1. Recently, for the fourth or fifth time in my life, I started trying to read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I bought my copy many years ago, after falling in love with his story collections and enjoying Light Years, probably his best-known novel. A Sport and a Pastime, though not obscure, has a whiff of the occult about it, with its hazy voyeuristic sex and a title taken from the Koran. It is commonly and unironically referred to as an “erotic masterpiece.” Writing for The New York Times Review of Books, Reynolds Price said, “Of living novelists, none has produced a novel I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime…it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
Despite these points of interest and an agreeable running length of right around 200 pages, over two decades, I’ve found myself consistently stymied by something in this novel. I can still clearly remember the thrill of finding it at a used bookstore (it was, I believe, out of print at the time, or at any rate not widely available), taking it home, cracking it open along with a beer, and…not reading it.
This has been my experience with A Sport and a Pastime, our relationship, so to speak, over the last two decades. Maybe it’s the strange narrative setup, the unnamed narrator employed mostly as a camera for the erotic exploits of the central couple. Maybe it’s the slowness of the plot. More likely, I think, it’s something wrong with me.
There is a type of book, I find, that falls in this
category: books that resist you. This is different from books you think are
bad, or books you don’t want to read. These are books you want to read, but for
some reason are unable to. These are books that, if anything, you somehow fail,
not being up to the task.
2. The obverse of this is the kind of book you helplessly return to again and again. Some personal examples: The Patrick Melrose cycle, Disgrace, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flannery O’Connor’s The Collected Stories, The Big Sleep, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary. These are books that my taste and intellect, such as they are, somehow notch into like teeth into a greater gear. Sometimes you outgrow these books, as I feel I have with, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, but by and large these are books that I have read throughout my adulthood and continue getting different things out of with each read.
I’m not sure this is a good thing. In a way, this kind of reading preserves a personal stasis, forever reconfirming your excellent taste in literature, always agreeing with you. They are the yes-men of your library—in reading, as in life, it is good to find people who will tell you no: No, maybe you are not smart enough for this; no, you are not entitled to an immediate endorphin release upon opening me up; no, you cannot read me.
3. Another book of the former type: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This is an especially irksome one, a novel I’ve been attracted to for years, then repulsed by every time I open the cover. My experience with this kind of book does feel, in its way, analogous to a certain kind of romantic flirtation, a pas de deux of advance and retreat—never quite enough advance to win the book’s affection; never quite enough retreat to finally put me off. I have long been drawn to The Volcano and Lowry’s shared mythos: suicidal alcoholism in a hot country. I’m intrigued by its aura and stature as one of the greatest books of the century. I want to read it.
But man, that first chapter—I’ve read it several times and never made it any further. From memory: the initial, oblique conversation between Laruelle and Dr. Vigil (okay, I looked these up) on the hotel balcony as they sip anis and gaze out at the titular volcano; the references to the Consul, Fermin (who I am aware, theoretically, will at some point become the actual main character), and shared recollections of his misbehavior and disappearance; Laruelle’s interminable saunter down the hill and into town; an equally protracted sojourn at a bar that, again, if memory serves, is strangely connected to a movie theater. There, Laruelle is given a book for some reason. Other things happen, or don’t. My memory of that chapter feels consistent with the mode in which I have most frequently encountered it: falling asleep in bed. Which is to say that the first part is most vivid, and, as it goes on, the lights grow dimmer and the enterprise seems to begin repeating itself.
4. But this is clearly user error. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice, with both Under the Volcano and A Sport and a Pastime, a personal difficulty with books that dwell too long in the perspective of a peripheral character. No matter how good the language and description—and the language and description in Under the Volcano are, of course, very good—at a certain point I want it to get a move on. The truth probably is that I am not an especially good, or patient, reader. Maybe good compared to the average casual reader, but not compared to many other writers and academics I know, who seem to omnivorously inhale all manner of book no matter how difficult or slow, like woodchippers dispatching balsa.
The truth probably is that my normal reading taste level lands somewhere just north of middlebrow. I have read Ulysses (and is there a more loathsome sentence to type than this?—the literary equivalent of mentioning your SAT score). But I skipped large swaths of the especially difficult chapters like “Proteus” and “Oxen of the Sun.” My highbrow taste is defined by a narrow niche of books that are well-written and also, for lack of a better word, fun.
