A Year in Reading: Adrienne Celt

At some point in the middle of this year, I began worrying that my education was wearing off. Not that I was getting stupider, exactly, but that in the years-long absence of coursework, my reading was becoming less rigorous and my choices more predictable, too much in thrall to whatever was on the literary radar.

At the same time, I began experiencing serious anxiety for the first time in my life. I know what you might be thinking: These things are probably not unrelated. Indeed, I generally began to visualize lots of worst-case scenarios, hoping, I guess, that I’d be allowed to prepare for them if I was smart enough to imagine them.

One preparation (this, for death; no big deal) has been to download an app called WeCroak, which periodically sends me a push alert that says “Don’t forget, you’re going to die” and then encourages me to click into the app to get a melancholy quote. The quotes can be wishy-washy, but they’re often quite good; the best one so far was from a Muriel Spark novel called Memento Mori—which I also happened to read this year—in which a mysterious stranger keeps calling up London’s elderly and telling them, “Remember, you must die.”

The app’s full quote speaks to my desire to anticipate problems early and often: “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.”

This would be grim, except that it’s true. Remembering the inevitability of death a little bit every day instead of all at once, at the end, seems to take the pressure off. And similarly, reading with greater variety all through the year helps me feel less dumb at Christmas.

In pursuit of this, I’ve been reaching for writers like Spark, like Iris Murdoch, like Joy Williams and Karen Tei Yamashita, who invite the bizarre and the morbid into their work with a welcoming hand. While traveling in France, I read two Murdoch novels: A Severed Head and The Bell, both of which made me laugh out loud on the train, while simultaneously giving me an existential stomach ache. They are the ordinary world, stitched through with dark thread; reality, slapped on the stinging ass. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange seems to tilt the other way, depicting a world boiling over with pestilence, through which a joyful note nonetheless continues to sound.

As for Joy Williams, I read The Quick and the Dead in a series of bubble baths in the month when I was recovering from surgery, and I wouldn’t mind doing so every year, even if it meant an annual slice of the knife. (I’m almost being sincere about this. Joy Williams is a flavor that pairs well with trauma.)

I had a book come out this year, too—which might account for the anxiety—and as a result I couldn’t help also reading a bunch of new work; not only because the writers belonged to my publishing cohort (if you will) (will you?), but also because they were exciting and excellent. Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy, Danielle Lazarin’s collection Back Talk, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Rebecca Kauffman’s The Gunners, Alice Hatcher’s The Wonder That Was Ours (which uses collective consciousness in a way I’ve never seen before), Laura van den Berg’s outstanding, protracted fever dream The Third Hotel. Back-to-back, I read Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and the fact that I have not yet reconciled my own conflicting desires in the arena of procreation can, at least, not be blamed on them.

Speaking of nonfiction, Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else is a collection of essays that engages so openly—lovingly, pugnaciously—with its own ideas that it filled me with professional envy. You can be metatextual with an essay in a way that’s not so easy in fiction, taking a concept and interrogating the fact that it occurred to you, without sounding obnoxious or twee. A fictional narrator can theoretically do the same, but because that narrator is invented, there’s always an added layer of ironic remove between them and the reader. Shelley Jackson’s novel Riddance perhaps comes close to bridging the gap, forcing its ideas about ghosts, mortality, and the nature of inquiry through the sieve of the body and all of its orifices. It perseveres, framing and re-framing its question through the mouth, through the voice, through the ear, through the land of the dead and the concept of child endangerment. It’s pretty wild.

Moving on: Books I’ve loved this year that actually come out next year include Erika Swyler’s Light from Other Stars, which gave me the same feeling I had at 11 or 12, watching Contact for the first time: an un-cynical joy and wonder; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was rightly pitched as Veronica Mars at a school for magicians (!); Kat Howard’s collection Cathedral of Myth and Bone, which guided me through stressful periods in the fall with the nudging reminder that the fantastic is in our DNA, in stories if not in actual fact; and Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which is searing, cunning, redemptive, perfect.

