Reading books rather than trawling social media makes me feel connected—the act of entering a perspective and narrative other than my own. This year especially reading felt like an act of resistance. I read works that reminded me to prize complexity and depth over their opposites.
One of my favorite reads this year was After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus. It’s about Acker’s life and work but is also, and perhaps more so, a social history of the counterculture, punk, avant garde poetry world of the 1980s. It’s furthermore a meditation on the particular struggles of a female rebel in the literary world. I’m not that wild about Kathy Acker’s writing, but I am a huge fan of Chris Kraus—and her lucid, intelligent mind was for me the real pleasure of this book.
On an airplane over somewhere I discovered an incredible short novel called Class Trip by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer I have long admired. It’s a realistic horror story told from a child’s point of view, and is coldly written, without a word out of place. I was aware reading it that I was in the hands of a literary master. The book ends in the most stunning, disturbing place.
Speaking of short novels, I also read and adored Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Transit and then went on to read her memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. Her writing has the same quiet hilarity as Ben Lerner and Lydia Davis. I’m fascinated by what she does with identity and the oddly hidden first person voice.
This year I also got to go back in time to a kind of Afrofuturism of the past. That is, George Schuyler’s 1934 satirical novel, Black No More. I was asked to write an introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition of the book. I hadn’t read it since my college class on the Harlem Renaissance. I was stunned, re-reading it now, by how shocking and ahead of its time the work still feels. Schuyler’s wicked and bold satire leaves nobody sacred. It gave me a chance to think about comedy and iconoclasm in the black literary tradition. It also reminded me to be fearless when writing.
Finally, I found time to read some short stories by two of my favorite Los Angeles writers: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s published two new stories in The New Yorker, “Likes,” and “The Burglar,” which were exceptional, and Dana Johnson published a brilliant story, “She Deserves Everything She Gets,” in The Paris Review, from her equally excellent collection, In the Not Quite Dark.
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A man shaves off his mustache and, consequently, his life. A boy gets lost within his dilemmas and insecurities, echoing downfalls of a mature man. Where does Emmanuel Carrere want the reader to end up? I’m unsure, but you can read Class Trip & The Mustache for yourself and try to figure it out.Both stories are unforgiving, that is for sure. The reader faces two dilemmas (which I will attempt to convey in reverse order, having read The Mustache first). There is a man. He is convinced that he had a mustache for years. He jokes about shaving it off. And, in the first five pages of the short novel, he shaves off the mustache. And with it, his life – or what one can only presume to be his life.Next, the reader is entangled in a series of existentialist debates. Did the unnamed protagonist really have a mustache? (OK, that one is a bit practical, but bear with me.) If yes, what does it mean – in terms of character – that he shaved it? If not, then what fuels his obsession with the belief?Carrere takes the reader through an unsolvable quest of insecurities in The Mustache. The distinct, single-voice narrative – which is definitive of the author’s voice in Class Trip as well – runs, simultaneously, through both the protagonist’s and the reader’s mind. One cannot disconnect from the voice.The narrative constitutes an integral part of Carrere’s mission: to draw the reader in to the story. One has the opportunity to see all the wrong turns the protagonist takes, yet the reader is helpless in dissociating with the narrative. Hence, it is easy to sympathize with the protagonist, his search of peace of mind, his comfort in the repetitive, and his focus on the mundane – even if he does it just to get grounded.Class Trip presents much of the same dilemmas. Despite its publication nine years after The Mustache, the story carries and presents the same self-centered debates. Nicholas – a protected, shy middle-school student who still wets his bed, is enamored with his father, and has considerable paranoid tendencies – goes off to the ski school with all of his classmates.The plague sets in at the get go: his father refuses to let Nicholas ride in the school bus due to safety concerns; once Nicholas arrives at the chalet the father forgets to unload his bag; and the kid becomes the laughing stock of his class because someone refusing to lend him pajamas makes the comment that “he’ll pee in them.”Events lead Nicholas to form a bond with the class bully, Hodkann, and the charismatic instructor, Patrick. The latter accentuates Nicholas’s hopes and bright side. Hodkann only contributes to Nicholas’ insecurities and wish to prove himself, however. Nicholas’ life at the chalet gets darker as events unfold, and he succeeds in daydreaming certain sequences that even a most paranoid person would have a hard time imagining.What is fascinating about Carrere’s two novels is that despite the unforgiving self pity and pain the protagonists and readers endure – not to mention obvious salvations presented in both stories, which both the protagonists and reader avoid – and the parallel frustrations put forth (and lived through), the characters are very real. And they represent a part of everyone’s dark, self-doubting, paranoid side.Note: If you have read either novel, or do end up reading them, and want to get into discussions as to WTF it all means, please leave a comment or email me. I am looking, desperately, for answers.