I fell in love with Kelly Link’s writing from the first page of the first story in Stranger Things Happen. That was some years ago, but I go back to the book often, and often I find I’ve misremembered something, even as I fall in love with the stories again. I have even had the just-for-a-second delusion, faster than reason, that Link has snuck into my home and rewritten stories to dazzle me differently this time, because that’s just the sort of thing she’d do. She’s funny and bookish, charming and ghoulish, original even when she’s referential. She’s one of those writers I always tell people about, but worry how to describe her: yes, she writes ghost stories and fantasy, but not really. But, really, she does: aficionados of both should love her, but so should people who never stray from the strictest lit-fic. I admire imagination and craft, in equal measure. Link is one of the very few who have both in seemingly limitless quantity.
I read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 on the beach last winter, and when I think about it now, there are still children running around at the edges of the book, burying each other in the sand. It seems only fair that memory should encroach on Bolaño’s magnum opus, the novel which he left uncorrected when he died in 2003. 2666 encroaches on memory; it encroaches on reality itself.
Centered, loosely, on the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the novel creates a vast and nearly plausible planet inhabited by academics, sportswriters, petty criminals and their rich bosses, lawyers, victims, and, at the center of it all, two very tall Germans. Wait for them. Everything is how it is and everything is a little wrong: how does a little magazine in Harlem have the budget to hire a full-time boxing correspondent? Why doesn’t that house in the desert have any windows? A greater mystery: how is it that Bolaño is able to make writers seem so interesting? There’s a chilling moment near the end of the book, when Bolaño has one of his characters say, “Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. […] Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece.” I don’t know if Bolaño himself believed that, but I’m of the opinion that 2666, for all its David-Lodge-style academic hijinx and its saggy ending, is a masterpiece. Given that there are basically no books like it, 2666 isn’t especially well camouflaged, unless it’s by those children, that sand, the fronds of memory that cover up a book which seemed, for a few days, more real than the world.
Months before Ian McEwan’s Atonement was published in the U.S., the galley was being passed from bookseller to bookseller at Book Soup, where I worked at the time. My usually jaded coworkers were effusive, and by the time they had passed the book on to me, my interest was piqued.
Atonement introduced me to McEwan, one of the leading literary lights of the last 25 years, a prolific and sometimes controversial novelist. It proved to be quite an introduction. Atonement is told in three parts, nestling the mannered charms of an English country house up against an arresting tale of Britain at war, and it has an ending that turns an admittedly accomplished but conventional novel into a gut-punch of a book that toys with the idea of the reliable narrator and gets one thinking about the ethics of story-telling and the power that a writer has to bend history to his will.
McEwan was a Booker winner in 1998 for Amsterdam, but it was Atonement that cemented him as that rare thing, the literary superstar.
There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature.
And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home.
The intellectual history of modernity is in one sense the story of specialization. In the 16th Century, Descartes imagines writing a magnum opus called The World; by the 21st, it takes 500 pages just to cover Salt. Nor has the novel, that mirror dragged down the road of the culture, been immune to the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties. James Wood may posit two novelistic bloodlines, extending from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, and Zadie Smith may see two paths going forward, but to stand before the Barnes & Noble fiction tables circa 2009 is to be asked to choose among thrillers and literary fiction, psychological novels and novels of ideas, novels driven by plot and novels driven by language, novels hailed for their imagination and those hailed for their accuracy.
What the fiction writer in me loves about Mortals is that Norman Rush writes as if none of these distinctions exist. He does all of the above not just well, but wonderfully. The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch’s midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen.
Yet Mortals doesn’t feel like a mere showcase for the various novelistic virtues. Rush is downright radical in his refusal to pass judgment on his characters or to let the reader settle into a comfortable ironic distance. You have to learn, in the first 100 pages, to read through Ray’s blustery self-presentation; as with people in real life, you have to learn to love him. And the reader in me loves that. More than any other fictional character to appear in the last 10 years, Ray Finch is alive.