Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all.
But still: eight dollars.
So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books.
It was 11:55.
At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by.
Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on.
At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends.
At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon.
I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America.
At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa.
These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale.
At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned?
Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf.
At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford’s Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.
You want to know how weird and deep my rabbit hole goes? I’ve developed what I’ll call an eccentricity about chapters. As in: there are certain choices that writers make when dividing up their narratives that quite simply drive me fucking crazy. Without an ounce of justification, I get a pound of pissed. And what this makes me realize is not so much that I’ve developed strange little idiosyncratic tics while I’m reading (that much is obvious) but more that my reading experience is personal and solitary and deeply entrenched in whole loads of bullshit that have nothing to do with the books, i.e., that the completely happenstantial list of books I’ve read over my life has somehow hoisted onto me certain expectations of literature and literary narrative technique that are built upon wholly dubious foundations that belong only to me and cannot be argued with any intellectual integrity. And even though I know this to be true I still in some way hold my complaint against the writer and more specifically whatever book I’m reading at the time and sometimes even go so far as to downright dislike the book (though of course I keep my reasoning to myself, mostly).
Because the thing about chapters is that they provide a lot of opportunities for the writer to communicate information about their book and can in fact orient the reader as to how to read the thing. A more crass version of the chapter’s utility can be plainly seen in, e.g., the novels of Dan Brown, in which the chapters are so short (and the pagination designed just so in order to create as many pages with only a few lines on them as possible) that a reader is goaded into thinking they’re moving through the book super-quick. This is not authorial assistance; it is a kind of manipulation that, given the meteoric popularity of Brown’s novels and others like them, most people are apparently pretty cool with.
What I’m talking about instead are the ways in which chapters are not merely components of a narrative’s foundational architecture but also part of its aesthetic, i.e., more like those imposing Ionic columns that both hold up the facade and immensely add to the overall quality of the building. To begin with an obvious example: think of how much the Fantasy genre has benefited from borrowing the chapter structure of histories. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings––as the archetypal built-world saga––divides itself up into Books and Parts and Chapters, these last of which each come with a title. Plus there’s also the Notes, Maps and Appendices––all of which add to the verisimilitude of legit history, preparing the reader for a similar treatment of a fictional place. These verisimilitudinous appropriations are so effective for Fantasy and Sci-fi genres that they’ve become a standard part of their aesthetic.
A person who picks up Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will know right away the scope of the novel. After a short but foreboding prologue, we enter the first part of the book. Chapter One, then, is titled, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World: 1974–1987.” How much information about the rest of the story can be gleaned from just this chapter heading? Well, for one we can tell that Oscar’s story will take place over a number of years, which connotes a sense of the epic on par with nonfiction histories. Moreover, “GhettoNerd” effectively characterizes both the citizens that people the story and the nomenclature they use. And the appended prepositional phrase, “at the End of the World” suggests grandness of a different kind: that of comic books and adventure stories, the very same kind gobbled up by the hopelessly uncool protagonist. Also, these emphatically grand names (later chapters are titled, e.g., “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992” and “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral: 1955-1962”) help absorb some of the momentum-shock of suddenly jumping from one time and place to another, and raise this thickly-accented contemporary tale to the status of History (a notion furthered by the book’s actual preoccupation with educating readers about the horrors of Trujillo). Tolkien borrowed from History to make his fantasy world Real; Díaz used it to make his story Significant.
But there are other ways of structuring a novel to reinforce its aims and intent. Ali Smith’s There but for the sections itself into the four words of the title, and each part not only begins with the titular word but also investigates it. The unfinished sentence, “there but for the,” becomes the connective tissue of the novel, each part working like a lengthy footnote to each word. The section, e.g., “but” features a poem on the conjunction/preposition that ends:
The way things connect.
Ali Smith incredibly makes her book seem like a narrative investigation of a single, incomplete sentence––the ending of which is of course known to all of us and factors into the story as well.
Chapter titles can sometimes become almost like characters, as in Office Girl by Joe Meno (a writer I unabashedly enjoy and who seems forever attached to his early success with Hairstyles of the Damned despite continuing to publish interesting works like The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and The Great Perhaps). The third-person-narrative novel has these short little chapters with titles like “But Ten Years Before” and “And That Night Goes to an Art Opening” and “Because This Is What He’s Been Doing.” These casual (and causal) names add a nice rhythm to the story and are actually quite necessary tactics for the reader to understand the ways the two protagonists feel about certain things in their life.
