I’m suffering from that complete lack of perspective that afflicts us when we try and enforce a strict linear timeline on our lives; that is to say, to borrow a dumb driving metaphor, that objects in my figurative rearview mirror are closer than they appear, and the books I read at the beginning of 2014 and throughout 2014 have all blended together in that grey matter soup sloshing around my skull, and so I’m now going to name my favorite book of the year as one that just happens to be a book I read very recently, but so what, this is my entry and I can do what I want.
I found Artful at my favourite book store in Brooklyn and put it down because I had already spent too much money that weekend, a rare exercising of willpower. Three weeks later I went back to that same bookstore, after having tried to navigate a delayed flight and a city shut down by a marathon and a friend who had left me his empty apartment and yet had failed to leave me either his keys or his Wi-Fi password; I thought about weeping, but instead dragged my suitcase to buy the book I wanted because I thought it would make me feel better, which it did not. I was on edge and paranoid and convinced, once I got the keys, that I wasn’t alone inside the apartment. If I had known Artful was a ghost story I might not have read it. When I got to the part of the book where the narrator’s dead lover shows up in her living room to steal her teacups I felt compelled to get up and check the closets for, I don’t know, ghosts? As though they were perhaps just waiting in my friend’s linens for me.
Ali Smith’s collection of four essays, ostensibly about time and form and literature and art and film and trees and the Greek language, but actually the story of a woman grieving her recently deceased partner, put me on watch for ghosts and relaxed some weird tension I hadn’t even known I was holding until I read it: “Books,” Smith writes early in the book, “need time to dawn on us.” We wouldn’t listen to a piece of music just once to fully understand it, she explains, a fact anyone who has heard “Anaconda” can relate to. “[W]e tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once…it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.”
I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s not really common sense either. Since childhood, I’ve clung to books the way babies cling to their preferred blankets, believing in their soothing or restorative properties, even if I knew how they would end. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite book of the year because I sometimes think I only have favorite books, full stop, and they are books I’ve been reading and re-reading for years with a really high level of guilt about it; like, do I really need to read I Love Dick for the 16th time? I know how it ends. I need something else, I suppose, the rhythm of something I’ve heard before.
This year, I read and re-read my favorite books like it was a guilty pleasure, ashamed to be shunning all the new books that had come out, books that probably would’ve expanded my worldview or taught me something useful, but fuck it, Ali Smith gave me permission to take some time to understand the book in front of me. In 2014, I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride and Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, four times in five months. I read Kate Zambreno’s reissued novel Green Girl six times as I wrote a very long article about it, Over Easy by Mimi Pond twice, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit four times. I read the same two pages of Susan Sontag’s journals as many times as it took until I thought I understood what she was saying even though I’m still not entirely sure I do. It’s the books I read just once that are probably a sign of doing something wrong, either on my part or the books’ part, because I haven’t found a way to make them part of this linear narrative of books I keep circling back on, the books that follow me as I try to turn the peripheral objects of my life into symbols of some sort of meaning or permanence or ratings like “best” and “worst.”
All of this is to say: I really don’t know what my best book of 2014 was, but since that terrible weekend in Brooklyn, I’ve read Artful cover to cover three times.
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Summer is notorious for its beaches and barbecues and fireworks and picnics and poolside gatherings but to me it stands out most for being crosshatched with roads: meandering country roads but also interstates and tail lights and traffic jams and deserted highways, conduits for moving quickly across vast distances, between cities, passing church and house and field and factory at high velocity. Summers too are for reading, for harvesting shelves to fill long days and sweaty nights, in a hammock, a bed, a backseat, a fuselage, crossing rivers, oceans, continents. Countless pages bridge summer’s sprawl, fill its seemingly infinite unfurling, the illusion of which diminishes only as summer somehow has the gall to move on. I never can quite fathom summer’s end at its start, and so my reading lists stretch on endlessly, too, crammed with long novels too unwieldy for the demands of other seasons (for now: Musil, Stein, and Cărtărescu) and punctuated with shorter sprightlier works. I know now I’ll be lucky to make it halfway through. Even better if the books contain a kind of magic within—delights, supersaturated images, somehow dreamlike, intense. As if the vernal publishing gods anticipated this, they’ve delivered a slew of new books befitting such lists just in time for solstice. Here are a few that I’d recommend adding to yours:
Do judge Lisa Jarnot’s A Princess Magic Presto Spell by its cover, by its charming title written in pink, by its picture-book trappings—slim white hardcover adorned with a watercolor by Emilie Clark. This mythopoeic urban-pastoral mash-up incites the same vein of delight as Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” did when I was a child. Not that this book is concerned with childish things. Well, it is, but it isn’t. The poem dredges up all sort of dreck and muck alongside picnics and strawberries and fairies: rabid beavers and bodegas and boa constrictors and threat of economic collapse. Death “smells like the painting of a flower” and sadness is sandwiched between chickens and raspberry jam. Of writing, Jarnot says, “I like tripping so rainbows come out of mouth / I’m pregnant with guinea pigs and hamsters and trees.” It’s as if she, the poetic enchantress, spins words into magical worlds of cosmic glitter-dust matter.
