Death in Venice: And Seven Other Stories

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Nook (Kindle) and Cranny: Literary Travel Suggestions for a 400 Square Foot Apartment

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Literary travel has been around for ages, but it needs serious updating. Reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while wandering around London or Robert Bowles while exploring Fez may be perfectly enjoyable for your grandfather–but you are not your grandfather. You’re young, you’re free, and let’s face it: going abroad could seriously impede the routine you have developed. You’ve got a commitment to the bike co-op, several dateable co-workers, plus a full Netflix queue. Reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Venice is not a top priority. And so that’s why I’m providing you with literary travel recommendations to fascinating locales well within the boundaries of my four hundred square foot apartment. Prepare yourself accordingly for an adventure encompassing the holy trinity of time, space, and fiction, on a substantially more modern (and moderate) scale. If you can get used to my roommate, I promise it will be an incredible experience.
Pairing #1: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with the Bedroom
You will find the first pairing of the Bedroom with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian appealing if you have ever desired to delve deeper into the violent history of the American West. Not unlike that vast lawless frontier, this Bedroom first existed in pioneer minds as a seemingly blank slate. For them, it was simply territory for the taking, albeit mostly for above-garage storage. Over the years it was explored and divided. Settlers claimed portions of land through their strategic placement of Bob Marley posters, black lights, and dirty clothes piles. As you read Blood Meridian in the gap between my well-organized desk, lofted bed, and crisp, clean sheets, and my roommate’s half-inflated air mattress covered in zines, Doritos, and half-empty Kombucha bottles, you will explore the dark realm where civilization breaks down and gives way to total, bloodsoaked anarchy. Reading McCarthy’s masterwork in this No Man’s Land of the shared Bedroom will push you to search for meaning in a world of ceaseless chaos. Why is humanity so irredeemable? Why can’t he ever wash his hideous flannel sheets?
Pairing #2: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with the Living Room
In the Living Room, most specifically near the window where you can see the Discovery Zone in the strip mall across the street, you will find Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to be a most fitting read. Like the beacon and symbol in Woolf’s novel, let the bright red and yellow “DZ” shine forth to represent all of your unfulfilled hopes and aspirations, reminding you, even after an enjoyable night with friends, that you are still stuck living where you are. Curl up on the couch and read to the accompaniment of my roommate watching reality TV. While you try to focus on the novel, allow yourself to be enveloped by the din of Kardashian conflict while my roommate’s nasally voice rambles on about how great it would be to go to the Discovery Zone drunk tomorrow. Try to ignore him as he describes in great detail what it would be like to romp in the ball pit and clamber through those endless plastic tubes. Look up briefly to watch as I say, “There will be no going to the Discovery Zone tomorrow.” Notice the desolation in his eyes.
Pairing #3: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the Bathroom
This third pairing of Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the poorly lit Bathroom will allow you to throw yourself into an incarceral atmosphere strikingly true to the author’s own exile in Siberia. Fitting with the novel, the Bathroom is cramped quarters and lacks any windows or access to sunlight. While you struggle to read comfortably on the bathmat, my roommate will enhance the general uninhabitability of the “cell” by leaving beard trimmings on the counter, splattering toothpaste over the sink and mirror, and leaving wet towels and various other injustices strewn across the floor. This will all be capped off by a consistent, if not downright malicious, failure to replace any empty toilet paper rolls. For reasons of decency I shall only allude to the room’s poor ventilation. Just let it be said that there will be peak hours after my roommate’s morning cup of coffee when you will suffer along with Dostoyevsky, wondering what you ever did to deserve such harsh treatment?
Pairing #4: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the Kitchen
This final novel fits well with the Kitchen, which happens to be the southernmost room in the apartment. Here I recommend that you sit on the counter beside the increasingly filthy microwave that I’ve finally given up on cleaning to enjoy Faulkner’s renowned As I Lay Dying. You can bask in our only available direct sunlight and explore the varying perspectives of Addie Bundren’s death and burial. If you get too warm, there is a fitting coffin-like quality to the pantry. The fact that it has one of the only functioning doors in the entire apartment offers the chance to escape, however briefly, the presence of my roommate and to feel most in-tune with buried Addie herself. Furthermore, by reading this novel now, you won’t risk having your imagination contaminated by the James Franco movie adaptation which my roommate so earnestly claims will be a product of “pure Franco genius.”
Final Note and Offer!
If you are using an e-reader, I encourage you to download these novels before you arrive since a certain someone doesn’t think it’s necessary to pitch in for internet when our neighbor’s spotty wifi is available. But even more importantly, I want to let you know that if you find these pairings enticing, yet feel you won’t be able to get through them all in one weekend visit, there is the option of subletting the apartment or simply trading apartments with me. Just think how much fun you could have with a new roommate and so many books to read! But seriously. Think about it. I can’t take this much longer.
Image via evan p. cordes/Flickr

Book Lovers

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It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.

It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.

We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.

He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.

Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.

Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.

More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.

For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.

Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.

He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.

I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.

He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.

I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my to-read list.

I think: what the hell am I doing?

He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)

I think: what the hell am I doing?

The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.

You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.

Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.

I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.

He asks me if I am on Facebook.

I write yes.

Let’s be Facebook friends.

Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)

I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.

Surprise Me!