1.A week before the Camp Fire raged through Butte County and decimated a little town called Paradise, I sat on the edge of Lake Tahoe, reading, until the sun went down. That evening the sun grew round and pink in the sky, and as it swelled, it turned the clouds pastel, too, and made a rosy blanket out of the lake’s surface. Usually the wind picks up at sunset and the water heaves against the shore’s pebbled incline. But as I sat there, looking east to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the air was eerily still, even ominous. I thought it miraculous that our state had made it out of one of the most vicious legs of fall unscathed.
That evening was too miraculous to last. The long week of the fires, masks were donned as defense against toxic air. Texts and calls accumulated, from family and friends, either inquiring about the blazes or noting the destruction they had caused in their lives, or the lives of those who were special to them. Coworkers and passersby buzzed with nervous inquiries about what’s to become of this state. I’ve noticed a decline in the amount of hope people are willing to wrangle out of the maxim that the uncertainty of California’s future is the only certain thing about it.
Autumn in California has always felt existential, the grave threat of wildfires aside. The light shifts and my mood shifts with it, toward melancholy. I lean on books about the state or the American West or the “frontier” — that confused, cruel place! — and often resort to rereading a select few. This year was no different. (If anything, the impulse seemed more exaggerated since I resumed probing my family’s pioneer past.) And on the shore of Lake Tahoe that evening, I had beside me Joan Didion’s mournful but resolute Where I Was From. “The redemptive power of the crossing,” Didion writes of pioneers’ journey westward, “was the fixed idea of the California settlement, and one that raised a further question: for what exactly, and at what cost, had one been redeemed?”
Didion does not pose such questions with the hope that they’ll be answered. Instead, they’re a useful means of illuminating a consequence of turning places into ideas: fraught histories, and to some degree catastrophic natural disasters, get flattened out in spells of obsession. But even Didion, who demonstrates a grating awareness to the ways in which overdetermined relationships to geographies are formed, is not fully immune to the urge. In this way, Where I Was From fits comfortably into the long tradition of texts that seek to touch the weight of the West, California included — only to come up with dead ends and futile object lessons. Perhaps this might always be a symptom of writing sacrament into the land, or the less successful project of seeking to untangle one from the other.
Still, this shared and unrelenting ambition to confront the ineffable seems unity enough. My consideration of Didion’s insoluble questions about settler redemption cast new light on Willa Cather’s brimming masterpiece of a novel, My Antonia (1918), and Mary Austin’s stunning collection of lyric essays, The Land of Little Rain (1903), both of which were autumn rereads. It is equally easy to be seduced by the prose styles of Cather and Austin — each singularly beautiful, but similarly tender and sure — and thus to read these works solely for the aesthetic rush. But behind the bewitching descriptions of billowing prairie grasses and deep, desolate valleys is the pang of something more sorrowful, if not entirely sinister. These texts don’t have the relative advantage of historical distance, yet monumental atrocity haunts both, its effects delivered through key absences — mostly of Native Americans, unless they appear as quiet relics or in the form of landmark names — and the glaring implications of the rhetoric of forged possibility.
Eula Biss articulates the compounded factors of the American West better than I can, though, in her astonishing book Notes from No Man’s Land. Over 13 essays she examines the potent and enabling mixture of racism, selective memory, and downright delusion that continues to make the frontier idea feasible. I reread the title essay at least once a week this fall, each time in awe of Biss’s ability, through vignettes and telling details, to identify modern offshoots of the pioneers’ “hostile fantasy” — that grave “mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited.”
In the wake of California’s apocalyptic blazes, I suspect there’s some contemporary form of this fantasy at play, too. A form that, despite the new and intransigent reality of a prolonged Fire Season, still indulges an idea of misplaced resilience as a justification for business as usual. I’m curious to see how the next generation of California writers will toggle between depicting our new reality (perversely beautiful descriptions of flames aplenty) and tending the mythologies of our state that keep us all marching onward, toward infinity.