Nabokov’s novels, for example—as strenuously modern and well-written as they are, they also move. They are not boring. The reader’s attention is rewarded like a good dog, receiving periodic treats for trotting along behind the master. “Fun” is a strange descriptor to apply to a book about pedophilia, but in spite of its subject matter, Lolita is, well, a pretty rollicking read (really, this is the novel’s perverse central project, to coax a reader into an aesthetic pleasure that mirrors, horribly, Humbert’s), jammed with the darkest comedy, suspense, wordplay, twists, turns, and the climactic ending to end all climactic endings. It is fun, as is Pnin, as is Pale Fire. Even early juvenilia like The Eye keeps you interested.
5. Interestingness, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But would it be completely unfair to say that a large swath of what we consider literary fiction is, by its nature and/or by design, uneventful? My Struggle is an obvious recent example—the first 200 pages of Book One are the story of the time young Karl Ove and a friend tried (spoiler alert: successfully) to get a case of beer to a high school party. Later, he devotes dozens of pages to the description of cleaning a bathroom.
Knausgaard’s work may provide an extreme example, but it remains generally true that in what we consider highbrow literary fiction, plotlessness often serves as a genre and status marker. Presumably this has something to do with a semi-consciously received idea of literary fiction being realistic fiction, and reality being uneventful. Brian Cox, portraying the screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Adaptation, had this to say on the matter:
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!
My Struggle received overwhelming critical praise for its rejection of that stuff and for its strenuous, almost ostentatious, dramatization of the banal and prosaic—all of the bits that typically get cut out of plot-driven fiction. Zadie Smith, praising the books, said, “Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting.” The intellectual enshrinement of non-event is worth considering on its merits for a moment. It might be argued that this high literary conception of real life as a frictionless enactment of societal rituals, unconscious consumerism, and media absorption is essentially a safe, bourgeois version of reality, and that plot-free literary fiction aestheticizes that principle of non-event. And so it might further be argued that literature that tests a reader’s ability to endure boredom and plotlessness is, on some level, testing the degree of that reader’s integration into the late capitalist fantasy of a perfectly isolated and insulated existence just as much as a writer like James Patterson affirms that integration by the obverse means of testing a reader’s willingness to accept product as art. The extremes of event and non-event both affirm this version.
6.Then again, maybe (probably) this is bullshit, rigging up an objective rationale for personal taste. And besides, I can think of so many counterexamples—books in which nothing much happens that I adore. The Outline trilogy, for example, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I would listen to Faye listening to people until the end of time; I’d follow Lerner’s valium-popping liar Adam Gordon to the ends of the world. In the end, it probably just comes down to something ineffable and mysterious in the writing. That connection between author and reader, the partnership and compact that must occur, something in the handshake that slips, that doesn’t quite hold.
His books are long out of print, basically forgotten. And when they were current, his last name always overshadowed his first. But contemporary readers fortunate enough to spend time with Shiva Naipaul, the late younger brother of Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul, will find the former a true original, perhaps the great lost author of the 1970s. “My choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism,” he admits in the essay “My Brother and I”:
The paradox is this: I was doing anything but following in my brother’s footsteps when I started to write. Rather, I had taken the first step on the road to independence, to the autonomy that had always been denied me.
A dozen years younger than his celebrated sibling, Shiva Naipaul travelled a remarkably similar route, progressing from childhood in Trinidad to a scholarship at Oxford and eventually, pursuit of the writer’s life in London. Adding to the confusion, the subject matter of his books is, at first glance, remarkably similar to his brother’s, even patently Naipaulian.
Two rich tragicomic novels set in his native island, Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, garnered awards for Shiva Naipaul upon publication in the early ’70s—as well as inevitable comparisons to his brother’s first masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas. For all their surface similarities to Sir Vidia’s early work, however, the younger Naipaul’s family sagas cast a more humane look upon the extended Indian immigrant clans settled in Trinidad, incorporating rounded, complete female characters and their points of view. Modern concepts of education and ambition bump up against old-world traditions in Shiva Naipaul’s Indo-Trinidadian characters, mixing and mingling in unpredictable, volatile ratios.
