I started 2018 homeless. I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it is. I had shelter—cycling between futons, backseats, guest beds, and floors—thanks to the kindness of friends and family. I also had work, eking by without health insurance as a college adjunct, getting paid $1,800 per course for the entire semester. Things are better now. I’m ending the year with my own space, less scarcity, and more books read. Over the last 12 months, I struggled to parse my obligations to writing when it so often felt ill-suited to help myself or anyone else. In the times when I’m stunned by financial challenges or tragedies both foreign and domestic, there is a moment of doubt; a fear that, at this point in my life, at this moment in our collective history, participating in literary discourse is pointless, even irresponsible. I wrestle with the practicality of addressing disparities with stories. In 2018, I had reason to ask, What does art, what does writing, do? And what does one owe their craft? And how might pursuing a life of art fulfill, or complicate, what one owes others? These questions led me through some of my favorite books this year. Accepting that art does not exist outside of context, independent of rhetorical situations, the narratives that affected me the most this year are the ones I could most easily tie to the framework of my own experience. The 12 books below helped me read myself in the midst of confusion. These texts provided answers to some of my doubt; they helped me. I selected quotes emblematic of each narrative and its role in my life this year. When I collected these passages together, I noticed a unifying theme joining them in conversation with one another. I hope to contribute to that conversation. In writing, I hope my voice carries to someone who might need it. 1. We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884 - 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Bloomsbury) “...And tell us your version / of everything when it isn’t even about you.” (Scene: “Process”) 2. The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir by Anand Prahlad (University of Alaska Press) “People don’t know it, but they are forests and cities of sounds. Of colors and scents. And each forest and each city has its own patterns. [...] These patterns are my time, like your time is clocks, hours, and minutes. Seconds and years, and decades and months. My time is the pattern the patterns make.” 3. Pacha by Nick Hilbourn (Kattywompus Press) “Like most people, I’ve fallen down before a mirror to worship the absence of things, to pray to the images in my mind. Meaning, being the fragile compass, I imagine lives somewhere else, in a well that seduces with the promise of a rope and provides just enough water to survive.” (from “The Holy Maggots”) 4. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (New Directions) “And a world is not art.” 5. Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbe (New York Review Comics) “At the moment I am a shadow. I come in the name of pain, to sharpen my song, the tongue that bleeds.” 6. Humanity by Ai Weiwei, edited by Larry Warsh (Princeton University Press) “The West does not want to accept its responsibility. There are going to be millions of Africans fleeing war. The population is growing, it’s going to double, there will be more famine, more wars, and more refugees. This is not just about Syria. Are Western leaders hoping that the problem will just resolve itself?” [millions_ad] 7. The Linden Tree by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions) “...turn back to the past. Not as nostalgia or history, but in a constructive, optimistic, spirit.” 8. Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (Scribner) “It occurred to me that I was borrowing from these systems: Religion, Philosophy, Music, Science, and Painting, and building 1 of my own composed of their elements. [...] I had patched something together out of my procedure and the way I taught myself became my style, my art, my process.” 9. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin) “I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold While your better selves watch from the bleachers.” 10. Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcala (Ugly Duckling Press) “One day I suggested to my desk mate that we change the world. ‘How?’ he asked. By talking, I told him. ‘But how can a conversation change the world?’” (from “The Conversationalists”) 11. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead) “It’s just, I’m stuck. I can see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.” 12. Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire, translated by Theo Cuffe (Penguin) “‘All this is indispensable’ [...] While he was reasoning thus, the sky darkened, the winds blew from the four corners of the earth, and their ship was assailed by the most terrible storm...” More from A Year in Reading 2018 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
