I began my reading year with a book both beautiful and sad for me: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson, whose memorial I had the honor of earlier attending. The recollections by family and friends who knew him as more than an author reminded me of our collective loss on his passing. I’d only been one of the many devotees of Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams, and this final short story collection, so electrically alive from characters’ animal struggle to keep precarious balance, made me feel the loss even more. The book’s titular story ends with this line: “Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.” The magical something is what I think I’m looking for every time I open up a book.
I found some semblance of that magic in several books I read this year. Sometimes it came from alchemies created from dislocation and alienation. Eula Bliss’s essay collection Notes from No-Man’s Land unsettled me with its juxtapositions, each a portrait of unequal prices paid in American society. She awed me, weaving historical facts on telephone pole proliferation and lynching; custody trial accounts and recollections of black and white childhood dolls; and Bliss’s own experiences of belonging and eroded community.
Sometimes, the distance between headlines and lived experience that a book could collapse moved me. I read Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli around the time that immigrant families seeking asylum were being cruelly separated. Luiselli’s use of immigration questions as structure lets human stories supersede the bureaucratic form meant to reduce and process away humanity. What was happening in another presidential administration shed light on the current and, in turn, re-clarified the absurd cruelty for me, a far luckier immigrant from another age who still remembers day-long, labyrinthine lines outside of immigration offices, waiting in the Florida heat for nothing to get resolved—come another day, next.
And sometimes meanderings through the vastness of our world did the trick. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, defies any insistence on single-minded narrative propulsion and character-building. Instead, the book builds on fragmentary digressions, possibly fictional and not quite nonfictional, morphing from one theme to the next across history and space. A meditation on the nature of storytelling leads to a calculation of the collective height of trees used to build a dreamed town. An interstitial mentioning an old Maori mourning tradition of preserving loved one’s heads follows a son’s letter imploring an Austrian emperor to release the stuffed corpse of his African father and precedes the continuing story of an obsessed anatomical preservationist. Tokarczuk has compared the form she has woven in this book to constellations. It’s ultimately the reader who gazes at the otherwise empty dark to take in the glow of these narratives and find the shapes of humanly creatures and myths.
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