the S.F. rounds with her West Coast Gangster Choir, has penned the Latino‐Filipino version of the “Ditty Bop.” Reviewers describe “Ditty Bop” books as “sultry”; this one is that. It is a joyous, mean, mambo book blessed by the patron Saint of Latino‐Filipino Ditty Bops, Carmen Miranda.

He also recommends Shouting by by Joyce Carol Thomas, who, thankfully, is not Joyce Carol Oates.

Two authors picked up John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces (Joyce Carol Oates and John Cheever).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is cited three times on the list: twice for Autumn of the Patriarch (Lewis Thomas and Bernard Malamud) and once for One Hundred Years of Solitude (John Dean).

John Dean’s Blind Ambition shows up three times (Ishmael Reed, Bob Woodward, and Nikki Giovanni).

Somehow, Nikki Giovanni is the only writer to include Alex Haley’s Roots in a list.

Thomas Pynchon beats J.G. Ballard to win the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

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Thomas Pynchon beat out J.G. Ballard, earning 61% of 337 votes of my totally-scientific and not-at-all arbitrary twitter poll to become the Champion of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers. Mr. Pynchon’s trophy is at Biblioklept World Headquarters here in Florida. After this whole quarantine business is over I’m sure he’ll arrange to pick it up.

My gut feeling is that the people who follow me on twitter are skewed toward Pynchon more than Ballard. Either of the pair could have taken the prize and I’d have been happy.

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J.G. Ballard described the late twentieth century as good as anyone, and anticipated almost every aspect of our zeitgeist. The dude not only understood the intersection of commerce and politics and sex and art, but he could convey it in wild (and wildly-entertaining, forgive the cliche) stories and novels of the blackest and bleakest humor. There are any number of great starting places for Ballard, but if you haven’t read him yet, I’d recommend High-Rise or Concrete Island before jumping into the more challenging Crash. Then: The Atrocity Exhibition, the earlier novels (1962’s The Drowned World is particularly prescient) and the early stories of Vermilion Sands. Actually, if you can get a hold of The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, go for it. (I riffed on reading all the stories back in 2014.) I don’t recommend starting with the later novels—Ballard’s descriptions are so prescient that there’s this weird drop off in quality when reality catches up to him. In the meantime, why not read “The Secret Autobiography of  J G B”? (It was composed in 1981 but published in 2009; it took autofiction a few decades to catch up with the Notorious JGB.) Ballard is great.

Thomas Pynchon’s novels are famously byzantine, shaggy, esoteric, and paranoid. He captures both the zaniness and the menace of our zeitgeist. His protagonists are often straight figures who go crooked, insiders pushed to the outside through maladventure and adventure alike. Pynchon places a premium on the underdog who resists the Them—the technocracy, the war machine, the military-industrial-entertainment complex. His most famous (and probably best) novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an indictment of war and capitalism; although it’s set in WW2, it also addresses itself, ultimately, to that war’s hangover and the Nixonian evil contemporary with its publication. Pynchon’s loose California trilogy—The Crying of Lot 49Vineland, and Inherent Vice—document, describe, and deconstruct the myth of the American cultural revolution of the 1960s. Pynchon’s “historical novels,” Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are probably my favorites. Both analyze American history as a series of strange mistakes, big blunders, and minor foibles. His longest (and strangely, most accessible) novel Against the Day is also his clearest attack on the nebulous Them who oppose freedom, progress, and, ultimately, love. The humor and intelligence of Pynchon’s writing often softens the core anger of his work, an anger directed at the invisible forces that cry out, to steal from the Dead Kennedys, “Give me convenience or give me death!” He is a national treasure and I hope he lives forever—which he will, through his works.

Finally: I hope that everyone who participated in this thing had (at least the tiniest of sliver of) fun. I don’t think pitting writers against each other has anything to do with literature. I missed college basketball in March, so this is what I did. It also helped me drift off into other places for a while. Ballard is gone but I would love to read his quarantine novel. And I’ll read anything else we get from Pynchon.

Peace to all.

 

 

Final Round: The 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

zeitgeisty

 

What’s there to say?

We’ve hit the final round of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers.

Top-seeded Aldous Huxley fell to number five seed J.G. Ballad in a match that was never close for a second.

The stranger and more divisive match, at least for my metaphorical money, was between Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.

Pynchon’s comic zaniness beat out McCarthy’s wryer apocalypticism (or maybe just more people on Twitter dig Pynchon).

I hope everyone had dumb stupid distracting fun with all of this.

 

The Armageddon Eight (Round Four match-ups and Round Three results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

The results of the Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers are in.

Round Three had some really tight match-ups. Dark horse José Saramago, whom I seeded 59 of the initial 64 writers, was neck-and-neck with recent Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, but surged near the end of the poll to win.

Ursula K. LeGuin also ran a tight race against Kurt Vonnegut before edging him out:

Philip K. Dick was competitive against Don DeLillo, but never got out ahead. My gut feeling is that PKD might’ve advanced if he’d ended up against someone else, but I guess the same is true of most of these brackets.

After initially trailing for a few hours in the poll, Aldous Huxley surged past Angela Carter, who never caught up again.

Yvegny Zamyatin kept it close with Margaret Atwood, but never took the lead on her.

Three of the match-ups were decisive victories. J.G. Ballard beat William Gibson by a healthy margin, Tommy Pynchon bested DFW, and Cormac McCarthy came out strong over George Orwell.

Here are the results of the Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen, as well as the match-ups for Round Four, the Elite Armageddon Eight:

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For me, the most interesting match-up is going to be Pyncon vs. DeLillo.

As always, this is only meant to be dumb distracting fun.

Full twitter poll results:

Continue reading “The Armageddon Eight (Round Four match-ups and Round Three results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)”

The Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen (Round Three match-ups and Round Two results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

Hey! Today in Distracting Dumb Ephemeral Fun, we hit the Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers. Round Two saw some fascinating match-ups between thirty-two writers. Perhaps the most interesting was the Cormac McCarthy-William Gaddis showdown:

This bracket garnered more votes than any match-up to date in the tournament, and split more than a few folks (including me—I’ll declare how I voted after this whole thing shakes out).

Other matches were also very close: Ray Bradbury—William Gibson, and William S. Burroughs—Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro is perhaps a bit of a dark horse at this point, as is José Saramago, whom I seeded at 59 of 64. Saramago handily beat out the under-read Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to face off with Ishiguro in the Terrible Awful Sweet Sixteen of Apocalyptica.

I find all of the match-ups interesting at this point, but David Foster Wallace vs. Thomas Pynchon has a wonderfully oedipal vibe.

And again, this is all just meant to be stupid distracting fun.

Brackets below, followed by tweet results:

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Tweet polls:

Continue reading “The Apocalyptic Sweet Sixteen (Round Three match-ups and Round Two results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)”

Round Two match-ups and Round One results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

On Sunday, I came up with a list of 64 writers that have written novels or stories that either anticipate, reflect, or otherwise describe our zeitgeist. The first dozen or so seeds (as well as the bottom dozen or so) came rather intuitively to me, but the writers in the middle were seeded somewhat randomly. I used Twitter’s poll feature to determine the winners of Round One. In most of my polls, I included a third option, where voters could choose just to see the poll results instead of actually voting; I won’t be doing that going forward, because the data looks, if not exactly skewed, well, just a little off-putting, as in Round 1, Bracket 8 below:

My intuition is that Disch (Camp Concentration) and Walter Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz) were either too obscure for many folks, or at least not writers very many people are passionate about.

Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here) tied with China Miéville (Marxism, steampunk, Perdido Street Station, bold baldness) and went to a tie (I managed to misspell China Miéville’s name in both tweets)—

I was also surprised by top-ten seed Octavia Butler (KindredParable of the Sower) losing to José Saramago (Blindness). I suppose I seeded Saramago too low.

Here are the results of Round One and the match-ups for Round Two:

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Bracket 46 is particularly painful for me!

Poll results by tweet:

Continue reading “Round Two match-ups and Round One results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers”

“My Days Are Numbered” — Rick Moranis

“My Days Are Numbered”

by

Rick Moranis

Published in The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2006


The average American home now has more television sets than people … according to Nielsen Media Research. There are 2.73 TV sets in the typical home and 2.55 people, the researchers said.

— The Associated Press, Sept. 21.

I have two kids. Both are away at college.

I have five television sets. (I like to think of them as a set of five televisions.) I have two DVR boxes, three DVD players, two VHS machines and four stereos.

I have nineteen remote controls, mostly in one drawer.

I have three computers, four printers and two non-working faxes.

I have three phone lines, three cell phones and two answering machines.

I have no messages.

I have forty-six cookbooks.

I have sixty-eight takeout menus from four restaurants.

I have one hundred and sixteen soy sauce packets.

I have three hundred and eighty-two dishes, bowls, cups, saucers, mugs and glasses.

I eat over the sink.

I have five sinks, two with a view.

I try to keep a positive view.

I have two refrigerators.

It’s very hard to count ice cubes.

I have thirty-nine pairs of golf, tennis, squash, running, walking, hiking, casual and formal shoes, ice skates and rollerblades.

I’m wearing slippers.

I have forty-one 37-cent stamps.

I have no 2-cent stamps.

I read three dailies, four weeklies, five monthlies and no annual reports.

I have five hundred and six CD, cassette, vinyl and eight-track recordings.

I listen to the same radio station all day.

I have twenty-six sets of linen for four regular, three foldout and two inflatable beds.

I don’t like having houseguests.

I have one hundred and eighty-four thousand frequent flier miles on six airlines, three of which no longer exist.

I have 101 Dalmatians on tape.

I have fourteen digital clocks flashing relatively similar times.

I have twenty-two minutes to listen to the news.

I have nine armchairs from which I can be critical.

I have a laundry list of things that need cleaning.

I have lost more than one thousand golf balls.

I am missing thirty-seven umbrellas.

I have over four hundred yards of dental floss.

I have a lot of time on my hands.

I have two kids coming home for Thanksgiving.

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Annotations on a probably incomplete list of books I read or reread in full in 2019

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The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, Angela Carter

Deeply horny and deeply deprave. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. It’s a picaresque adventure with narrator Desiderio taking on titular mad scientist Hoffman and his war against reality. Wild shit happens and each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

 Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, Remedios Varo (translation by Margaret Carson)

Interviewing Margaret Carson was an early highlight of 2019 for me. We talked about Varo’s letters and other writings (dreams!), and she brought up Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Pynchon, which is like, golden for me.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (translation by Clarence Brown)

I absolutely loved Clarence Brown’s 1993 translation of Zamyatin’s We. From my review:

Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.

Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover

Probably the best opening chapters I’ve ever read in a novel that fails deliver after the first 100 or so pages. Coover turns it up to 11—the second chapter of Origin, describing a mine’s implosion, is some of the best stuff I’ve ever read, but the next 400 pages of the disaster’s fallout is a rhetorical trudge.

The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto  Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)

For completists only. A dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives. I wrote about it here.

Evening in Paradise, Lucia Berlin

Fucking loved it, didn’t I.

Taking Care, Joy Williams

Williams’ early collection contains at least three perfect short stories.

No!, Leslie Fiedler

Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel is extremely important to how I think about American literature. No! is not nearly as good.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Anne Boyer

How serendipitous that Boyer’s collection of essays begins with a wonderful essay called “No.” Good stuff.

Kingdom, Jon McNaught

I reviewed it at The Comics Journal, writing,

Not much happens in Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom. A mother takes her son and daughter to Kingdom Fields Holiday Park, a vacation lodge on the British coast. There, they watch television, go to a run-down museum, play on the beach, walk the hills, and visit an old aunt. Then they go home. There is no climactic event, no terrible trial to endure. There is no crisis, no trauma. And yet it’s clear that the holiday in Kingdom Fields will remain forever with the children, embedded into their consciousness as a series of strange aesthetic impressions. Not much happens in Kingdom, but what does happen feels vital and real.

,before going on to riff on John Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song  a bit.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

I mean like I guess I didn’t really think it was that good?

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

Well I fucking loved it didn’t I?

Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

Berg, Ann Quin

Maybe the best novel I read this year.

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

Did these on audiobook and loved them. The first in this tetraology, The Shadow of the Torturer was probably my favorite, but the best scene in the whole deal is in the third book, The Sword of the Lictor, when the protagonist Severian fights this were-bear thing called the Alzabo—a slow, protracted battle scene based more on strategy and tactics than on brute force.

Vineland, Thomas Pynchon

I love Thomas Pynchon but Vineland is not his best book, or his second- or third- or fourth-best book (etc.). Has a perfect paragraph nevertheless.

Don Quixote, Kathy Acker

I dig that wild gross stuff what can I say.

Slave Old Man, Patrick Chamoiseau (translation by Linda Coverdale)

Superb.

The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez

–and–

Is This How You See Me?, Jaime Hernandez

I reread The Love Bunglers to review Is This How You See Me? at The Comics Journal. From my review:

Can you ever really go home again?

This is the central question of Jaime Hernandez’s Is This How You See Me? Collecting serialized comics from the past five years into a cohesive graphic novel, Is This How You See Me? is a moving tale of friendship, aging, and how the past shapes how we see the present.

Border Districts, Gerald Murnane

Great stuff.

Letters of William Gaddis, ed. Steven Moore

“Lonely cows on the highway appeared as splendid Baracuda, and the dismally soaked Spanish moss luxuriant submarine vetch,” Gaddis writes his mother, in 1947, describing leaving rainy New Orleans. All the best letters are to his sweet mama, even the many many ones asking for money. God rest Mama Gaddis’s soul.

Optic Nerve, Maria Gainza (translation by Thomas Bunstead)

Maybe it was the time of year, maybe it was because I had to rush before returning the book to the library. I thought Optic Nerve was nice post-Sebald thing, but it never zapped me.

The Unmapped Country, Ann Quin

Good stuff, good experiments, not Berg.

Ice, Anna Kavan

This book is imperfectly perfect. I wish I’d read it years ago but I’m glad I read it this year. More here. (I fucking loved Ice.)

Geometry in the Dust, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)

More Senges please.

Milkman, Anna Burns

Is good

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

A Little Lumpen Novelita, Roberto Bolaño (translation by Natasha Wimmer)

A Little Long Short Story by dipped out of the bottom of the Bolaño barrel.

Tears of the Trufflepig, Fernando A. Flores

This review piqued my interest in Flores’s alternate timeline border novel. The novel’s premise was good, but the prose seemed uninspired.

Norwood, Charles Portis

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis

True Grit, Charles Portis

I read Norwood this summer and then promptly picked up everything I could by Portis. Can’t believe I haven’t read him until now. I wrote about his novels in a post here. I’m saving Gringos for later.

The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Warner Townsend

I never would’ve thought an epic story about a backwater nunnery could be so good. More Townsend in 2020.

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware

One of the best novels I read this year. From my review at The Comics Journal

Rusty Brown, Ware’s latest novel (or, more precisely, novel-in-progress) strengthens the argument that Ware is a Serious American Novelist, one who deserves a large crossover audience. Like Jimmy Corrigan and Building StoriesRusty Brown has a central primary setting, a small private school in Nebraska. And like those novels, Rusty Brown comprises material (lightly reworked) from Ware’s Acme Novelty Library series (issues 16, 17, 19, and 20, specifically). The cast here is much larger and the themes are arguably more ambitious though.

Rusty Brown is a sprawling story about memory and perception, about minor triumphs and chronic failures, about how our inner monologues might not match up to the reality around us. In Ware’s world, life can be blurry, spotty, fragmented. His characters are so bound up in their own consciousnesses that they cannot see the bigger picture that frames them.