So I will now remember 2018 as the year I read Mrs Caliban for the first time. A 1982 novel by Rachel Ingalls, the premise reads like a fairy tale: a housewife stows away an escaped sea monster in her house. His name is Aquarius but being unable to pronounce this, he just goes by Larry. Upon their unexpected meeting, she observes, “Of course he had suffered, not being like other people.” For a brief, magical spell, Larry lives in Dorothy’s home undetected. She feeds him avocados and cucumbers. In the evenings, while her husband works late or pursues his affairs, they visit gardens and beaches, which remind Larry of his oceanic home. For a time, Dorothy is happy: “For so many years, there had been nothing. She had taken jobs to keep herself busy, but that was all they were. She had had no interests, no marriage to speak of, no children. Now, at last, she had something.” Like Ingalls’s other novels, Mrs Caliban possesses an innate understanding of all the ways that women are trapped, and how they must numb themselves to this. But that’s only one part of it. It’s also about what happens when fantasy tears through the screen fabric of the everyday to wake us up, and how this painful process of waking up may also kill us. Which is to say that this novel slayed me dead (I’m transmitting from the afterlife, hi!). If the natural law of fantasy is that it’s meant to serve as beacon or mirage, it also follows that fantasies are not meant to be inhabited. Once you attempt to inhabit such a thing, to make it a hospitable space in which to anchor your life, it will begin to disintegrate. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the arrangement between Dorothy and Larry cannot hold, is temporary at best. Yet, despite its brutal, mercenary qualities, the novel also holds such sweetness and humor, and such a strange, fervent joy at being alive. Larry, on living in the ocean: “When you move, the place you live in moves too.” Having read most of Mrs Caliban on a four-hour flight, this is also maybe a moment to apologize to my seatmate (sorry, Cale!), who politely pretended not to notice my intermittent weeping, particularly when I came to the beautiful, impossible ending. There is a phrase that Ingalls repeats irregularly throughout the final passages; like a ringing of a bell, each strike compounds the one that came before. At first, this phrase seems like a factual statement, but in its repeated iterations, it casts doubt, it points to a never-ending ache, it collapses everything that came before. Every time it is invoked, it reverberates just a bit deeper until it’s finally unbearable. It’s just perfect. More from A Year in Reading 2018 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
After finishing Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, which originally appeared in 1982 and was re-issued this past November by New Directions, you may wonder how the marvelous secret of this novel was kept from you for so long. At 111 pages, shorn of extensive subplots, and paced for an evening’s read, Mrs. Caliban tells the droll story of love between an amphibious monster named Larry and a depressed housewife named Dorothy. It inspects what the love of a monster might mean when it doesn’t involve kidnapping, as it usually does in stories of uncanny “romance.” These tales are often anxious about a woman’s sexual allure, or feature a stiff measure of racist dread—think of King Kong or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Think also of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Frankenstein’s “monster of my creation” establishes the universal rule that any abominable creature of tremendous bad fortune must be in want of a wife. Larry and Dorothy’s tryst, by contrast, eschews possession and is almost anxiety-free. And, after 35 years of near-obscurity, Mrs. Caliban’s time has come. Pop culture at large has caught up with Ingalls. Guillermo del Toro’s latest fable, The Shape of Water, appeared in theaters last December. Both film and novel chronicle the trials of an aquatic monster subjected to study in a government laboratory. In Del Toro’s film, a mute woman comes to the amphibious man’s aid, and what follows has the cadence of a wish fulfillment. In Ingalls’s novel, on a high wire above B-movie horror and second-wave feminism, “Aquarius the Monsterman” escapes his captors and walks through the kitchen door of Dorothy’s house. There’s little wishing, really. Dorothy is in the midst of improvising dinner for her husband, Fred, who has refused to say what he wanted to eat. Larry, with his incongruous frog’s head, stares her down and growls. Dorothy has already heard about the “Monsterman” on the radio. Ingalls suggests she has been having aural hallucinations, hearing ads aimed just at her. One announces, “Don’t worry, Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right.” She and Fred lost one child to a “drug sensitivity” during an appendectomy, and a second child was stillborn. Frozen out by her philandering husband, who no longer kisses her goodbye and seems less brutal than adrift, Dorothy lives in a world “too unhappy” for divorce. Or so she tells her friend Estelle. When she had been considering separation, Ingalls writes, “there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.” This predicament—dead in a world of impossible love—resembles, in fact, the dilemma of Frankenstein’s monster. Living in a world that will never love him, he demands a companion from his creator. That’s what being a monster is sometimes: abandoned with the injuries of a painful isolation. But Dorothy’s pain is different. She lives in a house she later implies is a “prison.” Though initially flummoxed by “shock and terror” at the appearance of Larry, she reaches—it may be a mistake, Ingalls doesn’t say—for a stalk of celery rather than a nearby knife. Brandishing it, she watches while Larry takes the gesture as an offer of food. She may have meant it that way. A world too unhappy for separation might not have the strongest borders to keep others out. When Larry eats the celery, he thanks Dorothy and asks for help. “They will kill me,” he says. “I have suffered so much already.” Dorothy thinks, “You need help and so do I.” That Larry killed his captors and fled is a fact neither forgotten nor brooded over in Mrs. Caliban. Dorothy considers Larry’s polite manners to be “scars” of the torture that made him behave while held in the lab, where he was tested and sexually assaulted. In her lonely mind, it’s no stretch to regard civility as self-defense. [millions_ad] Larry is Fred’s superior from the outset. For one thing, Larry actually tells Dorothy what he would like to eat. The irony of Dorothy’s imprisoning marriage is that Fred treats her as if she were his warden and him the prisoner. So, when Larry makes a specific request, Dorothy happily prepares vegetables. He also proves to have a strong affection for avocadoes, which Dorothy acquires for him by the bagful. After his first meal, Dorothy stashes Larry in the guest room where Fred never goes, full as it is of things that once belonged to their dead son. Larry fits right where the breaches are. The next morning, because Larry is “so different,” Dorothy doesn’t mind him seeing her in her bathrobe, an item of clothing Larry loves. He thinks it’s a “garment of celebration.” Yet Dorothy misunderstands when he expresses the desire to help her clean the house. Freed from the lab, he enjoys the idea of being able to do whatever he wants and helping her clean is like permission. When they end up back in the guest room, Larry starts to take off Dorothy’s robe and nightgown, too. It’s a strange scene, and Ingalls only just dispels its creepiness, which feels appropriate for alien intercourse. Though Dorothy says she’s frightened and Larry asks what she wants, she wonders what it even means to feel “embarrassment” in the situation of sex with a six-foot-seven-inch aquatic monster-man. The upshot is: no shame. They spend the rest of the day having sex all over the house. One of Ingalls’s key moves is simply to imagine casual sex with a monster-man. It doesn’t represent a journey beyond Dorothy’s inhibitions. When Larry asks her if they’re having too much sex, she answers: It’s just the right amount for me. It’s perfect. People here are all different about it: some people like a lot, some only like a little, some change according to who they’re with or what age they are or whether they’re in a good mood, or even if the weather changes. Ingalls doesn’t stop there, either. She spends the rest of the novel thinking over the boundaries of Dorothy’s desire. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Larry never understands a woman’s company as the cure for pain. But, of course, his situation is entirely different. He has a species, something Frankenstein’s monster can only, tragically, fantasize about. Larry’s exile is his alone, and there's a limit to how much he can share it. Dorothy never expects him to anyway. Though she believes the two of them are “so alike I’m not sure if we should really be called separate species,” she wants to help Larry return to his home in the Gulf of Mexico. If their romance is indeed a figment of Dorothy’s imagination (the novel leaves open the possibility), then what she fantasizes is not torrid and tragic but gracious and warm. The fantasy is not the fish-human hybrid, but the idea that your ideal sex partner would simply open the door and walk into your house. Larry may not see it this way, though. After Estelle tells Dorothy that desire is all about wanting things you don’t need—an excess or indulgence—Larry claims the opposite: When we [fish-men] want something, it’s true. We don’t want something we can’t have and not like the thing we get instead. The thing you want is the thing you have, isn’t it? Dorothy argues with him. What we have depends on the prison we’re in, especially, she thinks, for women and monsters. To Dorothy, what Larry describes sounds surprisingly like male prerogative among humans, except that it dismisses the fantasy of wanting what you don’t have. Larry even explains that fish-women among his people are “jealous” and “wanting” in a way that fish-men, in their aloofness, are not. That’s just the way it is, he says. When he claims that only humans are all “different” from each other, Dorothy insists that, if that were really true, men would be more different from other men than women from other women, because men’s jobs are very varied, while most women do the same things. But it isn’t true—women differ from each other just as much as men do. Do you think we could trust some other people to help us… if they were other housewives like me? Human beings may not be so reliably different as Larry supposes, and those differences don’t guarantee any particular virtue. Perhaps fish-people are not all the same, either. Dorothy suspects that Larry hasn’t seen beyond the neat divisions of the mating habits he describes. Anyone can avail themselves of such easy thinking, and even a monster can have questionable opinions. Despite the love between them, Dorothy doesn’t regard Larry as a saint, god, or savior. A good novel can’t be spoiled. Only a plot can. But readers should experience the perfect melodrama of Mrs. Caliban for themselves. I won’t give away its juicy conflicts. Taking its title from the half-fish monster of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ingalls’s novel calls to mind another Shakespearean coinage, the “marriage of true minds” that alters not when it “alteration finds.” Larry and Dorothy are undeniably in love. Where other monsters bring destruction, Larry arrives in a life already destroyed. Where other human beings might see something grotesque, Dorothy sees herself: lovable, compassionate, and, take note, dangerous.
Due to unremarkable, inevitable, and momentous circumstances, I didn't read as much this year as I would've liked. Many distractions were bad, but some were good. My wife published her first novel. Twin Peaks, the best television show of all time, came back and somehow got even better. I played a lot of Zelda and Super Nintendo. But, like every other year, the books I loved were great company. Here are some I'll remember from 2017. 1. Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing is one of the funniest, most surprising, and consistently enjoyable books I've ever read. It’s glitch fiction, composed of short notebook entries (“Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter. January 9”), poems, and stories that read like anti-parables. Written during life under Joseph Stalin, these pieces go by very quickly—they briefly spasm in a few directions, give you an unexpected punchline or no punchline at all, and then terminate (many conclude with just the word enough). In one story, a man waits for another man, gradually growing angry. When the other man finally shows up carrying food from the store they argue about time, until one wallops the other over the head with “the biggest cucumber from his satchel,” killing him. The final line of this story (which is only a few hundred words) is: “What big cucumbers they sell in stores nowadays!” Another story ends with Kharms confessing he actually can’t write anymore: “Wow! I’d write some more but the inkwell’s gone missing somewhere.” Recalling writers like Richard Brautigan, Lydia Davis, Franz Kafka, Joy Williams, and Samuel Beckett, this is delightfully error-ridden writing that squirms and wriggles against the expected and logical, creating its own nonsensical logic in the process. A few of my friends have now read most of this book, just because I kept sending them pieces. 2. Morgan Parker wrote my favorite book of poetry that I read this year: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Like Kharms, Parker is funny and surprising, but she writes with such fearlessness that it's impossible not to follow her. Deploying astonishing line after astonishing line, the book offers questions ("Is a mother still a self," "What does money cost"), subversions ("With champagne I try expired white ones/ I mean pills I mean men"), and wonderful writing ("Right now six people are in outer space,/ and you are growing smaller in my mind."). This book is a brilliant riot of consciousness: "So what if I have more regrets/ Than birthdays I am old/ For my age, I am made of water/ Why do you get up in the morning." 3. The Vanished by journalist Léna Mauger and photographer Stéphane Remael is an extraordinary investigation of the johatsu, the group of 100,000 Japanese who vanish without a trace every year. Though many disappear because of shame, debt, and the societal pressure for success (one student disappears when he's faced with taking his exams), the book includes a range of voices, places, and stories, including: the companies that help those who wish to vanish to move in the middle of the night; Tojinbo cliffs, a popular suicide site, and the man who devotes his life to dissuading those considering suicide there; Sanya and Kamagasaki, neighborhoods in Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, that have been wiped off maps but are inhabited by people hoping to disappear, including day-laborers living in tiny rooms; and otakus, from the Japanese word meaning "home," referring to people who waste away and lose themselves in monomaniacal passions like doll and fanzine collecting or video games. Complete with amazing photographs, this is a fascinating and exceptional book. 4. Hernán Díaz wrote my favorite passage of the year. It occurs toward the end of his debut novel, In the Distance, so I'll avoid specifics, but not since László Krasznahorkai's Satantango have I read such an exhilarating narrative turn. In the Distance is about a young Swedish immigrant, Håkan Söderström, who is separated from his brother on his way to America. What follows is one of the most compelling deconstructions of a genre convention I've ever read. This is an old-school Western turned on its head—Håkan hates guns and becomes an outlaw legend on accident. But maybe what makes it great is that it's also a memorable immigration story, not to mention a powerful depiction of loneliness, while being stuffed with some of the best landscape writing around (“Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.”). And in addition to that narrative turn toward the end, there are countless other great moments: Håkan gets roped into a wacky naturalist's search in dried-out seabeds for a jellyfish-like organism that supposedly created mankind, and during one drug-induced passage, Håkan looks at his own brain. 5. The end seems to be the best place to start with Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman, which has my favorite ending of the year. Not just because of the twist in the last few pages (which are staggering), but because the novel sneaked up on me. It kept getting better and better and I couldn't really put my finger on why I was enjoying it so much. A Working Woman is set in Madrid, and is about struggling writer Elisa, and her roommate, the more headstrong Susana. Susana finds a sexual partner through a personal ad; Elisa wanders Madrid's ruins and edits a book she dislikes while contending with an unspecified psychiatric condition. Gradually, through their volatile proximity and an art project, the two become enmeshed in each other's madness, resulting in an elusive mindbender that mutates and resists any effort to box it in or categorize it. Somehow, the book reveals itself without yielding its secrets. Other books I loved that I read this year: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag; Winter in the Blood by James Welch; Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls; Large Animals by Jess Arndt; Close Range by Annie Proulx; The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels; Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy; I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy; Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra; The Plains by Gerald Murnane; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt; Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin; What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson; McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh; Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall; The Bell by Iris Murdoch; Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue; Old Open by Alex Higley; Eat Only When You're Hungry by Lindsay Hunter; Daddy Issues by Alex McElroy; The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza; and Difficult Women by David Plante. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]