When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
That’s because I’m a mediocre musician, with poor sight-reading skills and no piano handy, and Song Reader, if you didn’t already know, is just sheet music. No CD, no link to downloadable MP3s, nada. I have to puzzle out the melodies on my guitar, drawing on long forgotten undergraduate music theory to get the rhythms right. It is a pain in the ass. The album would sound better if it were professionally recorded, by a real artist.
And yet. When I finally manage to play through “I’m Down,” and “America, Here’s My Boy,” and “Do We? We Do,” it is revelatory. I have just channeled Beck’s spirit through printed paper! The first versions of Beck’s songs I hear are my own! This is an amazing feeling.
If you are not musically trained and do not have a musician near at hand, Song Reader may be a tough sell. True, the artwork is nice to look at. You can read the lyrics, and the introduction by Jody Rosen, and the foreword by Beck himself. These are worthwhile activities. The graphic design is skillful. Beck’s lyrics read well, for song lyrics. The introductions are illuminating. And as you look all this over you will think, for the first time, probably, about how back in the day people did not buy albums, they bought scores, and you sat in a park or your parlor (whatever that is) and listened to someone’s interpretation of those scores, maybe a friend or a relative, or you interpreted them yourself.
But then you will want to hear the songs, and they are not readily accessible. In fact, a few months ago they weren’t accessible at all. When I first received the album (in the mail!), only four of the songs had been recorded and shared online, and the renditions ranged from decent (The New Yorker staff) to tragic. By the time I sat down to write this essay, though, over 100 had been uploaded to the official McSweeney’s website and YouTube. There is already one very polished video of “Old Shanghai,” the pre-released sheet music single. The Portland Cello Project has now recorded the whole thing and posted it on YouTube.
These options will still leave some people dissatisfied, and they may remain so until Beck releases “official” versions. Which he will, of course, in due time (though according to an interview not anytime soon). That’s why there’s no reason for anyone to complain.
As for me, I’m trying to steer clear of other people’s versions, at least until I’ve made my own.
I’ll leave it for accomplished music writers to review the music. I want to talk about Song Reader as a book. It is a great book. It is better than Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or The Clock Without a Face, a 2010 McSweeney’s production whose busily illustrated pages hid clues to a real-world treasure-hunt.
Beck’s book is better than all of these because it does not feel forced or gimmicky. It is the hipster tendency to appropriate anachronism at its very, very best. Why? Because it requires hack musicians like myself to push their abilities. Because it is nostalgia in its purest form. (See the moon begin to rise / just like it did back home, I sing as I play “Old Shanghai.”) Because it trains patience. Because through anachronism it succeeds in making brilliant use of current technological forms, reproducing endlessly, an album with infinite authentic tracks. Because I will practice Beck’s songs, along with thousands of other people, and we will watch and listen along with Beck as the world plays his music. He will find out how his music sounds. I will find out, too. Neither of us will have the final say. It is ultra-quaint and ultra-post-modern simultaneously.
This is a really fantastic book.
Did I mention it sounds good? I mean, I sound good when I read the pages out loud, and that’s saying a lot. The songs are user-friendly, in easy musical keys, consciously written for people like me. Thank you, Beck!
Classical musicians and jazz musicians and producers of musicals regularly encounter music in its raw and unprocessed state. What makes Song Reader nothing short of genius is the way it upends the expectations of its audience, most of whom (I assume) do not read music for a living, or even recreationally. No one gets to instantly download the songs. There are no traditional reviews. No previews on iTunes. When people discuss the relative merits of the album, the conversation cannot help but become a meta-conversation: “What is an album?” “Where is the album?” “Whose album is it?” I have had a few of these conversations. They are everything philosophizing should be — earnest, enthusiastic, and revelatory. Someone points out that no one can pirate the album. Someone else wonders about copyright law: can you just perform Beck’s songs, or does he get royalties? The conversation veers towards cover bands, and whether they have any legal or financial obligation to the original band. We think about music, and law, and authenticity through the lens of Beck’s book, as though for the first time. Song Reader is about firsts.
