I did something in 2014 that would throw a wrench into anyone’s reading: I bought a bookstore. Selling books, as I wasn’t surprised to find, doesn’t leave much time for reading them. Also, it meant I became — not for the first time, but never so publicly, on such a daily basis — a professional reader, as many of us are lucky to end up being in one way or another, as teachers or editors or researchers or some other line of work that corrals your attention from the luxury of polymorphous curiosity into something more traditionally productive, in my case trying to keep up with some of the new releases I might be able to share with my customers.
So, early in the year, my reading shifted back from personal to pro, but there were good books on both sides of the divide. And aside from a few favorites (see below), what I find myself remembering as vivid reading experiences are not consistently excellent books like Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, and William Gibson’s The Peripheral — all very good books I’d happily put in your hands if you walked into my store — but the more jagged-edged books I might hand you with a caveat.
I remember, with delight, the first half of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds — “Finally reading Trollope,” I told everyone, or, rather, tweeted. “What took me so long to sample this deliciousness?” — before his stamina started to outlast mine. I was delighted too with the first half of Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog and the voice he captured, as companionable as Netherland’s but more chilling (like P.G. Wodehouse telling a J.G. Ballard story), even if for me that voice never grew into a full book. I admired and enjoyed Farther and Wilder, Blake Bailey’s biography of Charles Jackson, but I wondered if his subject was worth his talents until the final third — usually the least interesting in any biography — when Jackson’s accumulated troubles, and his belated reckoning with them, made his life profoundly moving. And though Joel Selvin’s Here Comes the Night had for me a hole at its center == the interior life of its ostensible subject, unsung record man Bert Berns, remained a cipher — I loved Selvin’s hepcat riffs on Berns and his fellow “centurions of pop.”
And then there were the books I loved best, all novels, it turns out. The best book I read this year was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I hope I don’t need to say much about. In Manny Farber terms, it plays a white elephant game rather than a termite one: tackling a major national and personal subject head on and relying on the traditional methods of the novel to do it. It’s the kind of book that wins awards, and in this case deservedly so. I also loved Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio, a much more termite-ish book after it gets beyond an early Big Event and settles into working out the everyday morality of rural life in a reticent romance I was startled to realize reminded me of Kitty and Levin’s in Anna Karenina.
Merritt Tierce’s debut, Love Me Back, more or less tore my scalp off. She tells the story of a single mom waitressing her way up the service-industry ladder to a high-end Dallas steakhouse, with disarming amounts of sex and drugs along the way, and strips it of any success — or redemption — story arcs. Desire and discipline and self-destruction are constant forces that ebb and flow and are by no means sated by the story’s end. Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science is also about the always underserved topic of work: a high official at the World Bank decides to speak a few truths (which he’s not entirely certain are true) and thereby blow up his life. In part I loved it because it captured the culture of Red-Line-to-Shady-Grove D.C. and Maryland I grew up in like no other fiction I’ve read, and in part because it’s the kind of novel where a character walks into a room and you get the feeling that neither he, nor his creator, knows what he is going to do there until he does it. (Right afterwards I read Mountford’s previous novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, a companion to this one, and liked it nearly as much.)
And lastly, the first book I read all year (if the January 2 train ticket still inside is to be believed) is the only one close to Flanagan’s in my mind: J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. It’s both an excellent book and a jagged one. Its jaggedness — the resistance I felt when reading it, and the thing I feel obligated to warn about when I’m recommending it — is its almost perverse formality. To someone schooled in the hi-lo tendencies of our time, Ledgard’s elevated style is a provocation; I’m not sure there’s a contraction in the entire book, for instance, aside from a few in dialogue. And the characters in his dual storyline, who connect for a few days at a quietly luxurious hotel on the French coast, have an equal sense of exceptional cultivation. They think of life in terms of centuries: one a mathematician and ocean researcher who, as she prepares to descend to the floor of the Atlantic in a tiny submersible, is confident her name and her discoveries will live for hundreds of years, the other a British spy in Africa whose thoughts, as he is held hostage by Somali jihadists, keep returning to his English forebears and the utopias they imagined half a millennium before.
I find myself wanting to make fun of Submergence, to goof on its gravity (and on Ledgard himself, whose author bio describes him as “a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies”), but the thing is, I can’t. He pulls it off, and earns every bit of profundity he claims. And it’s the thinking in centuries that does it: the awareness of the massive scales of biology and history, alongside the poignancy of individual existence. I often don’t care about the ends of novels, and I can’t tell you what finally happened in many of the ones I love most, but there are some endings that, in the process of tying things up, open up an abyss of meaning that’s almost unbearable. This is one of them.
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New this week: Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood; The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters; My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner; Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson; On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg; Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce; In the Red by Elena Mauli Shapiro; and Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-half 2014 Book Preview.