In the Time of the Blue Ball, Manuela Draeger (translation by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson)

I read In the Time of the Blue Ball in two quick sittings. Draeger is one of French author Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but I had forgotten that when I picked it up. It was a Dorothy Project title, and it looked neat, so I got it. Draeger is also one of Volodine’s recurring characters, a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The three stories in Blue Ball are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.

Rat Time, Keiler Roberts

I loved Rat Time! In my review, I wrote,

Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.

Negrophobia, Darius James

I had never heard of Negrophobia. I found it in a used bookstore next to something else. The title intrigued me (not to mention the NYRB imprint), and blurbs from Kathy Acker, Paul Beatty, and Kara Walker sold me on it. Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence.

Actual Air, David Berman

I wish David Berman were still alive.

The Doomed City, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky  (translation by Andrew Bromfield)

A baggy, abject, Kafkaesque riff on a utopian project’s dystopian turn, The Doomed City was not my favorite Strugatsky jam, but it was pretty good.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

I made a huge mistake by not reading Shirley Jackson earlier. I think I just associated her with that story we all have to read in like eighth grade, and never went back. Anyway. Hill House has a perfect opening (I riffed on the opening here):

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (translation by Michael Hofmann)

“Unbe-fucking-lievable”

A Mistake, Carl Shuker

I enjoyed Carl Shuker’s slim novel A Mistake. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, A Mistake is the story of Elizabeth Taylor, the only female surgeon at her hospital. Shuker’s novel reads in some ways as a critique of neoliberalism’s attempt to quantify every aspect of medical care. The novel is set against “the minister’s mistake,” a plan to publicize each surgeon’s results. And at the beginning of the novel, well, there’s a mistake, one which Elizabeth is involved with. Although the blurb describes A Mistake as a “procedural thriller,” I found it closer to a character study of an outsider who finds herself increasingly alienated by her peers and friends alike. Shuker conveys his hero edging into paranoia and depression in sharp, precise prose which occasionally recalls Don DeLillo.

The Undying, Anne Boyer

An aphoristic memoir-essay, The Undying is a discursive dive into Boyer’s diagnosis of, treatment of, and recovery from breast cancer. It’s an angry, smart book, with little bursts of mean humor, and it rips apart the ways that neoliberal late capitalism have made health care inhuman and inhumane.

Sports Is Hell, Ben Passmore

Sports Is Hell is a send-up of American massculture that simultaneously stings and enlivens its reader. The novel takes place during the aftermath of a Super Bowl featuring a Kaepernickesque (Kaepernesque?) star player. The Big Game devolves into a Big Riot, with its heroes fighting their way through the madness—think Walter Hill’s film The Warriors by way of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Why did I wait so long to read The Sellout?

Falstaff: An Apotheosis, Pierre Senges (translation by Jacob Siefring)

This chapbook is wonderful riff on Henry IV Part I, V.iv—the part where Falstaff flops on the battlefield, faking his death in an act of cowardly heroism.

Juice!, Ishmael Reed

I wrote about Juice! here.

Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed

I bought myself a signed first-edition hardback copy of Flight to Canada on the internet. It was like 12 bucks. I’m actually not quite finished with it, to be honest–but I’m drafting this post from the past (it’s 14:08 on 31 Dec. 2019 as I type)–but I’ve only got like fifty more pages, so I think I can get it done.

Happy 2020 to all of you!

Three Books (that were my favorite books published by indie presses in 2019)

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Berg by Ann Quin. 2019 trade paperback (advanced reader proof) from And Other Stories. No designer credited on the advanced reader proof, but the cover photograph (of Ann Quin) is by Oswald Jones. The designer credited with the final version of the cover is Edward Bettison.

Berg might have been my favorite reading experience of 2019. Who can resist an opening sentence like this one?

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

Every other sentence in the book is great as well. I read Berg in a grimy haze, the last little bit of our brief Florida spring burning off into an early muggy summer. I will likely always think of Berg as part of a strange trilogy I read in 2019, the first book in a series that led (how?) to Anna Kavan’s Ice and concluded (how?) with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

From my review of Berg:

Read the book. There’s nothing I can do in this review that approaches the feeling of reading Ann Quin’s Berg. I can make lame comparisons, saying that it reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses (in its evocations of loose consciousness), or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (in its oedipal voyeuristic griminess), or Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (for its surreal humor and dense claustrophobia). Or I can point out how ahead of her time Quin was, how Berg bridges modernism to postmodernism while simply not giving a fuck about silly terms like modernism and postmodernism.