One of those firsts, for me, is the realization of a reward built into sheet music that cannot happen any other way. Playing Beck’s songs is like discovering home-cooking after a life of eating at restaurants. This feeling of discovery is not better than listening to Beck play his own songs, no more than preparing my own pasta is better than going out to my favorite Italian joint. Home-cooking is not better or worse than eating at restaurants. It is an entirely different activity. This is what Beck wanted: “Learning to play a song is its own category of experience.”
Some activities should not be forgotten by popular culture. Cooking is among them. So, too, is the musical experience that Beck has recreated. There is no word for it, but now I know what it is, and it is beautiful and exciting and profoundly different from any experience of music I have ever had. Like cooking, it has been eclipsed by technologies of convenience. It takes time and effort to play through Beck’s album, or to wait for other people to do so, or to call your musician friends and have them do it for you. This is time and effort many people won’t want to spend.
Too bad. It’s worth it. You won’t just hear the album, you’ll work for it. And that work will add to the music, just like you can taste your own labor in a home-cooked meal. I’m not saying every album should come out in the form of sheet music. Neither is Beck. But in its exceptionalism, Song Reader reminds us of the invisible losses that accompany cultural movement and technological innovation, losses that need not always be accepted. (There is probably a lesson in here somewhere about the relationship between paper books and e-books.) Be careful, says Beck’s experiment. Move slowly, and make sure you haven’t left anything important behind. Why did you leave it? Was there room to bring it along?
At Slate, Geeta Dayal describes Song Reader as a signpost of the new earnestness in our culture, offering tepid praise: “It’s not a bad thing — it’s a constructive impulse, and a sincere one.” But she also warns us not to “mistake it for a manifesto,” pointing out that Bing Crosby, whose song “Sweet Leilani” inspired Song Reader, couldn’t read music, and neither could Jimi Hendrix. Beck, she complains, made much use of the recording studio. So let’s not get preachy about halcyon days, right?
Maybe. But Beck (and McSweeney’s) never meant Song Reader as an anti-technology manifesto. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an official website for people to upload their songs. What makes it feel like a manifesto (a fuck you, according to Dayal) is latent insecurities in our own culture, insecurities that I share, about loss and progress. Fox-hunts do not look like manifestos because we are not sad about what their disappearance represents. At best they seem romantic, at worst a reminder of a barbaric past better forgotten entirely.
That’s not the case with Song Reader. When Song Reader is stuck in my head, I feel a strange kind of longing. My iPod can’t give me what I want. Neither can the Internet, really, since what I want is more versions of the songs that belong to ME. I want to hear more of my Beck album! But now I’ve played through all the songs I can sight-read easily. So I’m either going to have to work harder or get some help — two activities I would never have associated with listening to music, but which are now integral to one of my favorite albums in a long, long time. And I can say “favorite” confidently, without even having listened to the whole thing.
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
Not many readers are in doubt that more than cold water separates America and the UK from Europe. Rediscovery of three European masterworks of the relatively recent past demonstrates one of the key aspects of this perennial cultural divide-the ability (perhaps freedom) of writers on the Continent to be applauded as experimentalists, while also being championed by the literary establishment. There are very few American or British writers who have managed this feat.
“The rocks do not need my memory or not.”
Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch: We begin with the German-writing Swiss author Max Frisch. Born in Zurich, the son of an architect, he worked as an architect himself (winning a commission for a major public swimming pool) before a meeting with Bertolt Brecht sparked a change of direction.
Like his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Frisch initially achieved national and indeed international fame as a dramatist, but today he’s best remembered by English readers as a novelist. In books such as I’m Not Stiller, Homo Faber and Montauk, he explores his signature themes of the crisis of personal identity, the inescapability of guilt, the possibility of innocence, and the inevitable disintegration of self—or what one reviewer describes as, “The tragedy of the Swiss penchant for precision colliding with the organic chaos of life and love, which it so desperately, secretly seeks.”
