Notes on Vulture’s “Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon”

Last year, Vulture put together a list of “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction,” and I wrote about it on my blog. The list was good fun, and there are a handful of novels on it I’m still keeping an eye out for (feel free to send me a copy of David Ohle’s Motorman, people).

Today, Vulture published another list of 100 books, this one ambitiously but cautiously titled, “A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon.” The list begins with a nearly-900 word prefatory essay called “Why Now?” that isn’t bad but is perhaps unnecessary; the sentence, “We thought it might be fun to speculate (very prematurely) on what a canon of the 21st century might look like right now” is fine enough. I mean, look: List-making is fun. Putting together a syllabus or anthology or “canon” is fun. It generates conversation and maybe pisses folks off. And Vulture racked up a range of ringers to make their list—I have a lot of respect for many of the critics and writers who contributed here.

But ultimately, I think we all know that this canon is not a canon; it cannot be a canon because a canon evolves over time, and then evolves (or devolves or implodes or mutates or pick your verb) more. We don’t know what the most important books of the past eighteen years are yet, and most of us won’t be alive to know what they turn out to be. We would be better suited, really, to naming the canonical novels of 1900-1918 I suppose. But again, I think we all know that. Lists are fun. I take Vulture’s list to be a lovely set of reading recommendations from a set of smart folks.

I’ve already prefaced too much. I will go through the list, fairly quickly, in the order that Vulture prepared it, making comments or making none, occasionally recommending an alternative. I will write quickly without much reflection and I will undoubtedly forget a ton of books.

The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt (September 20, 2000)

For a few years now, almost every single reader whose taste I greatly admire has recommended DeWitt’s debut novel to me. I’ll admit that I didn’t care for her novel Lightning Rods at all, which seemed like the premise for a Ballard story stretched too thin over 200 or so pages. I am close to giving up on her short story collection Some Trick. I may be entirely misreading her. However, I admire the critic Christian Lorentzen, who helmed Vulture’s essay on The Last Samurai, and the fact that it came in number one on the list means that I’ll almost certainly give it a shot.

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (September 1, 2001)

I recall chuckling at the part where the one son was drunk and doing some business with the lawn clippers. I suspect there’s some nostalgia at work with this one. Should I recommend a different book so early? Sure: Open City, by Teju Cole  (February 8, 2011) is somehow absent.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3, 2005) 

I can’t quibble. Reminds me that I want to read The Unconsoled

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti (September 25, 2010) 

Autofiction! Maybe I should read it. In the meantime, may I recommend Writers, by Antoine Volodine (August 5th, 2016)?

The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante (2011-2015)

Are these autofiction, too? I love these books. I would read a fifth one. And a sixth one. Etc.

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (May 5, 2015)

I downloaded the audiobook of this this summer but kept stalling, which is weird because it’s pretty short (Nelson reads it herself, too). Give it another shot.

2666, by Roberto Bolaño (November 11, 2008) 

What can I say? There are seven review of 2666 posted on Biblioklept. I would’ve picked this as number one. Ten years after a hype cycle that could’ve withered a lesser book, 2666 seems as prescient as ever—not only in its content, but in its form—or really the welding of content and form, into one big dark dark big labyrinth-poem.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (March 3, 2015) 

Another reminder that I don’t read enough contemporary fiction.

The Outline Trilogy (OutlineTransit, and Kudos), by Rachel Cusk (2014–2018) 

Somehow Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon (November 21, 2006) is not on this list, a fact that has nothing whatsoever to do with Cusk’s books, which I have not read.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan (September 2001) 

I found it a slog and an utter bore. Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann (2005) is somehow not on Vulture’s list.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (September 1, 2005) 

I remember reading it when it came out but I really don’t remember anything other than the premise.  A Mercy, by Toni Morrison (November 11, 2008) is not on Vulture’s list

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner (August 23, 2011)

I hated 10:04 (Lerner’s follow up to Atocha Station) so much that I doubt I will ever read another book by the man. I loved loved loved Flee, by Evan Dara (2013) though.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (April 2, 2013) 

Luc Sante is recommending The Flamethrowers, so maybe I should finally make time to read it.

Erasure, by Percival Everett (August 1, 2001)

Haven’t read any Everett; is this a good starting place?

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides(September 4, 2002)

A thoroughly passable entertainment that has no business on a list. Did you know that Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware (2000) was published in the last 18 years also?

