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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Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. This is a refrain repeated frequently throughout Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque. It is a line originally found in the “Hades” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and is used there to describe an unnamed “lankylooking galoot.” That nameless minor character in Ulysses is often given the title “the Man in the Macintosh,” and he has become quite a mystery in Joyce scholarship over the years. He shows up in Joyce’s novel a handful of times, but scholars have never been able to agree upon his identity. Yes, always someone turns up you never dreamt of; and sometimes just as quickly he vanishes, remaining a ghost, a mystery. Literature has always been fascinated with these uncanny entrances and exits, the comings and goings that in life are so commonplace, but that, on the printed page, we often imbue with such significance. It is in mysteries such as these — in the catalogued coincidences and connections, the inquiries and epiphanies, that we seek out the patterns of life, create meaning in the chaos of existence, and confront and embody that Beckettian maxim: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In the Internet age, after the heights of Joyce, and beyond the depths of Beckett, there is, it is sometimes argued, not much left to explore in literature. Story is suspect, for every story has already been told (or so the banal argument goes). Yet even if Enrique Vila-Matas can’t go on telling new stories, he’ll go on writing, mining the past to communicate the present; and we’re all the better off for it. The Spanish novelist is a master of that problematic enterprise of literature: the death-defying highwire act of telling the truth through lies, of invoking reality through fiction. In his newly translated novel, Dublinesque, successfully rendered into exquisite English by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, Vila-Matas treks across the literary landscape from Joyce to Beckett, from Gutenberg to Google, rubbing one allusion up against another, and colliding both fictive and actual worlds.
Samuel Riba, the retired literary publisher who takes center stage in Dublinesque, is a character with an “exaggerated fanaticism for literature” who “has a tendency to read life like a literary text.” Therein lies a clue to reading the book: as the novel opens, life and text are already intertwined, confused, inseparable, and it only gets more complicated further on down the rabbithole.
In his retirement (and sobriety), Riba has retreated further into himself, sitting in front of his computer, Googling things for hours on end, like a Japanese hikikomori. He only ever really leaves this position in front of his computer at the behest of his wife, with whom he has a strained relationship that is only being strained further as he turns more inward and she turns more toward Buddhism, or in order to visit his parents and keep up the pretense that he is still a literary publisher (as he has chosen not to clue them in on his retirement). It is in one of these awkward visits with his parents that the idea of traveling to Dublin emerges.
Two years before the start of the novel Riba had a dream about that Irish city, and so when his mother accuses him of not having any plans, he “lets Dublin come to his rescue,” and makes up the lie that he’s been planning a trip there all along. Rather quickly he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting that city of Joyce and Beckett, the Dedaluses and the Blooms, and mysterious men in macintoshes. He is determined to go to Dublin and, intentionally mirroring the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Joyce’s “Hades” episode, he will perform a funeral for the age of print, for “the Gutenberg galaxy,” as the digital age comes fully into being.
In many ways, both physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, Dublinesque is haunted by ghosts. But these ghosts take different forms, and most often they are in the form of allusions. As Joyce writes in Ulysses, and Vila-Matas reiterates in Dublinesque:
What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.
Like the novel itself, Riba’s head is filled with ghosts — filled with the cobwebs of literary quotations, artistic allusions, bits of stories, trivia about the lives and works of authors and artists. Besides Joyce and Beckett, whose spirits remain a presence throughout the book, there are references to Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, George Perec, and Philip Larkin (whose poem “Dublinesque” provides the novel with its title), in addition to extensive mentions of the films of directors John Ford and David Cronenberg. These and many other artists haunt the book like specters. Riba’s obsession with artistic and literary trivia may not be quite as all-consuming as it is for David Markson’s Reader/Writer/Author/Novelist in Markson’s final four novels (The Notecard Quartet: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel), but it is about on par. Indeed, David Markson seems like someone Riba would have wanted to add to his catalogue of published authors, had he not been retired: “Isn’t a literary publisher a ventriloquist who cultivates the most varied different voices through his catalogue?”
Coincidences abound from the very beginning of the novel, as there are countless threads connecting his parents to the text of Ulysses. Riba — and Vila-Matas- — weave a tangled web of allusions and intersections between literature and life, between fiction and reality. This is typical Enrique Vila-Matas territory: in his novels, reality and fiction are forever blended. Real people populate their pages as often as fictional ones, and a confusion between the two always invokes problems. Like Montano in Montano’s Malady, another Vila-Matas novel available in English translation, Samuel Riba has a kind of literature-sickness.
