The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of Hotels of North America. His other highly acclaimed works include the novels Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Diviners, and The Four Fingers of Death; the fiction collections The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Demonology, and Right Livelihoods; and the nonfiction books The Black Veil, and On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening. He is the recipient of the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the Addison M. Metcalf Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and numerous other awards.
Hotels of North America, out this month from Little, Brown, embodies and interrogates a particularly American version of modernity. In addition to his new novel, Moody and I recently discussed literary theory, technology, and the writing process. Our conversation took place over email — sent and received, for the most part, late at night via smartphone.
The Millions: In The Black Veil you describe being “converted” after diagramming parts of Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida. Does Derrida remain an influence? How would you say literary theory has informed your concerns as a writer?
Rick Moody: Theory was and is still important to me. I still really admire Derrida and feel that my contact with his early work in English — Of Grammatology above all others, but not to the exclusion of Dissemination, Glas, etc. — was life-changing for me. I also really loved Foucault and Barthes.
Do I keep up with theoretical developments now? I admire Avital Ronell’s writing a great deal, and clearly Žižek is of interest. But I think the rigorous epistemological thinking of continental philosophy in the ’60s and ’70s has given way to skepticism, in some quarters, and drives for something like ideological purity at other extremes. The world of theory, that is, is not as it once was. I happened to encounter it at a very fertile moment for the discipline (if that’s even the right word). What I loved above all was the language, the hair-splitting, the monstrous clauses, the paradoxes, the neologisms. It felt playful to me, like experimental fiction, which also exerted a powerful pull in those days. Though the purists would say theory was anti-modernist in some ways (thus post-modernist), it still felt new to me, revolutionary, and thus consonant with Pound’s modernist credo: make it new. I still want my work to be new in that way, today, if possible. I abhor repeating myself. And I still often think about philosophy. I am no expert, but the philosophical bedrock of theory is something I still am grappling with. This year: Heidegger.
TM: I love Derrida’s style — for the playfulness you mention, and for its rigor. Though it seems the skepticism you bring up was ushered in by Derrida himself (and de Man) — the infinite drift of language, the impossibility of “perfect communication,” the indeterminacy of meaning, etc. I guess my question for you is: how do you manage to approach writing in a way that moves beyond postmodern skepticism and exhaustion?
RM: This is a difficult question to answer. In a way, the answer is simply that I don’t feel skeptical in my person, in my voice, in my heart. This would be a loaded statement, because besides relying on “heart,” a decidedly dim-witted and timeworn cliché, the remark implies that there is a stable and perceptible Rick Moody who can with any assurance use the word “I.” I incline toward the idea that I am just a series of tendencies rather than a reliable person — a society of mind, as I think Marvin Minsky used to say. But let’s assume there is a sort of a Rick Moody, an effect of the work attributed to Rick Moody, and that his “heart” refers to something that we can more or less agree on — a preliminary set of assumptions maybe. This Rick Moody, at least for today, feels that skepticism is a remainder of continental philosophy, a rime thereof, but not an adequate or complete trace product. In Derrida, the style is the way out; the writing is the third term in the opposition between theory and practice. You know all the lingo, I don’t have to rehearse it here. The work produced is the solution to the problems laid bare in the work. It’s not what you do with the work, it’s the work itself, the process of it, that indicates the way out. I still believe in this, or it believes in me. The work believes in me. The books don’t matter, the reviews don’t matter, the career doesn’t matter, the students don’t matter, though I love the language of all these things. Only the process matters. I have no skepticism about that, and I’m not exhausted.
TM: How conscious are you of a work’s eventual audience — while writing, or during the editing process? Do you consider the reader at all, or does the work enjoy a kind of autonomy?
RM: I never think about audience. But as DeLillo says, I write with standards in mind. I write for the audience that shares the standards, whoever they are.
TM: Speaking of DeLillo, in an earlier interview you discussed his method of working in discrete chunks, which he then “glues together.” I was fascinated when I read somewhere that he composes with a single paragraph on each page in order to see the sentences more clearly. What’s the unit of composition in your novels? Does this differ from the unit of composition in the stories?
RM: The particular formal method of composition has changed with each book, as each suggests its own thematically-based approach. I will say that having a child has gotten in the way of work a bit — in that I rarely have a long span of consecutive work days now. With Hotels of North America, I therefore tried to devise a unit of composition that favored how I am able to work in this family-friendly moment, which unit of composition consisted of 500 to 1,500 word “reviews” usually written first thing in the morning. The narrative arc of this book was retrofitted at a later point, in rewrites.