2.When I graduated from university earlier this year it felt like I was foreclosing on some other kind of infinity. Aside from the idea that I was to be endowed with a few practical skills along the way, my undergraduate education largely revolved around the selfish cultivation of my intellectual curiosity. I spent four years reading various works of literature before discussing them with any number of encouraging professors, whom I idolized. Everything about this loop of artificial circumstances felt limitless, and giving it up was sobering. But it was not until doing so that I realized how transactional college had made my relationship to reading. There was always the underlying pressure to read better, smarter, and more rigorously—not to mention the relative impossibility of applying such a careful practice to the handful of novels that had to be read each week. Because I am naive, few aspects of leaving college felt as revelatory as coming to terms with my altered relationship to books.
I thus spent the months just after graduation freshly falling under reading’s spell. I would go to work, then go for a swim, then cancel plans so that I could curl up with a book on some grassy knoll with a view of the Bay, in the light’s remaining hours. And, as if an immediate prompting from the gods, Between Friends: The Collected Letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy — a book over which I’d been in a semester-long Library-Hold War — became mine for more than a week. (In one letter, Arendt deems a scarf gifted from McCarthy too beautiful to be a “use-object,” and I suggest you read the collection just for moments like that.) Because it was the letters’ perfect complement, I finally finished Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough, which is a dazzlingly smart and persuasive examination of several female intellectuals who, at least rhetorically, took no prisoners. Naturally this called for a rereading of Renata Adler’s perfect and hilarious novel Speedboat and a first galavant with n+1’s pamphlet, No Regrets, which features several discussions between women writers about reading in their 20s. Wisdom abounds in this delightful little book on topics like unusual author pairings and navigating first encounters with theory. But the conversations that both challenge collegiate obligations to the “boy canon,” and also the “oughts” of disciplined reading, were of particular comfort to me during my postgraduate limbo.
Regardless, there was still the plan, during those lulling summer months, to finally conquer George Eliot’s Middlemarch because the novel is Important. The conquering was to be done with a friend, also a recent graduate, who lived in Rhode Island. Through June and July he sent clever messages about his progress with the book until he finished it entirely. I disappointingly did neither. But what I did do — that is, fully immerse myself in the world of newly published fiction for the first time — was mostly a joyous and worthwhile experience.
I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s pithy and conniving My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Then there was Andrew Martin’s enviably precise debut Early Work, which seems the blueprint for a certain kind of LRB-reading, late-millennial milieu. Ling Ma’s Severance is a dynamic and intriguing courting of the old “goodbye to all that” adage, though here it gets an update, you might say, with the onset of apocalypse, epidemic, and the ills of late capitalism. And I enjoyed Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, not least for the author’s near-philosophical treatment of an affair between a young, intellectually ambitious editorial assistant and a decaying, Roth-like writer. These books, with the exception of Moshfegh’s, join a host of recently published works whose plots are driven, in part, by the demands of literary production and the apprehensions they generate. More interesting still is the overarching trend in characterization: fictional attributes seem to emerge almost exclusively through the real-world connotations of cultural objects and of industries, rather than through descriptive language. This year novels and memes appear to have functions in common.
I found the fiction-as-snapshot tendency compelling, but R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries was a refreshing departure from the above works. It’s a stunning novel. The author’s ability to maintain such a streamlined style while fostering her characters’ unique perspectives is nothing short of alchemy. I feel similarly enthusiastic about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which I regret reading in a sitting because I didn’t want it to end. This debut is a welcome modernization of the California novel because it seamlessly challenges all the genre’s mentioned absences, and also makes room for literary documentation of parenting’s tediousness. And while the contemporary and its objects loom large in Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country—Russian politics, Facebook, and the grim academic job market all make cameos—I ardently devoured this book and reveled in the presence of its narrative arc, a construction that feels rarer and rarer.