His most significant creation, however, may be the finely faceted gem Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, Man in the Holocene. Published in its entirety as a piece in The New Yorker (to my mind the most interesting thing they’ve ever done), it was counted by the New York Review of Books as the single most important work of 1980.
In an age of epic fat books frantic to spin out multiple plotlines to demonstrate recommended retail value, we often forget the crystalline beauty of the tight, short novel… the apparently quiet story… the genius of simplicity. And, in terms of plot, nothing could be simpler than this architecturally refined parable (which I liken to a mutation of James Purdy’s elegiac In a Shallow Grave and the elegant cytoplasmic wisdom of Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell).
Herr Geiser is an old man (or at least a man who’s old in habits and mind) who lives alone, which is to say in a hermetic state of intimacy with his total detachment from others, in a scenic but socially sterile Swiss valley inundated with rain and threatened with being cut off from all transportation and communication. So, what does he do to pass the time? He meticulously categorizes the nuances of the thunder and builds an infantile but intricate pagoda of crisp bread, while taking his scissors to his encyclopedias and reference library, pasting the pages on the walls around him like an externalized inventory of his own brain—the paper thin structure of beliefs his delicate grasp on truth and sanity has been. These scrapbook images and excerpts are actually reproduced within the text, drawing us deeper into Geiser’s obsessive solipsism, while at the same time, calling us to search with him for our own place in the “grand scheme of things.”
The novel thus has an immediate graphic design interest that rivals anything William Burroughs ever did with his cut-up methods. But the compulsive, kaleidoscopic anxiety of Geiser has a poignant degenerative end point. As the storm intensifies, and the valley becomes more remote from the outside world, Geiser’s memory begins to fail. Eventually, cerebral apoplexy strikes like the lightning outside, and his surgical quantification of data loses all coherence.
What he’s built with his slicings of store bought information is just another kind of crisp bread edifice… a jigsaw shrine of relics of human knowledge, which are supposed to be a tribute to man’s understanding of the world—an expression of security—some platform of factual certainty. But how fragile this house of cards seems in the barren isolation of age and physical / mental infirmity. Man in the Holocene, with its exacting line drawings of hypothetical dinosaurs and recitations of empty materialist schoolbook facts, is in the end a clinically lyrical poem about the futile heroism of our cultural narratives of evolution and history. It’s also, and more importantly, an eloquently forensic portrait of profound personal loneliness and our hopeless dependence on memory to shape experience and to define meaning. The result is a uniquely compelling fragment—a shred of the much-too-tiny shadow we’re all afraid we cast in time.
(For instructors in the field of 20th century literature, or for book clubs interested in this work, I highly recommend pairing with it Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, which is available from New Directions.)
“On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for a while—for a few hours, several days, minutes, weeks—by small objects subsequently removed, whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated as though by a rag. When the outline is distinct enough to permit the shape to be identified with certainty, it is easy to find the original object again not far away.”
In the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet: There was a period (in fact about two decades) when Alain Robbe-Grillet wasn’t only one of the most famous writers in France, but in the whole world. Born into a family with a technical and scientific background, he trained as a chemical engineer, until like Frisch, he found his true calling, writing Les Gommes (The Erasers). On the surface, and surface is the key word with this author, The Erasers is a mystery story, where a police agent named Wallas stalks an unknown assassin through a nameless puzzleboard Flemish town—although it may be that like Winnie the Pooh and the Woozle that wasn’t, he’s really tracking himself. Nothing is certain. The only thing the reader can be sure of is the laser precise detail in which all that isn’t clear is described, catalogued and analyzed.
Robbe-Grillet would go on to write such works as The Voyeur and Jealousy, along with the script to the notoriously formless avant garde film Last Year at Marienbad (which draws on the haunted novella The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, referenced tellingly in the television show Lost).
