James Wood’s The Fun Stuff Reviewed


I hate that I love to hate reading James Wood—and when I love what he writes I hate that I love it. His take on Blood Meridian absolutely infuriated me, but a stray line from an essay he wrote on Virginia Woolf has informed pretty much every real review I’ve tried to write since I read it. Anyone who reads deeply and earnestly and cares about literary criticism is likely to find themselves shouting at Wood, and then maybe agreeing with him—with reserved qualifications, and then shouting again. (There is an entire blog devoted to pointing out the failures of Wood’s often deeply conservative aesthetic criticism, by the way).

The Fun Stuff, collecting many of Wood’s pieces from The New Yorker (but also elsewhere), is less pretentious than How Fiction Works, Wood’s last book, a polemic hiding behind the guise of literary criticism that faulted pretty much any prose stylist who deviated from a certain mode of 19th-century free indirect style.

I’ve already read a number of the pieces collected in The Fun Stuff, which is finally out in the U.S. in trade paperback thanks to Picador. You might have read them too. His essays championing Lydia Davis and László Krasznahorkai are fine fun stuff, as is his take on the late W.G. Sebald (first published as an introduction to Austerlitz). His appreciative review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road though is in many ways a retake on his review of Blood Meridian—Wood can only view McCarthy’s existential questions through the lens of theodicy.

James Wood is maybe most fun—or most infuriating—when he’s at his harshest. The case file here is his pointed take-down “Paul Auster’s Shallowness.” Here, Wood goes through an Auster plot “checklist”:

 A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist. Hey, Roger Phaedo invented Charlie Dark! It was all in his head.

I’m not a particular fan of Paul Auster, but I imagine those who deeply enjoy his work could feel personally insulted by Wood’s take-down. We get close to the books and authors we love. I think what manifests most in Wood’s criticism here—and elsewhere—is the weariness of someone who once deeply loved literature but who is now perhaps oppressed by it—who has become too aware of its mechanics, its forms, its stale formulations and bad parlor tricks.

Wood telegraphs far more passion and generosity in the collection’s title essay, which is about Keith Moon, the legendary drummer of The Who. He compares Moon’s rhythmic chops to D.H. Lawrence’s sentences:

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong. (You can encounter such sentences in Lawrence’s prose, in Bellow’s, sometimes in David Foster Wallace’s.) Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape. And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body forgets itself, surrenders its awful self-consciousness.

I like how personal he gets here. This essay opens the collection, and the one that closes it, “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” also communicates personally with the reader. Unconstrained by the pretense of a book review, Wood waxes on families and libraries and the meaning of life. When he writes of his father-in-law, whose books he’s sorting through, that “The books somehow made him smaller, not larger,” it’s hard not to hear a strong undertone of autobiography in the note.

Wood’s lyric essays are an unusual standout here (unusual in the sense that if someone had strung together the words James Wood’s lyric essays, I’d probably roll my eyes). They reveal a love of reading that goes missing in his attacks and his quibbling pieces. The serious literary critic is not, of course, beholden to being merely a cheerleader for literature (or worse, a cheerleader for publishing)—but I do think that the serious literary critic should offer something beyond condemnation or unenthusiastic grumbling. The risk the professional critic runs is to see the machinations of art too plainly, to become jaded to the point that experiencing the sublime is no longer possible (Tobias Wolff’s fantastic story “Bullet in the Brain” deals handily with this theme). Wood guides us here to several writers who disrupt, estrange, and resynthesize the tired tropes of literary fiction—and it’s in that strangeness where we can find the real fun stuff.

I Review City of Glass, A Comic Book Doppelgänger of Paul Auster’s Postmodern Detective Novel

Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass explores doubling, shadowing, and what it means to wear another person’s skin, so it’s fitting that the book has its own doppelgänger in the form of a graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (maestro Art Spiegelman served as catalyst and counselor). I should admit upfront that although I’ve read a few of Auster’s books, I haven’t read City of Glass, considered by many to be his masterpiece. I have read Mazzucchelli’s excellent novel Asterios Polyp (and plenty of stuff by overseer Spiegelman), so the adaptation intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed. I read Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass in one brisk sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. What’s it about?

Okay, so there’s this novelist, Quinn (“rhymes with twin”), who, after the death of his wife and son, takes up writing boilerplate detective novels under the pseudonym William Wilson. Late in the book, Quinn (if he’s still Quinn at that point, which I’ll get to) identifies the pseudonym with the “real” name of NY Mets center fielder (and future coach) Mookie Wilson—but savvy readers will also recognize “William Wilson” as the name of an Edgar Allan Poe story about a man haunted by a doppelgänger of himself to the point that he goes insane. In the Poe story, Wilson and his doppelgänger (whose name is, of course, William Wilson as well) share the same birthday, January 19th, which also happens to be E.A. Poe’s birthday (and my brother’s too, although that is not germane to this review). Auster is clearly working from Poe’s story, although he never announces this explicitly (at least not in the comic-bookization). Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, wrote an exhaustive biography of Poe (published in 1941). Crossing from the real to the fictional, from authorial to character, Auster inserts himself into the story from its outset. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Quinn gets a mysterious call, like something out of the noir novels he writes:


Bored, or perhaps ventriloquized by a force he doesn’t understand, Quinn takes up the identity of detective Paul Auster and agrees to take on a case for Peter Stillman, a man who, as a boy, suffered feralization at the hands of his insane father, who hoped to discover the Ur-language of god through the boy. Stillman’s monologue is one of the highlights of the book, showcasing the malleability of language—and also, significantly, the malleability of speakers:


Stillman hires Quinn/Auster to track his father, also named Peter Stillman (Peter is also the name of Quinn’s dead son). Actually, it’s Stillman the Younger”s wife/speech pathologist who hires Quinn/Auster; she’s certain that Stillman the Elder, freshly released from a mental asylum, will return to harm his son.

