2015 was the year I first read William Styron and enjoyed Jonathan Franzen, two impassioned existentialists whose characters — machines célibataires initially persuaded of the arability of signs — fail at their world-building, not even spectacularly but in ways that embarrass even themselves, coming to rest at last on the eternally naked but fertile earth of the female sex. Such novels are jungles, with flaws that are numerous, open-mouthed, and hungry. So instead I will recommend two short masterpieces: The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, and Daniel Kehlmann’s Ich und Kaminski. If Styron and Franzen are high romantic symphonies, Drury and Kehlmann are baroque airs — instantly accessible and timeless, capturing known worlds rather than jury rigging the new.
My lasting joy in The End of Vandalism (1994) hinges on its portrayal of a certain kind of archetypal small-town egomaniac it is a punishment to know. I struggled and failed in my novel Mislaid to sketch this person in the character of Lomax, but here he is in the hulking, self-pitying “Tiny,” quick to offend and just as quick to forgive (himself). I love his patient and gentle antagonist, Sheriff Dan. Drury lands line after line of laconic idiom with the artlessness of true art.
Ich und Kaminski (2003) is told in a first-person voice whose transparent self-deception is the air we breathe. Art historian/reviewer Sebastian is under contract/freelancing to write a book-length biography/magazine profile of an epoch-making/insignificant world famous/forgotten abstract expressionist/dabbler in watercolor landscapes, best known for his progressive partial blindness. Assisted by a girlfriend who is seeing someone else but never got her keys back, he reunites the painter with the love of his life. Sebastian’s fall is long, awkward, and embarrassing, but he never knows he’s falling. As it is for most of us, blessed as we are not to live in existentialist novels, it’s the hard landing that gets his attention — right in time for him to get up and dust himself off.
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