In June, my partner and I moved from Boston back to Brooklyn, where we last lived, separately, almost a decade ago. The cost of moving and the inevitable decline in square footage occasioned a (very) reluctant jettisoning of books, though you wouldn’t know it from visiting our apartment, where almost every inch of wall space is now taken up with self-installed shelves of questionable sturdiness holding “must-haves,” such as galleys of NYRB Classics from the late 2000s, giant undergraduate philosophy anthologies, and that book of Don DeLillo short stories that I swear is climbing out of giveaway boxes and following us, Toy Story-style, across the country.
All of which is to say that it sometimes felt like I spent
as much time lifting, sorting, stacking, shelving, and contemplating the
physical necessity of books as reading them this year. Nevertheless, I did read
a bunch of them.
I started the year reading My Tender Matador by the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, after learning about him in Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. Lemebel, who died in 2015, was a brave and outspoken gay activist, and his novel combines a high camp sensibility with grave political concerns in a way that’s reminiscent of his Argentinian predecessor Manuel Puig. Lemebel dares to enter the perspective of Pinochet, and is blessedly merciless in his depiction of the ugliness and emptiness of what lies within the dictator’s mind. I wish this novel was better known, and that more of Lemebel’s work was available in English, because my Spanish remains terrible.
Though Lemebel’s novel is fast, funny, and relatively short, I thought of it while reading Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, a nearly 900-page, deeply unfunny book. Like Lemebel, Grossman was determined, at all costs, to speak hard—impossible, in his case—truths about the governing ideology of his time. (His novel was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and not published until long after his death, in the 1980s.) After years of people telling me to read it, I was finally convinced to take it on over afternoon beers with an n+1 editor, who made it clear that our continuing friendship was contingent upon my reading it. OK, I haven’t finished it yet. But after a few hundred pages, I can safely affirm that it is one of the most emotionally intense books I’ve ever read—page after page of horror and empathy across the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, including possibly the most devastating letter—from a mother, being sent to a death camp, to her son—in all of literature. I cried while reading this book in an airport, and then on a plane, and then on a bus. So maybe read it at home?
Rounding out the nightmare political portion of the year’s reading, I was totally engrossed by Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the brazen murder of a Guatemalan bishop following his involvement in the compilation of a report detailing the military’s atrocities against civilians, many of them indigenous. It’s a fascinating and horrifying work of investigative journalism—if you liked Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keefe (which I certainly did), you should read this, as well as the scabrously funny Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionally depicts the writing of a report very much like the one Bishop Gerardi was murdered over.
I read Her First American by Lore Segal after reading about it in a great essay on Segal’s work by Madeleine Schwartz. It’s a novel about an Austrian war refugee falling in love with an alcoholic black intellectual in New York in the ’50s. It may well be the perfect novel. It seems criminally under-known, or under-discussed at least. I read it around the same time as I read For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly dark novel about a woman who serves as a field nurse in the Vietnam War, then returns home to a grim and circumscribed existence. I think the title might be holding this one back from becoming the modern classic it should be. That led me associatively, I think, to The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I had pretended to have read for years. It’s really great! And Dorothy just put out a funky collection of her nonfiction, Me, that is well worth reading, too.
I read two and a half books of Proust—part two of The Guermantes Way through The Captive—and decided that he is not overrated. I also read a bunch of Annie Ernaux, and I’m currently reading The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. I wish I knew French. I wish I was French.
I read excellent new books by my friends. Caleb Crain’s novel Overthrow and Andrew Marantz’s nonfiction chronicle Antisocial make a nice holiday pair, covering the surveillance state and the rise of the right-wing Internet with matching red and black covers. Adam Sachs’s The Organs of Sense is the funniest, smartest book about an eyeless astronomer you’ll ever read. And Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is the best novel of next year—I’m so sure of it that I’m not going to bother reading any other new books in 2020.
Finally, I listened to James Atlas’s lovely audiobook reminiscence of his friendship with Philip Roth. It’s a short, sweet New York memoir that captures the character of the great novelist and biographer, both now gone and deeply missed. Let it serve as an elegiac gateway back into their unruly, essential bodies of work.