I’m a bit stunned that, given our current cultural penchant for autofiction (see: Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, both of which I read and adored) more Americans didn’t read the 2017 translation of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, which is spooky and intimate, not to mention clever as hell. French Exit by Patrick deWitt is like contemporary P.G. Wodehouse except sadder and with better swears (the fucked witch!). The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman is a book of ideas (what does it mean to shape the narrative of your ambition? What do you owe to your sources of inspiration? Was Nabokov a dick?) and a thrilling true crime story. The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson is about murder, and it made me feel dark and content at a time when I was previously just feeling dark. Daphne du Maurier will never bore me.

Finally, Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was the first book I read this year, sitting on my couch with a yard of gauze in my ear, unable to turn my head. It tells the story of a curse that runs through generations of men and women, manifesting both subtly—bad choices, bad luck—and vibrantly—full-body possession!—as people just try to live their fucking lives. Many, many worst case scenarios, and yet it filled me up with hope.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Little Night Music: On Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas

When I was a child, I developed a set of deliciously painful fantasies to reach for whenever my life felt stifling: running away, contracting a wasting illness, being orphaned (or kidnapped) and raised by disciplinarian ninjas. One of the most potent dreams involved becoming a latchkey kid, free after school hours to move around the city on my own dubious recognizance. I grew up in the suburbs, so my notions of “the city” were vague, but I supposed that I would live by my wits, sneaking through back-alley shortcuts and shoplifting candy bars when the need was great.

In Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari is a near-perfect stand-in for the scamp of my childhood dreams. She makes her own breakfast and escorts herself home at the end of the day; she knows swears. But her world is more fraught and dangerous than the one I had in mind. For one thing, her mother is dead, and, unlike the sympathetic thugs from my fantasy (who always showed up in the nick of time to grab my hand and tell me to run), the adults who remain in her life don’t follow her around to keep her safe. They each stay in their place, and she skips between them like a stone.

Some of Bertino’s characters are more stuck than others. For instance: Lorca, the owner of the titular club, who spends most of the book trying to keep his business running in the face of blatant city code violations. Or Mrs. Santiago, the deli owner who feeds Madeleine and asks about her day: she provides a necessary stability for the girl, but seems so fixed in her routine that she won’t even chase her dog (the marvelous Pedro) during his frequent bids for freedom.

But what’s enchanting is the way that most everyone – no matter how fixed at the story’s outset – is moving towards the same sublime adolescent freedom as Madeleine. It’s our privilege as readers to not just witness this mass unfettering, but to share in it: we feel the new lightness in each character’s step. Sarina Greene – Madeleine’s schoolteacher – is the clearest example: she starts off woebegone, still wearing her high-school-era discontents and sitting silently in the corner at a Christmas party. Soon, though, she’s chasing her new paramour through ice-cold fountains, making snap decisions, having fun. And so are we.

As we follow the antic momentum towards the Cat’s Pajamas (and, we assume, the hour of 2 A.M.), the book shimmers with pratfalls and wit, feeling at once real-to-life and larger-than. Not everyone is perfectly happy: Madeleine – an aspiring jazz singer ­– discovers the club and decides to make her way there, but despite her age and her Puckish quest, she’s not innocent. Her father, locked away in his grief, sleeps in their apartment like an ogre underneath a bridge; caustic and dangerous when startled awake. (He’s also the one exception, so far as we see, to the rule of stuck characters breaking loose.)

Still, it’s his alienation that gives Madeleine the leeway she needs to step out into the evening and play her part. And this seems to be another loose rule of the book: no redemption without suffering. Fair enough.

One question: is it possible for a group of characters to be too charismatic? If so, that was my only real objection to Bertino’s novel. The cast is large, and many more than our three major players (Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca) take over as point-of-view characters for a page or two. Quite rightly, Bertino lets most of these personalities fall to the wayside so her plot can progress, but a few stuck in my mind long past their expiration dates: Clare Kelly – Madeleine’s nemesis – for example, is such a delicious brat that I couldn’t help but want more time with her. I also snagged on the suggestion of a parallel between Madeleine’s competition with Clare and her mother’s long-ago rivalry with a woman we know as Principal Randles (who expels Madeleine from elementary school, seemingly to get back at her mother for being too pretty), but the connection goes largely unexplored.

It’s fair to say, though, that all this really points out is that Bertino draws rich and real human beings with enviably few strokes of the pen. Instead of feeling overcrowded, the book feels lively, with the jostling energy of…well, a club. It’s packed. You might elbow someone to get to your table. But in the end you don’t really mind, because those electric connections are part of the fun.