Quinn/Auster slides into the role of Max Work, his noir novel protagonist—or, perhaps more accurately, William Wilson’s noir protagonist—and begins tracking Stillman the Elder (or a version of Stillman the Elder—I won’t spoil the novel’s strangest, most maddening metaphysical gambit here). And, predictably, as Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work  shadows Stillman Sr., he morphs into yet another doppelgänger:


Quinn/Auster/Wilson/Work eventually confronts Stillman, and the pair have a series of fascinating conversations about language, Milton, Humpty Dumpty, and the Tower of Babel. The motifs and themes are telegraphed fairly straightforward here, but also communicated through a lens of madness that comes to dominate the book’s third act—an act that initiates in a meeting between Q/A/W/W and the “real” Paul Auster, a writer who’s working on an essay about the authorship of Don Quixote. The Don Quixote conversation is perhaps too overt, the sort of postmodern cleverness that I increasingly find a big turnoff, but it’s not clumsy or awkward. Still, there’s something mildly irritating about an author tipping his hand and then showing you how he’s tipping his hand.

The third act of City of Glass feels compressed, rushed even, and will definitely disappoint readers who wandered in for a detective stories, hoping for concrete answers and a neat and tidy plot. However, the book’s themes of fantasy and reality, play and work, sanity and madness, and character and author are rich if frustrating in their circuitousness. Mazzucchelli’s art is evocative and fitting, recalling at times the rough-hewn pop art of Raymond Pettibon and the traditional prowess of masters like Kirby and Eisner. (I’ll bring up Spiegelman again too, who introduces the volume. A friend of Auster’s, he brokered the project and oversaw its development, and his work as a creative director here is evident in the book’s cohesion). I imagine fans of Auster’s New York Trilogy, of which City of Glass is the first book, will be interested in checking this one out. Having come first to the graphic novel, I now look forward to reading its doppelgänger, Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Good stuff.

Paul Auster’s Winter Journal (Book Acquired Some Time Over the July 4th Holiday)


I was pleasantly surprised to find Paul Auster’s forthcoming memoir Winter Journal in the mail after being away for a week. I had mixed feelings about Auster’s last novel Sunset Park, but I dig his nonfiction, and I opened Winter Journal randomly to an episode where the adolescent Auster loses his virginity to a hooker in a passage that’s both tender and funny, so this one seems promising. (It’s also written entirely in the second person pronoun).

Publisher Henry Holt’s blurb:

Facing his sixty-third winter, internationally acclaimed novelist Paul Auster sits down to write a history of his body and its sensations—both pleasurable and painful.

Thirty years after the publication of The Invention of Solitude, in which he wrote so movingly about fatherhood, Auster gives us a second unconventional memoir in which he writes about his mother’s life and death. Winter Journal is a highly personal meditation on the body, time, and memory, by one of our most intellectually elegant writers.

Books Acquired, 6.02.2012 (Comix + Angela Carter)


Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids is a collection of comix (and other oddities) for kids, edited by Art Spiegelman and his wife artist/publisher Françoise Mouly. I saw at random and picked it up for my daughter, whose birthday was the next day. She loves, loves, loves this book, spending hours poring over all its weird images and picture games. Cover is by the great Charles Burns; there are also comics by Spiegelman, the late great Maurice Sendak—


—a weird search picture by Martin Handford (here’s a detail)—-


—and comics by other notables like David Sedaris, Paul Auster, Claude Ponti, Jules Feiffer, and Kim Deitch. The endpapers — “Strange Cartoon Lessons” are by Kaz:


I also picked up Burning Your Boats, which collects all of Angela Carter’s short stories:


I was looking for her dystopian novel The Passion of New Eve, but no go. Of course, I couldn’t pass up this volume, which comprises four collections, as well as early and uncollected stuff.

Books Acquired, 1.25.2012 (Malcolm Lowry, Paul Auster, and William Gaddis)

I go to the bookstore once a week, whether I need books or not, which I really don’t. This week, I picked up a book I’ve already read, Lowry’s late-modernist classic Under the Volcano, simply because I hate the cover of the version I have (a bland movie tie-in). Anyway, I’ve been prowling for a version that includes an introduction by William Vollmann, but I saw this midcentury paperback with a nice minimal vibe and had to snap it up (also, it was a dollar, and “I’d buy that for a dollar!”):


I’m not a huge Paul Auster fan, but I do like artist David Mazzucchelli’s work (especially his novel Asterios Polyp), so when I saw a crisp used copy of the graphic novelization of City of Glass (with an intro by Art Spiegelman), I had to snap it up:


A splash page of a stark empty room which I’m sure is meaningful in some way:


Also, couldn’t help pick up a used copy of Gaddis’s late novel Carpenter’s Gothic, even though I know there’s no way I’ll get to it anytime soon.


Read (And Not Read) in 2011

[Our West Coast correspondent A King at Night weighs in on the books he read—and didn’t read—in 2011. Where they fit, I’ve linked book titles to my own reviews, or Noquar’s, our Brooklyn correspondent. –Ed.]

All of the books I did read in 2011:

1. The Recognitions – William Gaddis

If more people were able/interested in surmounting this 960 page giant I think it would be roundly considered possibly the best American novel. But as it is Gaddis sabotaged himself by writing a book that is almost literally too good.