Most of my 2019 has been spent in a blur of hating words—my own. Editing a 140,000-word transcript that would eventually become a book forced me to confront daily misspellings, grammatical blunders, fact-checks, writing tics. It was enough to make me hate the act of writing more than I usually do.
The book hit shelves in September, so most of 2019 was spent getting it ready for publishing. It was a work of nonfiction in line with my day job at The New York Times; an insider story about a tech company’s culture gone awry at Uber. But since I spent most of my waking hours this year focusing on a story rooted in the real world, I prefer using my downtime getting as far away from it as possible. Reading for pleasure instead of work almost always consisted of fiction.
I picked up The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at the beginning of the year, in part because, honestly, I liked the cover design. But I also find reading short stories manageable, especially when I’m in the middle of a big project. To approach the end of a stressful day and be able to finish a 30-page story in one sitting feels damn good, like something akin to meeting the end of a section in a 500-plus page novel, but tidier. Normally I worry about missing the aesthetics of a native language in a translated work, but Jay Rubin’s translation abated that fear. I’m a sucker for magical realism; Murakami’s introduction set the tone.
My crippling reliance on Amazon for the most innocuous items led me down a comment-reading hole in February. As it turns out, people have very strong views on toilet plungers and sugar-free gummi bears.
I finally picked up Friday Black—another short story collection—after seeing Tommy Orange’s rave review of it. Orange was right. The book whet my appetite for looking at the worst possible versions of the future that aren’t as far-fetched as one would think. (I’m a huge fan of George Saunders, so Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work was right up my alley.)
I stopped at Powell’s in Portland while touring for my book and saw a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad on sale, a book I meant to read years ago but never got around to. I devoured it in two or three plane rides, an excellent cast of characters blended with rock music, angst, and the existentialism that comes with getting older. I’m mad at myself I hadn’t read it sooner.
I have this latent guilt when I read contemporary releases, which I will fully admit makes little sense. There’s a never-ending flood of books being released by talented people, but something inside my brain feels like I can’t allow myself to read new books when there are so many “classics” I’ve yet to read. How can I pick up something from 2019 when I haven’t read the best of 1819? It’s like a permanent backlog of shitty self-nagging; I don’t recommend it.
To deal with that, I try to throw at least one classic in the mix every month. I try to read Melville once a year, because I am the type of person who likes Melville. (I remember someone once saying “Never date guys who love Moby Dick,” a tidbit of self-consciousness I’ve never forgotten.) I picked up Pnin earlier this year; Nabokov is nothing if not controversial, but his mastery of voice and style keeps me coming back to him. I have a Willa Cather on my nightstand (My Antonia), and reread Wharton’s wintry Ethan Frome over the summer.
Some people read one book at a time before moving on to the next, but I’ve found reading a mix of books, genres, and mediums simultaneously is strangely soothing. Short stories, novels, a bit of poetry—it keeps the mind fresh, and I don’t feel stalled when I’m moving through something that is longer than 250 pages.
So after something like Atwood’s new book, I’ll go back and read All You Need Is Kill, an old manga that was the basis for the (underrated!) film Edge of Tomorrow. I’ve got a pile of Venom and Spider-Man anthologies I’m picking through—Maximum Carnage is one of them, focused on a fun psychopathic character. I’m also picking through the old Preacher comics; years ago, I bought the entire bound series of nine or so books off of some guy on Craigslist for a song. Totally worth it.
There’s this piece of advice I once received that I’ve never forgotten: “Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying.” Internalizing that felt liberating, and helped me put a few books down this year. (The first time I stopped reading a book in the middle of it was when I realized I didn’t like Jack Kerouac, and sold my copy of On the Road after about 100 pages.) I love Kazuo Ishiguro and read Remains of the Day, Nocturnes, and Never Let Me Go (again) this year, but decided about 150 pages in that The Unconsoled was just a little too out there for my taste.
