Last Night in Montreal

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A Year in Reading 2009

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The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest.

It’s also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones…and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another.

And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual “Year in Reading” series – an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we’ve asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one.

As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.

Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions
Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter
Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON
Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City
David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy
Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
Edan Lepucki of The Millions
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine
Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer
Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries
Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil
Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man
Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1
Maud Newton, proprietor of
Patrick Brown of The Millions
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading
Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal
Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial
Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance
David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist
Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men
John Williams, editor of The Second Pass
Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and
Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions
Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance
Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress
Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus
Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future
Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 | Support The Millions

An Errant Voice: Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal


If I were using affairs as a measuring-stick to classify books, Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal would be a savory one-night stand, which turns into a lingering dalliance that’s later hastily broken off. The novel is an enticing read; the narration is hypnotic, intelligent, and embracing. The suspense takes the form of a disappearance: Lilia, the girlfriend of Eli, announces she is going out to purchase a paper and never returns to their Brooklyn apartment. Although Eli is aware of Lilia’s itinerant past, her abrupt exit catches him off-guard. In her wake, Eli loses his footing, and after receiving mysterious letters from a woman named Michaela, beckoning him to come to Montreal to find Lilia, he leaves New York to do just that.Sometimes when I’m reading a book, cracking the spine triggers a spell. The characters emerge fully formed when they are transported from their parallel world. In this case, it wasn’t the characters but the narration that struck me as vibrant and whole, providing guidance through Lilia’s disappearances, from Eli’s life and from her mother’s home long ago. The narrative voice is a siren’s call that recounts the stories of Eli and Lilia, and intersperses them with scenes from Lilia’s childhood on the road. Abducted by her father at the age of seven, Lilia came of age while barreling through the nexus of American highways, spending nights in nondescript hotels and taking dinners at local diners and off-the-interstate restaurants. She and her father made lengthier stays, but they never laid roost long enough for her to feel at home. Now that she’s older, she finds constancy uncomfortable.The strength of the narration is also the novel’s Achilles’ heel. The distinct voice resonates with greater clarity and assurance than those of the characters, whose voices seem muted in comparison. Part of this derives from the difficulties of conveying absence. Lilia is pieced together in fragments: we enter in media res as Eli withers with the aftershock of her absence. She is his central obsession, and so we learn of Lilia through Eli, and yet she’s still once removed.Of Lilia, Eli remarks, “you can skate over the surface of the world for your entire life, visiting, leaving, without ever falling through. But you can’t do that, it isn’t good enough. You have to be able to fall through.” He accuses Lilia of always removing herself to avoid emotional risks. This is also an apt critique of the novel and the way we come to know Eli, Lilia, and later, though to a lesser extent, Michaela. Lilia never becomes comfortable with staying, so she always goes. Eli is dominated by inertia in both his writing and his obsession for Lilia. Michaela is slightly more complicated – she is envious of Lilia and suffers from her parents’ abandonment. The layered story adds to our understanding, but the characters rarely stray from these roles. Mandel begins to delve into the greater issues of love, art, and life – there are urban dilettantes who talk creativity, truth, and beauty, but do little to actually to create; the isolated central characters long for connection but often fail miserably in their attempts. And yet these central ideas aren’t developed as carefully as the plot points of the story. Eli accuses Lilia of forever remaining on the surface, and yet she was the one person he knew who was actually living a life of truth and beauty. Was her detachment necessary to cultivate her artwork? Can one create a balance that allows for both?Mandel leaves me wondering, and wanting, and yet this is as much a criticism as a remark on my involvement, the result of being drawn in. The careful depictions and graceful writing beckoned me to keep reading even when the characters lacked dynamism and the plot became slightly contrived. The voice was enough to string me along, to overlook the blemishes, at least for a time.

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