A Year in Reading: Adam Dalva

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There was a
before, I think, and back then I read well. I read on subways and trains. I
read in bars while I waited for blessedly late friends. I read without monitoring
the faces of people around me, without constantly assessing the implications of
every cleared throat.

I started the year with Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, which set a high bar. Cleanness looks like a short story collection but functions as a novel, accumulating tension as it goes. The radiant core of the book, a cycle titled “Loving R,” is especially marvelous. I followed it up with a little contemporary French novel called Exposed by Jean-Philippe Blondel. Is it weird that I often try to find a little contemporary French book after I read something I love? Exposed is an especially good one—an aging high school English teacher is asked to pose for one of his former students, a famous painter, and the heat of the situation gets slowly turned up until you’re in the boil.

I also read new books by two brilliant writers. Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić, a hybrid work of essays and short stories that examines tricksters through time, is possibly my favorite of hers yet, up on the plinth with The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and Fording the Stream of Consciousness. I also enjoyed Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility, a career-spanning collection that shows off the talent established by her masterpiece I Hotel, especially in the short story “Bombay Gin.”

At some point, in retrospect, I began misreading. The horizon loomed dangerous, but I ducked my head and embarked on Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, an odd mix of the researched approach of the Neapolitan Novels and the self-contained, à La Minute vibe of the Rabbit books. It was Mishima’s final work—his bizarre suicide occurred right after he finished. The first book, Spring Snow, the story of a 19 year old boy who experiences turbulent love, is juicy. Then things get weird—a supporting character becomes the lead, and the action jumps from 1912 to the 1930’s for the remarkable Runaway Horses, whose highlight is a long sequence of deaths that reminded me of “The Part about the Crimes” from Bolano’s 2666.

But somewhere in the middle of Runaway Horses—you know the exact day, I’m sure—I switched to reading statistics and preliminary case studies and terrifying Twitter threads. I read the panicked eyes of my beloved New Yorkers. I read and re-read my emails to my parents begging them to follow procedures that we didn’t yet understand. I read the direction of sirens. I read a sign in my local hardware store that hand sanitizer now cost thirty dollars. I read more than ever and I remember barely any of it, and when I try to read my journal from that month there’s only shaky, sideways handwriting, blue spiders of fear.

Eventually, though, I came back to Mishima. I wanted to see it through. Unfortunately, the third book, The Temple of Dawn, is bizarre: half philosophy text, half weird lecherous cliché-of-Philip-Roth-(because-Roth-is-actually-good). Pot-committed, I pressed on into the fourth volume, The Decay of The Angel, which surprised me with some meta-turns but didn’t reclaim the heights of Runaway Horses.

Free and clear, my days filled with wiping down groceries and leaving them to bake in the sun, I finally read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which started off slowly and had an unfortunately timed plague subplot, but somehow, stuck the landing. Then I finally could read Thomas Cromwell’s Wikipedia page, after avoiding it since Wolf Hall came out in 2009.

Then there was a bit of bad reading luck. Persuasion turned out to be my least-favorite book by Jane Austen and to get out of that I floundered into a galley of The End of Me by my beloved Alfred Hayes and it was my least-favorite by him and to get out of that I stumbled into The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch, which was—you get it. (The Murdoch, in particular, was a tough loss because I’m rationing myself to one a year so I can have a new Iris Murdoch until I’m 57 and now I have to wait.)

I soared out of the funk with Deborah Levy. Oh goodness, what a blessing it is to discover Deborah Levy! I loved her most recent novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, which folds into itself in surreal fashion, but I even more loved her two brilliant non-fictions, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living.

Then there were days in this long, upsetting summer of American suffering when poetry was the only thing—I started writing it, for the first time in my life (“It is even in prose, I am a real poet.”) Some special collections that helped get me through the year: Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing; Ben Purkert’s For The Love of Endings; Nick Laird’s Feel Free. Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Lizzie Harris’s Stop Wanting, Monica Youn’s Ignatz, Garous Abolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour, Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and Madeline Barnes’s You Do Not Have To Be Good.