I dutifully read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and enjoyed it, then moved to One Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t get into it, stopping halfway through. Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys was predictably great.
Of course, I still read nonfiction. It helps me make my own work feel and sound better, even if it doesn’t always give me that serotonin hit that fiction affords. I read business classics while writing my own book: The Soul of a New Machine, Barbarians at the Gate, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Den of Thieves. They reminded me how beautiful, elegant writing can be just as present in nonfiction as it is in other mediums.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see friends and mentors write wonderful books that have come out to much acclaim. Namwali Serpell, whom I was a research assistant for during my undergrad years as an English major, wrote the great Zambian novel with The Old Drift. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was, of course, as lovely as everyone knew it would be. I’m in the middle of Anna Wiener’s galley of Uncanny Valley, a memoir of her time spent in Silicon Valley.
I’m trying to branch out a bit more into science fiction, something I’m seeing flourish right now by authors of all walks. I have Jeff VanderMeer and Octavia Butler in the queue, and keep meaning to get into Tana French. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is burning a hole in my bookshelf; that’ll be up soon.
Perhaps I’ll make a dent in all of those in 2020—and hopefully not feel too guilty that they weren’t written at least a hundred years ago.
This year for me seemed sure to be defined by the publication, in May, of my first book, which disrupted absolutely everything around it, like a bowling ball dropped onto a spring mattress in one of those 1990s commercials. In this metaphor, the mattress is my life. The bowling ball is a bowling ball. It crashed down. I quit my day job; I lost my mind; I obsessed for months over how to most effectively present as an author; I changed writing and eating and travel habits; I met a thousand people I’d never met before. Reading, too, was altered.
Going on tour gave me hours in transit to spend with books. On airplanes, I read Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which was laser-focused, jaw-dropping, exquisite, and Normal People by Sally Rooney, which was so sexy and engaging I wanted to scream. (Reading Conversations with Friends at home afterward, I felt the exact same way.) On trains, I read The Affairs of the Falcóns, Melissa Rivero’s claustrophobic, pitch-perfect debut novel, and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s deep dive into the IRA. I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden in a hotel room and then had strange, vivid dreams about magicians all night. I finished Women Talking by Miriam Toews on the subway and wept so hard that my face lotion ran into my eyes and made them burn.
I read books to review and books to blurb. I read books I’d avoided while writing my debut (Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which turned out wider, wilder, and more experimental than I’d dreamed) and books I hope might inform future work (The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon). I even read a book about books: Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum, which was the invaluable publishing guide I wish I’d had in 2018 or in 2017, or had been issued to me in the hospital when I was born.
In the midst of real-life challenges—political horrors, personal reckonings—books gave solace. They contained and named our daily pains; they showed how hard it can be to be alive, and how beautiful, too, how precious, how strange. Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shared the most tender and aching truths about family. Sarah DeLappe’s play, The Wolves, captured the raw, vicious experience of girlhood and of growing up. Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, with its vomiting, shitting, and completely captivating narrator, exposed the brutality of the body. Ling Ma’s novel, Severance, shed new light on late capitalism. Two romance series I gobbled up this year, Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals and Melonie Johnson’s Sometimes in Love, advanced visions of a better, fairer, and sexier world, where everyone might find their happily ever after.
Finally, I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet, because I got pregnant in 2019. The year then redefined itself, making a fetus, a heartbeat, and folic acid supplements the most disruptive things in my life by far. A first baby—nothing to stress or obsess about there, right? No bowling-ball-like upheaval? And I can anticipate that 2020, with an infant, will offer plenty of time for more reading? How wonderful.
I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”
Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”
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When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Patrick Radden Keefe, Jen Beagin, Irvine Welsh and more—that are publishing this week.
Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Vacuum in the Dark: “Beagin’s sharp and superb novel finds Mona, from previous novel Pretend I’m Dead, now 26, living in Taos, N.Mex., having followed the dying wishes of her ex-boyfriend, a man she met at a needle exchange and called Mr. Disgusting. Mona cleans houses for a living, shares a ranch house with an older married couple she calls Yoko and Yoko, and claims Fresh Air’s Terry Gross as an imaginary friend-slash-therapist. Prone to falling in love with her clients’ furniture and taking advantage of their absences to create a series of photographic portraits in their homes, Mona often breaches the professional distance between her and her clients. There’s the beautiful and blind therapist Rose, who has given Mona leave to conduct an affair with her husband, whom Mona has nicknamed Dark, and there’s Hungarian artists Lena and Paul, who ask Mona to model for them. Deadpan and savage, Mona has a dark and complicated history she is not afraid to weaponize. When Mona’s mother asks Mona to return to the apartment where she grew up in L.A., Mona must come to terms both with her difficult past and where she can go from here. Beagin pulls no punches—this novel is viciously smart and morbidly funny.”
Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dead Men’s Trousers: “More than 25 years after they first appeared in Trainspotting, all four of Welsh’s hard-living Scottish friends reunite in Edinburgh, roped into an appropriately bizarre and macabre organ harvesting caper. Told from the perspectives of the four protagonists, the novel rolls slowly in the first half, updating their individual biographies separately—readers new to Welsh’s world need not be apprehensive—and setting up the brisker, and inevitably bollixed, execution of the theft plot. Two of these former reprobate mates have successfully escaped their pasts. Renton travels the globe as a music manager. Begbie, who runs into Renton on a plane in the opening chapter, is a successful artist living in California. Spud, whose narrative is most steeped in a slangy Scottish dialect, still lives on the edge and instigates the kidney-napping caper. Sick Boy, like Spud, is still in Edinburgh, and crashing with his sister, Carlotta, who screamingly blames him for the degeneration of her son, Ross, and husband, Euan, apparently on a debauched trip to Thailand. When the four finally get together, much comic mileage is wrung in rehashing old grievances. Not surprisingly, the crime unfolds like a Keystone Kops version of Ocean’s 11, but with an irrevocable final result. Welsh’s entire oeuvre crackles with idiomatic energy and brio, and this rollicking novel is no different.”
That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about That Time I Loved You: “Leung (The Wondrous Woo) presents 10 sweet, sad, sympathetic stories set in Scarborough, Ontario, for a group portrait of immigrants, misfits, adults, adolescents, and teenagers, all of whom discover suburban comfort does not ensure happiness. The first story, ‘Grass,’ takes place in 1979, as 11-year-olds June and Josie ponder two suicides: Mr. Finley, the local softball coach, and Mrs. Da Silva, a housewife with an abusive husband. The girls cannot ask their parents for explanations, because death is one of many subjects parents prefer not to discuss with children. ‘Flowers’ shows Mrs. Da Silva’s last day, as she listens to flowers taunt her in her native Portuguese. In ‘Treasure,’ a woman named Marilyn who is admired by her neighbors turns out to be a thief. In ‘Sweets,’ June’s buddy Naveen gets beaten up when he wears his sister’s heart-shaped sunglasses to school. In ‘Things,’ comic book enthusiast Darren confronts a racist schoolteacher. ‘Wheels,’ ‘Kiss,’ and the title story explore June and Josie’s changing perspectives upon their first experiences of womanhood. Linked by recurring characters such as Darren’s Jamaican mother and June’s grandmother from Hong Kong, together the stories track June’s deepening understanding of the place she calls home. Crystalline prose, sharp storytelling, and pitch-perfect narration enhance Leung’s accessible and affecting depiction of how cruelty undermines and kindness fortifies people’s sense of community.”
We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Must Be Brave: “British author and translator Liardet’s moving American debut, set in WWII England, follows a childless woman discovering joy after she begins caring for a young girl. Ellen Parr is married to Selwyn, owner of the local mill in the village of Upton, near Southampton. In 1940, while helping evacuees of a nearby bombing who have arrived at Upton by bus, Ellen meets Pamela Pickering, a young child left alone on the bus. Ellen treats Pamela as the daughter she never had (Selwyn is impotent) for the next few years, until Pamela is eight and a relative of Pamela’s finds her and takes her to live with family members. Though distraught by Pamela’s departure, Ellen survives the devastation around her with the love and support of Selwyn, her childhood friend Lucy Horne, and other villagers who have been a constant presence in Ellen’s life. Over 30 years later, Ellen befriends Penny Lacey, a lonely young boarding school student in Upton. Ellen glimpses similarities between Pamela and Penny, and they form a life-changing friendship. Readers will be captivated by Ellen’s story, which is bolstered by a swift plot and characters who realistically and memorably grow.”