Platform, by Michel Houellebecq (September 5, 2002) 

Houellebecq writes fascinating stuff, and his follow up The Possibility of an Island (2005) would fit in here too.

Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana (June 1, 2003)

Lorentzen’s write up of this one made me add it to a little note I keep on my iPhone of books to look out for.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (August 14, 2003)

Haven’t heard of it.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (September 30, 2004)

I tried with Roth, I really did, and it just didn’t stick, none of it, just not for me. Point Omega, by Don DeLillo (February 2, 2010), is, in my estimation, one of the better novels of the post-9/11 zeitgeist (and really underrated as a DeLillo novel).

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (October 1, 2004)

A really fantastic book that’s not on this list is Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (July 7, 2009).

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill (October 11, 2005)

I’ve enjoyed some of her short stories a lot.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (September 26, 2006)

It’s good. No Country for Old Men (2005) is probably better, but not as zeitgeisty.

Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel (November 14, 2006)

Ooga-Booga is a fantastic name for a book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (September 6, 2007)

I recalled enjoying it fine, but it’s hardly canonical stuff, is it?

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (April 30, 2009)

I loved Bring Up the Bodies (May 8, 2012) very much too.

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (February 16, 2010)

Always meant to read this and then never followed through.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender (June 1, 2010)

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (June 1, 2011)

Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrère (September 13, 2011)

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (October 6, 2011) 

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (May 24, 2012)

NW, by Zadie Smith (August 27, 2012)

White Girls, by Hilton Als (January 1, 2013)

Mr. Fox looks good—but is it fantastic? I read Zone One but I guess it didn’t make a huge impression on me, because I don’t recall much besides the premise. White Teeth didn’t persuade me to read another of Smith’s books, but many smart people say they are good so.

My Struggle: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 13, 2013)

Where are my Never Knuasgaards?

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (September 23, 2013)

Is this any good?

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (January 28, 2014)

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (April 11, 2014)

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (October 7, 2014)

consent not to be a single being, by Fred Moten (2017–2018)

I’ve been copying and pasting the titles, authors, and dates from Vulture’s sites, and each time I have to remove their Amazon links.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (September 19, 2000)

I will never understand the acclaim for this one. Never.

Also: Hey: If this Vulture list came out in, say, 2008, how many Jonathan Lethem books would be on it? How many Dave Eggers books?

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman(October 10, 2000)

Great stuff.

True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey (January 9, 2001)

I’m beginning to get tired of this post and I wished that I hadn’t started and I apologize to you, reader. Gerald Murnane seems like a writer to put on a list.

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, by Anne Carson (February 6, 2001)

I don’t know this one! Autobiography of Red came out in 1998 so it can’t go on the list, and thus proves lists are only foolish fun.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich (April 3, 2001)

This list is a huge reminder to me that I don’t read enough women. I try, but I think I don’t try hard enough.

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald (October 2, 2001)

A challenging book, and not the best starting place for Sebald, but also very rewarding. (Start with The Rings of Saturn (1995)).

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (February 4, 2002)

The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers (October 3, 2002)

The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong (April 7, 2003)

Mortals, by Norman Rush (May 27, 2003)

Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte (February 16, 2004)

I recall liking Home Land a lot, but canonical it ain’t. I tried with Richard Powers but it did not take.

Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace (June 8, 2004)

I’m tempted to write a whole mini-essay here in the middle of this damn thing about how Wallace’s literary stock seems to have fallen, at least to a broader audience, over the last few years. He seems like a target for handwringers to wring their hands over—and he (and, more importantly, his work) doesn’t even seem like the target—it’s his reputation and his fans that seem like the target. Anyway. I mean:

“Good Old Neon” is in Oblivion, and it belongs on the list.

Honored Guest, by Joy Williams (October 5, 2004)

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky (October 31, 2004)

The Sluts, by Dennis Cooper (January 13, 2005)

Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich (June 28, 2005)

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (July 1, 2005)

The Afterlife, by Donald Antrim (May 30, 2006)

Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell (August 7, 2006)

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (August 8, 2006)

American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman (September 25, 2006)

Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta (November 28, 2006)

Many casual readers may not know that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) was both a commercial and a critical flop—it essentially ended his writing career. The book found its audience among the modernist critics, writers, and readers of the 1920s though, and by the 1940s was generally esteemed as a canonical classic.

