I don’t know about “best,” but the funniest, saddest, most interesting, and most (oddly) inspiring book I read this year was Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. Johnson wrote seven extraordinary novels between 1962 and his suicide in 1972. Coe, a novelist himself, tells the story of Johnson’s life through 160 “fragments” from Johnson’s own writings. For all his flaws, Johnson’s energy, humor, and passion come blazing through. I loved this book.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions.…And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier furthers what Henry James had begun to chip away at with his novels of manners and paves the way for the modernist dilemmas that comprise the work of Joyce, Beckett, Eliot and Pound. How do individuals define themselves and interact with others when everything they have known changes? John Dowell’s cagey narration folds in on itself and doubles back, making for more questions than answers as the story of two couples besieges what is thought to be the “extraordinarily safe castle” of their lives. As one of the four primary characters, Dowell relates how this quartet’s existence was like a minuet, lives of orderly precision that never inspired questioning, until it was too late. The story is Dowell’s post-mortem report, which is rich with point-of-view tactics and metaphors cribbed by Ford’s successors. As Dowell warns early during his tale: “I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.”Four decades later, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions hit the increasingly surreal, overtly commercialized scene, a potent cocktail of Christian morality, creative license and New York City bohemia. Fitting in somewhere between Joyce and Pynchon, Gaddis’s pages read with ease, though he devotes much ink to the blasé poses of just about everyone trying to be someone else. At the center of this carousel of masquerades, painter Wyatt Gwyon, his talent so prodigious, and crippling, he begins to forge the works of Flemish masters. Crafting his own canvases and paints, Gwyon’s lines, shadings and textures fool everyone, even Gwyon, to such a degree that his greatest anxiety, and the novel’s for that matter, is how to create a copy of something that has never existed. The lexicons of the transfiguration, academia, fine art and advertising mingle and bristle – a wonderful novel of ideas, full of jokes, japes and jabs.The Roberto Bolaño bug also bit me this year, the excitement orbiting around 2666 prompting me to finally read The Savage Detectives and then 2666. Both books have been picked apart enough, and my praise for them echoes much of what has already been written and said. But, for me, what has made the emergence of these translations most exciting is Bolaño’s Shakespearean appreciation for jokes. I haven’t seen much exploration of this particular aspect of his writing, but both of these novels brim with humor, from the tense tomfoolery of two writerly rivals dueling on a beach to the darkly vicious jokes of the detectives investigating unsolvable murders: “Then the inspector, exhausted after a night’s work, wondered to himself how much of God’s truth lay hidden in ordinary jokes.” Laughter requires humility, which forces you to put your ego in check, oftentimes easier said than done. Bolaño baits these moments, however, reminding his characters and readers that life, while not a joke, is not a dance. Life is not a prescribed set of steps, but a consistently inconsistent stream of events and happenstance, full of contradictions and confusions, sorrows and the sublime, it can ramble, deviate and detour, and like many jokes, the punch line is not always delivered correctly, or even understood as humorous.Both Gaddis and Bolaño use laughter – at times crass, inappropriate and awkward – because it possesses the tremendous power to disarm you, an effect the characters in Ford’s book would have avoided at all costs. Had Ford’s narrator acknowledged laughter as an invaluable impulse, perhaps the circumstances of his life would not strike him as so strange. But of course, that was Ford’s point. For my taste, too much contemporary fiction forgoes laughter. There just is not enough laughter (smirking at irony doesn’t count), probably because the authors and their characters take themselves too seriously. There’s nothing wrong with being serious, but as Gaddis and Bolaño demonstrate, laughter can morph into the proverbial light in darkness, revealing the unnoticed or unrealized, much of which is serious, though it surfaces when we least expect it, caught off guard in the throes of belly-holding laughter.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Five minutes ago, I was in my car on my long drive home from work in Geneva, Switzerland, to the French side of Lake Geneva, and reflecting on my year in reading while listening to a literary podcast. In an interview between two of the best writers of the last 20 years, I heard the older writer, the interviewer, ask the novelist who had just published a new novel the question dreaded by most authors: What are you going to do now? Take a break? Or are you like Anthony Trollope who, legend has it, upon finishing writing a novel, would relax for an hour, and then write the first sentence of his next novel?
