It sells Middlemarch short to call it a novel of manners, although if viewed from just one angle it is. The novel describes the precisely ordered life of the eponymous village in feudal England, where every resident can be placed on a grid according to his annual income and the quality of his lineage. There are characters with small parts in Middlemarch, but no minor ones, so fully drawn are all of George Eliot’s creations. Principally the story concerns the life of Dorothea Brooke, a young and beautiful women of the upper class whose spiritual discontent leads her astray in marriage. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a cocky and ambitious doctor come lately to town, and Mr. Bulstrode, a new money banker with a mysterious past. Each chases love, money, and respectability in proportion to his needs and finds that the strictures of society, even more than the dictates of his conscience, shape the person he will become.In the middle of all this stands Eliot, whose presence is unmistakable as the energy that makes this fictional world go round. Writing of one character who has just lost his temper, the narrator says, “Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” This is typical of the way Eliot annotates, observing wisely on the fraught behavior of men, like the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who tells George Bailey all about his life. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, called this perspective “authorial omniscience,” and it has the tendency to feel antiquated to us, a relic of a simpler time when the whole world might be understood according to such strict and unvarying codes.There are, in any story, always two competing forces, an individual’s will and social prerogative. When the two are held to be fixed and immovable, you get the best melodramas, like Romeo and Juliet. It’s a simpler class of story, one we respond to but no longer really believe to accurately describe things as they are. On the other end of the spectrum you have today’s conditions of storytelling, where neither individual identity nor the social order have any fixed anchors, resulting in all manner of existential confusion when the two mix together. Middlemarch, however, exists somewhere in between and the result is as pure and exacting as ballet.About halfway through the book, as a husband and wife contemplate the suitability of a young man for their daughter, Eliot writes, “A human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences.” It is just that interchange of influences that Eliot sketches in Middlemarch and she does so with a fluency for human behavior that is quite often breathtaking. Take for example this small scene, describing the Vicar Farebrother after a brief interview with the eligible Mary Garth:As the Vicar walked to Lowick, any one watching him closely might have seen him twice shrug his shoulders… The Vicar was holding an inward dialogue in which he told himself that there was probably something more between Fred and Mary Garth than the regard of old playfellows, and replied with a question whether that bit of womanhood were not a great deal too choice for that crude young gentleman. The rejoinder to this was the first shrug. Then he laughed at himself for being likely to have felt jealous, as if he had been a man able to marry which, added he, it is as clear as any balance-sheet that I am not. Whereupon followed the second shrug.Here, Eliot is able to slow the world down enough to capture not only that the Vicar would shrug twice, but exactly why he would do it. The resolution with which she is able to observe her characters reminds me of great baseball hitters who see in slow motion what appears to the rest of us to be impossibly fast. Such is Eliot’s ability to dip into the torrent of human experience and master it.As commanding as Eliot’s view is, it is not static. Her central characters – Dorothea, Lydgate and Bulstrode – live contingently, always on the edge of transformation. Throughout the story they come to have a keener understanding of their own desires, a process of self-understanding that occurs through dialogue with other characters and the unerring rebound of the social order. Society itself is fixed (although Eliot does critique feudal landholdings and insincere religiosity) and in this, Middlemarch describes a world that is no longer ours. But the dialectic of her characters is timeless. Dorothea tests her spiritual longing against an unexpected passion. Lydgate wrestles with his professional ambitions matched against a wife who would seem to spoil him at every turn. Bulstrode struggles to reconcile his religiosity with more base urges, a desire for money and a fear of shame. As the characters try and evolve they arrive at inexact and unintended places. But that they do is not an indictment of the rigid social order. It is instead an exposition of human frailty, of our inability to know our own desires let alone to conquer them. Far from just a novel of manners, Middlemarch is a monument to the fraught lives of women and men. It is, quite undeniably, great.