The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling (1997–2007) 

Oh.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August Kleinzahler (April 1, 2008)

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (April 22, 2008)

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon (May 1, 2008)

Home, by Marilynne Robinson (September 2, 2008)

Fine Just the Way It Is, by Annie Proulx (September 9, 2008)

Scenes From a Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee (1997–2009)

Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss (February 3, 2009)

Spreadeagle, by Kevin Killian (March 1, 2010)

There are 100 books on this list and somehow The Last Novel, by David Markson (2007) is not one of them.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart (July 27, 2010)

I genuinely hate this novel.

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm (March 22, 2011)

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (August 4, 2011)

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (October 25, 2011)

The Gentrification of the Mind, by Sarah Schulman (January 7, 2012)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (May 1, 2012)

Capital, by John Lanchester (June 11, 2012)

I’ve finally given in and admitted to myself that Haruki Murakami is Not For Me.

The MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood (2003-2013)

MaddAddam wasn’t especially good but Atwood’s first two are pretty good zeitgeisty affairs (and fun quick reads).

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra (May 7, 2013)

Taipei, by Tao Lin (June 4, 2013)

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (September 17, 2013)

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (April 7, 2014)

How to Be Both, by Ali Smith (August 28, 2014)

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (October 2, 2014)

I’ll admit I’ve stopped reading even the blurbs at this point.

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish (November 11, 2014)

A tremendous novel. The sort of thing that if you described the plot to me I’d, like, wave my hand as if to say, “Pass” — but, no, it’s so, so, so very good.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (April 7, 2015)

The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (April 21, 2015)

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2015-2017)

What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)

Collected Essays & Memoirs (Library of America edition), by Albert Murray (October 18, 2016)

The Needle’s Eye, by Fanny Howe (November 1, 2016)

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag (February 7, 2017)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (February 28, 2017)

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg (March 7, 2017)

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui (March 7, 2017)

Tell Me How it Ends, by Valeria Luiselli (March 13, 2017)

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (May 2, 2017)

Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (January 16, 2018)

Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday (February 6, 2018)

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson (January 16, 2018)

Johnson’s novel isn’t last on the list—Halliday’s is—(and I don’t think “last” is anything but chronology for the authors near the end of the list)—but I’ve read it and I love it (and it’s another write up from Lorentzen)—but it’s not a canonical work. It’s great, and it somehow manages to match Johnson’s best early stuff, but again—not canonical. Although of course I could be wrong.

What I think is this:

For a while, we’ll see the canon, or The Canon if you prefer—and just as significantly, the idea of a literary canon–increasingly atomized, interrogated, personalized, and deconstructed (and perhaps neglected, at least from an academic standpoint). It doesn’t matter. The work of today’s literary darlings may be the foamy flotsam and jetsam of tomorrow. But of course you’ll be dead—I mean I’ll be dead—what I’m saying is we’ll be dead, so it doesn’t matter. We could pretend to be, like, Stewards of the Canon or something—hope for a cultural continuity (or discontinuity) that preserves (or disrupts) Certain Literary Values (Ours!)—or maybe just accept that reading is a bit of pleasure, a bit of fun, and that we antecede those who will decide, a hundred years from now, what the 21st-century canon really is.

 

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Seven (Long) Books I’ll Read Again

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Life is too short not to reread. Chosen somewhat randomly but also sincerely, seven books I’d love to read again sometime soon:

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

I read Mason & Dixon a few years back and then started to immediately reread it before getting sidetracked with something else. Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, I think that M&D coheres on a first read, but it’s so rich and full and crammed with life that it deserves another go through. In my completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Pynchon’s novels, I wrote,

Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

A bit of a cheat maybe to put short stories on this list, but I’d love to set aside time to go through all of them at once.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I finished Middlemarch last month. Eliot’s novel captures consciousness in action in a remarkably deft, often ironic, but also very sweet way—particularly the consciousness of her hero Dorothea Brooke, who is one of my favorite characters in literature. I wrote about Dorothea in a post earlier this year:

So far, my favorite character in Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke. In part my allegiance to her is simply a matter of the fact that she initially appears to be the novel’s central character—until Eliot swerves into new narratives near the end of Book I (Book I of VIII, by the way). But beyond traditional formal sympathies, it’s the way that Eliot harnesses Dorothea’s consciousness that I find so appealing. Eliot gives us in Dorothea an incredibly intelligent yet palpably naive young woman who feels the world around her a smidge too intensely. Dorothea is brilliant but a bit blind, and so far Middlemarch most interests me in the way that Eliot evokes this heroine’s life as a series of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic revelations. We see Dorothea seeing—and then, most remarkably, we see Dorothea seeing what she could not previously see.