Then it hit me: I am so not Trollope. In 2015, I had the best year in my literary life. Actually, no need to front: It was the best year of my life. A novel I’d written lustily and fairly quickly, and then bitterly struggled to find a publisher for, was published to nice reviews from my favorite writers and media. And then the book took a life of its own and found new audiences and fans in communities of readers around the world. During the 11 months of touring 12 cities in six countries in two continents on a budget so small a shoe-string budget would find it insulting, I had lived out a dozen novelist fantasies and experienced some surprises that were so cool and weird they deserve novels of their own, or, prudently, should be taken to the grave.
I could die now, I said one night in bed, saturated with bliss.
No, you can’t, my wife, and mother of my two children, sharply reminded me.
Yet there was one thing I had no interest in doing: writing. At first the lack of interest was mild, the result of extreme exhaustion, a mere reminder that, yep, I wasn’t 22 anymore. That dysfunction quickly dissipated. I had energy, a story, and the usual vampiric schedule and sleeping patterns to go for it again. The problem was I didn’t know what “it” was. Or what the point of it should be. Second novels are less linear a progression in one’s life than getting a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school or getting a master’s degree after seeing how far a bachelor’s will get you, which is not very far at all.
So for the first time in 45 years, I checked out life outside of a life in letters. I taught myself how to swim. I let my New Yorker subscription lapse. I took a non-teaching job. I worried about Hillary Clinton’s chances. And I enjoyed my children. I mean, really enjoyed them. The stories of their days were not stories to be heard for problems to be anticipated or solved, but for each child’s humor and pleasures. Our routines of meals and tickle-fests and movie-watching and chaperoning to practices and parties and dates (Yeah, dates. They really do grow up too fast.) were no longer duties to be carried out during pauses in between writing the next chapter or paragraph or email to my agent. They were the jazz, the stuff, the boom and the bap, life itself. I became so at ease with the modest pleasures of non-writer life in our bucolic corner of the world that I left town, like, only twice.
And get this: I barely read any books. Oh, I bought them as frequently as usual, and I read them too. But I didn’t read them read them. I didn’t read them as a novelist mining source material or looking for that turn of phrase that blazes my literary id like those third down Eli Manning passes that won the Giants Super Bowls. The books I read weren’t foreplay before an evening of writing, the main reason I’d read thousands of comic books, novels, magazines, and newspapers since childhood. I’m not one of those writers who discovered I would be a writer gradually as teachers, girlfriends, editors, and readers’ praise trickled in. I was a writer since sentience. Or better yet: I was a insatiable reader who had to write because the end of Farewell to Arms and the Death of Phoenix saga and Pulp Fiction were so amazing that I felt duty-bound to have a go at giving a reader a variation of those thrills. The rest of life were the things I did to pass time, to please my elders and neighbors in between curling up with a good book and firing up a fresh page on MS Word. My writing was where I hollered, and howled, at my ancestors.
Curiously, my Year of Not Reading ended not after I read a fantastic feat of literature. (Nice try, Colson.) But after I took the kids up to Paris to see “Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation,” a retrospective of African-American political art at Quai Branly late in the fall. The show knocked me up with literary possibilities. Of the many disturbing and wondrous pictures, collages, and paintings in the small and pointed showcase of African-American artists’ responses to Trumpism’s historical antecedents since the “end” of slavery in the late-19th century, the painting that slayed me was a colorful canvas, “Rendezvous” by Wilmer A. Jennings. It show a guy casually lighting a cigarette with his back turned to a black preacher firing up the faithful while that preacher’s own back was turned to an advancing cavalry of Ku Klux Klansmen, carrying the flaming cross that signaled their promise of sadism.
My God, that painting, that moment, that wit, they deserve novels.
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