Late last year, in the wake of the election, with no one quite certain what Donald Trump in the White House would mean, I didn’t know if I’d be able to write for Year in Reading again. I didn’t think I’d ever stop writing, or somehow cut ties with The Millions—I thought there was a chance that reading itself could die out. For a long, embarrassing month, I was a magical thinker, a person inclined, for the first time in his life, to believe that a black hole might swallow the planet come January, or that the Inauguration might kick off something like the Rapture. I didn’t read very much, if at all, because doing so felt beside the point, and plus it was hard to make time when I was busy not sleeping and reading Twitter.
A couple months passed. The world failed to end. I found Xanax quite helpful. I slowly realized that if I were killed, I’d want to be a dead man who’d kept reading. So I went out and bought story collections, having found them addictive in college and believing, or more accurately hoping, that stories might turn out to be, as they were for me as a teenager, one of my brain’s more reliable antidotes to cortisol.
First on the docket was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World. I’d read bits of her fiction before, mainly in the Paris Review (which gave her a Plimpton Prize for two of her stories in the magazine), but I’d never read a story of hers (or her novel) from start to finish. Everything she writes is funny and daring, and I’d be ruining the book if I summarized, but I’ll just say that “The Weirdos,” which tells the tale of a woman in Los Angeles who dates an aspiring actor, is easily the best depiction of an idiot that I’ve ever read. There’s nothing boring in here, and quite a lot that’s downright brilliant.
Moving (ahem) across the ocean, I read some Colum McCann, specifically his debut collection Fishing the Sloe-Black River. For readers of TransAtlantic, its fluent, tight lyricism is familiar, but the arcs of its stories are genuinely strange, epiphanic in the best sense of the word. Equally at home in foreign locales as he is his native Ireland, McCann has an old-fashioned empathy that makes everything he writes worth reading.
I’d been told I should read one story in particular from Emerald City, but I can now recommend Jennifer Egan’s first collection in full. The book was her debut—her very first New Yorker story, a melancholy account of a photoshoot, appears in there, along with a debaucherous story that draws on her childhood in San Francisco. Goon Squad fans might find it a departure, but it’s up there with the author’s best work.
Finally, I discovered You Are Having a Good Time the old-fashioned way: by reading a story that blew me away, and setting out to read everything by the author. That story was “William Wei,” which netted Amie Barrodale the Plimpton Prize (a couple years before Ottessa Moshfegh) and which is good enough that I have to quote its simple, perfect first sentence: “I once brought a girl home because I liked her shoes.” The following sentences are equally perfect—I’ve now read the story seven times.
If all of us are lucky, we’ll be here next year, and we’ll all still be reading, and writing about it.
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