Time marched on, impossibly. I read that my wedding would be canceled. I read that my family’s antique business would have to end. I read new age in my forehead, under my eyes, in my hair. I read contempt in people’s unmasked expressions when I walked in the street to avoid their sidewalk. I read a lot of subtitles on a lot of Truffaut movies—I liked Day for Night best. I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and was most moved by the beginning, when he lists the people in his life for whom he is grateful, and then I read Zadie Smith’s brilliant Intimations, which, serendipitously, establishes a dialogue with Marcus Aurelius and cascades closed with a montage of people in Smith’s life.

All the while, I kept up my online reading group with the author Rick Moody—we’d been crawling our way through The Aeneid for the whole year, and (dare I spoil the end of the Aeneid? It’s 2040 years old) the last stanza is one of the weirdest things I’ve read—a shockingly abrupt close that indicts the character of Aeneas and baptizes Rome in blood. We’ve since started Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, which is hilarious, especially with the antics of Merlin, who seems to know the exact plot of the book he’s in.

In August, I prepared for my semester of teaching by rereading three favorites: Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden offers a glimpse at the hybrid future of books;  Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash is an absurdly brilliant book, I still don’t know how he sustained the stunted yet florid prose for hundreds of pages; Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia, is an evocative, trippy journey through outer space and the Czech Republic that somehow balances its two sides with a generous, warm spirit. Somewhere in there I also inhaled Ferrante’s Lying Life of Adults in a single sleepless night.

I then made a private self-joke by reading Yasunari Kawabata’s Master of Go alongside Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story. Both are great—so different, yet strangely similar. Kawabata’s is an actual work of reportage-cum-fiction on a style-clashing Go match he’d reported on thirteen years earlier, Zweig invents a style-clashing chess match on a cruise-ship with his absolutely charming Zweigian tic in which Stefan Zweig has to appear as a character in his own work to hear the story and relay it to us.

I also read The Bluest Eye, which floored me. Why is it that the great books, the ones you hear about, are always so much weirder than one expects? Moby Dick is like that, and The Magic Mountain, and Mrs. Dalloway. So too with Toni Morrison. The strange multi-perspective voice, the haunting child-text refracting through the book, and the heartbreak of Pecola lurking at the margins of every chapter, inevitably suffering.

Can I propose something for our next year in reading? It was impossible for new books to get a fair shake during this annus horriblis, so I hope we spend 2021 by celebrating the first birthdays of the class of 2020 with the gusto we usually reserve for newcomers. What a group! I inhaled Luster by Raven Leilani, which is incredibly smart and encapsulates the challenge of art-making and has a great “Hey Arnold” reference, and I remain astounded by Being Lolita by Alisson Wood, which is a harrowing, gorgeously written memoir, and The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgaard somehow lived up to her great Welcome to America, and The Exhibition of Persephone Q by Jessi Jezewska Stevens is an incisive look at doubling and self-recognition, and Catherine Lacey’s Pew does a totally incredible text-shattering ending out of William Gass, and Temporary by Hilary Leichter has this crazy recursive middle section that I can’t get over, and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life let me meet glorious lonely Wallace, and All My Mothers’s Lovers by Ilana Masad boasts a structural conceit that I remain jealous of, and Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s Hex is pure voice, and A Burning by Megha Majumdar is upsetting in the best sense of the word, and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a miracle of time travel, and Braised Pork by An Yu is disorienting from the start, and I loved the quirkiness of Sarah Kasbeer’s A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man, and Scholastique Mukasonga is a master whose Igifu is a haunted collection full of paradoxical love, and Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss—the best book yet by one of our best writers—is an innovative collage of memoir, Lucille Ball biography, and good-old-fiction.

In October, of
course, I read the maps. Weeks and weeks of maps. Maps red-shifting, and then,
after sleepless nights, slowly blue-shifting again. County-by-county maps of
Georgia and Pennsylvania to read even when I closed my eyes. And then, on a
beautiful Saturday, I read the chyron on the bottom of CNN’s screen.

Most recently, I loved Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which is weird and wild, brilliantly anticipatory of later modernism, intensely neurotic and full of ghosts figurative and literal, with uncanny beats like Malte seeing his own hand under a desk. I also read two books that are coming out next year: Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler is a bold, funny look at projected personalities online and Alex McElroy’s The Atmospherians is a keen examination of mob-think and conceptions of masculinity, and it’s funny too!