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Say Nothing: “New Yorker staff writer Keefe (Snakehead) incorporates a real-life whodunit into a moving, accessible account of the violence that has afflicted Northern Ireland. The mystery concerns Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, who was snatched from her Belfast home by an IRA gang in 1972. While Keefe touches on historical antecedents, his real starting point is the 1960s, when advocates of a unified Ireland attempted to emulate the nonviolent methods of the American civil rights movement. The path from peaceful protests to terrorist bombings is framed by the story of Dolours Price, who became involved as a teenager and went on to become a central figure in the IRA. While formal charges were never brought against republican leader Gerry Adams in McConville’s murder, Keefe makes a persuasive case that McConville was killed at his order for being an informer to the British—and the author’s dogged detective work enables him to plausibly name those who literally pulled the trigger. Tinged with immense sadness, this work never loses sight of the humanity of even those who committed horrible acts in support of what they believed in.”
Mother Country by Irina Reyn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mother Country: “In Reyn’s excellent exploration of the immigrant experience, a Ukrainian transplant to the United States grapples with the convoluted legacy of her home country. Once head bookkeeper at an important gas pipe factory in east Ukraine, Nadia Andreevna now nannies for a family in Brooklyn, navigating an unfamiliar land of artisanal mayonnaise and American parenting. Nadia had fled the politically destabilized country in 2008, aiming to send for her daughter, Larissa—detained due to a bureaucratic loophole—immediately. But six years have passed, and she spends her days writing pleading letters to senators and obsessively tracking news reports that document mounting violence in her home region. As Nadia resorts to increasingly extreme measures to reunite with her daughter—including scouting American suitors for Larissa at nightclubs—the narrative periodically flips back to Nadia’s raw, affecting life as a single mother in Ukraine, fighting to carve out an existence for herself and her daughter amid a rapidly changing country. When Larissa’s immigration suddenly looms closer, Nadia must reckon with how her memories of Larissa—whom she has not seen for seven years—abut against reality, and learn to forge her way in a culture that poses frequent affronts to her identity. In beautiful and emotionally perceptive prose, Reyn (The Imperial Wife) probes the intimate ways cultures clash within individuals, forcing them to knit together disparate truths to make sense of the world, and provides a tender depiction of how mother-daughter bonds morph over time and space.”
Birthday by César Aira
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Birthday: “In this profound memoir, Aira (The Linden Tree) turns 50 and sees this benchmark as an opportunity to make changes in his life. A casual conversation with his wife leads him to a darker contemplation of youth wasted, a diminishment of artistic authority in his work, and his potentially bleak future. By exploring these fears in a series of loosely organized reflections and anecdotes, Aira comes to terms with his standing as an artist, his achievements, and his future. Immersed in his identity as a writer, he admits to a fetishistic attachment to stationery and pens, and to his struggles with life outside writing. In his early 40s, he began a grand project, a conscious departure from his ‘little novels,’ which he sees as marginal. He calls it the Encyclopedia, envisioning it as a comprehensive book of knowledge. But at 50, all he has is a collection of sketches and plans, with not a single page of manuscript, and it’s unlikely that this ambitious project will be finished. There are thoughtful anecdotes about Ludwig Wittgenstein, a waitress (and budding writer) whom he meets in a café, and Evariste Galois, a brilliant young mathematician killed in a duel in 1832. The reader gradually realizes Aira’s seemingly feigned self-deprecation is actually clear-eyed honesty, and the ostensible simplicity of the volume carries powerful and incisive ideas about life and aging.”