Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is a supreme literary stunt: a short “novel” composed only of questions, each of which seems to implicate the reader in a narrative conspiracy as serious and absurd as his or her own life. Ultimately, Powell’s little book can be seen word-machine designed to induce unprecedented states of interior monologue, or narrative drug.
As usual, my reading has focused on language and history, and I’ve got some recommendations in each field. In language, unfortunately, two of the most exciting books of the year (both from Oxford) are very expensive, but you might want to see if your library has them.
The Oxford History of English Lexicography is the best reference history I’ve read in a long time, and I feel confident in saying that if you love dictionaries, you will want to set some time aside for reading it. Volume I covers standard dictionaries, going into the early development of glosses and bilingual dictionaries and monolingual dictionaries of English, with chapters on Johnson, American dictionaries, and the OED, as well as dictionaries of national and regional varieties and of Old and Middle English; the long discussion of Webster’s Third in particular is a triumph, doing full justice to the greatness of the dictionary while fully acknowledging the justice of some of the criticisms. Volume II covers specialized dictionaries of science, dialects, synonyms, etymology, pronunciation, slang and cant, quotations, phraseology, and personal and place names.
The two volumes of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary are heavy (they come with a slipcase) and somewhat intimidating, but once you get used to them you wonder how you managed without them. Let’s say you look up squirrel in the OED and discover it entered English in the 14th century, and it occurs to you to wonder what they called the creature before they borrowed the French word. Until now, you would have had to ask a medievalist; now you look up squirrel and are directed to 01.02.06.20.05.08 (n.), where you discover that what they used to say was aquerne. And what if you want to know in general what words were available in a given period? Any historical novelist who cares about linguistic accuracy must have struggled with this; if your novel is set in the 1820s, how can you be sure you’re using vocabulary appropriate to the time and not introducing anachronisms? Now you can find out.
Some less expensive and more immediately appealing books I was happy to encounter during the year: Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers by Jan Freeman is a fine updating of the great cynic’s very idiosyncratic little usage book. Besides the well-written, sensible introduction, each of Bierce’s entries is followed by Freeman’s well-written, sensible update, saying pretty much what I would have wanted to say about each of his rants and shibboleths.
The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word is a must for anyone interested in the most notorious of English obscenities. This is not one of those pro forma “revisions” that correct a few errors, toss in a few added items, and add a new preface; the text of the dictionary is twice as large as the second edition, over a hundred new words and senses have been added, and it now aims to cover the entire English-speaking world. This book makes me proud to be a part of a civilization that could produce such a thing.
H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition is another indispensable update. Keeping Fowler’s original text unchanged, it adds a superb introduction and a concluding section of notes updating some 300 entries, both by David Crystal. In the introduction, Crystal has written the best discussion of Fowler that I have seen or, really, can imagine, and the end notes are very useful, providing pointers to how things have changed since Fowler’s day and, in some cases, when he went astray. If you want to explore the ideas of one of the most interesting thinkers about English style in the early twentieth century, guided by a reliable modern linguist, this is the book for you.
Finally, In the Land of Invented Languages was the most unexpected pleasure of my reading year. I’ve never had much interest in artificial languages, but this completely won me over. Arika Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics, which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what’s going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. Okrent has written a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment.
Two books have fundamentally affected the way I think about large chunks of history.
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith is a reevaluation of the entire history of Eurasia, focusing on that often neglected portion called Central Asia. You can read the Introduction online, and it will give you an idea of the approach, but it’s the details that make the book. As a minor but telling example, each chapter starts off with an epigraph: perfectly normal, but he also includes the originals, in the original script. This isn’t just a nod to multiculturalism, it’s a refusal to privilege the easy-to-read translation over the normally effaced original, an insistence on the fact that people see and express the world through their own languages and we have to bear that constantly in mind. The author’s rethinking of not only Central Asian history but just about everything we think of as “world history” is convincing and important. The epilogue, “The Barbarians,” would make a superb little booklet on its own, and sums up the essence of what he’s trying to convey throughout the book, demonstrating that the Central Eurasians were no more violent than the “civilized” states with whom they sometimes fought, that what they desired above all else was trade (which requires peace), and that it was generally the peripheral states that attacked the Central Eurasians in an effort to expand their own territory and impose their own power, which they believed should be universal. (Unfortunately, the last two chapters are devoted almost entirely to a denunciation of “Modernism,” by which he means pretty much everything bad that’s happened since the nineteenth century, but they can be ignored.)
Gary B. Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America is a complete overturning of the conventional picture of the Revolution, according to which a few white male geniuses who loved liberty aroused a nation of citizen-soldiers to overthrow the British yoke. Nash, who for years has been producing studies of the people forgotten in this account – the poor, the working-class, the women, the black, the Native American – has consolidated his work into a powerful history that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew. For instance, one of the main motivators of the Revolution was the Proclamation Line of 1763, which banned white settlement west of the Alleghenies; an attempt by the British Crown to secure its native subjects in their lands, it infuriated the land-hungry colonists, both the poor who wanted farms they could own and live on and the rich who wanted millions of acres they could rent out profitably. Among the latter were most of the revered Founding Fathers; in a single devastating paragraph, Nash names them and describes their financial interests: George Mason, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, “had watched the Proclamation of 1763 destroy first his beloved Ohio Company and then his hopes of obtaining fifty thousand acres of Kentucky land”; Richard Henry Lee, who introduced the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress in July 1776, had hoped by his Mississippi Land Company to lay his hands on 2.5 million acres; George Washington “had thousands of acres of bounty lands that he purchased cheaply from veterans’ claims slip from his hands”; Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry likewise saw their land ventures “disappear like smoke. All these disappointments could be undone through… a double war: against England, and against the ancient inhabitants of the fertile region watered by the Ohio and its tributaries.”
One of the strands of the book is the increasingly desperate attempts by the Native Americans – Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and others – to find a way to survive and hold on to at least some of their land in the face of the increasingly brutal attacks of white invaders supported by greedy governments, and Nash does not try to hide his indignation at the language of the Declaration of Independence, which claims the king “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Jefferson, who wrote these lines, knew they were a lie, knew that it was the white settlers who had practiced “an undistinguished destruction” upon those they were trying to displace; this lie was left untouched by the drafting committee (Franklin, Adams, et al.) and by the Congress as a whole, and according to Nash it has been ignored ever since: “The silence of historians on this disingenuous charge is deafening in the most notable studies of the Declaration of Independence spanning more than eighty years. In Carl Becker…, in Garry Wills…, and in Pauline Maier… not a word appears on this vicious caricature of the American Indians, who had been trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts as often as enemies for two centuries.”
I could go on citing examples for pages, but I’ll cut to the chase: Nash’s well-chosen and vividly presented snapshots of people and events are tied together convincingly into a powerful picture of the have-nots rising up and demanding their rights against both the far-off British oppressors and against the local elite who kept them hungry and poor for their own profit, and his book makes me realize that the Revolution did not end with the War of Independence in 1783 but is still ongoing.
Finally, I finished War and Peace! I’ve read it twice in English (in college and in the mid-’90s) and now in Russian, and each time the characters come to life in the same mysterious way. From the protagonists to the minor walk-ons, they have the unruly undeniability of actual people. How does Tolstoy do it?
Nikil Saval is an assistant editor at the journal n+1.One of the notable events in recent literary history was a modest bump in the number of novels about white-collar work. The two most heralded were, significantly, debuts: Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End and Ed Park’s Personal Days. Both young authors, possessed of little experience besides what their cubicle daydreaming and job insecurity had supplied, they exploited the potential of office spaces to their extreme, and the immediate response these novels elicited from reviewers was: “more!” We needed more novels about bagel brunches, useless meetings, excessive coffee drinking, awkward exchanges, e-mails and layoffs. We were to re-experience what so many of us went through every day, to know it as pain, to see the expression of that pain among others as a form of solidarity.One recent book suggests a different approach to the question of the office novel: Christian Jungersen’s The Exception, an oblique entry into the genre. Its main characters work at the Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), where they begin to receive death threats on their e-mail. Death threats turn to grim pranks: the office librarian knocks over a bucketful of blood secreted on her bookshelves. Initially, suspicions fall on a Balkan war criminal residing in Denmark, whose crimes the researchers have exposed; Jungersen’s twist (one of many in the novel) is to reverse the outward search back into the office, where the already heated interpersonal dynamics curdle into distrust. Jungersen manages these various strands appallingly well with a minimum of artifice (his prose is unadorned, almost to the point of being slack and lackluster). He heightens the sense of entrapment by drastically limiting the perspectives to three principal characters for most of the novel, each of whom is possessed and blinded by a different variety of paranoid reasoning. Even better is Jungersen’s recreation of the longueurs of white-collar existence: the dramatic pacing is deliberately slowed by painstaking evocations of chilly office lunches and competitive meetings. This combination of office life and the generic conventions of a thriller produces a book unlike anything I have read before. At the heart of The Exception is a peculiarly European meditation on the nature of evil, and the banal way that one’s office life can dissipate and create human solidarities, pitting one artificial network against another. In Jungersen’s novel, the office is not a place where you go to work; it is a structure in your head, watching you, directing and corroding your thoughts well after you have left it. I read no better novel this year, and it is one of the best I have read in several years.More from A Year in Reading 2008
This book is a lot smarter than I am. It’s a lot smarter than most of us. And yet smart really isn’t the word I want to describe the thing—this memoir or novel, who cares what it is—so much as dismantling. Dismantling of its author and anyone who decides to pick through what feelings come loose. I Love Dick is a chrestomathy of experience that schools us in abjection and desire. It’s about the filmmaker Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, who, together and apart, fall into an unrequited threesome with the eponymous Dick after one dinner with him at a sushi bar in Pasadena. Unrequited insofar as Dick becomes an off-scene repository for the stuff of Chris and Sylvère’s marriage (they write him letters) and, later, for the stuff of Chris—what she talks about when she talks about love. There is art, genocide, schizophrenia; there is Simone Weil, Flaubert, activist Jennifer Harbury, and artist R.B. Kitaj. The book is full of allusion—“Does analogy make emotion less sincere?” No!—and adventures in form (180 pages of letters—some from Chris, some from Sylvère, some from both—alongside third-person interludes) that make this one of the messiest, most honest, and epic revelations of self out there.
Eileen Myles, in her forward to my edition, calls I Love Dick a cunty exegesis (now there’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue), and though the book is absolutely engaged with the subject of female desire, I think it’s more about the psychic experience of failure—its appeal and fallout. As Kraus writes, “If art’s a seismographic project, when that project meets with failure, failure must become a subject, too. Dear Dick, That’s what I realized when I fell in love with you.” And what I realize whenever I think about what seems so disappointing apropos form in contemporary literature, apropos its sense of order and through-line and ease of consumption, which is its disregard for failure as one of the most—if not the most—vital and inevitable experiences of being alive. To be honest about failure, to make of its role a case study, is always going to be a messy affair. Kraus quotes the poet David Rattray—“Honesty of this order threatens order”—and, if you push it far enough, as Kraus does, it turns form away from order and towards an intermingling of the raw, the troubling, the ecstatic.
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This August, not long before Labor Day, my wife and I packed the kids into the back of a rented car and left behind the garbage-smelling streets of New York for the comparative balm of Maine. For the second year running, we’d booked ourselves into a little bungalow about as far east as you can go before you drive into the ocean. This modest slice of paradise doesn’t come cheap; a week’s sublet costs only slightly less than our monthly rent. To my mind, though, it’s worth it — not least because the house’s sun porch is my favorite place to read in the entire world. There, with the kids napping upstairs and the porch’s old glass rippling the heavy-limbed spruces outside and the bees bumbling around in the hydrangeas and the occasional truck droning past on the two-lane, I can actually feel time passing. Moreover, I can choose to lavish a couple unbroken hours of it on a book, in a way life in the 21st-century metropolis (with small children!) renders vanishingly improbable.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of my best reading experiences of the last year were concentrated in that single week. Early on, I read for the first time Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and found in the wry lushness of its prose a perfect literary analogue for the sensory assault of high summer in a new place. In fact, the divide between the life of the senses and the life of the mind is one of the many barriers Woolf’s intrepid hero/ine surmounts, “For it must be remembered that… [the Elizabethans] had none of our modern shame of book learning…no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality’ are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality.” I then devoured, in the course of two naptimes, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. Unlike its predecessors, Mating and Mortals, this novel has some glaring defects, and reviewers, by turns baffled and hostile, went straight for the invidious comparison. Yet what struck me was the through-line of Rush’s sensibility. The supreme pleasures of all of his work (the characters, the loving irony, the human comedy) are present here, in spades, and that made Subtle Bodies feel like a gift. And just before returning to New York, I read, in a state of admiration bordering on envy, the brilliant first third of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.
Probably the single most perfect book I encountered in 2013, though, appeared under completely different circumstances — that is, in February, back in the city, amid the ice. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives didn’t just reward my attention; it commanded it. To pick up the book was to be summoned away from the diced-up jumble of my own unfinished errands and brought into the presence of Anna and Melanctha and Lena. Reading Stein is like being brainwashed, but in a positive sense. It cleanses the windows of perception. It is Maine on the page.