But perhaps his greatest influence was as a scientist of the nouveau roman in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction. It’s here that he articulates his “theory of pure surfaces,” a radical rejection of conventional characterization that emphasizes instead an obsessive phenomenological objectivity. As Roland Barthes put it, “Imagine the motionless changes of orientation produced by a mirror-image as being somehow decomposed and distributed throughout a certain period of time and you have the art of Alain Robbe-Grillet.”
The impact was powerful in both the world of literature and popular culture. On national radio, sections of Robbe-Grillet’s seemingly manically fastidious descriptions of apparently banal objects and scenes were recited for humorous effect. Yet, no one could deny the hypnotic nature of his language or the sincerity of his assault on traditional narration, and its distorting (or revealing) effect on our sense of time and animacy.
I find the best introduction to his work (and therefore his distinctive point of view) to be In the Labyrinth, which picks up on several of the themes as well as the fraught mood of The Erasers.
It’s the story of an anonymous soldier who wanders wearily after a lost battle through a shadowy unnamed city on a mission given to him by a dying friend to deliver a package whose contents he doesn’t know. Plagued by fever and the imminent arrival of enemy forces, disoriented and alone, the soldier’s confrontation with the maze of the city becomes the structure of the book, and the city takes on a sense of ominous character of its own.
As readers will perceive, there are more than a few echoes of Kafka, Beckett, Camus and Borges…but what distinguishes Robbe-Grillet’s story is his style and vision, with its relentless examination and prosecution of minutiae. This short, disarmingly seductive novel is a remarkable example of suspense created while defying all its usual mechanisms, and a crispness of prose that crackles and rings while blatantly opposing all the assumed notions of poetic writing.
(I recommend reading Robbe-Grillet in conjunction with Harold Pinter’s early, career-building plays and some of his extremely lucid remarks on his process of writing—a philosophical approach to character and the nature of drama arising from all that is unsaid and only partially seen. Both writers are published by Grove Press.)
“He does not know any more about the rules of the game than they do, but he feels they are in the process of being born from every one of the players, as on an infinite chessboard between mute opponents, where bishops and queens turn into dolphins and toy satyrs.”
The Winners (Or the Biggest Losers) by Julio Cortázar: Julio Cortázar, the polymath hipster, should’ve won the Nobel Prize in my view, but he was always too cool for school. Some will argue with me for including this Argentinean author in the European category, and insist on classifying him as part of the Latin American revolution in literature. I defend my position by pointing out that Cortázar was born in Brussels, spent his early childhood in Switzerland and produced all his major works in Paris, where he finally died. What’s more, although he wrote about South America, his key influences were surrealism, the nouveau roman, American jazz and Lawrence Durrell—and he was deeply admired in Spain.
Later renowned for the novels Hopscotch, 62: A Model Kit, and the collection of short stories Blow-Up (which inspired the Michelangelo Antonioni film), his first work translated into English was Los Premios (The Winners).
I found this book at a garage sale and I earnestly encourage you, if you don’t know it, not to leave your discovery of it to such random circumstance. (Although, as the story gives sinister suggestion to, just how random is anything?)
This wasn’t Cortázar’s first novel, but it was his first novel translated into English, and it has some of the sprawling ambition of the young writer. The amazing thing is the degree of polish and confidence it displays in the face of its own complexity. To quote from the book’s jacket: “A luxury cruise ship sets sail from Buenos Aires. The passengers are a lively and unlikely mix who have all won their trips in a national lottery. At first the mood is festive. But all is not well on board the Malcolm. No one will reveal the boat’s destination; the crew barricades itself behind locked doors in the stern and a looming sense of menace gradually builds to an explosion.”
The Hospital Ship… Das Narrenschiff or the Ship of Fools, has been a staple allegory of Western literature for a long time. The dramatic potential of a group of strangers in a confined space cut off from the rest of the world is rich. But Cortázar more than exploits the obvious, and insinuates that which is decidedly not obvious. Consider this suspiciously graceful remark from not quite the half-way point in the book: “I don’t think there’s really any joke being played, but that we’re simply the victims of a swindle. Not just an ordinary swindle of course, but something more…metaphysical, if you don’t mind that awful word.” Indeed. The passengers of the Malcolm may not have any choice in the matter.
