I was going to say that the books I found most striking in 2009 were nonfiction, but as I think about it, that’s not completely true. Yes, I would say that the “best” books I read this year (whatever that means) fall into this category: William Vollmann’s Imperial and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, both of which used a combination of reporting, reflection and narrative to undercut pervasive myths about their subjects and get at the more complicated stories underneath. But equally compelling were a trio of small books — B.H. Fairchild’s poetry collection Usher, Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, and Ted Kooser’s brief memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness — that each in its own way reordered my inner world. What connects all of these books, including “Imperial” and “Columbine,” is the depth of their observation, their tendency to nuance and detail, the way they have of slowing down the moment so that we can see it fresh.
It’s always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you’ve been meaning to read for many years. It’s exciting, of course, but you’re aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn’t. Sometimes it does. Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman’s idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades. This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg (“The Real and Unreal City”) to “Some Notes on Modernism in New York.” That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I’ll repeat Robert Christgau’s words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what’s most important about it is that it’s a good read. Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it. At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” That’s what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe’s Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it. And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on.
The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born. His major works were first published in the ’80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the ’90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press. Platonov’s other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I’m happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Platonov’s brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB.
Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s should read Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman’s, one of the best works of cultural history I’ve read in many years. After I finished it, I felt as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok’s work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don’t usually get from academic history. Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it’s hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
One of my strongest memories involves ducking behind a bush to avoid a patrolling MP. The year is 1998; I’m 10 years old. My friend and I are dueling with cap guns designed to look like Uzis. My friend, a native of Nebraska whose father works in the Army, shoots caps at me through skeletal bushes and over the hoods of cars. We battle our way through a parking lot, and as we do I construct a number of scenarios to explain why, despite our friendly history, we now want to maim each other with high-tech explosives and bullets. I tell myself I’m a young James Bond, hurled abruptly and senselessly into training. I’m a private in the Allied armies caught up in a skirmish in North Africa. I’m a CIA agent, tasked only with taking out “evil” in a faraway, suffocating jungle. I’m all of these things — that is, until my friend tackles me.
“What the hell?” I say. At this point I’m old enough that swears are less thrilling than routine. “What was that?”
“Don’t talk.” My friend gives a signal to follow. I comply, and as we crawl behind a bush and huddle side by side, it strikes me that this is the closest I’ll ever get to real warfare.
My friend says an MP on a road nearby staged firefights like ours as a kid. One day an eccentric soldier, unaware that his cap guns were toys, upheld the safety of his community by shooting the MP in the leg. Ever since that life-marring day, the MP walked with a limp, his gait a jarring reminder of the perils of play-acting too well. It fell to us to avoid him, my friend explained, because the MP “went ballistic” when he spotted young boys using cap guns. I didn’t know what that entailed, exactly, but I knew it was very bad, so I hid my gun under my T-shirt and prayed for the MP to stalk away.
I bring this up now because lately I’ve felt that it helped forge my taste in literature. Not the cap gun incident specifically, but the many incidents like it — I went to school on an Army base for several years, and I grew to believe my time there unavoidably skewed my perspective. To call Army kids your classmates, then as now, meant spending great balefuls of time with rural Heartlanders and Southerners. It meant having friends who blew whole weekends in paintball games with Vietnam vets. It meant that dumb kids brought hunting knives into school on a perilously regular basis. In a lot of ways, I was the odd man out back then, thanks largely to the fact that my parents were both academics, but my classmates often took precedence over the diktats of my tweedy home life. Even now, my parents like to tease me for using the word “dang” till I was 12.
In other words, I was never quite able to reinvent myself as an East Coaster, which is probably why, earlier this year, I fell for Barry Hannah. In an interview published in 2009, Wells Tower wrote that Hannah “drives people to fanaticism,” a statement which ranks with “banned for obscenity” in the realm of powerful endorsements. (Same goes for his line that “any one of Hannah’s sentences picked at random holds more hope and joy than the entire self-help section at the O’Hare Barnes and Noble.”) I read these hosannas and picked up High Lonesome with an urgency reserved for grave injuries. Within the space of three pages, I could see Hannah’s talent for odd phrasing: a role in a college play requires much “dramatic amplitude;” a slacker confesses that “through [him] runs an inveterate refractoriness, almost a will to lose;” and a young boy complains with a juvenile bitterness about the ravings of a “turkey-throated aunt.” Nobody can dismiss these as novel deployments of well-trod constructions and ideas. Instead, they’re signals of a dizzying new dialect, the language of a nation-state of one.
Although High Lonesome had sold me, I knew it was a late-career production. I wanted to see if Hannah’s first collection would hit me as hard as its successor. Unlike High Lonesome, Airships consists of stories so short they rival Donald Barthelme’s for brevity. They’re not as dour as the stories in High Lonesome, and their plotlines are far more calamitous, but the stories in Airships are built with the same knack for joyfully addlepated wordplay. In “Testimony of Pilot,” a young boy, a “violent experimental chemist,” learns “the sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal mixture for gunpowder” before his 11th birthday. In “Quo Vadis, Smut?”, vigilantes drink a bottle of gin contaminated with bits of glass. We learn that the glass flakes “burn constantly but do not kill.” In “Return to Return,” a stroke victim coughs out “lengths” of phlegm, and when he later shows up in a vision coupled carnally with a character’s mother, he appears in a cemetery “so [the stroke victim] won’t have far to fall when he explodes with fornication, the old infantryman of lust.”
Everything I quoted here points to a mind that knows the grotesque when it sees it. For Barry Hannah, all human beings, regardless of their station, find themselves inevitably pitched into a battle at birth. His violence is key to why I find his fiction seductive. When I read him, he calls me back, to a time not long ago that nevertheless seems distant, when the people I hung around didn’t care a whit about prestige or the bull of the thinking class. Their fathers were off in Bosnia, and they didn’t need our crap. It’s fitting that Hannah’s vagrants express this better than I can:
There is not even such a thing as a personal soul in many countries. The souls were dead already waiting for Marx, all he was was the final announcement. I am dying for you, I have had hell so you may carry on. Love me, every breathing motherfucker around me. I give you my lungs and heart to eat thereof. I taste like a sword.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Year in Reading series. It was great to see which books got people excited this year. I hope to do it again next year, so keep track of what you read and keep me in mind come December. Here are this year’s contributions:Authors:Kirby GannMarcy DermanskyMichelle RichmondBloggers:Language HatPete LitGolden Rule JonesConversational ReadingEmerging WritersReaders:GarthEdanAndrewD. HowardPatrick