Bloomsday, a holiday that the book focuses on, embodies this mix of fictive and real elements. After all, it is a holiday in the real world, but celebrated because on that day, in a novel, a fictional character, based on a real person, wanders around Dublin, a real city, which the author, Joyce, wanted to capture so perfectly that if the city were to be wiped off the face of the planet it could be recreated using his novel. There is no better holiday for an Enrique Vila-Matas novel to engage itself with.
Furthering the insufficiency of reality, Riba constantly questions whether he is in a novel, dreading the possibility that he might be. He makes it abundantly clear at various points that “in no way does he want to live in a novel.” He may not want to be a character in literature but he keeps bringing up the possibility that he may very well be, a possibility he feels, even if he can’t quite explain it.
Surely it would be useless to explain that he’s not crazy, and that all that happens is that sometimes he senses or picks up too much, he detects realities no one else perceives.
But Riba’s greatest dread, the ultimate disappointment in his life, is that he hasn’t yet found the great writer of genius that he always assumed he would. Enter a mysterious figure. He first appears during the funeral procession for the Gutenberg era, and Riba deduces, with very little reasoning or evidence, that this must be the writer he has waited for his entire life. Is the figure Joyce’s “Man in the Macintosh?” Or is he a young Samuel Beckett? Or is he just a local Beckett lookalike? Or might the figure actually be a ghost with Dracula’s ability to disappear into a fog? Or could this man in fact be Vila-Matas himself- — the author of Dublinesque and the creator of Riba? Appearing in his own novel, just as Vladimir Nabokov claims Joyce appeared in Ulysses as that “Man in the Macintosh?” Is it possible also that the macintoshed man is an embodiment of the “old whore” literature herself? In a way, this mysterious figure is all these things and more. There isn’t a precise logic to it, it just makes sense in the confines of literature, which is a reflection and a refraction of life itself — a thing full of mysteries, ultimately unexplainable.
What logic is there in things? None really. We’re the ones who look for links between one segment of our lives and another. But this attempt to give form to that which has none, to give form to chaos, is something only good writers know how to do successfully.
If nothing else, Dublinesque secures the position of Enrique Vila-Matas on the list of writers who know how to give form to chaos. Just as he tells the story of the Gutenberg age giving way to the Google age, and catalogues a literary trajectory from Joyce to Beckett, Vila-Matas finds a perfect middle ground, the apex between these two pillars: Dublinesque reflects the sparseness of Beckett and the intricateness of Joyce, but more importantly it provides the mystery and depth of both. As two sides of the same coin, doppelgangers of one another in one way, and yet polar opposites from another vantage point, Joyce and Beckett show up through the text, finding a number of ways to haunt its pages. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.
Early in the year I tried — no kidding — to read everything ever written by and about Sarah Palin. Going Rogue, Sarah from Alaska, America by Heart, you name it. I had it in my head that I was going to write a bitterly funny book about modern politics. Working title: The Palin. A satirical monster story about a blood-hungry, wolverine-like creature that terrorizes a small northern town before being driven back into the woods. The research process, initially undertaken with great enthusiasm, soon turned grim. I lasted about a month before surrendering. It was like the literary equivalent of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. I almost wish I had filmed it.
In search of a palate cleanse, I moved on to late-phase David Markson, the non-novel novels: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. It’s like reading like the best Twitter feed in history, a rapid-fire but far from accidental collage of factoids and quotes and letter excerpts and gossip drawn from the super fine print of art and literary history. Stuff like: “For some years, Marcel Duchamp was the second ranked chess master in France.” And: “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” This is experimental fiction at its finest — way-out-there books that also manage to be compulsively readable. No plot. No characters. No linear progression. And yet somehow deeply emotional. Markson, who died in 2010, looms large on every page — you can almost hear the gears of his mind turning — and mortality is the unmistakable undercurrent. The cumulative effect sneaks up on you. These are books about books, books about the making of art. And mostly they’re about a man facing down death with courage, by reading and thinking and writing.
Most recent book that I read and liked: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. This one, too, is concerned with the making of art (I guess this stuff has been on my mind). Lerner’s novel is lean but heavy, and beautifully written, with plenty of wince-while-laughing comedic moments. A very clever inversion of postmodern fiction’s basic model. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, is an avant-garde fuck-up, a gifted young poet (much like the author himself), a Fulbright Scholar drifting in Madrid. He smokes too much hash. He takes too many pills. He mangles the Spanish language and bumbles his way through readings. There are trains. There are lies. There are unsatisfying liaisons with two different women. And above all else, there is the search for the real — both internal and external. I’ll probably read this one again.
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