2. City of Glass – Paul Auster

I think this one was my favorite of the New York Trilogy, except that I didn’t think of separating them until I made this list. So really I read three books as three parts of the same novel. One which I loved and adored fully. It was my first Auster and a the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

3. Ghosts – Paul Auster

See above.

4. The Locked Room – Paul Auster

See above.

5. Bright Lights Big CityJay McInerny

Not sure why I read this one. I think I just had it sitting around and it read fast enough to keep me engaged. I’m also not sure why this was as apparently popular as it was upon release. I know he was friends with Bret Ellis, but it just seems like Ellis but kind of declawed. So maybe that’s a good thing for some people. The use of second person narration was cool, I guess you don’t see that very often.

6. Blood Meridian  – Cormac McCarthy

There is almost literally nothing I can say about this that will have any value. I should mention that it fully lived up to the years and years of personal hype I had built up for it.

7. Powr Mastrs vol. 2, 3  – C.F.

This is a weird comic book series a friend introduced me to. Apparently it is ongoing and I think I would like to continue reading it.

8. Point Omega – Don DeLillo

This was my first attempt at DeLillo and I’m pretty sure I chose it because of its minuscule length and awesome cover art. I was totally enthralled and blown away. So much so in fact that Point Omega gets the distinction of the being, so far, the first and only book I have actually read twice in a row. As in I finished it and then flipped back to page one and read it a second time and it was brilliant again.

9. In The Country of Last Things – Paul Auster

I didn’t fully love this as much as I did the NY Trilogy, but I think that is due to a certain lack of detectives and the New York setting. This book kind of reminds me of a big, sad Terry Gilliam movie. Auster is in my opinion the unquestioned master of that meta-text device where what you are reading is actually being written by the character in the book. (I’m sure there is a name for that, but I don’t know it).

10. The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

I’ll try and cut the hyperbole on this one. I don’t care what any people are saying about this book or the man who wrote it. My enjoyment of this and other DFW books is entirely a personal experience. He may in fact be the smartest novelist who ever lived or whatever but I’m not going to browbeat you into believing me, and somehow trying to make myself look good by extension. This book did things for me that no book (including Infinite Jest) has ever done and for that I am grateful. I’ll say no more.

11. Day of The Locust – Nathaniel West

What a weird, dark, little book this is. And why have I never been told that the name Homer Simpson is used prominently throughout? The end of this book was basically jaw-dropping and could be the best sequence Fellini never filmed. I hear there was a movie made based on this, but I think it supposedly wasn’t very good.

12. The Time Machine Did It – John Swartzwelder

This is the first book in a series written following Detective Frank Burly. And the ONLY reason I haven’t immediately read each and every one of them is because they are self-published by the author and therefore impossible to find used. And since I almost never buy books new it would be a huge price adjustment for me. So I’ll take them slow, but if the rest are as fun as this is I predict I will love all of them.

13. Ubik – Phillip K. Dick

Very enjoyable, packed full of ideas (as usual for Dick) and with a pretty engaging plot to tie it all together.

14. Carpenter’s Gothic – William Gaddis

Last time I was home visiting my family I discovered that a copy of this book in my mom’s bathroom. Apparently she had seen me post about Gaddis on Facebook and decided to take my word for it. She was about a third of the way through this relatively slim book but confessed to having a hard time reading it. She asked what about it appealed to me so much and I told her that I view Gaddis as maybe the greatest American writer who ever lived, but that of the three books I’ve read of his Carpenter’s Gothic is the weakest, (or the least amazing, maybe) but that, you know, good luck telling anyone to read a 700 page book written entirely in unattributed dialogue (JR) or a 960 pager about classical art. So yeah CG is more of a little experiment in storytelling (the goal was to tell a massive sociopolitical epic, but done entirely in one location, a house in the country outside new york) than it is an essential work. But if you want to wet yr feet in regards to Gaddis but won’t/can’t commit to his larger, better books, then this is a decent starting point.

15. Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

Totally awesome. I started reading it late at night after finishing the previous book and ended up sitting on the couch until 4:30am and did the whole thing in one sitting. That doesn’t happen too often with me and I can’t really account for why it happened this time . . . but yeah this is the most readable McCarthy I’ve read since The Road.

16. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – Phillip K. Dick

This is the (sort of) conclusion to PKD’s VALIS trilogy, which I started reading last year. It was the last book he wrote and is I think a pretty wonderful swan song for a guy as freakishly imaginative as him. It isn’t even really sci-fi even, but more like “spi-fi” (the term I just made up for Spiritual Fiction) which is sort of what all of his latter work was I guess, and is a thing that really resonates with me personally.

17. Leviathan – Paul Auster

My fifth Auster of the year: I picked this up because it had a cool cover and I read it mostly on flights to and from a wedding I attended in Wisconsin. This is totally wonderful and probably my second favorite Auster novel (behind NY3). I think if I were to write a longer piece on PA I would probably use this book to talk about his interest in choosing protagonists who are frequently less interesting than a supporting character whom they idolize. And also his interesting views on marriage and adultery. It’s worth noting that the book is dedicated to Don DeLillo and upon seeing that I was inspired to pick up some more of his books and finally some of the others that were piling up on my shelf.

18. White Noise – Don DeLillo

I’ve had a copy for this for like ten years and somehow could never make it past the first two pages, even though they are a really good two pages. Honestly in this case I think it was the edition. I had one of those scholarly ones with all the annotation and stuff that make the book look twice as long and 10x more boring. And then I found the newly printed Penguin paperback and burned through it in like a week. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read and was really a gateway drug into a binge of DeLillo that was incredibly fulfilling.

