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.

Russian Ark — Aleksandr Sokurov

Before I get into the details of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, I implore you to stop reading my review and simply get a hold of the film and watch it. It’s a marvelous, rewarding, dreamy experience. That’s not a very convincing argument of course, but I think that the best way to see this gorgeous film is with no preconceptions, with as little information as possible–not because there are plot twists that a review might give away, but rather because the pleasure of Russian Ark is its narrative immediacy–and any review will seek to mediate that immediacy. So I’ve hemmed and hawed. If you need further convincing, read on.

It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll let Don DeLillo do it for me. In his latest novella, Point Omega, his filmmaker protagonist describes it as an ideal for the kind of truth he’d like to capture in one of his own films:

There’s a Russian film, feature film, Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov. A single extended shot, about a thousand actors and extras, three orchestras, history, fantasy, crowd scenes, ballroom scenes and then an hour into the movie a waiter drops a napkin, no cut, can’t cut, camera flying down hallways and around corners. Ninety-nine minutes.

That was enough for me to get hold of Russian Ark and watch it, or rather experience it (I think experience is the best verb here, corny as that sounds), but perhaps, gentle reader, you’d like some plot details. Let’s give it a shot. The film begins in darkness, with its unnamed/unseen protagonist describing the vague details of his last memory, a violent accident that he remembers little about. But before we go on, I should point out a few things: this protagonist is unseen because he is essentially the camera; his movement  propels the film–is the film–and although he is his own character, he is also a surrogate for the audience. His first-person experience dictates the film, is the film, and although he has ghostly access to the characters who float through the gorgeous halls of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, they cannot see or hear him. There is one character who can see him however, an unnamed black-clad 19th-century French aristocrat who the protagonist comes to call “the European.” Neither the European or the protagonist understand why they are in the Hermitage or how they got there; the European is even more perplexed to find that he now speaks perfect Russian. Unlike the protagonist, the European can interact with the denizens of the Hermitage, and interact he does, by turns offending, menacing, or charming (or at least attempting to charm) the characters that the pair encounters as they drift through the ballrooms, galleries, and courtyards of this beautiful palace. Initially, the European repeatedly insults Russian culture, which he believes a pale imitation of European aesthetics. He even protests that one of the fine orchestras that they stumble upon must be manned with Italian players, as Russian musicians simply couldn’t be so skilled. But as they wander the halls, the European slowly succumbs to the rich beauty and opulence of the Hermitage; although he never states it outright, he relents his prejudice against Russian culture, and perhaps even learns a new way of seeing beauty.

And who wouldn’t be moved by the beauty here? Russian Ark functions in some way as a guided tour of the Hermitage, although that term, “guided tour” implies a stuffiness that’s antithetical to the looseness of this film. The camera lingers on a painting or statue; the protagonist offers his thoughts, the European his; perhaps an erstwhile docent steps in to explicate a point of technique or symbolism. It’s wonderful. In one stunning moment (scene would not be the right word for this movie which is of course one long scene), the European argues violently with a boy over a painting of the apostles Peter and Paul. The boy admits to knowing nothing of the scriptures, yet he’s deeply moved by the wisdom and promise that the painting connotes; the European cannot understand how the painting’s aura alone can transmit its meaning to the ignorant lad. The scene begins at 6:38 in the clip below:

The European’s clash with the boy echoes the larger (and yet subtle) clashes of the film, as characters, artworks, and musical styles of different epochs float into or burst out of or parade around in the grand rooms of the Hermitage. There’s Pushkin, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Anastasia. There’s an incredible scene where Tsar Nicholas I is offered an apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of an ambassador; there’s a wonderful ballroom dance that moves the European to great joy. In one of the film’s pockets of horror, a layman labors in a strange utility room building his coffin; it is the siege of Leningrad in WWII where over a million people died at the hands of the Nazis. The European, of course, has no knowledge of these events, being after his time, and the disjunction between the protagonist’s contemporary perspective of history and his own provides for a fascinating, if not wholly fleshed out, conflict.

Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of Russian Ark is its refusal to narrativize or philosophize history beyond a first-person perspective walk through the halls of the Hermitage. The movie erupts into little pockets of exuberant joy or strange, desperate violence; sometimes the protagonist is drawn in, but just as often he’s repelled, and looks for another avenue, like a dreamer willing his own escape. To call the movie dream-like would be an understatement, and like a dream, Russian Ark‘s divergent set pieces overwhelm the senses in their rich splendor. Like the protagonist and the European, I found myself repeatedly entranced by a painting or a concert or a dance or a strange little moment, only to be interrupted by another character intruding into the frame, bearing new information, discordant news that disrupts the dream logic (while paradoxically ushering in a new set piece). Russian Ark distracts its audience, sending them inward; in contemplation, the viewer loses the thread–but is there a thread? Is real life a narrative? Are dreams even narratives? Some of my favorite moments of the film happened when my anxiety at having been distracted by some gorgeous detail was confirmed by the protagonist, who all of a sudden has lost the European, or who is startled by the bustling arrival of new people. But of course, in this film, the viewer is the protagonist.