That said, I just spent all summer working on a short story composed in the usual way: written (and rewritten) from beginning to end. And the idea for the next book is similarly organic, to write fast without overthinking. So each work proposes an approach, even as the actual infrastructural attack is more or less consistent. Word processor plus brain plus history of literature plus play plus hard copy plus red pen.
TM: I definitely have questions about Hotels of North America. In general, however, would you say your shorter fiction is more “sentence-centric” than the novels? I know you train a great deal of attention on the “novelistic” sentences, but I’m wondering how your focus changes with a longer text. A story like “Boys” (which comes up quite a bit, and which I love) seems to be nearly generated by its initial sentence, “Boys enter the house, boys enter the house.” Is this as often the case with your novels and novellas?
RM: There’s a story in the as yet unpublished collection #4, the title story, in fact, that repeats the theme-and-variations fugal structure of “Boys” called “She Forgot.” (I could write a whole sequence of these now, forgetting stories, so full is my family right now with acute forgetting disorders. I wish I could forget some of the forgetting.) I think it will be recognizable to people who like “Boys,” and also as a reply to a certain major work of conceptual prose writing that recently got its Library of America edition.
I do think short fiction is good for experiment. A failed idea there will only set you back a couple months. The strategy in the short story, for me, is this: follow the language, not the story, and see where it goes. Doesn’t mean there’s no story, because that’s too easy. But it means the stories are language first. A model would be late Beckett, or, differently, Amy Hempel.
TM: I’ll try to ask this next question in a way that isn’t reductive. [Hotels protagonist] Reginald Morse and Rick Moody the author share first and last initials. Are any other commonalities merely coincidental? What, if anything, did you smuggle in, and what might have leaked in? When you’ve drawn on your own experience, do you find the material transformed beyond recognition in the work?
RM: So do Wyatt Gwyon and William Gaddis share initials. To be frank, I didn’t realize Reg had the same initials until I was nearly done with the thing. There are other heavily freighted aspects to his name, from my point of view, that have nothing to do with this coincidence you allude to in the department of naming. After all, my initials are HFM, and his are REM.
Is he autobiographical in some way? More so, perhaps, than Morton the ape from The Four Fingers of Death, at least if adjudged by his life circumstances. But in a way I think Morton is the most autobiographical of characters in my work. Or, to put it another way: all characters are autobiographical, more or less. And all literary work is autobiographical, even abstruse nouveaux romans of the Robbe-Grillet or Sarraute variety. I don’t see how Hotels of North America is any more so than anything else I have written (I am the guy who wrote “Demonology,” e.g., or “Primary Sources,” not to mention The Black Veil). And, in the main, the goal was to try to figure out a way to make a novel, with character and narrative arc, from subliterary material: the hotel review form. I didn’t really think about Reg, except that I used whatever was easiest in terms of his life story, because the hard work was in having any story at all worked in around all the hotel stuff.
The rest of the autobiographical question — how much is him and how much me — is not inherently interesting to me. How much of Humboldt in Humboldt’s Gift is Delmore Schwartz? I don’t know, and I don’t go to that work for commentary on Delmore. I go to it for the sentences. I am hoping that those who read Hotels of North America are more interested in the slightly outlandish premise and the occasions of pathos that are admixed there than they are interested in crypto-autobiography. Or: if I really wanted to write a lot about myself, I’d just write another memoir…
TM: In a sense, your response dovetails with Morse’s purported desire (according to the “Rick Moody” of the afterword) that the work “be read for what it has to say about the world, not for what it has to say about Reginald Edward Morse.” What heavily freighted aspects of Morse’s name were you thinking of? The word “remorse” is an unavoidable association. Any connection to Samuel Morse, painter and telecommunications pioneer? Art and data transmission seem to be central concerns of Hotels of North America.
RM: I really like the Samuel Morse connection! That’s good! And yes obviously there is the other pun you allude to, lest one should think Reg is all bluster and condescension. I did have a good friend called John Morse in the first grade (this was at Ox Ridge School, Darien, Conn.). He was the gentlest young man, not one of those playground savages you often find among a random sampling of public school boys, even in such a rarified locale as Fairfield County. Anyway, once I was riding around with John Morse on our bicycles over by his house when we were set upon by a pair of Great Danes, larger than we were, and jet black. One knocked me right off my Schwinn Tornado, but having daintily sunk a few incisors into my posterior and its soft tissue, that hulking mass of Fairfield County wealth and privilege just stood there awaiting its mistress, an older lady who was very remorseless! She should have at least given me candy while I wept. Alas, no. Who felt the worst later that day, among the participants catalogued above? And does anyone but me remember that these events took place?