While her neighbors consider Baby Luchtman, the resilient heroine of Fireflies, to be “too big for she boots,” it’s her uncle, the failed patriarch turned political wanna-be Govind Khoja, who skewers himself with ludicrous ambition:
Deprived of his authority at the head of the family, he was like a fish out of water, breathing in the noxious air of rebellion and insult. Unhappily, in the years since his mother’s death, this is exactly what had happened. Thus, since he was to be debarred henceforth from playing the guru to his own family, he would be guru to the people at large. The purveyor of an incomprehensible doctrine on education could not be challenged or called to account: the masses could only listen, be mystified and obey. So at any rate, Mr. Khoja believed.
Turning to narrative nonfiction after The Chip-Chip Gatherers came out in 1973, Naipaul invited further comparisons to his brother’s work by documenting a six-month trip through Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia in North of South: An African Journey (1978). Split between sharply observant travel writing and acidic political interpretation, North of South may work better as opinionated long-form journalism than objective history: It’s slightly anachronistic, and often problematic if judged by current standards. Once—or if—you get past his use of the word “primitive,” Naipaul expresses, and in fact demands, respect for indigenous cultures while unblinkingly documenting the complexities of postcolonial life, confronting the condescending white settlers and decrying their racism.
His next book is arguably Shiva Naipaul’s nonfiction apotheosis, and his personal Waterloo. Journey to Nowhere (titled Black and White in the U.K.) places the author in Guyana just days after the Jonestown mass suicides. Struggling to make sense of the senseless, Naipaul provides context and finally, insight into this still-inexplicable nightmare. The most recent account of the tragedy, Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (2017), is far more thoroughly researched yet nevertheless pales in comparison to Naipaul’s fitful exploration. Tracing Jim Jones’s strange trip back to his ostensibly progressive roots in the Bay Area, Naipaul indulges in a touch of cliched California-bashing before unearthing the horrible and half-hidden truth about the cult leader:
Deep racial terror was mercilessly exposed and exploited in the People’s Temple. Jones stripped bare his following and left them naked and defenseless. He did not liberate; he assaulted and traumatized those who believed in him. Once can sense at a certain level his raging hatred for the blacks whose God he claimed to be; a hatred so deep-seated, so tormenting that, it its fury, it turned itself inside out and called itself Love.
Returning to fiction with Love in a Hot Country (1983), Shiva Naipaul portrays star-crossed lives in a corrupt and ravaged Caribbean nation after the revolution. His voice and vision are decidedly bleaker here yet no less compelling than in the previous novels. A stunning collection of essays and short stories titled Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth appeared in 1985—the same year Shiva Naipaul died suddenly of a heart attack at age 40. In the introduction to the posthumous collection An Unfinished Journey (1987), Naipaul’s father-in law Douglas Stuart recalls asking him about a return to the comic vein of his initial fiction. Naipaul replied: “How can I? I have walked over the bodies at Jonestown.” But he was far from exhausted. “Beyond The Dragon’s Mouth,” an autobiographical essay first published in 1984, relays the depth, and fortitude, of his inspiration:
I grew up in a no-man’s land. Suburban life with its ease and unrelenting worship of American standards, American ideals, had not existed when I was a boy. Its assumptions and prejudices were unfamiliar to me. If I was like a fish out of water at a Hindu rite, I was no less a fish out of water at a drive-in cinema with the vapors of hot dogs and hamburgers. Such definition as I do now posses has its roots in nothing other than personal exigency. Every day, I have to redefine myself.
In his abbreviated oeuvre, Shiva Naipaul conducts a restless search to comprehend the world at large, and himself. Whatever his further journeys, both real and imagined, might have revealed, he left us plenty to unpack.
By some secret law of lists, “summer reads” often settle on books that are light and fluffy and happy. Like a marshmallow, they are usually too sticky and sweet for my taste. What about a list for us wretched assholes who prefer to spend the summer wallowing in a someone’s else’s misery?
On holiday, I cut myself off from my regular writing regime to focus on the people I’m with — I understand this is called “relaxing.” As my real life is relatively drama free, this means I have dangerous spare capacity to obsess over…what? While a happy book might distract me temporarily, it’s far easier to become completely consumed by an epic novel full of anguish.
Over the years, I have a developed specific criteria for the books that I want to read over the summer:
–The novel must have a high page count, a minimum of 500 but preferably cresting at 800. This is crucial, because I want to have something that I can sink into for a good number of days in a row.
–I’ll want to read in 75- to 100-page chunks at a time, because this is precisely how long I need to hide from other human beings on any given day.
–I have to be dying to get back to the story. The urgency must be genuine — this helps make my pleas for reading time feel authentically desperate.
–And most importantly, the plot should involve hardship, anxiety, and a certain level of suffering; these hold my occasional bouts of existential dread at bay.
So, like a marshmallow caught on fire, please enjoy the burnt crust of my epic summer reads:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This book is a complete kick in the ass. It’s beautiful, big, and full of empathy. Every single one of your 21 senses will be plunged into the social chaos of India in the mid-1970s. From slums and squalor come friendships, and, in comparison, how could you dare feel intolerant of your own family?
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Jason Diamond recently tweeted the last paragraph from a 1992 profile on Donna Tartt. “Look at these goldfinches…Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down…” If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, please understand that in this quote Tartt gives a pitch-perfect plot synopsis of the nearly 800-page novel she would go on to write some 21 years later. This is an author who deserves your undivided attention. If you worry that small birds sound twee, rest assured the section of this book that takes place in Las Vegas will sort you out.
Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald
It was sometime in 1997 that I started to figure out how the world might work. I credit this book with helping me grow up that much faster. It’s devastating and terrible, and funny, a wicked combination.
Adam McKay: If you are listening, before writing the script for the Theranos film could you read this book first? I ask for the dose of empathy that can make an ambitious character feel real:
Everything in New York is a photograph. All the things that are supposed to be dirty or rough or unrefined are the most beautiful things. Garbage cans at the ends of alleyways look like they’ve been up all night talking with each other. Doorways with peeling paint look like the wise lines around an old feller’s eyes. I stop and stare but can’t stay because men always think I’m selling something. Or worse, giving something away. I wish I could be invisible. Or at least I wish I didn’t look like someone they want to look at. They stop being part of the picture, they get up from their chess game and come out of the frame at me, blocking my view.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The only problem with categorizing Yanagihara’s novel as a summer read is that it is hard to read and, on occasion, you might have to take a break. If you do, don’t carry the book around with you! Your cousin will see the cover and feel confused and ask what it is about. And if you tell him, he will then ask, “Why would you read something like that?” Don’t answer. Head back to the hammock and keep reading. You’re on holiday, after all.
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, recently gave Barack Obama a copy of Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road. It’s set in WWI and in the wilds of Northern Ontario and is a great book, but his more recent The Orenda is the book that earns a place on this list. A decent page count, murders, torture plagues, a cut off pinky, and you are good to go.
A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Some people say this isn’t Naipaul’s best novel and they are wrong. This is Naipaul’s best novel. It follows the path of a man to middle age as he searches for autonomy — a house to call his own. This resonates, especially when on holiday. If you wrote as beautifully as Naipaul, you could buy your own house. Or cottage? Or rent a hotel room on the other coast…
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
If this list sticks in any way, your summer read is Barkskins. Enjoy the burn.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden.
I know people who read all the hot young novels. And I’ll occasionally buy one or two (although after getting burned by The Corrections, I wait for the paperback). But mostly the past is too full of fiction I haven’t read: fresh green breasts of James, Beckett, Mishima, Woolf remain uncharted, and I’m going to spend my time with The Marriage Plot? 2012 was the year I got around to what proved to be my favorite novel, period. I’d been meaning to read V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas for years — Naipaul was already the author of my favorite opening line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (I often say this to myself like a mantra; make of that what you will.) And Naipaul is possessed of a most delightful literary personality. But Mr. Biswas — nothing could have prepared me for the breadth of this book. Everyone in these pages is weak, silly, utterly human. I’m not sure any postwar author has known his own character — inspired by Naipaul’s father — so thoroughly. (Bellow comes close, in Herzog, published a few years after Biswas.) It’s hilarious and sad and all the usual things we say a work of literature is when we mean it seems to contain all of life. Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl.
Other books that made my year — besides some poetry titles I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune — include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; Richard Hughes’s In Hazard; Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (except the verses — it’s called meter, dude); David Graeber’s Debt (read if you have student loans and want to feel even angrier about them); Fantagraphics’s reprints of Carl Barks’s duck comics; Brian Michael Bendis and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil: End of Days (for those who preferred Frank Miller before he became a right-wing dipshit); George Herbert’s The Temple; and the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
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Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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I don’t tend to condemn books solely because the writer was some variety of wretch. But I have done so if I think it will create a smoke-screen for the fact that I did not understand the book. For example, the poems of Ezra Pound mystify me, so I make sure to remind people quite needlessly that he was an anti-semitic, Grade A Best Quality fuckwad. On the other hand, I recently learned that Eric Gill, famous book arts figure, sexually abused members of his family. Since this revelation, I have scrapped my plans for an Eric Gill tattoo, but I still think his art is beautiful and I look at it from time to time, with a furrowed brow. It is a very troublesome thing, the space we make in our hearts for the horrible–if they make something we like, that is. About the creator of a beloved work it is easier for people to be more relaxed, to make hand gestures and say things like “What a man, but what an artist” (cf Of Human Bondage, I think, for the quotation). I’m not looking to sign a Free Polanski petition, but I think I understand the motivation behind (some) of his apologists.
Moving on, several years ago I remember reading Naipaul’s A Way in the World and finding it very boring and hard to understand. Although, having just this minute skimmed a few reviews, it seems that either I was actually reading a different book altogether, possibly a math textbook, or that I am an incurable philistine. In fairness, this may have been during one of the still frequent and inexplicable periods in my life when the only things I want to read are A Girl of the Limberlost or Betsy In Spite of Herself (’bout that time now, actually), and should attempt nothing else. (Although I have since this writing completed A Bend in the River, my tepid reaction to which I’ve shared here before.)
Recognizing that V. S. Naipaul is a Distinguished Man of Letters I felt sheepish about not enjoying A Way in the World, but I received a boon in the form of an article about him, one which painted him as a terrible bastard. So I felt that all was well, and turned my defeat into a victory over sin. It was in this admirable spirit that I approached A House for Mr. Biswas, disdainful and yet cagy, as you would a fraud you suspect is smarter than you. My prejudice colored the first third of the book, so that when things got grimly fun and picaresque, I reminded myself that V. S. Naipaul is a jerk. By the end, though, I had become a quiet convert to the novel’s quiet charms. By which I do not mean to say that I wish to hold hands with V. S. Naipaul or lie down next to him, rather that I found the story very stirring and sad. It warmed and then unpleasantly squeezed my small heart.
The novel is about the shortish life of a singular man named Mohun Biswas. The narrative opens with a prologue, which explains the whole story in a nutshell, and tells us that Mr. Biswas is ill and not long for this world. Chapter one begins with his birth in a village hut on the island of Trinidad, and the story takes us through the whole circus of his life. Mr. Biswas is born, he gets hustled into marriage, and for 500 pages he laments his life, has nervous breakdowns of varying degrees of magnitude, and schemes to acquire a house. He gets the house, it’s miserable and then magical, he gets sick, and dies. He has four children, lots of jobs, little money, a shitload of inlaws, and the most ornery, pathetic, foolish, cruel and marginally lovable disposition you could imagine. And I don’t mean he is simply the third-world equivalent to the protagonist of a My Dick novel. He is something special. This is not a bildungsroman; it is a Biswasroman.
Although, like I said, I started the novel with an ill will and was disinclined to like anybody in it, I think Naipaul very carefully forged the narrative so that the reader goes through a variety of stages with regard to Mr. Biswas. You are angry that he is such a pain in the ass and mean to his wife. You are depressed about his living conditions, even though he is living better than many. You admit that his life has become unmanageable. You deny that you are enjoying the book. You accept that you kind of like Mr. Biswas. You write V. S. Naipaul a letter apologizing. Or something like that. He also lulls you, that V. S. Naipaul, referring to Mr. Biswas as “Mr. Biswas” from page one. The use of the honorific for someone to whom so little honor is given, but who takes himself so seriously, it tugs at the heart. There are lots of things that tug at the heart, especially toward the end. Their son Anand, a clever, touchy bastard like his father, gets third in the school exhibition exams, and I felt so relieved, like I, too, had put all my happiness eggs in his brain basket. I just wish he had written more letters home once he went off to abroad.
There is something distant, almost cold, about the writing; it doesn’t feel like Naipaul is holding everybody in his hand, rather at arm’s length. But he must have had some affection for this family to write about them so; maybe it’s a case of being very stern and grumpy with everyone so that you don’t collapse into sniffles.
What a man but what an artist, and all that.
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.