Books like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor use numerical ordering as techniques––Haddon’s protagonist, the autistic Christopher John Francis Boone, finds safety in math, especially prime numbers, so the chapters are headlined by those indivisible numbers; Palahniuk’s 1999 novel’s chapters are in reverse sequence––starting with Chapter 47 and ending with 1––as is the pagination, thereby “counting down” to the climax in the most literal way possible. These are simple and effective touches, connecting the disparate elements of the novels into single, cohesive units. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries uses the Zodiac to reinforce the written-in-the-stars nature of her tale. Twelve main characters mirror the twelve signs, and the book’s even got twelve chapters and those are made up of smaller sections named after the precise (as I’m sure Catton researched it thoroughly) locations of the corresponding sign, as in, e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius.” Taken altogether, Catton’s chapters work to add to the tone of the work (which is an uber-complex mystery featuring mediums and séances and ghosts (of a sort)) but are way too complex for someone like me who both doesn’t buy into astrology and knows next to nothing about it. In other words, from my point of view Catton succeeded in creating a forest even though I don’t understand the trees.
And then there is, of course, the shit that bothers me: for example, Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play in which the introduction of any character to a scene calls for a new one. What is this about? It makes for frustrating reading, akin to having someone announcing the entrance of every featured player in a sitcom. There’s Jerry! And look––Kramer! Just annoying. I know my aversion isn’t intellectually justifiable (after all, the scene numbers would be invisible if I ever actually saw a production of Tartuffe) but everyone has to admit that we’ve come to expect certain things from chapters, right? But here is a great problem: my arbitrary history with reading has not only given me these unfair proclivities but it’s also somehow convinced me that everyone else agrees with me.
Take, for instance, Charles Baxter’s otherwise fine novel The Feast of Love. In the opening of the book, Charlie Baxter embarks on a late-night walk after a night of restless sleep. This chapter, entitled “Preludes,” ends when Charlie’s friend Bradley comes upon him: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” Then, the section ends. The next chapter, “One,” begins like this: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” It’s the same setting, the same scene––hell, the same fucking moment––yet Baxter inserts a division here. Why? Well, I could see someone saying that Bradley’s entrance marks a shift in the story, since it is Bradley’s stories that comprise the novel. But then Baxter does this again. Chapter One ends with Bradley launching into his tales: “Okay,” he says. “Chapter One. Every relationship has at least one really good day…” and then Chapter Two begins, “Every relationship has at least one really good day.”
I don’t know why Baxter’s creative choices in The Feast of Love annoy me so much (and, to be fair, he doesn’t do this the entire book), but I think it might have to do with the physical properties of chapters. When a narrative stops and then continues on another page, I immediately assume some passage of time has elapsed or that maybe a change in perspective has occurred––there is just something psychically affecting about having to turn a page or having larger text interrupt prose. But when the scene merely continues, I am yanked out of the story and into the mind of the writer (or, more accurately, what I perceive to be the mind of the writer). So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function? Or do I simply use my weird shit as a helpful barometer for my taste? Should I, i.e., accept that certain books cannot and will not meet my stupid expectations and move along? There are already way too many books in this world for me to read, so maybe I should simple stop wasting my time with stuff that annoys me, even if my annoyance has zero legitimacy.
Okay, a little more time. It really pisses me off when books that have multiple parts still number the chapters as if the parts weren’t there. Díaz’s Oscar Wao does this, as do a number of bigger novels. This seems to ignore the entire purpose of Parts and Books, which to me create their own internal structure, much like the way each floor of a hotel begins numbering the rooms from 01. When writers ignore this, I tend to think of the Parts and Books to be arbitrary, an unnecessary intrusion to the larger rhythm.
But all of these weird little tics are mine and mine alone. I would never actually assume anyone else agrees or even thinks about this. I only know that when I read, these factors come into major play––justifiable or not––and help determine my assessment of a work. Even if I never mention it to others, in conversation or in a review, this stuff ends up mattering to me. Art (and art criticism) is full of unfair and unsubstantiated subjectivity like this but we love to pretend that we can approach things with cool empirical impartiality. Some can, I suppose, but I sure as hell can’t. I get stuck on chapters, on character names, on setting, on my perception of the author’s intention––because to me there isn’t any one aspect of fiction that stands above everything else. Every part of a novel or a story is a choice, made by a human being, and each part is as important as the next. And then there’s me––all-too-human, full of my own idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences and unable to stop them from taking over––responding to an author’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences. It’s like any relationship, I guess: the writer has their baggage, and I have mine. All I can do is hope that more often than not I stumble upon artists whose baggage is closest to mine. Because the other option would be for me to try to change these tics––which without going into too much detail I’ll just assure you is impossible.
Image credit: Unsplash/Will Tarpey.
Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He’s on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back — or down — by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?”
I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I’ll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.)
I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt.
I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat.
Crushes: Joe Meno’s Office Girl, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard’s Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh’s The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh’s “Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman”: “O tempura, O monkeys.”
I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes.
Two stories by David Gordon, “We Happy Few” (Five Chapters) and “Man-Boob Summer” (Paris Review) — pure pleasure.
Online: Mary-Kim Arnold’s Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: “Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY.” And I loved Rob Horning’s gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: “It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: ‘See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.’ ”
Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks’s Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. “Thank You For Your Postcard” is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3×5 piece of decorated cardboard: “Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus.”
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