TM: I wanted to ask you about two quotes. In a review of the Tall Corn Motel in Des Moines, Reginald Morse calls the credit rating “that most American of data points.” Later, in a hilarious (though melancholy) section, Morse describes hotel pornography as being “at the heart of travel in America.” These passages suggest issues of connectivity and larger systems. Porn seems relevant in that Americans usually consume it alone, but also because of the increasing penetration of the delivery systems involved (cable, the Internet). Like the credit rating, opportunities for slaking desire via consumption seem inescapable now. I was wondering if you saw a connection between these systems, including the Interstate Highway System, I suppose, and the structure of the novel — each section is self-contained, yet branches out in multiple directions in an almost rhizomatic fashion.
RM: I was railing against the Internet in my workshop last night, castigating one of my very talented students for using multiple (fictional) Craigslist posts in his story. The Internet! Where humanism goes to die! Only in its absolute destitution, in the presumption there of delusion and id-driven belligerence, can there be any genuine truth to be found. And yet as Barthes points out: the site of total negation always contains the seeds of affirmation. I began the hotel reviews with the assumption that there was nothing human on the Internet to be found and then I set about constructing the opposite hypothesis. Whether this paradox is successfully employed here remains to be seen, whether total negation can result in affirmation, whether the black hole can emit heat. To address your question more directly: The lure of pornography and the obsession with FICO scores, etc., are like unto one another, yes. There is longing in each of the cases, on Reddit, on Experian, on YouPorn. Many users will be so blunted by human failure and by the narcotic effects of multi-national capital that they don’t even know what they are doing in these digital landscapes of auto-constructed fantasy. They don’t know what they are longing for, or they think longing is cheesy. Or they experience epiphany only in rhizomatic episodes, compulsive gaming fits, that rarely erupt into narrative arc in the conventional way. If identity consists of quantum mechanical tendencies and probabilities more than actual character, then a rhizomatic accumulation of isolated paroxysms of longing is more formally suggestive of character in this century, especially character interfacing with Internet, more so than the heroic narratives of individualism. It perhaps bears mentioning, now, that I have answered most of these questions in the middle of the night, on handheld device, during bouts of insomnia.
TM: What led you to use the first person for this novel?
RM: I assume you ask this because of my long-standing aversion to the first person. It is true: I dislike a certain kind of confessional and earnest first-person-narrated naturalism. I only get interested when the reliability of the first-person narrator is in question, when the reliability of narration itself is under scrutiny. There are any number of ways of doing this.
Your usage is interesting though: what “led me” to employ the first person? Sort of as if I had been, under duress, bludgeoning an intruder with a Teflon-coated fry pan! Or as if I had made use of a very bad chess opening: rook’s pawn! It’s a funny way to put it. I guess I was led to the first person by Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov and by some theoretical voices, critics, of narratorial practice, etc. I was also led there circuitously, having mostly employed either third person or what my student Liz Wood refers to as “sneaky first” for the vast majority of my published work between 1992 and 2005. Four Fingers of Death has some first (about half). I may simply have wanted to experiment with some new techniques. Travel broadens, as they say.
TM: As an author, what’s your take on “The Death of the Author?” I was practically handed the Barthes essay (as well as “The Intentional Fallacy”) with my MFA orientation materials, though since then I’ve encountered convincing arguments that don’t jettison authorial intention — quite the contrary. The phrasing “what led you” as opposed to “why did you choose” is perhaps a vestigial symptom of that earlier theoretical commitment; you’re right to point it out.
RM: That was never a Barthes essay that resonated with me exactly. I certainly feel a lot of forces speaking through the author, and it’s certainly the case that a stable, whole individual who is expressing her/himself is somewhat mythic, but “death” is the wrong word for the situation. It’s a bit overwrought. Maybe the allusion is to Nietzsche and Zarathustra. I feel very much alive. The language is the trace of it.
TM: You’ve spoken at length on the interrelatedness of music and prose. I’m curious whether visual art — particularly photography — has been a complementary influence on your work. Would you say your art criticism comes from the same place as your fiction?
RM: It’s funny how this isn’t a subject I have talked about much in public when my late sister was a photographer, my first girlfriend in college was a painter (and her family major collectors), my wife is a well-known visual artist, and I teach writing to visual artists very nearly half-time. I studied art history some at Brown, and I loved it. At all points in my development, the visual arts have been present, especially the lessons of the Northern Renaissance, Surrealism, Dada, AbEx, and conceptual art. Smithson and Judd, e.g., are people I think about a lot, and revere. I could name many other names, photographers included. In my creative inner sanctum, I travel freely among the 10,000 forms and don’t truly feel that the law of genre is a law that I must respect. I happen not to be gifted with talent in a specific medium of visual art, but my longing for contact with art has motivated all my writing on that subject, which in turn has surely been a source of material inspiration for fiction-making. The new book, in fact, comes directly out of my class in the art department at NYU, and through watching my wife think about her own conceptual footing. It is, in a way, a conceptual art project, in the way that Donald Barthelme was refractive of visual art. Doesn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it, or labored about it, but that influence is there, and I am glad to say it aloud.