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood yielded the most obliterating reading experience of the summer. I picked up a copy the weekend my family was in town for my department commencement, and in between the hours we’d spend together, I’d sneak away to read bits of it. The book’s central question is outwardly simple: Should or shouldn’t the writer-protagonist have a baby? But what transpires from this question is a profound and expansive engagement with all the ways one can be a mother, or a child. In a later chapter titled “PMS,” our narrator wrestles with her mother’s own parenting orientation. That is, how the narrator’s mother “lived her life turned towards her mother,” and not towards her offspring.
I clung tightly to this articulation of a life turned backwards, of a life lived for one’s mother, either out of honor or indebtedness or both. Though I read Jacqueline Rose’s comprehensive Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty back in April, it wasn’t until encountering Motherhood that I felt as if a book had captured all that is indescribable, and oftentimes inexplicably tragic, about matrilineal bonds. What’s more, Heti confronts earnestly what can sometimes feel mystical about maternal lines, not least for their internal logics and passed-down lore. And as much as these bonds can be sources of love and pride, they can also be wells of great sadness, regret and loss. The afternoon I finished that chapter titled “PMS” I sobbed and sobbed, and then met my mother for a walk. As we ambled through the eucalyptus groves on my college campus, she retold the story of her medical school aspirations and how my birth had superseded but not ruined them. I told her I did not take it for granted that she was turned towards my brothers and me.
3.In these final moments of 2018, the mystical has hurtled into my life once again. If you walk into a bar or coffee shop in many parts of the Bay Area, you’re bound to hear people discussing astrology. Asking one’s star sign seems as much a habitual platitude as it does a search for cosmic compatibility. I remain skeptical, but I get the craze: like the mythologizing of California or the psychic weight one attributes to matrilineal bonds, astrology affords us an organizing principle for all that seems destined and chaotic in life. Now I reluctantly read The Cut’s Madame Clairvoyant column for my sign’s entry (Taurus) and also the entries for the signs of people I love or loathe. Then I check them all against tweets from the Astro Poets.
My doubt of and preoccupation with astrology has met its match in Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School darling and iconic grump. I recently finished his tome-like 1957 essay “The Stars Down to Earth: The Los Angeles Times Astrology Column,” which takes Carroll Righter’s new age-y, quintessentially Los Angeles horoscopes column as its case study. From there, Adorno harangues his readers about astrology’s “pseudo-rationality” and its horrible incentive to “provide gratifications to aggressive urges on the level of the imaginary.” Naturally this means that people who “choose” astrology possess a lack of what is vaguely called “intellectual integration,” which I guess is depleted most profoundly by the unravelling of the social world.
There is something sustaining, or at least entertaining, about Adorno’s application of a critical seriousness to an enterprise he found so critically unserious. But the idea of closing out the year with such a dense and misanthropic essay is virtually unbearable to me. To remedy this I’m returning to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, which is the first novel I read in 2018. As I revisit its pages, I am struck by how impossible it feels to capture all that Long Division does and is, in a matter of sentences. The book has time travel and romance and confrontations with race, sexuality, and gender, all of which are often cleverly introduced through the guise of satire, or wordplay. Moments of humor masterfully become moments of critique. For 2019 we should take note of how Laymon treats the realms of history and language with a cautionary capaciousness. Within the vastness of both there is always the threat that the reprehensible and catastrophic will multiply or mutate — and yet there remains room and potential enough to create something better.
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I’ve sampled Willa Cather recently after a knowledgeable friend suggested she might be a sleeper candidate for the greatest American novelist. Well, after reading My Antonia and The Professor’s House I have to say, I don’t see it. There are particular things about both books that did not grab me, but to sum up my reaction, I’ll borrow a concept from Harold Bloom, who wrote in his introduction to The Western Canon that one quality shared by all canonical texts is their fundamental strangeness, their unlikeness to anything that came before them. I just did not find there to be much at all strange about either Cather novel.I did, though, find her writing to be affecting and original when depicting the landscapes of her stories – the American southwest in The Professor’s House and the Nebraska plains in My Antonia. She has a talent for melding her characters with their surroundings, so that their lives appear as consequential, and as fleeting, as a summer’s growth of corn. From My Antonia:The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces.