“What Is to Be Done?” — Jean-Luc Godard

“What Is to Be Done?”

by

Jean-Luc Godard

Translation by Mo Tietelbaum

First published in English and French in Afterimage, 1970


  1. We must make political films.

  2. We must make films politically.

  3. 1 and 2 are antagonistic to each other and belong to two opposing conceptions of the world.

  4. 1 belongs to the idealistic and metaphysical conception of the world.

  5. 2 belongs to the Marxist and dialectical conception of the world.

  6. Marxism struggles against idealism and the dialectical against the metaphysical.

  7. This struggle is the struggle between the old and the new, between new ideas and old ones.

  8. The social existence of men determines their thought.

  9. The struggle between the old and the new is the struggle between classes.

  10. To carry out 1 is to remain a being of the bourgeois class.

  11. To carry out 2 is to take up the proletarian class position.

  12. To carry out 1 is to make descriptions of situations.

  13. To carry out 2 is to make concrete analysis of a concrete situation.

  14. To carry out 1 is to make British Sounds.

  15. To carry out 2 is to struggle for the showing of British Sounds on English television.

  16. To carry out 1 is to understand the laws of the objective world in order to explain that world.

  17. To carry out 2 is to understand the laws of the objective worlds in order to actively transform that world.

  18. To carry out 1 is to describe the wretchedness of the world.

  19. To carry out 2 is to show people in struggle.

  20. To carry out 2 is to destroy 1 with the weapons of criticism and self-criticism.

  21. To carry out 1 is to give a complete view of events in the name of truth in itself.

  22. To carry out 2 is not to fabricate over-complete images of the world in the name of relative truth.

  23. To carry out 1 is to say how things are real. (Brecht)

  24. To carry out 2 is to say how things really are. (Brecht)

  25. To carry out 2 is to edit a film before shooting it, to make it during filming and to make it after the filming. (Dziga Vertov)

  26. To carry out 1 is to distribute a film before producing it.

  27. To carry out 2 is to produce a film before distributing it, to learn to produce it following the principle that: it is production which commands distribution, it is politics which commends economy.

  28. To carry out 1 is to film students who write: Unity—Students—Workers.

  29. To carry out 2 is to know that unity is a struggle of opposites (Lenin) to know that the two are one.

  30. To carry out 2 is to study the contradiction between the classes with images and sounds.

  31. To carry out2 is to study the contradiction between the relationships of production and the productive forces.

  32. To carry out 2 is to dare to know where one is, and where one has come from, to know one’s place in the process of production in order then to change it.

  33. To carry out 2 is to know the history of revolutionary struggles and be determined by them.

  34. To carry out 2 is to produce scientific knowledge of revolutionary struggles and of their history.

  35. To carry out 2 is to know that film making is a secondary activity, a small screw in the revolution.

  36. To carry out 2 is to use images and sounds as teeth and lips to bite with.

  37. To carry out 1 is to only open the eyes and the ears.

  38. To carry out 2 is to read the reports of comrade Kiang Tsing.

  39. To carry out 2 is to be militant.

Fifty similes, really more than fifty similes, from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

  1. She looks like a nun, thought Quincy, or like she belongs to a dangerous cult.
  2. the movie in the dream was like a negative of the real movie
  3. clouds that looked like cathedrals or maybe just little toy churches abandoned in a labyrinthine marble quarry one hundred times bigger than the Grand Canyon
  4. like the work of a lunatic
  5. like a miniature Russian Orthodox church
  6. what it was most like was an enchanted island
  7. like the lilies that bloom and die in a single day
  8. a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water
  9. a metaphor is like a life jacket
  10. there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead
  11. I went through books like they were barbecue.
  12. friendly words that sounded like obscenities to my ear and that, thinking about it now, might actually have been obscene
  13. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.
  14. gestured and bobbed like a rapper
  15. Hollows in the ground, like World War I bomb craters
  16. Fate headed down the stairs, taking them in threes as if he were dashing for the street, like a boy heading out for a free afternoon with his friends.
  17. smiling a catlike smile
  18. everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus
  19. Sunsets in the desert seem like they’ll never end, until suddenly, before you know it, they’re done. It’s like someone just turned out the lights
  20. She had a hoarse, nasal voice and she didn’t talk like a New York secretary but like a
    country person who has just come from the cemetery.
  21. like butterflies summoned by his prayers
  22. something like happiness
  23. stood to attention like a soldier
  24. the story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and everybody forgets about it and goes back to work
  25. The fucking killings are like a strike, amigo, a brutal fucking strike.
  26. “It’s like a dream,” said Guadalupe Roncal. “It looks like something alive.”
  27. it looks like a woman who’s been hacked to pieces. Who’s been hacked to pieces but is still alive. And the prisoners are living inside this woman.”
  28. two Mexican reporters who stared at him like dying men
  29. the knowledge slipped like water through his fingers
  30. she smiled like a goddess
  31. This place is like hell
  32. A black sky like the bottom of the sea.
  33. like fucking a man who isn’t exactly a man
  34. like becoming a little girl again
  35. like being fucked by a rock. A mountain.
  36. it’s like you’re fucking a mountain but you’re fucking inside a cave
  37. In other words it’s like being fucked by a mountain in a cave inside the mountain itself
  38. Well, it feels like being fucked by the air. That’s exactly how it feels.
  39. So fucking a policeman is like being fucked by a mountain and fucking a narco is like being fucked by the air.
  40. like a tour guide with an eye for local color
  41. he treated her like his slave
  42. like a joke
  43. like the title of a David Lynch film
  44. narrow room like a monk’s cell
  45. the shadows dispersed by the flashes of car lights like comet tails in the dark
  46. It’s odd that someone would hang a book out like a shirt
  47. like a huge hearse
  48. She looked like an athlete from the 1940s.
  49. All of this is like somebody else’s dream
  50. the highway was like a river

These similes are from “The Part About Fate,” the third part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

47 or so similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

These similes are from “The Part About Amalfitano,” the second part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

  1. It’s like a fetus
  2. he held the letter in his two hands like a life raft of reeds and grasses
  3. a doglike fervor
  4. a Turkish carpet like the threadbare carpet from the Thousand and One Nights, a battered carpet that sometimes functioned as a mirror, reflecting all of us from below
  5. standing there like a tiny and infinitely patient Amazon
  6. like pilgrims
  7. like mendicants or child prophets
  8. like someone who’s burned himself
  9. like sucking a small to medium dick
  10. like shooting a Zen arrow with a Zen bow into a Zen pavilion
  11. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird.
  12. those days were like a prolonged parachute landing after a long space flight
  13. back and forth like a sleepwalker
  14. marched from the west like a ragtag army whose only strength was its numbers
  15. dropped down from the Pyrenees like the ghosts of dead beasts
  16. the floor waxer like a cross between a mastiff and a pig sitting next to a plant
  17. like a trick photograph that isn’t a trick, floating, floating pensively in the skies of Paris, weary
  18. like a memory rising up from glacial seas
  19. The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain.
  20. It also was like an empty dance club.
  21. like a feudal lord riding out on horseback to survey his lands
  22. like provincial intellectuals
  23. like deeply self-sufficient men
  24. like a zombie
  25. like a medieval squire
  26. like a medieval princess
  27. Her hand was like a blind woman’s hand.
  28. like a cloud cemetery
  29. like a thick chili whose last simmer was fading in the west
  30. the coffinlike shadow
  31. purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death
  32. laughing in a whisper, like a fly
  33. like an endoscopy, but painless
  34. slept like a baby
  35. I feel like a nightingale, he thought happily.
  36. like a lover whose embrace maddened the horse as well as the rider, both of them dying of fright or ending up at the bottom of a ravine, or the colocolo, or the chonchones, or the candelillas, or so many other little creatures, lost souls, incubi and succubi, lesser demons that roamed between the Cordillera de la Costa and the Andes
  37. very tan, like a singer or a Puerto Rican playboy
  38. A confident, mocking smile, like the smile of a cocksure sniper.
  39. like a joke
  40. something like laughter but also something like sorrow
  41. like the Greek state
  42. like an arrowhead
  43. burst out from a corner like someone playing a bad joke or about to attack him
  44. the slight shadow, like a hastily dug pit that gives off an alarming stench
  45. Something like the smoke signals
  46. military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone,
    behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men, and diplomats behaved like cretinous cherubim, and doctors and lawyers behaved like thieves
  47. You’re like me and I’m like you. We aren’t happy.

A list of 81 (or more) similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

  1. a horrible and notably unhygienic bathroom that was more like a latrine or cesspit
  2. A rather ordinary picture of a student in the capital, but it worked on him like a drug, a drug that brought him to tears, a drug that (as one sentimental Dutch poet of the nineteenth century had it) opened the floodgates of emotion, as well as the floodgates of something that at first blush resembled self-pity but wasn’t (what was it, then? rage? very likely)
  3. the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness
  4. their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings
  5. went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena
  6. demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes
  7. old Hanseatic buildings, some of which looked like abandoned Nazi offices
  8. like people endlessly analyzing a favorite movie
  9. the parade of immigrants like ants loading the flesh of thousands of dead cattle into the ships’ holds
  10. the little gaucho sounded like the moon, like the passage of clouds across the moon,
    like a slow storm
  11. his eyes shining with a strange intensity, like the eyes of a clumsy young butcher
  12. the lady would begin to howl like a Fury
  13. like an ice queen
  14. news spreading like wildfire, like a nuclear conflagration
  15. a rock jutting from the pool, like a dark and iridescent reef
  16. like a painting by Gustave Moreau or Odilon Redon
  17. I suffered like a dog
  18. now the fucking mugs are like samurais armed with those fucking samurai swords
  19. the appearance of the park, which looked to him like a film of the jungle, the colors wrong, terribly sad, exalted
  20. The words old man and German he waved like magic wands to uncover a secret
  21. like drudge work, like the lowest of menial tasks
  22. that abyss like hour
  23. Like the machine celibataire.
  24. Like the bachelor who suddenly grows old, or like the bachelor who, when he returns from a trip at light speed, finds the other bachelors grown old or turned into pillars of salt.
  25. like a howling Indian witch doctor
  26. like talking to a stranger
  27. like a whisper that he later understood was a kind of laugh
  28. like a hula-hooping motion
  29. you’re behaving like stupid children
  30. they attended like sleepwalkers or drugged detectives
  31. like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil
  32. they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths
  33. drifted through Bologna like two ghosts
  34. who once said London was like a labyrinth
  35. he could soar over the beach like a seagull
  36. which circled in their guilty consciences like a ghost or an electric charge
  37. they were so happy they began to sing like children in the pouring rain
  38. Their remorse vanished like laughter on a spring night.
  39. smiling like squirrels
  40. like a fifteenth-century fortress
  41. circles that faded like mute explosions
  42. Coincidence, if you’ll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet.
  43. a voice that didn’t sound like his but rather like the voice of a sorcerer, or more specifically, a sorceress, a soothsayer from the times of the Roman Empire
  44. like the dripping of a basalt fountain
  45. he and the room were mirrored like ghostly figures in a performance that prudence and fear would keep anyone from staging
  46. Aztec ruins springing like lilacs from wasteland
  47. like a river that stops being a river or a tree that burns on the horizon, not knowing that it’s burning
  48. the city looked to them like an enormous camp of gypsies or refugees ready to pick up and move at the slightest prompting
  49. the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark
  50. It’s like hearing a child cry
  51. a kind of speed that looked to Espinoza like slowness, although he knew it was only the slowness that kept whoever watched the painting from losing his mind
  52. brief moans shooting like meteorites over the desert
  53. The words tunneled through the rarefied air of the room like virulent roots through dead flesh
  54. The word freedom sounded to Espinoza like the crack of a whip in an empty classroom.
  55. The light in the room was dim and uncertain, like the light of an English dusk.
  56. Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club
  57. the movement of something like subterranean tanks of pain
  58. The stage is really a proscenium and upstage there’s an enormous tube, something like a mine shaft or the gigantic opening of a mine
  59. like a bad joke on the part of the mayor or city planner
  60. like pure crystal
  61. like the legs of an adolescent near death
  62. his eyes were just like the eyes of the blind
  63. clung to the Chilean professor like a limpet
  64. grimaced like a madman
  65. like a reflection of what happened in the west but jumbled up
  66. The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.
  67. For the first time, the three of them felt like siblings or like the veterans of some shock troop who’ve lost their interest in most things of this world
  68. a smell of meat and hot earth spread over the patio in a thin curtain of smoke that enveloped them all like the fog that drifts before a murder
  69. long roots like snakes or the locks of a Gorgon
  70. like a shirt left out to dry
  71. reality for Pelletier and Espinoza seemed to tear like paper scenery
  72. lectures that were more like massacres
  73. feeling less like butchers than like gutters or disembowellers
  74. the boy on top of the heap of rugs like a bird, scanning the horizon
  75. She was like a princess or an ambassadress
  76. cry like a fool
  77. I felt like a derelict dazzled by the sudden lights of a theater.
  78. drew me like a magnet
  79. a cement box with two tiny windows like the portholes of a sunken ship
  80. a very soft voice, like the breeze that was blowing just then, suffusing everything with the scent of flowers
  81. The cement box where the sauna was looked like a bunker holding a corpse.

These similes are from “The Part About the Critics,” the first part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer. I was originally going to try to record 666 similes, but then I didn’t. I’ll record similes from the other four parts of the novel though.

A few sentences on every Thomas Pynchon novel to date

Today, 8 May 2022, is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 85th 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. To celebrate, here are short riffs on Pynchon’s eight novels:

V. (1963)

I reread Pynchon’s first novel for the first time last year 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 that 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.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept ran a version of this post on 8 May 2021.]

Best Books of 1972?

A conversation with a colleague this week led me on a not-entirely successful search for the “best” books of 1972.

The gist of the conversation is something like this: Asked about the “best” books that came out last year, I admitted I don’t read that much new fiction, so I had no idea.

I also said something cavalier along the lines of, It takes like half a century to know if a novel is important or not. (This is not a statement I entirely believe in.)

So what did folks in 1972 think the best books published that year were?

The first thing I did is check the bestsellers of fiction that year.

(I should be clear that I’m mostly interested in novels here, or books of a novelistic/artistic scope, whatever that means–so I didn’t really pursue nonfiction stuff that much here.)

The New York Time’s fiction bestsellers for 1972 is dominated by two novels: Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (21 weeks) and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (26 weeks). Fiction bestsellers are often (but not always) entertainments that we don’t expect to last over time, and while Wouk and Bach’s titles still get reprints every decade or so, they aren’t exactly Ulysses (published fifty years earlier in 1922).

So I looked for what titles the NYT critics deemed the best books of 1972. The contemporary NYT comes up with a list of ten titles each year (five fiction, five non-), but things were a little looser fifty years ago. In December of that year, the NYT offered just “Five Significant Books of 1972.”

This list is entirely nonfiction:

The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, edited by Robert Manson Myers (“…a loving work of scholarship. From 6,000 letters written among several branches of a Southern family between 1854 and 1865, Robert Manson Myers has woven 1,200 of them into a massive and touching portrait of a bygone society.”)

The Master by Leon Edel (“With…the fifth and final volume of his biography of Henry James, Leon Edel brings to a close a literary labor of 20 years.”)

Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (“…the richest kind of contemporary history; it places political and military events in cultural perspective—something rarely done in the hundreds of books written about Vietnam during the last dozen years.”)

The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Patrick O’Brian (“…confronts a subject of universal private anguish and universal public silence…she has single‐handedly established a history of and a rhetoric for the process of aging.”)

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (“…a magisterial exercise in ‘moral geometry.'”)

Rawls’s book is the only one I’ve heard of and de Beauvoir is the only other author whose name I recognize on the list (I did know that there was a ridiculously long multi-volume biography of Henry James). Beyond the list’s being all nonfiction (if there was a fiction version somewhere, I could not find it), it’s also remarkable how long each of the books is: the shortest is 491 pages; the longest is 1,845 pages. Those are long books!

I tried searching for other newspaper and magazine lists of best books of 1972 but came up short. If anyone has anything else to offer for contemporary thoughts on the best of ’72 (by which I mean, folks in ’72 on the best of ’72), I’m all virtual ears.

I then looked into what Goodreads had to say.

I have no idea how their list works, but Richard Adams’s Watership Down tops it. That book completely fucked me up as a kid, which is maybe why I didn’t press too hard when both of my children were reluctant to read it when I pressed it on them. I think it’s a classic though (oh, and it made The New York Times year-end list in 1974–I guess it didn’t get an American publication until then?).

I don’t really think Watership Down is a children’s book, but rounding out the top three on the Goodreads list are two classics of the genre: Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together and Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. (Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing comes in way too low at #44.)

And now, because I’m lazy, I will use the rest of the list to offer an incomplete, inconclusive, and ultimately unnecessary list of the best books of 1972. There are many books on the list I’m pilfering from I have not read (including ones by authors whose books I esteem, like Nabokov, Welty, DeLillo, and Atwood), and these books may deserve a spot, as might the many many books that have failed through no fault of their own to wind up under the right eyes, ears, hands.

A list:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Angela Carter

Watership Down, Richard Adams

The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. LeGuin

Ways of Seeing, John Berger

Roadside Picnic, Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

 

My entry in The Comics Journal’s “Best Comics of 2021” article

The Comics Journal’s lengthy write up of “The Best Comics of 2021” is up. Here’s my entry:

When I was a kid one of the greatest small joys of my short existence was reading the comics page in the morning newspaper, an experience that seems and quite literally is of another century. I loved Calvin & HobbesBloom County,and The Far Side, but my favorite was Peanuts. While it’s not exactly the same as poring over the morning paper’s comics, I love to see Peanuts on this Day in my Twitter feed. So much has been written on Charles Schulz‘s genius, so I won’t wax more – I’ll just add that Charlie Brown’s strange defeated ever-reemerging optimism still brings me a weird dark hope.

I also continue to really dig Drew Lerman‘s Snake Creek series. Roy and Dav are perfect heroes for the 21st century, a new Vladimir and Estragon wandering through Weirdest Florida. Lerman publishes Snake Creek on Instagram. He collected the first few years of the strip in a volume that is now out of print. I hope he’ll reprint it and put out the latest strips in a paperback at some point soon.

Another artist I followed initially on a social media app (Tumblr) is Yvan Guillo, aka Samplerman. Samplerman’s collages initiate his audience into a new world of pop art surrealism where the Ben-Day dots of twentieth-century pulp transmute into a comic book you read in a dream when you were a kid. I picked up his 2021 book Anatomie Narrative (Ion Edition) and got lost in it again and again. The word narrative in the title asks the audience to understand story in a new way (or to take the title ironically, which I do not). The story here is pure aesthetics.

Another book I loved this year was Paul Kirchner‘s Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delirium (Éditions Tanibis), which collects the Dope Rider revival published in High Times from 2015 to 2020 (Dope Rider‘s initial run was in the ’70s). Great art, great jokes, great goofy fun.

I also spent way too much of the little free time I have going through old issues of The East Village Other. The scans I pulled from JSTOR are difficult to read, but the graphics are really what interests me. Initially I was looking for comix by folks like Bernie Wrightson, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, and Kim Deitch – but I also love all the old ads for weird albums, concerts, films, and books. A digital scan of an old, weird paper with its own weird comix isn’t exactly the same as having the paper in your hand. But it’s better than nothing.

A (probably incomplete) list of books I read or reread in 2021


☉ indicates a reread.

☆ indicates an outstanding read.


The Real Cool Killers, Chester Himes ☆

The Bachelors, Muriel Spark

Bina, Anakana Schofield

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville ☉☆

Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton ☆

The Florida Keys, Joy Williams

Passages, Ann Quin☆

V., Thomas Pynchon ☉☆

Notes from Childhood, Norah Lange (trans. by Charlotte Whittle)

Albert Angelo, B.S. Johnson ☆

Trawl, B.S. Johnson

House Mother Normal, B.S. Johnson

Outline, Rachel Cusk

Perfume, Patrick Süskind (trans. by John E. Woods) ☆

The Unfortunates, B.S. Johnson

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo, Ntozake Shange

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton

Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delirium, Paul Kirchner

The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain ☆

By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño (trans. by Chris Andrews) ☉☆

Cowboy Graves, Roberto Bolaño (trans. by Natasha Wimmer)

Double Indemnity, James M. Cain

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (trans. by William Weaver)☉

If on a winter’s night a traveler…, Italo Calvino (trans. by William Weaver)☉

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (trans. by Archibald Colquhoun) ☉☆

Mister Boots, Carol Emshwiller

Permanent Earthquake, Evan Dara

The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe (trans. by E. Dale Saunders)

The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstoya (trans. by Jamey Gambrell) ☆

The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn

Anecdotes, Heinrich von Kleist (trans. by Matthew Spencer)

Hurricane Season, Fernanda Melchor (trans. by Sophie Hughes) ☆

Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme ☉☆

Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty☉

Body Count, Francie Schwartz

The Old People, A.J. Perry

Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller ☆

Remain in Love, Chris Frantz

The Witchcraft of Salem Village, Shirley Jackson

In the Eye of the Wild, Nastassja Martin (trans. Sophie R. Lewis)

Rough Day, Ed Skoog

Letters from Mom, Julio Cortazar (trans. by Magdalena Edwards)

Under the Jaguar Sun, Italo Calvino (trans. by William Weaver)

The Nonexistant Knight, Italo Calvino (trans. by Archibald Colquhoun)

The Cloven Viscount, Italo Calvino (trans. by Archibald Colquhoun)

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy ☉☆

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.