Just as Frisch’s work captures our contemporary fixation on trivia, and Robbe-Grillet the almost brutally democratic indifference of the camera eye and the paranoia of surveillance, Cortázar shows us the sweepstakes frenzy of reality TV well ahead of his time. Imagine The Poseidon Adventure written by a first rate mind, or Lost without the grievously disappointing finale… and you have some idea.
(For readers with a musical background, I can’t recommend highly enough some of Cortázar’s journalistic pieces on jazz. Some of what may seem elusive or obscure in his fiction has an immediate clarity of intent and delivery when seen from this vantage point.)
There are certainly many other European (and world) writers who have managed to earn reputations within the literary establishment while innovatively pushing the boundaries of style and structure. To some extent my larger point here is that we rather expect this of European authors and do a great deal to inhibit it in Americans.
In singling out the particular (or peculiar) writers above, I don’t mean to elevate their work over others, merely to highlight three decisive, accessible and accomplished novels of exploration that deserve rediscovery.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Red Lights by Georges Simenon recommended by AndrewUntil recently, I had always associated Belgian author Georges Simenon with the Inspector Maigret mysteries. Then, on the front table of my local indie book shop, I began seeing a series of seductively glossy paperback novellas from NYRB Classics, each credited simply to Simenon, each with an introduction. Move over Maigret, this was something different.In the middle of last century, Simenon wrote a number of psychological novels, what he called his romans durs (literally “hard novels”). Red Lights is a novella set in the United States, as a white-collar couple from 1950s New York City drive to Maine on the Labor Day Weekend to fetch their children from camp. The novella tracks the ensuing 24 hours with chilling acuity. The narrator is psychologically ultra-aware, digging into the mind and mental state of the husband as his life is turned upside-down. His future with his wife, his life as he’s known it – everything he’s taken for granted – is suddenly in jeopardy due to the events unfolding on the journey to Maine. An altogether different kind of mystery from the man behind Maigret.The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson recommended by GarthWhile some of the “experimental fictions” of the 1960s have gone the way of the pet rock, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates deserves a place on that decade’s honor roll, alongside Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Barth’s Funhouse. Johnson conceived of The Unfortunates as an Oulippan departure from narrative convention: a “book in a box,” whose 27 bound pamphlets may be read in any order. Together, they tell the semi-autobiographical story of an English sportswriter dispatched the the provinces to cover a soccer match. As he wanders the streets, before and after the game, the narrator finds his thoughts returning to the death of a friend who was a native of the town. The novel itself achieves a similarly bifurcated effect: while its Oulippan form is good sport, the gently melancholic stream-of-consciousness narration builds to something positively moving. Johnson himself died in 1973, at age 40. Whether due to the production expenses or to the perceived conservatism of U.S. readers, The Unfortunates wasn’t published stateside until just last year. Thanks to New Directions for this act of resurrection.Perfume by Patrick Suskind recommended by BenFrom its grotesque first pages to its orgiastic grand finale, Perfume’s narrative is bizarre, compelling and never dull. The tale of a grand guignol perfumer and his murderous quest for the ultimate fragrance, Suskind’s novel is equal parts historical novel, inquiry into the nature of evil, and meditation on smell. It may be that the written word is the only medium that can even begin to approximate our olfactory experience, and Suskind’s genius lies not so much in his brave narrative choices (multiple points of view, a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist), but in his ability to bring vivid life to the world of scent.