Millions contributor Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. This year, his work appeared in the anthologies Best New American Voices and Best of the Web.When it comes to books, I’m less a gourmet than a gourmand. It’s not that the slim, perfect novel doesn’t excite my palate, but when I’m in the middle of a sensational meal, I want it never to end – or at least to give the illusion of infinitude. And so I hunger for big books – thousand-calorie entrees I wrap rubber bands around to keep the bindings intact.This year, as I approached my thirtieth birthday, these big books appealed to me with even greater urgency. At some point soon, the demands of family life and the writing life are going to leave me with less time for “loose, baggy monsters,” and so I’ve been trying to get the important ones under my belt. After all, there are only so many behemoths out there, right? Well, it turns out that big books share certain Hydra-like properties with books in general. This year, I knocked off ten enormous tomes; I added about twenty to my “to-read” list.The best of the best – the book that came closest to being everything I want in a novel – was Mortals (712 pp), by Norman Rush. It’s a funny book, in that it forgoes the immediate pyrotechnics of Rush’s first novel, Mating (a mere 474 pp), which I also read this year. Still I’m convinced that, once you’ve acquired a taste for Rush’s penetrating yet hugely compassionate voice – his astonishing negative capability – you will find Mortals to be one of the two or three best American novels published this decade. And it just gets better as it goes along: the 100-page climax is almost literally explosive.A close second was Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (893 pp), a novel I’m still thinking about, half a year after first reading it. As with Mortals, I hesitate to recommend diving straight into it; you might want to learn to trust Bolaño, as I did, by first reading his more trenchant performances (Nazi Literature in the Americas (227 pp including epilogue) (review), then Distant Star (149 pp), and then The Savage Detectives (still comparatively lean at 577 pp) (review)). But 2666 is a cabinet of wonders, and a landmark in contemporary letters.Inspired by Joshua Ferris’ 2007 Year in Reading entry, I went on a late-period Henry James bender this year, which (to return to the food metaphor) is sort of like gorging on lobster with a heavy cream sauce. In its rich evocation of human subjectivity, The Wings of the Dove (711 pp) is a dazzling technical achievement, but it’s James’ deep feeling for his characters that makes this my favorite of his novels. Of course, if the representation of subjectivity is to your taste, I should also recommend Under the 82nd Airborne (230 pp in The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg) (review), in which our finest short story writer refines into deft turns of phrase what James took pages and pages to do. I think of Eisenberg and James as two-thirds of a triumvirate: Discoverers of the American Mind. The third third is Saul Bellow, with whom I spent most of June. Of the several books I read, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (260 pp) struck me as the most surprising, courageous, and challenging.Ms. Eisenberg’s advocacy, at a PEN World Voices panel, persuaded me to sate my appetite for German-language literature with Robert Walser’s Jakob van Gunten (176 pp), a bewitching (and blessedly brief) evocation of adolescence. I also marveled at Alfred Döblin’s pitch-black Berlin Alexanderplatz (378 closely printed pp). Then I turned back to the big American novel. Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1192 pp) is the longest book I have ever read, by a good 150,000 words. It took me six weeks to finish, at least, and, python-like, I’m still digesting, but the achievements in sections like “Larry,” “the future,” and “Alias Missing Conversation” rank with the best of Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace.Speaking of Wallace, the best book I re-read this year was Infinite Jest (1079 pp with footnotes), which was fresh in my mind when news of the author’s death reached his readers. IJ still looks to me like the fictional high-water-mark of a generation. I welcome debate on this point, but revisiting the book debunks claims that Wallace is too intellectual, too indulgent, or too stylized; here, he does everything the ten next-best American writers can do, and does it better (see, e.g., pp 851- 981). That we’ll never get to see another novel from him is an incalculable loss.Fortunately for us, the reservoir of literary talent in his generation runs deep; following other writers as they advance the cause of fiction forward is a kind of consolation. Trance (505 pp), by Year in Reading participant Christopher Sorrentino, was the book by a young American that most impressed me this year (review). The writing – tough, funny, elegant, jive – really astonished me, as did the way the novel mobilizes the 1970s in service of the now. I guess all history really is present history.The work of nonfiction I most enjoyed in 2008 was Janet Malcolm’s Gertrude and Alice: Two Lives (224 pp). Malcolm is at least as good a critic as she is a journalist; her approach to literature is refreshingly humble, nimble, curious, and delighted. (I’m reading her Chekhov book now (205 pp.)) I only made it halfway through Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans this summer (it’s an annual endeavor; 925 pp), but Gertrude and Alice, which I devoured in a single, lovely July day, was a welcome substitute. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Timothy Donaldson’s book on the development of alphabets, Shapes for Sounds. Reading it is like sitting in on a lecture by the most brilliant professor in the department. It is also – not incidentally – a triumph of design on the order of David Macauley.Finally, I have to say something about political books, which functioned this year as quick, bitter palate-cleansers. For eight years, a small corps of investigative journalists – Hersh, Wright, Mayer, Packer – has been working to keep our government honest. I’d like to nominate Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman for inclusion on this honor roll. In addition to being a riveting, lively, and infuriating read, his book, Angler (384 pp), introduced me to one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve yet encountered: Richard B. “Dick” Cheney. For pure, mysterious “lifeness” (to borrow the most useful term from James Wood’s How Fiction Works (248 pp)), Cheney rivals Wallace’s Don Gately, and Rush’s Ray Finch, Bellow’s Artur Sammler, and Eisenberg’s many protagonists. We’ll be chewing over (or choking on) his legacy for years to come. It’s a good thing we’ll have good books, large and small, to nourish us along the way.More from A Year in Reading 2008