The hornets came in mid-July. Actually, what do I know? Maybe they’d arrived as early as April, hoisting their papier-mâché home amid the greening boughs of the shade tree at the corner of our backyard. But July was when they appeared to my consciousness. I’d put a couple of chairs back there as a kind of outdoor office—the reader’s favorite chair, the Adirondack, with its wide arms for books, for manuscript, for laptop, for coffee, and for maximal stereo separation of the cheapie bluetooth speakers that would reward me at the end of each working day with a choice slice of mid-‘70s Dead. It was patience I was seeking out there, and persistence, and I christened my refuge “Terrapin Station.” Then one afternoon I heard what I thought was the plop of a berry in the grass and looked down to see a big-ass hornet crawling around six inches from my bare foot. And when I looked up, there was the nest, eight feet overhead, well-hidden but unmistakeable, black dots busying themselves at the threshold like an unsubtle metaphor for the collapse of work-life balance.
Now, had this still been 2020, I’d have felt aggrieved by these hornets and moved in kneejerk fashion to eliminate them (possibly water, possibly some sprayable poison, possibly a makeshift flamethrower). The problem was that from the willed mellowness of Terrapin Station, the nest seemed weirdly beautiful. So I was relieved when a passing exterminator told me that hornets wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t bother them, and after warning the kids off, I let the nest be. For a day or two afterward, I remember being a little disconcerted at sitting down to write with all those stinging things so close…but then, they’d probably been that close for a while, and the conditions under which we labor are seldom those we plan. Does this constitute surrender, or some kind of personal growth? (Is there even a difference?) In any case, the reading and writing I did out there through the remainder of our long northeastern summer, in that shotgun coworking arrangement, were among the best of my life. It is to my colleagues the hornets, then, that I’d like to dedicate this Year in Reading.
1. Contemporary Fiction
I’ll start here, since, for the first time in a while, new stuff was among the most exciting stuff I read. Had I room, I’d probably bang on about Klara and the Sun, which readers at large seemed to judge more astutely than did the hedging commentariat. I found it haunting and suspenseful and strange and indelible; since I finished, not a day has passed without my thinking about its climax and its ending and the space between the two. This may be my favorite Ishiguro. But equally thrilling, for me, were books by writers my own age, and I’d like to single out a few of these for praise.
First, Skinship, by Yoon Choi, which managed to be both widely acclaimed and criminally overlooked. The title emphasizes the shared inheritance that runs through these novella-sized slices of Korean-American life, but Choi attends to her characters with such care and precision that a luminous complexity soon emerges beneath the surface. In pieces like “First Language” and “A Map of the Simplified World” and “The Art of Losing,” each block of Seoul or Queens or exurban L.A.—each family, each person—becomes a kind of culture unto itself. And so the stories, often starting with an act of immigration, end up being about everything else as well: life and death and sex and art and capitalism…The obvious comparisons might be to Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri, but I found myself thinking of the great stories of Edward P. Jones.
From the opening of “The Church of Abundant Life” (a title that might have served for the whole):
Soo occupies the high stool behind the register as her husband, Jae, brings in the cartons of eggs, the infant formula, the glue traps, the dried beans, the Little Debbie cakes, the single rolls of toilet paper, the strawberry cigars, the Jamaican castor oil, the yellow boxes of S.O.S. steel wool, the cough syrup, the cereal, the hydroquinone cream, the little glass pipes of love roses, the foil-capped plastic barrel drinks called Little Hugs that their customers call grenades. It is a Wednesday. On Wednesdays, Jae restocks the store.
Now read it again and ask yourself: why eggs next to infant formula next to glue traps? Why the glass pipes for those roses? This is the work of a writer luxuriating in the collision of circumstance and soul, and continually surprising herself with what can be gleaned from the impact zone. Simply put, Yoon Choi is the most ambitious and accomplished practitioner of the Chekhovian short story to appear in many years.