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Lord by João Gilberto Noll in English translation by Edgar Garbelotto. 2019 trade paperback from Two Lines Press. Cover design by Gabriele Wilson using a photograph by Jeff Cottenden.

Reading Lord is a bit like dreaming through a fever, a fever that you’ve tried to subdue with a mix of over-the-counter night-time syrup and strong black coffee: get them down the gullet and let them fight it out in your nervously nervous system. From my review of Lord:

João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.

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Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by Killoffer. English translation by Jacob Siefring. 2019 trade paperback from Inside the Castle. Cover design by Jon Trefry, adapting the original 2004 French edition from Verticales. The cover art may or may not be by Killoffer.

From my review of Geometry in the Dust:

Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents.

What is the path through Geometry in the Dust? The inset notes, as you can see in the image above, also challenge the reader’s eye, as do the twin columns, so rare in contemporary novels.

Three Books (that were my favorite books I read in 2019 that were published in the 2010s (or whatever we’re calling this stupid decade))

As I mentioned in my last “Three Books” post (on the books I enjoyed the most that I read in 2019 that were actually published in 2019), I don’t read too much recent fiction. I find the idea of making a list of the best novels of this decade (by which I mean 2010-2019, knowing full well that many folks argue that this decade is in fact 2011-2020) impossible, both because most of the novels that I read this decade were published in the last century or earlier. (I made some remarks on a premature canon late last year.)

Here are three books published this decade that I read this year and enjoyed very much.

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Border Districts by Gerald Murnane. 2017 hardback from FS&G. Cover design by Sarahmay Wilkinson with art by Gregory Reid.

I read Murnane’s late novel, or “fiction,” over the course of three mornings, and then reread it, or most of it, in two afternoons.  Border Districts is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. Like much of Murnane’s oeuvre, the autofiction explores the intersections of place, memory, and image, as our hero susses colors and forms, awaiting an epiphany. Border Districts is thematically and rhetorically precise, unspooling as a series of deferrals that lead back to their opening or aesthetic source. A perfect starting place for Murnane.

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Milkman by Anna Burns. 2018 hardback from Faber & Faber. Cover design by Luke Bird using an image by Patrick Cullen.

I loved Milkman, despite its winning a major fiction prize. From my review:

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

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The Sellout Paul Beatty. 2016 trade paperback from Picador. Cover design by Rodrigo Corral with a cover illustration by Matt Buck.

I loved The Sellout, despite its winning a major fiction prize. Kinetic, ecstatic, angry, and zany, Beatty’s hit novel satirizes the very notion of a postracial America. In the novel’s chapter penultimate—part of a denouement, not a climax—our narrator and his girlfriend attend an open-mic night at a “black L.A.” comedy club. A white couple–the only white folks in the place—show up late to the set, sit “front and center” and laughed and “snickered knowingly like they’d been black all their lives.” The performer–a “traffic-court jester,” in Beatty’s parlance, demands, “What the fuck you honkies laughing at?” before telling them to “Get the fuck out!” Why? “This is our thing!”

The narrator ends the vignette:

When I think about that night, the black comedian chasing the white couple into the night, their tails and assumed histories between their legs, I don’t think about right or wrong. No, when my thoughts go back to that evening, I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet…It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep. That’s what I liked about the man, although I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn’t been so scared, that I had had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what or to stick up for the aggrieved white people. After all, they could’ve stood up for themselves, called in the authorities or their God, and smote everybody in the place, but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?”

As a white auditor of Beatty’s comic novel, I found this particular moment particularly heavy. I’m not exactly sure how to unpack it, or if it’s even my place to unpack it, but maybe I’ll have more thoughts when I read it again. Highly recommended.