But writing about Russian Ark is no good, not really. You have to just see it (but I already said that, right?) To quote again from DeLillo’s Point Omega, “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Sokurov’s film collapses history and art and beauty into a beautiful, edifying, sometimes terrifying dream, a dream that, in its adherence to first-person perspective, is a marvelous approximation of true life. Highly recommended.

“I Guess My Work All These Years Has Been about Living in Dangerous Times” — Don DeLillo Interviewed on NPR

Driving to work this morning in the dark dolorous haze appropriate to a post-Super Bowl Monday, I was more than a little surprised to catch Steve Innskeep interview Don DeLillo on Morning Edition. If you missed the interview, which focuses on DeLillo’s latest, Point Omega, you can listen to it or download it from Morning Edition‘s site. The usually-taciturn DeLillo is particularly reflective, even generous in this interview. “I guess my work all these years has been about living in dangerous times” he says, “and part of this danger has been what the media reports, and how it changes our perceptions.” It’s also kinda strange to hear his voice, which seems frailer and more awkward than I would have imagined. Very cool interview.

WSJ Interviews Don DeLillo

The Wall Street Journal has published an interview with Don DeLillo where the reclusivish author discusses the genesis of his new novella, Point Omega. From the interview:

The Wall Street Journal: How did this book evolve?

Don DeLillo: The idea began in the same place where the novel begins — in the sixth floor gallery at the Museum of Modern Art — and at the same time, summer of 2006. I wandered in and there was “24 Hour Psycho,” which I found very interesting to watch and to think about. In fact, I returned two or three times after that, and by the third visit I was fairly certain I wanted to write something about it — the idea of time and motion and the sense of self-conscious seeing, because everything happens in such slow motion and because the imagery is somewhat familiar from the movie itself. I began to wonder about such things, about how we see and what we see, and what we miss seeing when we’re looking at things in a more conventional format. And I decided finally that I wasn’t going to risk writing a piece of nonfiction because I’m not a philosopher or a physicist and I could not study time in the matter that seemed to be warranted. So I placed a character in the gallery and began from there.

The Wall Street Journal seems to be on a streak when it comes to interviewing authors who typically avoid interviews–Cormac McCarthy talked with the financial magazine late last year. Maybe we should scour their archives more closely–who knows, maybe there’s a secret Salinger interview stashed away somewhere.

Point Omega — Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s latest work 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.

Point Omega pretends to be a novel about two subjects: the Iraq War and film. Its narrator Jim Finley is an experimental filmmaker who travels to the Arizona desert in an attempt to convince aging intellectual Richard Elster to participate in a film comprised solely of one long, unedited take of Elster talking about whatever he likes. Although Finley repeatedly claims that Elster can talk about whatever he chooses to in the film, it’s clear that that the younger man wishes for the subject to be Elster’s involvement in the planning of the Iraq War, a sort of mea culpa from the intellectual elite who rolled over to the Bush administration. Elster’s involvement was essentially to provide academic credibility to the invasion:

He was the outsider, a scholar with an approval rating but no experience in government. He sat at a table in a secure conference room with the strategic planners and military analysts. He was there to conceptualize, his words, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counter-insurgency. He was cleared to read classified manuscripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.

Elster becomes disillusioned with the whole process soon; he comes to realize the hollowness of his role and soon moves to the desert. “He’d exchanged all that for space and time,” writes DeLillo, announcing his theme. Later in the novella, Elster claims that the geologic time of the desert allows him to feel, “Time falling away . . . Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time.” He contrasts this “deep time” with the time of cities:

It’s all embedded, the hours and minutes, words and numbers everywhere, he said, train stations, bus routes, taxi meters, surveillance cameras. It’s all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives. Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There’s an endless counting down, he said. When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature is meant to cure. The epic poem, the bedtime story.

Elster appears concerned that humanity is approaching Teilhard’s omega point, the maximum level of complexity of consciousness toward which the universe is evolving. He concedes that this idea might be “a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea our experience.” For Elster, the omega point is inevitable and leads to either “a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion.” Ultimately, his viewpoint seems nihilistic: he’d rather human beings somehow be transformed into stones, be somehow absorbed into a new time, a geologic time.

The obsession with time and film literally wraps the book in two short chapters called “Anonymity” (a prologue) and “Anonymity 2” (an epilogue (or a prescient epitaph, perhaps?)). Both sections describe a man who spends all of his time at MOMA’s presentation of Douglas Gordon’s videowork 24 Hour Psycho, a silent showing of Hitchcock’s Psycho over 24 hours. Neither section is narrated by Finley, although it later becomes clear that he–along with other principals in the story–is present at the showing. The unnamed man whose consciousness permeates these chapters finds his own omega point in the crawling pace of the film. 24 Hour Psycho divorces itself from the healing powers that stories give us, the power to narrativize all the gaps and crevices of life. It’s no longer the medicine that Elster suggests literature (or film) might be. It now exists outside of narrative cohesion and somehow resonates with the purity or transcendence of geologic time.