Shane Jones’s fabulist novel, The Crystal Eaters, is splattered with Technicolor crystal vomit and eye goo, with bodies leaking red, yellow, and blue; the sun wants to swallow the earth; and the indestructible city encroaches on the country like kudzu. Lives are measured in crystals, and each living entity enters the world containing a number that inevitably dwindles to zero, i.e., death. For comparison: humans contain 100, cats 39, ants 3, a flower 1. At its center is Remy, a young girl whose family lives near the crystal mines and whose mother is dying. She’s like Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in that she’s grappling with her mother’s low crystal count, impending death, but hoping to stop it too. Narration jumps between characters, and we see Remy’s childlike imagination dealing with the unbelievable inevitable, “Mom can’t die because Mom is Mom, Mom can’t die because mom is a god, … , Mom can’t die because Mom is a dog, Mom can’t die because Mom is a god…” This crystal mining country is Jones’s own Yoknapatawpha County, a town with its own peculiar inhabitants and notions and schemes (such as a prison break in reverse). These fantastical trappings give way to deeper questions—about death, the nature of life, of what it takes to be remembered after you die.
Bodies are anything but lucky in Kyle Coma-Thompson’s The Lucky Body. Bodies are punished, fooled, desired, and shamed, too. Atrocities are committed against them. The absurdist reduction in “A Thing About Mouths” depicts a world where mouths can be detached and hocked for money. Some stories are avant-garde reductions: “The Lost Dances” contains lost choreographies for Fluxus dances; the pithy gems in “Stories on the Half Shell” go down quickly, served in a half dozen plus one for good measure. Despite their avant-garde leanings, Coma-Thompson’s stories grapple with the artifice and ambition inherent to art, noting the fragility and failure of being caged within a body as well as its passing joys. In “A Town,” the town’s inhabitants and visitors become trapped within a small town, the inhabitants have nothing better to do than spend their time betting on who will enter. The story grows darker when the town’s perimeter shrinks, collapsing in on itself and its inhabitants too: “The sizzle of flesh and bone, parts of people to the front and back of you, an arm here, a foot there, a nose right down to the sinuses? Will the weeping and hot press of people against each other and the surprised shouts and pleas for help from the people outside the town quiet, as the limits shrink to hold only one or two or three people…” These stories drift through the night-shade like melancholic whispers, their darkness on par with Goya’s Black Paintings, their elegiac madness and dreamlike terror.
Who am I? What do I want to become? Questions of identity plague Ruth, London-based “green girl,” perfume-counter sales girl selling Desire at Horrid’s, in Kate Zambreno’s recently rereleased Green Girl. Ruth is lost, an American among Londoners, another face among the masses riding the Tube. When she’s singled out she’s merely surface, a beautiful girl playing out her doll-like role in a culture whose currency, especially for women, is all image and appearance. No one can see beyond her surface; and Ruth doesn’t know how to resist or negotiate her sense of self, or the source of this inner turmoil. Even Ruth’s creator—the narrator who plays auteur to the film of Ruth’s life—views her with a mix of admiration and disdain: “The green girl is often inarticulate. Speech littered with likes. She cannot translate the depths. (Are there depths? I am still unsure of her interiority. If I prick her will thoughts rush out or just a heavy mess of confusion?)” This culture of eyes and cameras and images, of marketing allure, of selling Desire, it’s all part of this grand machinery of consumption. Transcendence comes not from sex and self-obliteration but from digging deeper, from being seen beyond the surface. But how to not self-destruct when all she can see is her reflection? And what if there really is nothing there? Zambreno’s novel unfolds with a filmic quality, of scenes playing out with lyric intensity. Interspersed quotes divide scenes and provide refractions of Ruth’s dilemma as they’ve played out in literary and film history. The fragments form a more complete, kaleidoscopic view, such as this, from Clarice Lispector: “To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.”
Clarice Lispector and Mary Ruefle are the two visionary, nearly shamanic literary talents whose work is the focus of Music & Literature No. 4, edited by Taylor Davis-Van Atta and Daniel Medin (also featured in this volume are the musical collaborations of Maya Homburger and Barry Guy). As author Rachel Kushner remarks in her essay, “Lipstick Traces: Clarice Lispector’s Radiant Nothingness,” there is no substitute for experiencing Lispector’s writing firsthand—the void she writes into, her philosophical inquiry, the way she explores our human implication in this “marvelous scandal” of life. But this volume comes close. Kushner writes of how Lispector’s fiction explores consciousness, “the alienating strangeness of what it is to be alive.” But this is just one facet. Lispector’s strengths are also what some may consider flaws: her lack of plot, that she “want[ed] every sentence of this book to be a climax,” (as she wrote in Agua Viva), and also her refusal to “fill the pages of a book with ‘facts.’” Mary Ruefle has an essay on Lispector in this issue, too. Ruefle writes, “To be nearer to the absent–the presence of the absence–these words don’t have much life in them but Clarice Lispector gives life to the idea when she writes, ‘What am I doing writing to you? I am trying to photograph perfume.’” The attempt to capture traces of the ineffable with language, to convey a particular experience of being in the world, this guides Ruefle’s work as well. Ruefle’s section includes poems, images of her erasure poems, essays about her work, and an interview. Her words of wisdom include: “everyone needs to waste time, it’s essential to Being, but most people let culture at large waste their time; as an artist I want to waste my time in my own way, in the kinds of ways that, for me, lead to making something.” Now that’s a fine excuse for summertime laze.
Image via Lnk.Si/Flickr