When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption.
I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt’s uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear “like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away,” a refrigerator’s shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed.
I’ve spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit.
Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. “If I have to eat a penis lollipop I’ll die,” Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that’s grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May’s superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother’s death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I’m in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I’m still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother’s suicide in an attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I’ve read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze.
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard’s privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They’re survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It’s impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we’re all implicated.
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Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels — Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy — as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited — or curated, rather — for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn.
In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh.
The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I’m an avid reader of Jonathan’s work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor’s introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process?
Christopher Boucher: It’s fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I’d loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift — my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will.
As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on — during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature — I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read — to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader — to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.”
That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of “books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan’s fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it’s unlike anything else in the book, it’s just so poignant and funny.
Jonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections — The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It’s about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn’t really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There’s even fiction in there, and a poem. It’s a deliberate — and obnoxious, I’m sure — attempt to measure the space I’d blundered into as a “public intellectual,” which wasn’t a plan I’d had for myself. It’s modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself.
What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I’d written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And “appreciations.” Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-’90s — one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson’s Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird. That’s here too. It’s really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and “author.” It’s a book of devotions, basically.
TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process?
JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers — things like Anthony Burgess’s Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife — books that are full of things like introductions and “appreciations.” I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly.
But I didn’t shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass — and there was more ass than you’d think. He covered it, for the most part.
TM: I’m curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form?
CB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book’s scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on — that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth.
Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” — inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example — there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke.
As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story.
Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest — these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later.
JL: I’m fighting the temptation to satirize Chris’s scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. “First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse’s hooves,” etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe’s worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I’d missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well.
As Chris began to settle on pieces — which didn’t happen all at once, but in sequences — I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more “improving” — or at least triage — on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones.
I really like hearing about Chris’s concerns about the risk of “maplessness” and the way he thought of his solution in terms of “channels.” I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I’d have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris’s discoveries.
TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay “Pychonopolis”) this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I’m wondering if Jonathan’s attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper’s essay and his “Promiscuous” Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands?
JL: Well, I’m in no way repentant, if that’s what you mean. All of my impulses — my yearnings — are still in the direction of a gift economy. It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of “property” over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a “temporary autonomous zone” wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer!
The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair — I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I’m not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I’m glad about that. I should say that it wasn’t some major experiment, I don’t make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture — a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot.
My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I’ve got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I’m still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority — both inside the text, and around it.
CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” — like gifts, in other words.
This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility.
TM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year’s A Gambler’s Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further?
JL: I’m sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I’ve always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me — I’ve never thought about this, exactly, before — like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don’t mean myself). That’s to say, where we’re by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let’s leave it at that.
Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler’s Anatomy aren’t all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair — I mean, it seemed funny — to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book.
TM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations — Jean Shepherd; WOR…etc — ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader’s objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer’s craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, “narrative ‘sense'” sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp.
JL: Elkin’s WIFE, I’d forgotten that. Genius — I wouldn’t try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too.
As for the opposition you suggest between “authors doing things on their terms” and the cultural commons, I’d say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do — on their terms. Anyway that’s how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we’re all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, “text goes on within you and without you.”
I’m glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy — he’ll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I’ve gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms “big-league,” “conversion” and “recruit.” Because I know McElroy is generally associated with “difficulty,” and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader’s hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I’m not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen — it’s fun to be in his brain, that’s the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that’s what turns you on! Life’s too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what’s on offer — it’s like being intimidated by food.
CB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can — to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it — when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.”
TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader’s resistance, if the book doesn’t conform to the reader’s preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It’s understood that this is the reader’s problem, the reader’s loss. Although, also it’s a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth “terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It’s largely a novelist’s bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels?
CB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have.
From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that — I think it’s a good place to write from.
Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks — each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed. Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design — the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery.
JL: “A novelist’s bag of novels and novelists” — you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack.
Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I’ll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil’s advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil’s advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: “The novel will be at your funeral!”
Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things…the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it…but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view.
Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel — for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways — by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration — time, that is. It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that’s the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we’re social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life).
Anyway, this here bag of cats — it’s got other things in it, I swear. There’s my mother-in-law, in the “Footnote to Berger.” She’s no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others — painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It’s less lonely because it’s fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just — well, cats, all the way down.
Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t — but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.)
But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned — always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning — for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness — a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness — and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading — and abandoning.)
Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand — I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book — but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity — at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed.
I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She’s inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way — both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers.
Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single — and, crucially, female — late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed.
I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so — a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes,
the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx — these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age.
An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it.
The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 — or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction — who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders…Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen — really for the first time in any kind of serious way — to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again.
The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.
I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.
When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.
If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.
On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.
After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.
I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.
All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.
As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.
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