19. Running Dog – Don DeLillo

This was probably the least mind-blowing (and the earliest) of the DeLillo I read this year. But still a good time, slightly Pynchonian (Pynchonesque?) probably as a result of DD still finding his own voice at that point. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already pretty well-into DeLillo but for fans of his I think it would be a good read.

20. Libra – Don DeLillo

Two things in life constantly threaten to destroy me: The Zodiac Killer and JFK. There is always this looming sense that if I were to ever really, fully commit to researching either case I would be entering rabbit-hole I’d never find my way out of. This book was simultaneously the most tempting experience but also the most satisfying. Because even if DD had to invent some of this he still presents a version of the story that is totally plausible. So maybe it’s a placebo but at least I can sleep at night.

21. Underworld – Don DeLillo

It was all a rehearsal for this one though. This big guy had been taking up space on my night stand for months and I’d had a number of friends basically begging me to read it for years. When I finally got around to reading it I was pleased to discover that it is NOT difficult at all, it’s just long. There is a sort of genre of these “big, complex, post-modern(?)” type of books. It’s a thing that I have a weakness for: Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against The Day, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, JR, Infinite Jest, etc. And I mean while Underworld has some things in common with these books I would actually characterize it as almost more like a Norman Mailer book or something. Yeah, I’d put it somewhere between a more-sober Thomas Pynchon and a less-horny Norman Mailer. Does that make sense at all?

22. The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy

I was hoping for a repeat of my Child of God experience with this one. And while that didn’t quite happen I still enjoyed this book a lot. Major props to McCarthy for mentioning Melungeons in the first chapter, being descended from that obscure ethnic group myself, with my dad’s family from east Tennessee, I can tell you that that is exactly the type of super-esoteric, colloquial reference that he later got a lot of praise for utilizing in his more-celebrated western novels. I guess it’s just neat to see that as a part of his style so early and is further proof that he is not in fact a writer of westerns at all, but just possibly the best writer of any region, just wherever he decides to dedicate his interest.

23. Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

I love Denis Johnson so much. I don’t usually buy hardback books but when I saw this cute little book I knew I had to have it. It reads super fast and is really just a great little character piece, telling basically the whole life of this one particular guy. Johnson could write two dozen of these things and I would read every one of them. But he won’t because he’s busy doing whatever other random thing he decides to write brilliantly—-

24. Nobody Move  – Denis Johnson

—-Like this little crime novel he wrote. I don’t think anyone who was around when his first few books would ever have thought he would end up trying to write a pulp novel. I certainly wouldn’t have. But boy am I glad he did. This book was so totally fun to read, with some of the most enjoyable dialogue I’ve ever read in my life. It isn’t as tightly plotted as any of the Coen bros. movies that it reminds me of, but for sentence-by-sentence writing it was one of the best things I read all year.

25. Wild at Heart – Barry Gifford

I had seen the movie a few times and knew I wanted t try the book. I heard that Lynch wrote the script in six days and having read it now I can say that I completely believe that is true. It’s probably one of the closest adaptations I’ve ever seen and really I’m just stunned by how Lychian Gifford’s book already was. It makes so much sense that these two collaborated on Lost Highway and my only wish is that they would work together again sometime.

26. Travels in The Scriptorium – Paul Auster

So I guess with this one Auster officially beat DeLillo for the most-read author of the year prize. I wasn’t even intending to buy another one until I saw the cover of this and instantly knew I had to. Anything that is this visually reminiscent of Twin Peaks has to be good right? It ended up being a great, easy read, which I am learning is typical of PA.

27. The Bailbondsman – Stanley Elkin

This is the first novella is book of three called Searches and Seizures that I just bought the other day. I was sold when I saw that William Gass had a blurb on the back cover saying something like “the three books contained in this volume are among the greatest in our literature” to which I mentally responded “well jeez Bill, I guess we’re going for the hard sell today, fine, I’ll buy it, say no more.” So I’m not ready to agree or disagree with Gass on this one, but I can see why he would like Elkin’s style, which sort of reminds me of a funnier more playful version of what Gass does.

28. The Making of Ashenden – Stanley Elkin

The second novella in Searches and Seizures is shorter and packs a bigger punch than the first. It’s one of these things where if I told you what happens in the story you would probably want to read it, but knowing what happens would reduce the impact when it does happen, so just trust me and read it. The writing is just terrific and it’s really funny. Humor isn’t really a quality that I value in visual entertainment as much, but when someone can write literary fiction that actually has me laughing out loud I tend to think it’ s worth mentioning.

29. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July

So I was fully ready to finish the third novella in that Elkin collection until I found myself at a friend’s apartment cat-sitting on Christmas Eve and this book was sitting on the shelf. So in keeping with the name of this blog I just went ahead and stole it. I proceeded to read it very quickly and I laughed out loud more than I expected to (remember when I mentioned literary fiction that elicits laughter? This was like that too). I confess that I don’t read a ton of short stories, (a truth this list will generally attest to) but I found this whole collection just wonderful. It might also be that this is the only book written by a woman that I read all year. In the past few years I have generally been on a strict diet of books that fit loosely to the idea of “American Post-Modern Novels” but generally means “Books published after the 60s by white guys mostly from new york.” And while I am proud of the big reading accomplishments this focus has helped me attain, (how else does one read Gaddis if not through sheer force of will?) this slight, sad, funny, collection of contemporary short fiction written by a young-ish female writer has shown me that I definitely need to broaden my palate.