The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara

I read Dara’s cult debut in a dizzy rush about five years ago, and have meant to reread it again since then. Like Middlemarch, Dara’s novel is very much about consciousness and how consciousness operates. From a blog post a few years back:

I am really loving this book so far, this novel that moves through consciousnesses in a (yes, I’ll use that cliché that book reviewers so often grab for) dazzling performance, shifting through minds, monologues, dialogues, always a few steps (or more) ahead of its reader, beckoning though, inviting, calling its reader to participate in discussions (or performances) of art, science, politics, psychology, education, loneliness, ecology, family, fireflies, radio plays, alienation, voting trends, Chomskyian linguistics, Eisensteinian montage, theft, Walkman Personal Stereos, semiotics, one-man shows, drum sets, being ventriloquized—a novel that takes ventriloquism as not just a theme (as we can see in the citation above) but also as a rhetorical device, a novel that ventriloquizes its reader, throws its reader into a metaphorical deep end and then dramatically shifts the currents as soon as the reader has learned to swim, a novel of othernesses, a novel that offers content through conduits, patterns that coalesce through waves, a novel composed in transfer points, each transfer point announcing the limitations of first-person perspective, the perspective that the reader is logically and spiritually and psychologically beholden to—and then, perhaps, transcending (or at least producing the affective illusion of transcendence of) first-person perspective, and this (illusion of) transcendence, oh my, what a gift, what a gift . . .

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

I had a false start with The Recognitions maybe 10 years ago, and then made it through a few years after that. I’ve since read Gaddis’s novel J R twice, and I think it’s the superior novel—but I’d like to revisit The Recognitions to see how accurate that assessment is. In my review I wrote:

The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.

I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus is the kind of literary masterpiece that survives they hype that surrounds it. I’ve read it straight through three times and will read it through three more given the chance. I’ve written at least seven “reviews” of 2666 on this site, but this one on the novel’s intertextual structure is probably my best effort.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick forever!

A completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Thomas Pynchon’s novels

To date, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (American, b. 1937), has published eight novels and one collection of short stories. These books were published between 1963 and 2013. On this day, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 81st birthday, I present my ranking of his novels. My ranking is completely subjective, essentially incomplete (in that I haven’t read two of Pynchon’s novels all the way through), and thoroughly unnecessary. My ranking should be disregarded, but I do not think it should be treated with any malice. You are most welcome to make your own ranking in the comments section of this post, or perhaps elsewhere online, or on a scrap of your own paper, or in personal remarks to a friend or loved one, etc. I have not included the short story collection Slow Learner (1984) in this ranking because it is not a novel.

Here is the list, ranked from not-greatest to greatest:

8. Bleeding Edge (2013)

I have never made it past the first thirty pages of Bleeding Edge, despite two attempts. I don’t even own it. I will probably read it in ten years and see something there that I didn’t see in 2013 or 2015 but for now, I’m not sure.

7. Vineland (1990)

Vineland is the other Pynchon novel I haven’t managed to finish. I’ve tried three times, including a semi-serious shot last year where I stalled after the fourth chapter (around 90 pages in). Vineland seems to have a strange status for Pynchon cultists—its a cult novel in an oeuvre of cult novels, I guess. Perhaps Vineland has a sturdier core to it than I can sense, but even though I dig the goofy humor, I haven’t yet found something to grab onto.

6. Inherent Vice (2009)

I love Inherent Vice. It has a bit of a reputation of being “Pynchon lite,” whatever that means, but I think it’s a much denser book than a first reading might suggest—its shaggy baggy breeziness coheres into something stronger on a second or third read. Inherent Vice is both a diagnosis of the sixties and a prognosis of a future to come.

5. V. (1963)

V. makes a good starting place for anyone new to Pynchon. Even though it’s his first novel, V. already stages Pynchon’s major themes (paranoia, technology, entropy, globalism) in an elastic and discursive narrative style and a zany (and sometimes sinister) tone. These elements continued throughout the next half century in Pynchon’s writing. V. shares a few characters with Gravity’s Rainbow, and in many ways it feels like a dress rehearsal for that bigger, grander, fuller novel—but it reverberates with its own richness. The ninth chapter, the story of of Kurt Mondaugen, is a particularly dark and decadent bit of writing.

4. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

The Crying of Lot 49 doesn’t so much convert paranoia into hope as it shows that the two are part and parcel of the same impulse of a consciousness that has to know that it cannot know. Pynchon’s dualities here feel new—paranoia/hope is wrapped into zaniness/horror. He sends us to escape into the labyrinth. I wrote new in the previous sentence, but Pynchon’s ambiguities resonate with American literature’s dark romantic traditions—Melville, Hawthorne, O’Connor, et al.

3. Against the Day  (2006)

Against the Day glides into its sprawl, billowing out into genre trajectories that transcend the boundaries of the plot’s dates (1893-1918). Pynchon’s longest novel to date earns its 1,085-page run, pivoting between comic fantasy, high adventure, flânerie escapade, scientific treatise, and a byzantine global mystery—all weighed down by the ballast of rising modernism. Pynchon merges these styles, both “high” and “low,” into something thoroughly Pynchonian. Despite its length, Against the Day is perhaps Pynchon’s clearest indictment of sinister power, neatly figured in the oligarch Scarsdale Vibe. Just writing about it here makes me want to revisit it again and check in on The Chums of Chance and their marvelous airship The Inconvenience. 

2. Mason & Dixon (1997)

Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.

1. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the best American postmodern novel ever produced. In any case, I haven’t read another novel that so acutely dissects postwar America. Pynchon extends Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex” by adding another element: entertainment. The intuition here surpasses prescience. The problem with Gravity’s Rainbow is that it cannot be read—it has to be reread. Its themes, motifs, and symbols are easy to miss on a first pass through, when you’re likely bugeyed and bewildered. Rereading Gravity’s Rainbow is like reading it for the first time. You have to let the book teach you how to read it. Let it teach you.

Blog about the correct ranking of all Electric Light Orchestra songs with the word “blue” in the title

There are, to date, seven songs by the British rock group Electric Light Orchestra that contain the word “blue” in the title. A few of these are among ELO’s finest songs. I have put a lot of thought into this matter (by which I mean maybe five minutes), and decided that these are the correct rankings of ELO’s “blue” songs, from the not-best to the very-best:

#7. “Midnight Blue,” from Discovery (1979)

“Midnight Blue” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like a rehash of ELO’s better down-tempo ballad, “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” (from Eldorado, a much better album than Discovery). Lynne’s synthesized background vocals near the beginning point to a weirder, more-interesting tune than the standard pop song that emerges.

#6. “Birmingham Blues,” from Out of the Blue (1977)

“Birmingham Blues” is the first of two tracks from the album Out of the Blue on this list of songs with the word “blue” in the title. Out of the Blue is the only ELO album to date with the word “blue” in the title. Again, “Birmingham Blues” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like filler on an album that features songs like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.”

#5. “Blue,” from Alone in the Universe (2015)

Technically, “Blue” is by Jeff Lynne’s ELO, but c’mon. It’s basically Jeff Lynne’s show after 1974 anyway. Alone in the Universe is a surprisingly good album—most of the songs clock in around three minutes, showing a restraint and focus not always present in the seventies stuff. “Blue” is actually a bonus track. It’s a sweet little ditty, beholden to the Beatles in the best possible way. (Lynne’s best Beatlesesque numbers synthesize the signature traits of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison—and hell, even Ringo—into something new and different).

#4. “Bluebird Is Dead,” from On the Third Day (1973)

On the Third Day is kind of the album where ELO starts to become, like ELO. “Bluebird Is Dead” is probably the loosest and rawest song on this list, and I think it’s Lynne’s vocal that puts it so high up here for me.

#3. “Mr. Blue Sky,” from Out of the Blue (1977)

“Mr. Blue Sky” is basically a perfect song. It closes out the “Concerto for a Rainy Day” side of Out of the Blue perfectly, bouncing along in a Beatles-beholden bop that unloads in not one but two—and arguably three endings.

#2. “Bluebird,” from Secret Messages (1983)

Secret Messages is a bit underrated—Jeff Lynne has some great ideas on the record (a lot of them showcased in “Bluebird”), but the ideas often fail to cohere. (For example, “Loser Gone Wild” offers a pastiche of the best and worst aspects of this era of ELO—a big contrast to the pastiche of “Mr. Blue Sky,” where everything works). “Bluebird” is a gorgeous song that has to grow on any listener. It’s corny as hell—hell, most of ELO is extremely corny, which is something I love about the band. They are Not Cool, a topic for another post. Anyway, “Bluebird” is a sweet, sad, wonderfully-overproduced song about loss. At about a minute into the jam, Lynne includes an infectious sample of himself simply repeating “work work work” —  and one senses that “Bluebird” isn’t just about a human relationship, but Lynne’s own relationship to his songwriting and production.