This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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There are writers, I believe, who benefit from constraint. This at least has been my experience with Saul Bellow, whose brilliance as a novelist is incontestable, but whose tendency to sprawl out in all directions, novelistically speaking, frustrates me sometimes when I read him. Case in point: Humboldt’s Gift is a masterpiece. It’s also kind of a mess, or at least I experienced it as such when I last read it a decade ago or so. It’s on an extended mental list of things I want to read again, someday, as soon as I have a spare moment.
In Bellow’s shorter works there’s a certain focus, the sprawl forcibly constrained into a sharper, more pointed form. I read The Bellarosa Connection again this afternoon. It’s one of his shorter works; in the 1989 Penguin edition it’s a hundred pages long, but these are the suspiciously generous pages often accorded to novellas, with largish type and spacious margins; different typesetting would’ve rendered it a considerably smaller book. I’m struck, as I was the first time I read it, by the brilliance of the execution and the deceptive simplicity of the story.
As founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia, The Bellarosa Connection’s unnamed narrator has made a career of his remarkable memory. In his later years, he inhabits a Philadelphia mansion, a millionaire several times over, alone since the death of his wife. He was born in Newark, son of Russian Jews. As a 32 year old in the late 40s he “still behaved like a 12 year old,”
hanging out in Greenwich Village, immature, drifting, a layabout, shacking up with Bennington girls, a foolish intellectual gossip, nothing in his head but froth—the founder, said my father in comic bewilderment, of the Mnemosyne Institute, about as profitable as it was pronounceable.
It’s the job of every generation to baffle their parents. The narrator’s stepmother has a nephew, Fonstein, about the narrator’s age but with a vastly different biography. While the narrator was caught up in the small dramas of high school and then serving in a low-key post as an army clerk in the Aleutians, Fonstein was busy surviving the Holocaust. Fonstein is the kind of person, the narrator’s father hints, whom one might aspire to emulate. Fonstein is possessed of a certain seriousness that the narrator lacks.
The narrator’s father makes a point of introducing the two. Fonstein has recently emigrated from Cuba. He is serious but not without a trace of wit, married to a massive woman named Sorella whose desire for a husband coincided with Fonstein’s desire for legal residency in the United States, although this isn’t to suggest that they don’t love one another.
Feinstein got out of Poland with his mother and made his way to northern Italy, where his mother soon died; he buried her and set about the business of picking up Italian as rapidly as possible, working his way south, until a night when he was employed as a translator for a reception in Rome at which Hitler was present. But a police check was run and his papers were suspect, so he was arrested and thrown into an Italian jail while the SS began deportation proceedings. It was here that a man came to him one evening: at the same time the next night, Fonstein was told, the door to his cell would be left unlocked. He was to make his way to the street. No one would stop him. A car would be waiting, and he would be taken to safety.
Who, he asks, is his benefactor? Ciano, his occasional employer? No, he’s told, it’s not Ciano. It’s Billy Rose, a Broadway producer, who’s apparently running a covert rescue operation in Italy. When Fonstein arrives at last on Ellis Island, a representative from Rose Productions comes to see him. His case is being turned over to an aid society, she tells him. Can he see Billy Rose, just to thank him and shake his hand? No, he’s told, Rose won’t see him.
Fonstein’s letters to Rose in the ensuing years are returned, always with a polite note in someone else’s hand: Billy Rose has no time to see him. His calls are deflected by secretaries. He approaches Billy Rose at Sardi’s, but one of the restaurant personnel cuts him off before he reaches Rose’s table. He wants only to thank Rose, to shake his hand, but Rose — a man capable of great acts of goodness, but also a bit of a sleazebag even by Broadway producer standards, comfortable with shady business dealings and unable to relate very easily with his fellow man except, apparently, at a distance and in the abstract — will not see him.
Do the ones who save us owe us anything? When documents that incriminate Rose come to her unexpectedly, Sorella devotes herself to trying to get Rose to see her husband; the narrator listens to her stories and files everything away in his perfect memory. The Bellarosa Connection is fascinating as a study of memory and regret.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.