I also greatly admired Joshua Ferris’s sui generis novel A Calling for Charlie Barnes, which I can perhaps best describe as Herzog rewritten by Charlie Kaufman. Or as an experiment in epistemological and moral humility and their funky interactions, inspired by the death of the author’s father. “I should not have told the truth,” Ferris writes, in a characteristic interrogation of his own story. “No one wants the truth, and no one should ever tell it.” A Calling for Charlie Barnes does tell the truth, but tells it slant. It is deeply felt, profoundly intelligent, and not incidentally a hell of a lot of fun. It’s also Ferris’s best work to date, and, as I said in a jacket quote, the book he “was born to write.”
And speaking of books people were born to write, there’s Claire Vaye Watkins’s ferocious I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. The word “autofiction” has (at least in its Anglo-American incarnation) long struck me as useless. Even as a heuristic, it fails to cleave; deploying it in criticism is like trying to do surgery with a wet noodle. But if wading through a million boring think-pieces is the cost of reaching Watkins’s crazy fusion of personal history and picaresque, I’m more than willing to pay it. Whatever its autobiographical content, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness stands out for its unflinching truthfulness about motherhood and marriage and grief, and also for its incandescent poetry and its ability (iPhone and bong rips notwithstanding) to pull back for the wide angle, the long view, the imaginative horizons that make the best fiction realer than mere fact.
2. Slightly Less Contemporary Fiction
If the rights to her work were held by a single publisher, this might have been the Year of Shirley Hazzard. And even still, the appearance of her Collected Stories last November occasioned a wave of synoptic coverage, whose general upshot was: start with The Transit of Venus (1980). I started instead with The Great Fire (2003), because I liked the cover and because I like books about the world wars that aren’t really about the world wars. Had I come to The Great Fire with more Hazzard under my belt, maybe I’d have agreed with the critical consensus that it’s the lesser of the two novels, marred by its being an adventure story—with a plot and everything!—and by its unembarrassed commitment to true love. Hard to say, though; Hazzard’s prose is flawless, miraculous (her closest stylistic cousin may be James Salter), and when I read The Great Fire on vacation I was utterly persuaded.
Marilynne Robinson is another writer whose prose I find consuming. I’d put off reading both Jack and Home for a while, nervous, I think, about the prospect of Robinson moving race, as a theme, to the forefront of her Gilead cycle. That is, she writes about virtue and goodness and kindness and justice with such authority that there seemed a danger that she might idealize the Black schoolteacher Della Miles right out of existence. In the event, Robinson does idealize Della, but that’s somehow offset by her equal and opposite idealization of alcoholic scapegrace Jack Boughton, the white black sheep who will become the father of Della’s child. In neither of these books is it entirely persuasive that Della falls in love with Jack. But then, the books insist on love as a mystery, and so make a virtue of necessity. And the pain Jack carries and causes, and the grace that betimes descends, seem to me as powerful as anything in our literature.
After The Great Fire, I took up Song of Solomon, having read The Bluest Eye two summers ago and been reminded of everything I love about Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon is a slightly more ramshackle book, a kind of pivot-point from the early novels to Beloved. But its episodic lurches through the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III articulate a vision of history, of trauma, of the urban Midwest, of Blackness (and whiteness), and, particularly, of masculinity, that seemed to me to have an awful lot left to tell us in 2021. By the unforgettable conclusion—maybe the best Morrison ever wrote—Milkman becomes, if not the hero the novel’s form sometimes seems to need him to be (no idealization here!) then something greater: terribly alive.
I then turned to Suttree, the one Cormac McCarthy I’d yet to read, and the one a friend kept urging me to pack for Maine. Covering much the same time period as Song of Solomon but from the other side of the Mason-Dixon line – and, it must be said, from the boggy place where historic immiseration meets verbal droit de seigneur – Suttree now looks like the last big monument of high modernism, Ulysses transplanted to Knoxville, Tenn. It is also very funny, in a Coen Brothers sort of way. I can’t say I always knew what was going on, but the line-to-line beauty, riding atop a sense of apocalyptic loss, made me hanker for a hardcover of this baby…that is, until I saw they start at $2,500.