Some of the books I did not read in 2011:

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah blah blah blah blah blah blah glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses smug smug smug smug smug smug smug. I think I’ll let this one age a bit more before I attempt to read it. Granted his short “Breakup Stories” may literally be my favorite piece of fiction to appear in the new yorker in the past ten or twenty years… but, I have read the first page of The Corrections on three separate occasions (in three different sized editions, so now I know the physical copy is in fact NOT the problem) and each time I woke up in the spring, without having read the book. If I ever did decide to crack this one it would probably be in audio form, and maybe as part of a long road trip alone, specifically without a cell phone or cigarettes so that I would have nothing else I could possibly do.

2. 2666 – Roberto Bolano

I’m sorry Ed. I really am. It will happen, I swear it. But every time I pick this book up I am baraged by random four-part spanish sounding names that are indistinguishable for me, sample sentence: “What Jaun-Carlos Hernandez Jr. admired most about the poetry of Jullio Valdez-Herrara was the tactility of words. They leapt off the page with such precision and style that Jaun-Carlos was transported from the dusty villa where he sat to candlelit hut with a thatched roof, where revolutions are planned. He tried in vain to explain the power of the work to his professor Guillermo-Carlos Nunez but he scoffed at the work of Veldez-Herrara, calling it unworthy of the literary crown of the great Gabriell Marco San Flores.”

3. Suttree – Cormac McCarthy

After all the other McCarthy I read this year, I kind of thought I might just push on through with this one. I’ve been told by a number of people that it is one of his best. But the first page just stopped me dead in my tracks and I instantly knew it wasn’t the right time. No big deal, I’ll get around to it and then the border trilogy afterward.

4. Ulysses – James Joyce

Yes another year busy not-reading Ulysses. I feel I’m in good company on this though so oh well. It can’t really be that difficult can it? I enjoyed both Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest so my hope is that when I finally do get around to this big guy it will somehow seem quaint and easy. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration though.

5. Anything by David Mitchell

Because seriously fuck this guy. That Cloud Atlas movie adaptation is going to be a huge pile of shit too.

6. Middlesex – Jeffrey Euginides

This book has been haunting me for years, seemingly begging to be read and for some reason I am just 100% uninterested. But it has this weird habit of managing to show up on the bookshelves of people I like and trust, oftentimes sitting very close to other books I like. And sometimes these people tell me to read it. But it never seems very dire does it? No one is rapterous about this book and that makes me think that the Whatever-Prize sticker on the front is causing more people to read it than the actual urgency of the content. Somehow though last year Middlesex managed to get itself into a thrift store in the 50 cent bin, atop a pile of romance novels and pamphlets about Mormons. So now it sits on my shelf, tucked away on that hard to reach, shitty corner next to Cloud Atlas and whatever Dave Eggers books people insist I borrow but that I will never read (because: fuck that guy too). Sometimes though I hear a noise at night and when I wake up Middlesex is lying next to me on the pillow. So I’m pretty much going to have to read it at some point . . . not this year though.

7. Zodiac – Robert Greysmith

Bought it at the Farmer’s Market book stand and held it like a dark version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or some kind of box that when opened unleashes Chaos and Evil into the otherwise peaceful world. Right now I have a wife and an apartment and two cats, but I’m pretty sure I would somehow lose all of that the moment I cracked this book. Part of me is delusionally convinced that if I just dedicate my life to the cause that I could solve the Zodiac mystery. NOT reading this book has kept me from indulging that dark obsession for another year.

8. The Beckett Trilogy

Read ten pages or so and just felt like I wasn’t smart enough. Give me a few years and I’ll try it again.

9. Anything by Dennis Cooper

This dude sounds intense and disturbing, but also maybe really awesome. I heard about him first while googling interviews with the band Whitehouse and found Cooper’s blog and a massive post he did on them. Anyone who likes Whitehouse has to be okay right? Well at least I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I plan to get ahold of some of his books but I have no idea where to start, or where to find a bookstore that will give them to me in a plain brown paper bag so I don’t feel weird taking the bus home, as though by holding a Dennis Cooper book I’m sending some strange signal to all the secret sexual deviants around me every day.

10. Crime Wave – James Ellroy

Because I thought it was a novel when I bought it and since I have never read Ellroy I didn’t want to start with a collection of essays.

11. Paradise – Donald Barthelme

I am thrilled to still have a rainy day Barthelme novel left. So as much as it sounds hilarious I am going to hold off reading it for as long as I can.

12. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

Granted I read it three years ago, but every year that I don’t re-read it I get sort of sad. I live vicariously through the one friend every year who reads it for the first time, and every time I listen to them rave for an hour I get it in my head that I’ll snatch it up and give it a quick once over. But when faced with the actual commitment involved I never do it. One day, one day.

Books of 2010 — Noteworthy, Notorious, and Neglected

Biblioklept already busted out our Best Books of 2010 list, selecting ten of our favorite novels of the year. Such limitations help to generate lists, which internet folks love to circulate–you know the ritual–but those limitations can also prohibit a discussion of some of the other important books of 2010. So, without further ado–

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has, for some reason, topped all kinds of year-end lists already, and been hailed by writers, critics, and readers as book of the year, decade, and even century. We pretty much hated it, saying–

Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl.

Still, we felt the need to defend Franzen when he caught flak for, gasp!, getting attention. Other writers had to work hard to get noticed, including Tao Lin, whose novel Richard Yates we found baffling. Lin smartly hijacked Franzen’s Time cover, parlaying it into the kind of media attention a young novelist needs in this decade to get noticed.

David Shields also garnered a lot of attention after publishing his ridiculous “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a book that cobbled together citations from superior writers to make a point that Henry Miller made over half a century ago and every novelist worth his salt has always known: great writers steal. Although Shields’s points about copyright laws and who can “own” stories are salient in world two point oh, his call for the death of the novel is absurd and offensive.

