Pricksongs & Descants: Fictions

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.

This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.

The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.

Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.

But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”

“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.

Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.

The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.

Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.

White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.

Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”

The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Circular Dread: The Narrative Pleasures of Damages

The opening scene of Vertigo is one of the most spectacular in film: across a series of San Francisco rooftops, the city and bay glittering in the background, a cop and a detective chase a criminal—until the detective slips and the cop falls to his death. Hanging from a ledge that seems certain to rip away, Jimmy Stewart eyes the twisted body below him, and the movie’s narrative is set. Will Stewart’s acrophobic sleuth conquer his vertigo as he trails a possessed woman who’ll also take a plunge? We watch to find out, even though the film’s dominant image—and theme—has already been revealed.

I thought of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork, as I watched the latest episode of Damages, the FX series starring Glenn Close that returned for its third season this Monday. Nominally a legal drama, the show’s serpentine plotting and titrated flashes of violence make it a first-rate thriller, and Close plays her quasi-villain to the hilt. As Patty Hewes, an attorney more ruthless and brilliant than any before seen on TV, she projects ambiguity at every moment. It’s impossible to know what her role in the plot is, a tension only heightened by Damages’ “flash forwards,” which depict each season’s brutal denouement from the outset. This season’s premiere showed Tate Donovan’s character, Patty’s right-hand man, in a body bag, while six months earlier he’d become a named partner at her firm. The image of his death is returned to again and again, as the temporal gap starts to close.

This back-and-forth dynamic is nothing new—it’s the classic whodunit structure, and the show’s creators have credited the Greek tragedies as an inspiration—but as Vertigo did back in 1958, Damages makes the conceit an integral part of its effect. As compelling as Close is (she towers over her incipient awards rival Julianna Margulies, whose attorney character on CBS’s The Good Wife would be chewed up by Patty in court), the show’s obsessive, almost fetishistic circling is what keeps me watching. It heightens the suspense, yes, but it also viscerally expresses the main characters’ central emotion: a constant, uncertain dread. As a narrative tactic, the flash forward enacts a perfect mimesis for the viewer.

It’s an impressively artful technique at a time when TV still hews to conventional (read: boring) three-act plots, with conclusions that are all too predictable. Shows that neatly wrap up at the end of every episode have a better shot at maintaining ratings both seasonally and year to year, since missing an episode doesn’t matter. In its first year, viewership for Damages fell from roughly 3.7 million to around 1.4, where it perilously remains. A new ABC series this fall, FlashForward, in which an earthquake-like event gives everyone in the world a glimpse of their lives six months hence, experienced a similar decline and may now be canceled. (The show is based on a 1999 science-fiction novel of the same name, a genre that has the future-present duality at its core.) Even Lost, a one-time juggernaut that also features flash forwards, kicks off its sixth and final season next week.

But plenty of shows have complicated plots that reward consistent viewing, especially premium fare like HBO’s Big Love (which, in its fourth season, continues to mesmerize). And many have earned the honorific “literary,” or “novelistic,” like the incomparable The Wire. It’s also true that Damages is not quite in their league, given its tendency for outright melodrama and writing that could be sharper across the board. This season’s Madoff-inspired story arc already seems tired, despite the presence of Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as the family’s respective matriarch and lawyer. (And what else can possibly be said about Patty’s relationship with Ellen, her protégé-turned-nemesis? Rose O’Byrne is still wooden in the perpetually fuzzy role—the show might be better off without her.)

But by employing the flash forward, Damages is innovating in a way these other shows haven’t, in a medium that’s traditionally an also-ran in trends of any kind. Eleven years after Vertigo was released, Robert Coover published his remarkable story collection Pricksongs & Descants, including the celebrated piece “The Babysitter.” In it, a period of about two hours is dissected into various characters’ perspectives and moments that go in and out of linear sequence. (The 1995 film adaptation starring Alicia Silverstone notably flattened out this bumpy chronological terrain.) By the end, the story—ostensibly about a young woman who’s raped while the couple she’s babysitting for are at a dinner party—is beside the point, smothered in a pile-up of implausible, outlandish details. Coover’s point is to show the narrative sleight of hand at work—a literary tradition we may take for granted now but which Damages brought to TV.

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