For a mood-lightener, I dipped into Anthony Powell’s At Lady Molly’s, the first of his Dance to the Music of Time cycle to really grab me. Powell is like a 20th-century Trollope, working a much narrower channel than McCarthy or Morrison (it runs roughly from saturnine wryness on one hand to droll melancholy on the other) and the frequent excellencies of his deep-pile prose can disguise deficiencies of structure—even of interest. Still, the formal simplicity and escalating plot of At Lady Molly’s show off all that’s best in the Dance, and kept me reading through a couple of the successor novels.
3. From Overseas
As far as classics, I read a lot of work in translation this year, as well, the best of which, Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily, rivals any of the foregoing. I’d remembered a James Wood essay on Verga from years ago, but had somehow missed that Verga’s translator here was D.H. Lawrence. Honestly, I prefer these stories to Lawrence’s own. They are extraordinary feats of style and of storytelling, and collectively they give a picture of an impoverished Sicilian community that help contextualize the inequalities raging around us a century later. That’s not to say the interest is primarily sociological; as with Zora Neale Hurston’s stories of the sharecropping American south, or Halldór Laxness‘s portrait of tenant farmers in Iceland, language and sensibility are everything. They fill the frame with life.
Another discovery for me (via A Year in Reading 2020) was the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža, whose On the Edge of Reason is a small masterwork of Mitteleuropean modernism, somewhere between The Trial and Thomas Bernhard. The Mayakovskyan travelogue Journey to Russia, just translated, makes a fascinating companion piece: a vivid and caustic time machine. From that same milieu, I finally got around to reading Gyula Krúdy’s Sunflower, dreamlike and lyrical and accidentally Wes Anderson. Krúdy had come up as an influence in László Krasznahorkai’s amazing Paris Review interview…which is surprising, since I’d thought of Krasznahorkai as being almost without precedent. Picking up his new novella, Chasing Homer, I found myself haunted by the interplay between Krasznahorkai’s text and Max Neumann’s paintings, more effective, or at least less straightforwardly illustrative, than the juxtapositions in the earlier Animalinside. And finally, in the course of reviewing what is surely the last Bolaño book to be translated into English (?!), I finally got around to reading The Spirit of Science Fiction. Having written it off as morbid profiteering, I was surprised to find instead a kind of first draft of The Savage Detectives, capturing some of the youthful bittersweetness of the later masterpiece in a fraction of the pages…and with a healthy dollop of pure weirdness on top.
“Enjoyed” is the wrong word for the experience of reading the second volume of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler biography, Downfall, but I certainly found it riveting and masterful. Likewise James Gleick’s The Information, which I took with me on vacation. Toward the end of the Gleick, I kept feeling some kind of category error was in play, some kind of conflation of map and territory—surely it’s not all just information? right?—yet I had that pleasurable sense of my mind being stretched beyond its own limitations.
Still, my favorite nonfiction discovery of the year turns out to live a few blocks from me, and is named Thad Ziolkowski. I had just finished my summer’s hornet-assisted work – itself the culmination of five years of less harmonious labor – when I walked into the bookstore and saw the arresting cover for “local author” Ziolkowski’s The Drop: How the Most Addictive Sport Can Help Us Understand Addiction and Recovery. Less science writing than an old-fashioned essay, touching on everything from the Orpheus myth to the theory of “green mind,” Ziolkowski’s deft account of surfing sent me to his wonderful memoir, On a Wave. My memoir allergy seeming pretty well cured, I then cringed, groaned, and smirked my way through Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley, about life inside the West Coast tech bubble. Wiener’s basic point is that of Dave Eggers’s The Every but she makes it in about half the time, and sticks the landing: it’s every bit as bad as you feared out there.
But then, we knew that already, right? Sometimes, it seems, the best thing is to try to make a space where what frightens can coexist with what inspires. Which I suppose is an apt encapsulation of this year’s worth of great books.
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