My first book, Upright Beasts, came out this year. As I answered the standard interview questions about influences, I realized that many of my biggest influences are writers whom I actually haven’t read in many years. So I decided to dedicate much of my year in reading to revisiting two authors who are central in my own personal canon: Italo Calvino and Kōbō Abe.
My Calvino revisiting was actually prompted by an article I was assigned, a reader’s guide to the great Italian fabulist for the (now sadly defunct) Oyster Review. Calvino is an author I read extensively in high school and college. He was one of the first authors who taught me that fiction could be both artistic and just plain fun at the same time. There were a couple of his works I’d never gotten around to, and this year I read them. The best of these previously unread books were Marcovaldo and The Nonexistent Knight. The former is a collection of interlinked stories about a poor laborer in an industrial Italian city. It features everything I remember loving about Calvino. The book is at times truly hilarious and at other times philosophical. His style is honed, but doesn’t overwhelm the stories. And the book is conceptual — the chapters are organized by seasons — without being gimmicky. Most of all, it was just a joy to read.
The Nonexistent Knight is a short novel that is sometimes grouped with two other short novels, The Baron in the Trees (my personal favorite Calvino) and The Cloven Viscount, as a book called Our Ancestors. All three are historical fables that take a simple but absurd premise and run with it until it becomes something magical. The Nonexistent Knight, as its title implies, tells the tale of a knight who doesn’t really exist, but appears in reality as an empty suit of armor out of pure faith in the holy cause of Charlemagne. This premise could be a great four-page Donald Barthelme or Jorge Luis Borges short story, but Calvino’s wizardry somehow makes it work as a novel.
Kōbō Abe is an author who utterly floored me with his existential and absurdist novel The Woman in the Dunes. It immediately became one of my favorite novels, and I also devoured the bizarre science fiction nightmare novel Inter Ice Age 4. This year, I read three novels — each unique and fantastic — by the author commonly dubbed the Japanese Kafka: The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and The Ruined Map. Like Calvino, I felt he held up, with one caveat: the female characters in those first two books were too often overly sexualized and underdeveloped. That problem aside, Abe’s novels really do have the dark humor and nightmarish reality of the best of Franz Kafka’s work. I was also impressed by the genre range that Abe displays across these three books. The Box Man is a philosophical mystery about a man who lives inside of a giant cardboard box before his box is stolen. It has an inventive metafictional structure where the words you read are allegedly written — in different pens and pencils — by the narrator…or possibly multiple narrators. Secret Rendezvous is the most straightforwardly Kafkaesque of the three, with a character trying to find his wife in a labyrinthian hospital controlled by an absurd bureaucracy. It also has some bizarre body horror elements, such as a man who turns himself into a horse by stitching another man’s legs and penis onto his body. The Ruined Map is a hardboiled detective novel, albeit one still taking place in an off-kilter, absurd world.
Both of these authors remind me that you can truly do anything in fiction as long as you have the willingness to let your eye look at whatever it wants to gaze upon, no matter how bizarre.
For contemporary books, I started the year reading the novel that was perhaps the best literary novel of 2014: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. Zink’s prose is totally fearless and alive. I loved every page.
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.