In fact, much of what moved me most in 2013 drew in one way or another on the Modernist legacy of “deep time,” a countervailing force to the jump-cut, the click-through, the sample rate. I came to the reissue of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, for example, expecting a kind of cool PoMo minimalism. Instead, I discovered a crypto-maximalist whose sentences, surfing along on volumes of unexpressed pain, are as perfect in their way as Woolf’s. Péter Nádas’s putatively maximalist Parallel Stories, meanwhile, offered the most miniaturist reckoning of behavioral psychology this side of…well, of Gertrude Stein. The erotic excesses everyone complains about — e.g, the 300-page sex scene — are in fact the opposite of erotic; they’re a kind of clinical accounting of the physical side of human history, the flesh that has a mind of its own. “Unsubtle Bodies,” would have been a good title. But in the end, I respected the hell out of Parallel Stories, and ended up despite myself — despite, perhaps, even Nádas — caring deeply about its characters. And then there was Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Where his first three novels to appear in English were dark, his latest, Seiobo There Below, is bright. Where they were terrestrial, it is astral. But in one important respect, it’s just like them: it’s a masterpiece.
I know I tend to go on about the Hungarians, but this seemed to be a ridiculously rich year for American fiction, too. Fall, in particular, was a murderer’s row of big books; I could talk here about Lethem, about Tartt, about Pynchon, about David Gilbert, about Caleb Crain, about James McBride’s surprise National Book Award, but I’d like to put in a good word for a couple of books that came out in the early part of the year, and were perhaps overlooked. The first is William H. Gass’s Middle C. Not only hasn’t Gass lost a step at age 88; he’s gained a register. One of Middle C’s deep motifs involves an “Inhumanity Museum,” but the surface here is warmer and funnier and more approachable than anything Gass has written since Omensetter’s Luck.
Fewer readers will have heard of Jonathan Callahan, whose first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was published in April by Starcherone Press. It’s a multifariously ambitious story collection on the model of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair. The glaring debts to Wallace and Krasznahorkai and Thomas Bernhard can be a liability, but in the longer stories here, including “A Gift” and “Cymbalta” and “Bob,” and in the closing trio, Callahan uses the pressure of influence to form shapes entirely his own.
On the poetry side, I adored Bernadette Mayer’s rousing and funny collection, The Helens of Troy, New York. Meyer uses various quasi-Oulipian formal constraints to turn interviews with the titular Helens — yes, every woman named Helen living in Troy, New York — into poems. Both Helens and Troy emerge richer for the transformation. And while Patti Smith’s Just Kids isn’t technically verse, it makes good on every claim for Smith as one of the few true rock n’ roll poets. (The late Lou Reed was another.) Not only is Just Kids an unmissable story; it attains the same purity of expression as Horses.
Usually, rock writing is a kind of guilty pleasure. Unforgettable Fire, Glory Days… I feel absolutely no guilt, though, in recommending the English journalist Nick Kent’s collection of rock profiles, The Dark Stuff. It’s John Jeremiah Sullivan good. Gay Talese good. Sometimes it’s even Joseph Mitchell good.
I made it through a couple of other great works of narrative journalism this year, as well. William Finnegan, in addition to being one of my favorite New Yorker writers, has got to be one of the best reporters on earth, and his Cold New World, published in 1998, is like a Clinton-era companion to George Packer’s The Unwinding. In it, Finnegan spends months with teenagers in four far-flung American communities, uncovering the frictions of the new economy long before it blew up in our faces. Robert Kolker’s The Lost Girls, which came out this summer, similarly examines the effect of those frictions on young women drawn into prostitution — specifically, five young women who would end up murdered by a serial killer out on Long Island. Kolker doesn’t turn phrases with the acuity of Kent or Finnegan, but his patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged.
As usual, I find myself running on well beyond “Year in Reading” length. But in my defense: I hardly reviewed anything this year! This is my one chance to enthuse! And though I’ve talked about William Gass, and William Finnegan, what about William Styron’s The Long March, or William T. Vollmann’s Fathers & Crows? This is not to mention The Luminaries, which is currently sitting half-read on my nightstand, alongside The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Bridge Over the Neroch and Teju Cole. My wife says it’s starting to look like a hoarder lives here. How am I ever going to finish all this stuff? But I remain optimistic, against all the evidence, that life might offer a little more time to read in 2014. And if not, I suppose we’ll always have Maine.
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