Lee Rourke’s brilliant début novel The Canal is as good an answer as any to Shields–The Canal is a thoroughly modern reconsideration of existentialism in the post-9/11 world, a new kind of novel in the nascent tradition of Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder (of course, as McCarthy–and David Shields–would point out, these novels are “plugging into” other novels). Similarly, Adam Langer’s witty novel The Thieves of Manhattan pointed to the ways that novels can still be meaningful; Thieves jauntily riffs on adventure and mystery genre fictions, squaring them against a parody of literary fiction and the hermetic world that produces it.

Langer’s novel tracks the quick rise and fall of more than one literary star; Yann Martel might have felt such a falling sensation in 2010–Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to the wildly successful book club classic Life of Pi, received mostly scathing reviews. He’ll have to console himself with the piles of money that Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi will likely generate. In our review of Beatrice and Virgil we declared the book “a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences.” We think too many folks mistook Martel’s aims for something higher.

Martel wasn’t the only big name writer whose 2010 novel found critical disfavor. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega was met with a mix of critical shrugs and outright dismissals, with very few champions. We seemed to like it better than most. In our review we said that “Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.”

DeLillo’s friend Paul Auster also received mixed reviews for his novel Sunset Park. We loved Auster’s winding syntax and his keen observations on high and middle culture, but found his take on twentysomethings in Brooklyn unrealistic and perhaps a bit pandering (Picador’s updated version of his Collected Prose that came out this year was a far more satisfying read).

The worst novel we read in 2010 though was quite easily Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a calculated attempt to make money, not literature. We have no problem with writers making money, of course–we don’t even mind writers ripping off other writers’ ideas to make money–but Cronin’s book is a shallow, sprawling laundry list of clichés and stolen-set pieces, a failed synthesis of post-apocalypse tropes, and a naked grab at commercial appeal. It seems to have been written expressly to be sold as a series of franchise movies. Because of Cronin’s earlier literary fictions, many critics mistook The Passage for a work of literature; indeed, many praised it. They were wrong.

Of course, our targeting of The Passage feels like backlash of some kind, common to both the internet and the book world. If we’re hating on Cronin for his overexposure, it might be because we feel that there are a host of neglected and overlooked books out there. We put two on our Best Books list: Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan are both novellas in translation, not the sort of thing that usually tops critics’ year end lists (let alone get read by the public). We could add Yoko Ogawa’s bizarre, slim novel Hotel Iris to the list. Available for the first time in English this year, Ogawa’s novel is effectively a reverse-Lolita, a David Lynchian-riff on BDSM in a small Japanese coastal town. Not for everyone, but strange, disturbing stuff.

Critics also seemed to roundly ignore the full publication of Ralph Ellison’s second, unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , which we wrote about twice (here and here) but never managed to finish, which doesn’t really matter because he didn’t finish it either. A much shortened version of the novel was published as Juneteenth in the ’90s to mixed reviews, but it seems strange that this version, collecting all of Ellison’s manuscripts and notes, should go so unremarked upon (still, it’s a big long sucker of a book; perhaps someone out there is still unpacking it all).

So what did we miss? What other books of 2010 remain thus-far neglected? What books did you love? Hate? Let us know.

Six Paul Auster Interviews

Several Paul Auster interviews for those inclined. Also, read our review of his new novel Sunset Park.

Auster on NPR’s Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal.

Auster on NHPR.

Auster at the AV Club.

Auster at The Cult.

Auster at Goodreads.

And, on a video interview with Borders, Auster leaves his shades on for the duration of the interview, perhaps commenting on the brightness of his future.

Sunset Park — Paul Auster

At the end of Paul Auster’s new novel Sunset Park, the narrative inhabits the mind of young protagonist Miles Heller. Riding in the back of a cab through Brooklyn, Miles’s thoughts glide through a slippery tangle of ideas. In a long sentence that runs on for almost two pages, Miles’s consciousness shifts from his own physical pain to a character in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, a soldier named Homer who returns home with hooks for hands. This thought blends into a riff on the poet Homer, which in turn leads Miles, long estranged from his family, to figure himself a Telemachus now reunited with his father. And yet the homecoming cannot be; thoughts of Homer slip into thoughts about homelessness, his own homelessness, his friends’ homelessness, not metaphorical but literal. He then thinks about the homeless and displaced people across the country (Sunset Park is set square in the middle of the recent Great Recession), causing his mind to move back to the beginning of the novel, when he worked “trashing out” foreclosed homes in South Florida. The idea of “home” transmutes finally to “hope” as the cab crosses the Brooklyn Bridge–yet the idea (and the novel) is suspended in a strange, sad limbo.

I begin my review with Auster’s final sentence because it delineates many of Sunset Park’s themes, settings, and motifs. At its core–if such a novel can be said to have a core–Sunset Park asks its readers what “home” might mean. Is home a geographic location, a center that resonates with personal and cultural significance? Is home a place with a person you love? Can home be in your head? Is home where your family is? And, even more problematic, what exactly constitutes a family?

The founding trauma of the book, which is to say Miles’s founding trauma, is a radically ambiguous moment of violence: as a teenager, in a heated fight with his step-brother on a country road, Miles pushes the boy. At the same moment, a car flies down the road and kills him. Did Miles mean to kill his brother? At the moment of his anger, how could he not psychologically, if only temporarily, wish for the young man’s death? Did he know the car was coming? Miles cannot deal with the trauma and soon drops out of college and drops out of life. Unlike the biblical Cain, Miles’s exile is self-imposed. He breaks contact with his parents and thus breaks a family that was already twice broken; first, in his parents’ divorce and his mother’s move across the country to California; and second, in the death of his step-brother. Miles relegates himself to hard and unrewarding manual labor, wandering aimlessly around the country. It’s only after he meets a young girl named Pilar that he is able to reconstitute the idea of a family–of a self who can be in a family.

