I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep.
When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative.
In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect.
I think of Jonathan Lethem as the poet laureate of gentrification. This is true in the literal sense — in the case of the subject of this piece, The Fortress of Solitude, and to a somewhat lesser extent with his follow up to it, You Don’t Love Me Yet — in that he writes about neighborhoods in transition: Gowanus in Brooklyn and Echo Park in Los Angeles. But Lethem is also an author gentrifying genre fiction – noir thriller and sci-fi – as he did in his earlier novels Gun with Occasional Music and Girl in a Landscape. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse gentrification, in that case.
The Fortress of Solitude is the tale of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, friends across the color line in the evolving neighborhood of Gowanus or Boerum Hill, as it would come to be called. Their racial difference hangs over every interaction in the book, despite their shared tastes in comic books and music. Split into multiple parts, divided by something that already seems incredibly ancient – a liner note – the book is shot through with pop culture, punk rock trivia and super powers. At its best moments, the book perfectly describes a time and a place in near constant transformation, and in realizing two great characters, in Dylan and Mingus. At its worst, it leaves itself open to charges of a kind of forced exotification, as the adult Dylan seems to have collected artifacts of African-American culture – most notably an African-American girlfriend – as one might the relics of a lost civilization.
You have to admire Lethem’s bravery — he fearlessly addresses race in a way that most white writers wouldn’t dare. At the same time, he embraces his geek origins, blending together hip-hop, punk, graffiti art, avant guard film and comic book culture into a dazzling pastiche. While it will likely be his earlier book Motherless Brooklyn that solidifies his reputation, The Fortress of Solitude remains his “biggest” novel to date, a book that tries to stand next to the other greats of the decade. That it doesn’t entirely succeed does little to diminish Lethem’s stature as one of the decade’s great writers.
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.
Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a book I return to for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure. The title story is a masterpiece, a miracle of structure, character and plot, in which two teenage girls write prank letters to a housekeeper and thus set off a chain of events that changes and creates lives.
Munro is a realist of profound and subtle comprehension whose great subject is women’s lives. She is not a romantic, not sentimental, nor does she work the other end of authorial power and put her characters through excruciations and misery simply because she can. Instead, she writes with the clear, rigorous dispassion of a spiritual master.
Because literary convention so often nudges narratives toward familiar outcomes–happy endings, redemption, tragedy–Munro has retooled form to suit her nuanced purposes. Her stories have the range and depth of novels; their structures are intricate and unusual but completely lucid. Her pace is leisurely; she lingers on physical descriptions of trees, geology, and faces, and on gradations of emotions. Yet somehow the stories often span years, even decades, and cover vast tracts of ground. She makes all this seem effortless.
Alice Munro has taught us to find literary pleasure in leaping over time, in the odd swerves life takes, in the unexpected sources of comfort and sustenance, and in the idiosyncratic arrangements made for human happiness. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, she is at the top of her powers, each story, one after another, a stalwart, shimmering beauty.