When I think of next year, most of all, I think that maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a day where I don’t feel like I have to read anything at all.

But when I
think of this impossible year in reading, the pieces that meant the most to me
were the ones by my students in creative writing classes at Rutgers University and
Marymount Manhattan College. Unbelievably, I’ve taught 94 of them in 2020—in
spring they handled the pivot to online learning with an ease that’s
characteristic of their generation, and in fall they showed up on the Zoom
screen ready to write, read, and share their lives. When I think of all that they’ve
lost, I’m astounded by the communities they forged, the kindnesses they showed
one another, and the caliber of their work. Anyone who teaches creative writing
knows that our students bring us to the most implausible worlds—in one class,
you might experience a sword fight on Mars, a break-up in a college dorm, and an
admission that changes an identity forever. In an impossible time, my students
used their creativity to get me out. They saved me, this year, because they
reminded me what reading alone can do.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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An Evening of Immersive Theater with the Dead and Dying

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My experience of The Dead, 1904, Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s immersive theater adaptation of James Joyce’s short story, was unremarkable until an audience member fainted. I had been invited to the show as a last-minute fill-in—tickets run an outrageous $300—and I accepted because it was a snowy evening in New York, reminiscent of that long-ago Dublin night. I was one of 55 attendees gathered in The American Irish Historical Society, a lovely townhouse on Fifth Avenue, as “guests” of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.

The audience milled about during the first act, drinking bourbon and port while lightly interacting with the actors, who were moving through their pre-scripted motions like characters in a videogame. I first experienced concern when Lily, the housekeeper, said that she was “run off my feet,” a verbalization of the first line of the story. It seemed like we were going to suffer a long evening of expository dialogue. I worried that the play wouldn’t be able to render the crucial moment when the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiences lust for his wife, Gretta, during their post-party walk. However (this might have been the bourbon and the port), I began enjoying myself. The musicians were talented, the dancing was lively, and the surreality was unobtrusive. There was that usual jolt of something beloved shifting solid. Conroy, who I’ve always pictured as young, was a middle-aged man with a mustache. How upsetting that the next time I read the story, I’ll see the depressive actor, Rufus Collins, instead of my forever vanished image of the lead.

Eventually, we proceeded into the dining room and ate a meal in the round. I noted a slight Medieval Times vibe. There were two kinds of meat (no ham!), a thick gravy, a popover, more wine. D’Arcy, the reluctant tenor, spoke with the fatuous Mr. Browne. A bearded Irish man to my right kept offering me figs that I didn’t want and inquiring after my national origins. It was sweltering. I started to get too into the play. I laughed at all of Mr. Browne’s off-color jokes, then thrilled at Conroy’s toast to his aunts and niece. As the dinner wound down, there was a lull, and my dining companion surreptitiously pulled out his phone. D’Arcy scolded him merrily: “What is that device?”

The speech we had just heard anticipates this sort of incident. “A new generation is growing up in our midst,” says Conroy. “…sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity…which belonged to an older day.” In bemoaning those who are soon to leave us, Conroy concludes that “we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.”

Then, an elderly woman collapsed. The actors immediately entered semi-reality. “Does anyone have one of those devices with which we could call 911?” yelled Conroy in a bizarre compromise. “This gentleman does,” replied D’Arcy, pointing to my now mortified friend. Two of the supporting actors and several guests had crowded around the woman, but despite the gravity of the situation, there was an unwillingness among the audience to release the illusion that the actors were still propagating. My peers seemed almost childlike, as if they were holding onto a dream from which they didn’t want to wake. Experiential theater is fragile. The creation of the physical environment allows for shallow role play, yes, but in that capacity to make decisions, we remain thoroughly ourselves.

“Call the doctor,” someone yelled needlessly.

“Call the priest,” shouted the man who offered figs.

As we waited, I spoke with D’Arcy. The grumpy character faded away. He showed off the stitching of his vest, then dropped his convincing brogue and began cycling through several European accents from recent roles. At last, I’d found the ham. One of the aunts, staunchly in character, offered us more wine in something of a rebuke to my ebullient tenor. A tall paramedic with a ponytail looked around, a bit confused.

Another actor approached. I now understood that this was going to be an essay and had my notebook out. He told me that he didn’t much care for the play. I kept saying “on the record!” and he just continued to reveal things—apparently multiple people have fainted in the showings. The food, the drink, the average age, and the heat is a wicked combination. Eventually, the woman revived and the action resumed with D’Arcy singing “The Lass of Aughrim.”

It was time for Gabriel’s much-beloved snowy walk, when “moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.” Instead, the Conroys simply went upstairs to a bedroom. Across the street, a worker at the Met was sweeping the American Wing. The audience (including the miraculously recovered woman who had fainted!) watched the thwarting of Gabriel’s desire when Gretta experiences a ghostly memory, conjured by D’Arcy’s song.

The Dead is about this sort of fragile in-betweenness, how the dead are both the ghosts from our past that we can’t let go of and those who are soon to die. “Poor aunt Julia!” thinks Conroy, “She too would soon be a shade.” My experience that night was of the characters in the play briefly dropping their artifice, then experiencing a renewal, losing one sort of life to gain another, before returning to the legendary characters who the world would not willingly let die. When the actors had resumed acting, it was as if their actual “identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time rendered and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” This temporary confusion was so Joycean that it represented “The Dead” better than The Dead, 1904 had.

The story ends with a marvelous line: “his soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Muldoon chose to turn this sequence into a long monologue, and though there was still electricity in the room, the concept didn’t work. Our thoughts can be paused—when we experience one that really hits, it echoes. That allows literature to accomplish the illusion of epiphany. We so badly want to pause over the line: “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.” We need that extra beat to understand that Conroy never loved his wife. But instead, it passed in a relentless squall of words.

One hundred ten years ago, Joyce wrote: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” And at the end of my night with his characters, the producers made another odd decision. They were projecting fake, electric snow onto a window, behind which real snow was still falling thick.

My Not-So-Secret History

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Like so many this fall, I read The Goldfinch at one of those sleepless-night clips: the light sighing back on, the pillow rotated 90 degrees, that despairing look at the clock. But it wasn’t just in admiration of, as Janice Clark puts it, the “unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation,” nor was I aping Stephen King and reading “with a mixture of terror and excitement.” No — I was up late because Donna Tartt, a Mississippi-reared 49 year old woman, has apparently been following me around with her notebook in hand for the last 14 years. Her lead character, Theo Decker, is pretty much me.

Now, in matters of age, locale, race, and sex, there is little wonder to that. Theo and I are both 27 year old white guys from New York, and there are a lot of us — too many, probably. The first real attention-grabbing coincidence came when 13 year-old Theo’s building on 57th street off Sutton turned out to be the same as my own. I greedily accumulated evidence: it has to be on the odd-numbered side since at one point Theo walks south down Sutton and turns onto 57th before crossing; it’s not the building on the corner, but the doormen walk away from oncoming traffic to hail cabs, something you would only do when particularly close to their careening turns. Put this together and it’s most likely the second canopy down: 447.

Now, this was all nice and Prousty, but there’s nothing essay-worthy here. It’s a pretty, doublewide block and the other Sutton place streets have narrative complications (bridge traffic; lack of light). Fine. I tweeted: “Protagonist of #thegoldfinch is my exact age and grew up on the same block as me. What a likable guy!” and got a favorite from a stranger who didn’t subsequently follow me.

But then things started to get weird. 27-year-old Theo is a 18th and 19th century British antique dealer; I’m a 18th and 19th century French antique dealer. He spends 90 percent of his time working front of house and 10 percent in the restoration shop downstairs — same as me. We both sort through veneers, use ammonia on bronzes, join chairs with wacky old clamps, and match wood-grains. In fact, when I took an unauthorized Goldfinch break from practicing shellac application on ancient wood strips, Theo was sorting through the exact same set.

And it’s strange: the aspects of my job that have always seemed mundane are rendered delightful in Tartt’s capable hands. It’s all there, from the way we mark our catalogues with pencil (have I been picturesque all this time?) to the way we identify symmetrically dinged-up gilding as problematic (does everyone know to look for uneven wear?). Although, I have to say that Tartt’s trick of not vacuuming objects to make collectors think they’re finding overlooked gems doesn’t really work. Clients just glaze right on by.

The indulgence with which the author treats my profession might be the product of research vs. actuality. (How I flinched in the King review when he wrote, “There’s a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed.” Story of my life, S.K.) When you’re studying something there is such joy in discovery. Every flourish feels necessary. Tartt’s realization that cabinet doors shift over time must have been a eureka moment instead of part of an unbroken chain of osmosis. As I was reading the book, I’d walk around the store and see my work as literary instead of mere lunchbreak impediments.

There are even nods at French furniture. Hobie the loveable old well-read British furniture restorer (as opposed to Mark, the loveable old well-read Russian furniture restorer in our shop) may claim early on that it’s not his “bailiwick,” but toward the end Theo points out “inlaid French cabinets and tables in the French court style with garlanded carvings and veneer work that would have made Hobie gasp in admiration.”

Now, we don’t do the alchemy in the book, that piecing together of broken-down old classics to create borderline unimpeachable Frankenstein monsters of furniture. But I know who did. The source material is beyond a doubt the Dickensian-named “Buggins scandal” — an anecdote I will no longer be able to tell during pauses at dinner parties. As a reader, my tension leaked away the second I saw Hobie (a name, that I would argue is related to Hobbs, the dealer behind l’affaire Buggins) melding two pieces. The whole crucial subplot got shorted out by inevitability — it was like reading The Art of Fielding after having endured the Chuck Knoblauch era. (I never believe Yankees fans who say they loved that book. It’s too soon to get any sort of pleasure out of the yips; it’s like being shocked by 3rd act Kryptonite.)

The minor accumulation of my own personal facts just didn’t stop — Popchik, the charming Maltese in the book? Meet ZoZo, the charming Maltese I had from (drumroll) ages 13-27. The pleasantly horrific Subway Inn, where Theo’s dad sneaks a drink? My own exact high school sneakaway. Not all the incidental details are perfect. I went to school on the Upper East Side, not the Upper West; Theo grew up in 7C, but I was parked in 8B.

Tartt somehow even hacked into my private empathetic experiences. Not to make too big a thing of it, but there was an uncanny feel in reading about a teenager taking a scary midday walk from the Upper East Side to a 57th and Sutton apartment on the day of a terrorist attack. I saw again the way the cops that remained uptown looked; I remembered that the demographics of people walking in each direction were so much more mixed then normal. This was subliminal stuff — I hadn’t thought about it in such specificity since the day of.

(Although, then, the book takes care to note that this attack is not a substitute for 9/11. In fact, it’s not quite clear when the book actually takes place — Theo shoplifts XBOX games at one point, and there is an iPod, and those were the hottest devices of 2002 (I know this because I remember being around Theo’s age and desperately wanting an XBOX and an iPod), but then, somewhat shockingly, Jet Li’s Unleashed (2005) is mentioned. This means the “contemporary” action of the book happens in 2019. Future Fiction! Future Fiction with our exact smart phone technology and without drone package delivery or the singularity! Was this a move to get it further away from 9/11? Or is it just when the movie will come out? (This will be a killer movie if they gussie up the Amsterdam stuff a bit.)

Is The Goldfinch good? I don’t know. A friend hated it and I was totally unable to mount a defense. It was like someone attacking my own biography. How could she have thought Theo was an unsympathetic, cynically drawn lead? Is this why people sometimes ignore my Facebook messages? I’ve started wondering how many other people have had this happen to them. Was there a brave civil rights lawyer who just shook his head when Atticus gets all that food? A woman in a tool-filled kimono who started crying the second Seymour pulled out the gun? Willowy chivalry fetishists cursing in 17th Century Spanish?

Or did these people also feel the other side of things — the strange validation of this massive coincidence? Never before have I have been confident enough to talk at parties about how shellac is made (pro-tip: you really want to DIY with the flakes, that store-bought stuff loses its pop). Maybe clients won’t find it disingenuous if I talk about how a piece perfectly fits their aesthetic. Perhaps, King be damned, I can throw a description of this really killer Italian 18th century console table into my novel. And my childhood street might not be as boring as I’ve always thought.

Oh, and speaking of that inevitable movie? I’ll be hitting the gym double time, because I’m pretty sure I’d be the perfect Theo Decker.