#1. “Boy Blue,” from Eldorado (1974)

Eldorado is my favorite ELO album and “Boy Blue” is my favorite song on Eldorado. The song is another pastiche, Beatlesesque pop mixed up with orchestral flourishes, but edged around with an almost-menacing motortik drive. (In another life, ELO could have been the Great English Krautrock band). Lyrically, the song is one ELO’s most focused. Boy Blue is our hometown hero, lately at war with some heathen or another, returns: “Hey, Boy Blue is back,” the town/chorus exclaims. They make a lot of noise for their boy, and ask where he’s been for so many years in the first verse. The second verse is Boy Blue’s reply, wherein he describes the hell of war, where he saw “bold knights, dropping down like flies, “kings, rolling in the mire,” and even God pointing “the finger of doom to our foes.” Lynne’s greatest couplet is surely in this song: “I have fought in the holiest wars/ I have smashed, some of the holiest jaws.” The violence Boy Blue has experienced (he’s been jailed and impaled, among other ordeals) has made him reflect that “no man should be stricken with fear.” He ends his verse by declaring, “no man, shall cause me to take up arms again.” Lynne’s delivery of these lyrics is what really makes the song soar though—his Boy Blue persona becomes more intense even as he builds to his promise of peace.

And here is a Spotify playlist of the songs; the sequencing has nothing to do with the rankings above:

List with No Name #58

the-scream-18932

Study for a Portrait 1952 Francis Bacon 1909-1992 Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury 2006, accessioned 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T12616

Reflections on The Scream 1990 Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997 ARTIST ROOMS   Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection 2015 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AL00371

Screaming Head with a White Veil 1941 Julio Gonz?lez 1876-1942 Presented by Mme Roberta Gonzalez-Richard, the artist's niece 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01631

André Kertész (American (born Hungary), Budapest 1894–1985 New York) Distortion #51, 1933 Gelatin silver print; Image: 9.6 x 6.9 cm (3 3/4 x 2 11/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1987 (1987.1180) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/265734

medusa-1597-1-jpghalfhd warhol-scream-large the-scream-jpglarge man-screaming-also-known-as-study-for-hell echo-of-a-scream-1937-jpglarge the-scream-19101

Some books I’ll try to read in 2017 (Presented by The Good Intentions Paving Company)

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I’m in the middle of Paul Bowles’s stories right now, and loving the weird sinister menace of it all. I’ll probably take a crack at some of his novels this year too (The Sheltering Sky next? I’ll need to pick them up).

Senges’s The Major Refutation is also on deck.

Not pictured, because it’s not out yet, is Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories (forthcoming in the spring from Dorothy); I’m really looking forward to this one. The NYRB is also publishing Carrington’s memoir Down Below, which looks really cool. I’ve only read the collection The Oval Lady (and that through samizdat means), so I’m happy to see Carrington’s words in print.

The Expedition of Dr. Ramsbottom, Leonora Carrington, 1961
The Expedition of Dr. Ramsbottom, Leonora Carrington, 1961

Also not pictured because its forthcoming (from Two Lines Press) is Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll (translated by Adam Morris). I’m anxious to read more from Noll after digging his novella Quiet Creature on the Corner.

Back to the stack in the picture: I loved Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and The Freelance Pallbearers (which strikes me as a really under-remarked upon novel), and I plan on getting to Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down at some point this year.

I’ve had a few false starts with Arno Schmidt’s The Egghead Republic, but maybe I can knock it out in a weekend.

I’ve taken multiple cracks at the novels by Gray, Murdoch, and Hawkes in the stack…so we’ll see.

I read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden in a blur; I’d like to reread it and the other Forrest novel I picked up last month, Two Wings to Veil My Face.

I’ve read enough Pynchon now to make a better effort with Vineland…but again, we’ll see (I’m actually kind of jonesing to reread Against the Day).

(And oh I didn’t make a list like this in 2016, but I was 4 for 8 in the one I did in 2015).

Good intentions.

A (probably incomplete) list of books I read in 2016

The Telling, Ursula K. Le Guin

Four Ways to Forgiveness, Ursula K. Le Guin

J R, William Gaddis*

The Inheritors, William Golding

American Candide, Mahendra Singh

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe, William Bauer

Collected Stories, William Faulkner

A Temple of Texts, William H. Gass

Cow Country, Adrian Jones Pearson

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie

Extinction, Ashley Dawson

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante

Quiet Creature on the Corner, João Gilberto Noll

The Last Gas Station and Other Stories, Tom Clark

The Weight of Things, Marianne Fritz

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera

Miserable Miracle, Henri Michaux

The Franchiser, Stanley Elkin

Hell, Henri Barbusse

White Mythology, W.D. Clarke

The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin

The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal

Marketa Lazarova, Vladislav Vančura

A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

Hildafolk series, Luke Pearson

The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

Bear, Marian Engel

Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art, Roman Muradov

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon*

The Absolute GravediggerVítězslav Nezval

Beyond the Blurb, Daniel Green

Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolaño*

The Missing Books, Scott Esposito

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick

* indicates a reread

List of writers mentioned in Gordon Lish’s Paris Review interview

A list of writers mentioned in Gordon Lish’s Winter 2015 (No. 215) Paris Review interview

Jean Baudrillard

Harold Bloom

Harold Brodkey

William F. Buckley

William S. Burroughs

Raymond Carver

Neal Cassady

Cormac McCarthy

Don DeLillo

Jacques Derrida

Denis Donoghue

Tess Gallagher

Leonard Gardner

Jack Gilbert

Allen Ginsberg

Barry Hannah

Giles Harvey

 Victor Herman

Noy Holland

John Clellon Holmes

Jack Kerouac

Ken Kesey

Stephen King

Romulus Linney

Sam Lipsyte

Atticus Lish

Gary Lutz

Norman Mailer

Ben Marcus

Patty Marx

Cynthia Ozick

Grace Paley

James Purdy

J.D. Salinger

Christine Schutt

Jason Schwartz

Allan Temko

Joy Williams

Tom Wolfe

List with no name #56

  1. King Lear
  2. Henry IV, Part I/II
  3. The Tempest
  4. Othello
  5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  6. Hamlet
  7. Antony and Cleopatra
  8. Twelfth Night
  9. Much Ado about Nothing
  10. Macbeth

Reasons I didn’t read your novel

  1. The first sentence is not compelling.
  2. Neither are the second, third, or fourth sentences.
  3. Nor the fifth.
  4. (I’m sure the later sentences are sterling, stunning stuff, but I’m sorry, I’m sorry, those earlier efforts couldn’t propel me onward).
  5. Those blurbs: So thickly pasted in glowing praise is your novel that its spine I dare not crack.
  6. Swarming with spiders. Scores of mean spiders. A horde, exploding from your novel’s pages.
  7. Too long.
  8. Your novel is part of a trilogy.
  9. Your novel is basically a fan fiction of a nineteenth-century literary novel.
  10. Your novel is basically a fan fiction of a twentieth-century literary novel.
  11. Your novel-memoir-thing is basically a blog.
  12. All the ghosts in your novel are metaphors.
  13. Ceaseless cyborg sex scenes.
  14. Four chapters in, my only thought is “I’ve read this novel before.”
  15. Your novel is in French.
  16. Your novel is too good and I am too stupid.
  17. Your novel is morally instructive.
  18. Printed in pink ink.
  19. I left it on a plane.
  20. Your novel is upside down.
  21. All of your characters have quirky hobbies; this I cannot abide.
  22. Oh cool, a stranger comes to town?
  23. Every verb attributing speech to a character is modified by an adverb.
  24. Too short.
  25. Too few swamps.
  26. That cover!
  27. Your novel is overtly engaged in social issues.
  28. Your novel is about baseball.
  29. Your novel is “erotic.”
  30. Your novel is extraordinarily well behaved.
  31. Your novel’s extended metaphor is too obvious.
  32. Written on rope.
  33. You are a conceptual poet with bad ideas and boring books.
  34. You had me at Rags to Riches—but back to Rags again?! Not this time.
  35. Exposition!
  36. Not enough cyborg sex.
  37. Your novel is a Word doc.
  38. Your novel is part of a tetralogy.
  39. Your novel was so goddamn excellent that it made my right eye twitch. As if it, my eye, were doing some manic jig. Then, my other eye—the left one—well, your novel was just so literary that that eye got to twitching something awful as well. By the second chapter, my eyes were fairly vibrating, and a clear but steady stream of snot was leaking from my nose. By the fourth chapter, I could no longer feel my lips, and by the beginning of chapter five, I was literally insensate. It took me months to recover, aided by family and friends alike. I will try your novel again when I am stronger.
  40. I drank too much.
  41. Your novel is filled with pressed flowers which I’d rather not disturb.
  42. Deader, better novelists await.
  43. 600 pages of a woman brushing her teeth.
  44. The main character is too likable.
  45. Your novel’s extended metaphor is too oblique.
  46. Your novel’s central character worries about poetry all the time. Poetry!
  47. The batteries died.
  48. No pictures.
  49. I’m too cynical.
  50. Your novel was a brightly-colored bunch of helium balloons—beautiful, sure—but I gave them to my daughter and she—almost immediately—surrendered the string to which they were tethered. Your novel is in heaven now, where it certainly belongs.
  51. Your novel is about a math problem.
  52. Mimesis, ugh.
  53. I gave it to a friend I don’t like.
  54. Not enough chainsaws.
  55. Your novel kept sending me to look up obscure references on Wikipedia, and the Wikipedia pages were more intriguing.
  56. Oh cool, you backpacked through Europe?
  57. Unnecessary end-notes.
  58. You keep emphasizing how brilliant and intelligent and talented this character is, yet nothing in the prose harnesses that brilliant intelligent talent.
  59. Your novel is extraordinarily well meaning.
  60. Your novel is carved into the bark of a very tall tree atop a very tall mountain which I am too physically weak to climb.
  61. Your novel is in Italian.
  62. Your novel is too bossy.
  63. Your central character is invisible, and yet no one is having any fun.
  64. You’ve mistaken “imagination” for “research.”
  65. Too much furniture.
  66. Your novel is just the May 1968 issue of Playboy with your name written on the cover in Sharpie. (Okay, I did read your novel).
  67. Magical realism, eh?
  68. You are a brilliant young novelist, perhaps, but you’ve forgotten to read so many of the brilliant young novelists who came before you.
  69. Your novel is made of poison, which is admittedly appealing, but which I fear will kill me.
  70. Your novel’s characters repeatedly reference other, much better novels (by much deader writers), reminding me that those novels exist.
  71. Pages and pages and pages of weather.
  72. I tucked it under the wheel well of a stranger’s automobile.
  73. All the Southern characters’ speech is rendered in bad phonetic transcription.
  74. Did you buy these epigraphs in bulk?
  75. Your novel is very clever and very unfunny.
  76. Not lurid enough.
  77. I left it out in the rain. It turned to pulp and became a temporary home to small suburban animals—do you find some measure of joy in that? No?
  78. Oh cool, you backpacked across Southeast Asia?
  79. Your novel is cursed.
  80. Your novel is a sustained argument against breakfast, and I can’t get down with that.
  81. Hero’s journey, eh?
  82. The first paragraph is too good. I would only be disappointed by anything that came after.
  83. I like my dirty realism much dirtier.
  84. Your novel was actually a salad, so I ate it.
  85. Having every other character be a Christ figure sounds like a cool idea, but it isn’t.
  86. No dial tone.
  87. Your novel is in Japanese.
  88. Your characters earnestly cite long passages from philosophy.
  89. I’m lazy.
  90. Not enough orcs.
  91. Your novel seems to mistake postmodernism, which is a description, for a prescription.
  92. Your novel is “like X on Y times Z.”
  93. Your “literary novel” fetishizes “genre tropes.”
  94. I didn’t drink enough.
  95. I’m just jealous.
  96. The prose is too dazzling.
  97. Look, we’ve all read Kafka, we get it.
  98. Time is limited, life is short, ashes ashes we all fall etc.
  99. I’ll wait for the movie.

My baby Biblioklept turns nine today, so nine sets of nine somethings

This blog is nine today (9/9 hey), which seems old for a blog.

Here are nine sets of nine somethings.

Nine Discourses on Commodus by Cy Twombly

Nine novels I want to re-read soon:

  1. J.R., William Gaddis
  2. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
  3. The Lost Scrapbook, Evan Dara
  4. The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  5. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
  6. The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
  7. Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
  8. Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles
  9. Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon

Continue reading “My baby Biblioklept turns nine today, so nine sets of nine somethings”