Fortunately, DeLillo is gracious enough to his readers to not attempt replicating the pace of geologic time in his book. Point Omega is particularly slim–under 120 pages in hardback–and reads with a the conciseness and clarity which has been a hallmark of DeLillo’s style. As perhaps the signal writer of post-postmodernism (whatever that means), DeLillo continues to engage and anticipate new and emerging forms of alienation, and he does so without gimmicks or trickery, just the purity of considered ideas. Point Omega works best when he allows those ideas some room to breathe; the late-night scotch-soaked dialogues between Elster and Finley are some of the finest passages of the book and it’s a pity there aren’t more of them.

But it seems like we’ve digressed from some of our starting points, doesn’t it? Many critics will call Point Omega DeLillo’s “Iraq War novel,” which is a mistake akin to calling Underworld a book about baseball or White Noise a book about Hitler. The war is merely an entry point to the greater, more personal tragedy that underlies the book, a tragedy that will perhaps make Elster reassess his own value system. We won’t name the trauma at the core of the book–to do so might spoil a twist in a book largely devoid of conventional concrete plotting–but it is worth noting that DeLillo optimizes suspense and tension as the novel builds to its own omega point. While many will feel left cold by the book’s ultimately ambiguous invocation of personal calamity, we found in it a meaningful counterpoint to Elster’s explicit commentary on time and identity. DeLillo’s novel, in the end, requires an intellectual–or perhaps, dare we say spiritual–leap. Point Omega is hardly a satisfying read, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Highly recommended.

Point Omega is available February 2nd, 2010 from Scribner.

DeLillo Goes Psycho

Okay. We admit that’s a stupid headline. Anyway.

We dove into our review copy of Don DeLillo’s latest novel (it’s really a novella, despite claims made by its cover and press materials) Point Omega last night. It opens with a protracted scene of a man at the 2006 MOMA showing of Douglas Gordon’s videowork, 24 Hour Psycho. Gordon’s project, first presented in Glasgow and Berlin in 1993, slows Alfred Hitchock’s classic Psycho to a crawl, stretching the entire film over 24 hours.

DeLillo’s description:

The slightest camera movement was a profound shift in space and time but the camera was not moving now. Anthony Perkins is turning his head. It was like whole numbers. The man could count the gradations in the movement of Anthony Perkins’ head. Anthony Perkins turns his head in five incremental movements rather than one continuous motion. It was like bricks in a wall, clearly countable, not like the flight of an arrow or a bird. Then again it was not like or unlike anything. Anthony Perkins’ head swiveling over time on his long thin neck.

Ah, DeLillo — “it was not like or unlike anything” — redact your own similes. There’s also this classic DeLilloian line in the episode, somehow both concise and oblique: “The film made him feel like someone watching a film.” Maybe watching this 35 second YouTube clip of 24 Hour Psycho will make you feel like someone watching a 35 second YouTube clip of 24 Hour Psycho.

Books To Look Forward To In 2010

A couple of months ago, this cryptic postcard arrived in the mail:

A second novel from Ralph Ellison? Wasn’t that Juneteenth, the posthumous work pieced together from thousands of pages and notes by Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan? The one that was kinda sorta panned as a mess (or at least an incomplete vision)? A few weeks later, another postcard:

So we were still a little confused. Was Three Days Before the Shooting… a more complete version of Juneteenth, or a wholly separate novel? A week or two later, a third postcard showed up with some answers: Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting… is a re-edit of the material originally presented as Juneteenth back in 1999, expanded from 368 pages to 1136 pages. Hopefully, Ellison’s vision will be restored here. Modern Library plans to release Three Days Before the Shooting… in late January of 2010.

Don DeLillo‘s newest novel Point Omega (sounds like some G.I. Joe shit) will drop in early February of 2010. It’s a slim 128 pages, a novella really, which might be a nice change of pace. Here’s the cover:

Wells Towers had something of a hit this year with his collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but maybe you didn’t read it because it was in oh-so cumbersome hardback. Thankfully, Picador will release Everything Ravaged in trade paperback in February of 2010. In the meantime, check out Chris Roth’s short adaptation of the title story:

There’s no release date yet for Jonathan Franzen‘s forthcoming novel Freedom, but it should come out next year. The novel is Franzen’s follow-up to his breakout hit, The Corrections. Can’t wait an indeterminate measure? The New Yorker published an excerpt called Good Neighborsearlier this year.

We began with a posthumous novel and will end with one: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may or may not come out in 2010 (some websites are citing 2011 now). We will not parse through the problems of unfinished, post-death work here but simply say we want to read it. We were intrigued by–and enjoyed–the portions of the novel that have been published thus far, and we love Wallace, and we’re greedy, and we want more.