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee recommended by MaxJohn McPhee’s incredible facility with words is evident in his ability to make seemingly any topic fascinating. McPhee has mesmerized readers with accounts of shad fishing and oranges, so it seems fitting that his the masterpiece of his prolific career takes on arguably his most boring topic of all: geology. And as if raising the stakes, he goes on at length: 660 pages. And yet Annals of the Former World, in which McPhee describes the geology of a cross-section of the U.S. and makes use of ample digression along the way, is engrossing as only McPhee’s books are. The book includes equal parts anecdote, history, and hard science, the latter delivered innocuously and effectively. Underpinning it all is McPhee’s clear joy for learning and sharing his new found knowledge.Annapurna by Maurice Herzog recommended by KevinBefore there was Into Thin Air there was Maurice Herzog, who in 1950 became the first person ever to scale a mountain higher than 8,000 meters. It was, as you’d expect, no easy feat and Annapurna is Herzog’s first person account of the expedition. How incredible was Herzog’s ascent? While today the Annapurna Circuit is the most popular Himalayan trek going, with direct flights from Kathmandu virtually to the trail head, Herzog and his team of French climbers, attended by legions of Nepali porters, had to walk for weeks to even get within range of the mountain, and once there, it took them weeks more to actually locate the peak. Herzog adopts a sly, matter-of-fact tone in the retelling, but make no mistake, he knows how to spin a good yarn and he doesn’t skimp on the final ascent, which includes all the frost bite and near death experiences we’ve come to expect from the genre. Annapurna was a sensation when it came out in 1952, eventually selling more than 11 million copies. It has fallen a little bit from view since then, but now is as good a time as any to bring it back.(See links to more Staff Picks in the sidebar.)
I’m pleased to announce that Mark Batty Publisher, a New York-based art & design press, will be publishing my first book this spring. Modeled on fin-de-siecle scientific manuals, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella presents the story of two families in 63 alphabetized entries: Adolescence, Boredom, Commitment… A lavish, full-color plate will illustrate each entry.The book itself, in the tradition of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, encourages collaborative reading via a system of cross-references. But in discussing the illustrations, MBP and I decided we didn’t want the collaboration to end there. So this week, we’re launching www.afieldguide.com, an online resource that allows interested artists to contribute digital images to the Field Guide. My dream has always been to have 40-60 photographers represented in the book, each offering their own distinct take on contemporary life.Every image submitted via the “upload” page will be posted on the website, indexed and cross-referenced by the Field Guide’s entry tags. They will remain there in perpetuity, along with contributors’ bios and website links – a kind of networked reference work. In March, we’ll select 63 images from contributors who’ve asked to be considered for the print edition, and those will become the images in the book. Each contributor will have a bio in the back of the book, and will receive a contributors’ copy.Writers who publish in literary magazines have long been used to the online submission process, but illustrating a book via internet collaboration is, I think, a relatively new thing. I’m excited to see how it works. If afieldguide.com succeeds, it seems to me, it might open some publishing doors for the explosion of online photographic activity: flickr, photoblogging, etc. And the book promises to be beautifully designed.The photographic element of the book will only be as strong as the submissions we receive. So I want to take this opportunity to encourage readers of The Millions to explore afieldguide.com, to contribute an image or two, and to spread the word, via email and blog, to artists who might be interested in participating. Cheers.
Scott Esposito’s excellent literature and culture blog Conversational Reading likely needs no introduction here (don’t forget his Quarterly Conversation either). Lucky for us, Scott has kindly pitched in with his best reads of 2006 for our year end extravaganza at The Millions:Looking over the books I read in 2006, it seems like a banner year. I see a lot of novels that amazed me, and many that have expanded my view of what literature is and what it can be in the future.Still, one novel towers above all the rest: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. This is a book that is experimental is the very best ways while also providing more traditional literary pleasures like well-defined characters and beautiful prose. Anyone who hasn’t read it should make an effort to tackle this masterpiece.A very close second (and it’s very difficult to choose which of these two I enjoyed more) is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.Other books:Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David MarksonBouvard And Pecuchet by Gustave FlaubertAtomik Aztex by Sesshu FosterSuite Francaise by Irene NemirovskyThe Rings of Saturn by WG SebaldThe Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael MartoneMulligan Stew by Gilbert SorrentinoThe Moviegoer by Walker PercyThe Gold Bug Variations by Richard PowersCatch-22 by Joseph HellerPale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne PorterThanks Scott!