Pilar is a high school student. She is a minor. Auster does little to justify the social acceptability of Miles’s love for (and sodomy of) Pilar; instead, he repeatedly invokes the idea that other characters see the “truth” of the love by simply watching the pair. This is easily the book’s greatest weakness. Auster wants to communicate the idea that in loving Pilar, Miles is able to love a young version of himself–and thus forgive his young self (significantly, Pilar is the same age that Miles was when he pushed his step-brother)–yet the essential predatory narcissism of this “love” remains largely unremarked upon. Even Pilar’s caretaker, her oldest sister, is amenable to the romance–that is, until Miles refuses to keep bringing her high-end items that he recovers from the foreclosed homes he’s “trashing out.” Miles is again exiled, this time from his makeshift home with Pilar. He returns for the first time in seven years to New York City to stay in a squatter’s house with three other twentysomethings.

There’s a kind of silly Bohemian romanticism to the squat in Sunset Park. The project is helmed by would-be avant-jazzman, Bing Nathan, a notorious ranter who improbably subsists on funds he obtains from running his store, the Hospital for Broken Things, where he repairs typewriters and other antique artifacts. Bing thinks his friend Miles will be a perfect fit in the house–and he’s right: the other squatters love him. There’s Ellen, a skittish realtor (!) who aspires to become a pornographic painter, and Alice, an ABD trying to finish her doctoral thesis (on The Best Years of Our Lives, of course). Both women fall for Miles in different ways, although Auster’s writing never once shows why this might be.

Bing has other reasons for getting Miles back to NYC–he wants to reunite the Heller family. He’s been secretly communicating with Miles’s father Morris for years. Morris, who runs his own literary publishing house, is easily the most achieved character in Sunset Park, or at least its most realistic. Although the plot gets bogged down with his own marital difficulties (and other sundry tragedies that echo the “loss of children” theme), Morris’s narrative is the most focused and convincing section of the novel. His sad tone moves beyond melancholy but halts at bitterness, even as he reflects upon the myriad regrets of his life and the fearful future that yawns ahead (things are going badly with his wife; the publishing industry is in peril). Although Miles’s mother Mary-Lee figures less in the novel, she is also a more convincing and sympathetic character than the young people who squat in Sunset Park. Like Morris, she’s reflective, distanced enough from the young self who abandoned her only son, yet analytical enough to comprehend its traumatic effect. Mary-Lee and Morris, with their regrets and fears and hopes are far more aesthetically concrete and satisfying than the novel’s twentysomethings, who at times seem like caricatures or puppets or placeholders.

In Auster’s hands, the Sunset Park gang reflects an unrealistic idealization of youthful and artistic resistance to a predatory capitalist culture. Still, they provide him occasion for some of Sunset Park’s finest riffs, whether he’s ventriloquizing Bing (rage, rage against the lies of the man) or exploring Ellen’s enchanting perversions. Alice’s thesis on The Best Years of Our Lives (a film that somehow everyone in the book has not just seen but seen repeatedly and even analyzed) gives Auster ample material to explore how different generations face trauma, whether it’s the alienation experienced by WWII soldiers returning to a world that seems to have left them behind, or the crises of young people trying find homes in an America tottering on financial collapse.

With its ironic title, The Best Years pairs nicely with the other narrative that informs Sunset Park, Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days-a play that Mary-Lee just happens to be performing on Broadway at the time of Miles’s return. Auster–through his erudite characters–riffs frequently and wisely on both the film and the play, and these are some of the finer moments of Sunset Park; one almost wishes that Auster would have abandoned the conceit of a novel completely and just write some kind of essay with his material. Sunset Park repeats the themes of alienation, loneliness, separation, and stasis that we find in Happy Days and The Best Years, yet it veers closer to the film’s melodrama than Beckett’s absurdity. Perhaps this is a fault of form: overloaded with characters, Sunset Park sags at times, asking its reader to care about yet another over-educated, privileged New Yorker whose artistic ambitions have stalled out. A concession to Beckett’s minimalism would have done wonders, and perhaps deflated some of Sunset Park’s murky self-seriousness.

The highlight of the novel is Auster’s syntax. His keen sentences, often unfurling for pages at a time, move from concrete to abstract, to present to past to future, to inside and outside, with a precision and skill that is admirable to say the least. Sure, he hits the occasional clunker–some of the book’s early dialog in Florida is particularly painful, as is a moment late in the book when Morris refers to his wife and friend as “the walking wounded,” a cliché that neither Morris or Auster should let slip–but there’s a smoothness of vision that unites the book from sentence to sentence.

Still, syntax is not content, and Sunset Park left me wanting something–more? Something different? I’m not sure what that something is, which is a precarious criticism at best. Auster’s vision of stasis, of limbo, of the impossibility of a real homecoming runs deeply contrary to the traditions and conventions of Western story-telling: in short, we are trained to desire and look for resolution. Auster’s observations–a continuation of Happy Days and The Best Years, in this sense–are precisely the right kind of psychological dissatisfaction we must experience for this novel to be “true” in an artistic sense. However, the aesthetic dissatisfaction I experienced at the end of the book seems of a separate nature. Chalk it up to too many characters and subplots, perhaps. In any case, Sunset Park made me think and made me feel, which is really the job of art–even if those thoughts and feelings are often negative and unpleasant. Perhaps it’s my own critical failing, but in the end I wanted a light to lead me out of the Auster’s  limbo.

Sunset Park is new in hardback this month from Henry Holt.

In Honor of the Confounding Kafka Cache Caper, Listen to Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace and Others on Kafka’s Work

Kafka by R. Crumb

Yesterday, lawyers in Zurich opened four anonymous safety deposit boxes supposedly containing original manuscripts, letters, and drawings by Franz Kafka. The question of who owns the literary cache has turned into something of an international debacle, with lawyers and judges jostling for control.

In appreciation of Kafka (and this whole cosmically-ironic fiasco), we direct you to audio clips of the PEN fellowship’s March 26, 1998 tribute, which featured, among others, E.L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and Paul Auster, reading from their own essays on Kafka, or the Czech’s work. The highlight is David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Series of Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Not Enough Has Been Removed.”

You can stream the tracks here. True biblioklepts can download them directly from here.

Paul Auster Reads from Sunset Park

Paul Auster reads from his forthcoming novel, Sunset Park:

Collected Prose — Paul Auster

This month, the good folks at Picador are issuing an expanded edition of Paul Auster’s essays, memoirs, prefaces, true stories, anecdotes, and interviews. Inconspicuously titled Collected Prose and running to just under six hundred pages, the volume includes Auster’s début work The Invention of Solitude in its entirety. Solitude is a strange blend of personal memoir, an account of the young writer’s reaction to and relationship with the death (and life) of his father, as well as a philosophical meditation on the absurdity of family, art, and time. Collected Prose also includes the later memoir, Hand to Mouth, a reflective piece on Auster’s early failures as he tries to make it as a writer, including his time in Paris, his marriage to Lydia Davis, his hunger, and his poverty. While Solitude inaugurates many of the experimental structures and postmodern tropes that Auster would be identified with throughout his career as a novelist, the flatter, more direct style of Hand to Mouth is more indicative of the tone of much of Collected Prose. There’s a journalistic directness and keen earnestness to Auster’s essays that perhaps belie his postmodern bona fides. That’s a good thing, allowing Auster to communicate directly about his sometimes challenging subjects to a wider audience. Style aside, both of the book-length memoirs at the front end of Collected Prose neatly delineate the themes that preoccupy much of the rest of the book: art, language, writing, writers, poverty, absurdity, movement, New York City, and so on. And although the book turns away from Auster’s memoirs and true stories in its second half, presenting his essays, editorials, and prefaces, there’s still a sharp sense of Auster in each essay. These are personal essays. Auster writes about his friend Philippe Petite, the French high-wire artist; he writes about the literal hunger artists face, using Knut Hamsun and Franz Kafka as examples; he writes a vindication for Dada daddy Hugo Ball; he writes on over half a dozen relatively obscure poets to let us know why they matter. There are wonderful little moments, like “The Story of My Typewriter,” where Auster exclaims his love for his quiet Olympia (he buys 50 typewriter ribbons fearing the specie’s eventual extinction). The book reprints the Sam Messner paintings that originally accompanied Auster’s text (or, perhaps, vice versa).

Another great moment is the essay “Hawthorne at Home,” which takes a look at a little known piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny. Hawthorne’s piece is more or less a straightforward narrative account of Hawthorne alone with his five-year old son Julian and his pet rabbit for three weeks while wife Sophia visited the Peabodys. While Auster gives the reader a lesson on Hawthorne and his composition of The Scarlet Letter here, the essay focuses on the idyllic charm of a father and son, a rare subject in Hawthorne’s oeuvre. As a bonus, Herman Melville makes a cameo. “Hawthorne at Home” is the sort of essay that makes you want to go read the source material; it sent me hunting for a used copy of American Notebooks.

As one might imagine, Collected Prose is absolutely larded with writers, and lovingly so. Auster does not suffer from the inclination toward meanness that so many critics feel toward their peers, perhaps because he writes foremost from the perspective of an artist. Not that it’s difficult to praise Art Spiegelman (“The Art of Worry”) or pray for Salman Rushdie (um, “A Prayer for Salman Rushdie”) or speak to the genius of Samuel Beckett (“Remembering Beckett on His One Hundredth Birthday”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Night on Earth: New York”)–but Auster illuminates their work in a way that transcends the postmodern concerns of technique, place, and politics, and speaks directly to a certain aesthetic excellence. His love for storytellers extends beyond the pros, of course, evinced in his work with NPR’s National Story Project. He credits wife Siri with coming up with the idea of having NPR listeners write and submit their own original stories, but his enthusiasm for her idea resonates in his warm preface to the eventual book that collected the listeners’ submissions. Auster writes, “I learned that I am not alone in my belief that the more we understand of the world, the more elusive and confounding that world becomes.” The world becomes more “confounding” after the 9/11 attacks, of course, and like so many other writers Auster attempted to somehow measure the tragedy in words. “Random Notes–September 11, 2001–4:00 PM” is a scrap, a fragment, a shell-shocked missive that ends with the haunting words “And so the twenty-first century finally begins.”

It might be misleading to call Collected Prose a good introduction to Paul Auster’s nonfiction–can a work so comprehensive, so massive be a mere starting point?–but it is a great introduction, so there. It’s also a fantastic overview of critical, literary, and artistic theory, written from a deeply personal perspective. Let’s hope that fifteen years from now we’ll have another expanded edition of Auster’s prose; in the meantime, we can look forward to his new novel Sunset Park this November. Highly recommended.

Paul Auster Explains Why Philip Roth Is Wrong

Paul Auster explains why Philip Roth is wrong about the death of the novel: