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.
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In most love stories, a man pursuing a woman is depicted as gallant, noble, and deeply romantic. When a woman pursues a man, we call her “crazy,” “obsessed,” and “unstable.” Why one gender is gallant and the other nutso, I’m not sure, but one thing is clear: the female gone mad with love makes for one hell of an unconventional narrative — or as William Congreve put it in The Mourning Bride, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” And when that scorn can manifest in emails, comments, and digital subterfuge, the girlish chase becomes a sinister manhunt.
In James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, we get a story half crime procedural, half memoir of attack. Lasdun’s story focused on how his reputation was systematically destroyed by a former writing student called “Nasreen.” Lasdun sees her writing, exploring themes of Iranian and American love, as a sign of true talent, and he genuinely supports her work. Nasreen graduates, two years go by, and Lasdun receives her email asking for help in securing a literary agent — an initial overture that soon turns more personal and romantically suggestive. When Lasdun gently declines her advances, Nasreen’s emails accuse him of student favoritism, then sexual harassment and assault, then racism, then full-blown plagiarism and criminal activity. When Lasdun declines to answer her emails, Nasreen incorporates her threats into everything from Amazon reader comments to university review boards, spreading her anti-semitic, tawdry comments to all of Lasdun’s friends and colleagues. Soon she infiltrates every part of his life, spreading lies and gossip and threatening to expose “the truth” behind his web of lies.
As Lasdun noted in his recent interview with The Millions, this book was “written right from the thick of the experience,” and the immediacy of the tale’s telling imbues each detail with a palpable sense of dread. Lasdun builds plenty of suspense and momentum — not only as each blistering attack lands, but also as Nasreen’s motivation remains indecipherable. The glimpse of their real-life interaction is extremely brief — in person, she is demure, even appreciative of his time. It is only when the firsthand communication disappears, and they transfer their relationship to email, that lines become blurred and the power dynamic begins to shift. When Nasreen coyly insinuates that Lasdun had snapped at her in class (a lover’s quarrel, in her mind), Lasdun is equally coy in his response. “Are you sure I didn’t just push you to declare an opinion on something? (I remember you being rather reticent.)” He then adds, semi-prophetically, “As George Eliot said, the last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people.” Nasreen’s early impressions of him become Lasdun’s downfall, and he is sent reeling by how easily she insinuates herself into his life — at work, at home, and in his online likeness (impersonating him on various websites, sending racist and sexist articles using his email address). If, as noted in his Millions interview, this is the story of “two novelists who are, in different ways, trying to create each other as characters,” Nasreen’s greatest crime is becoming too powerful an author. “One has no control over the use other people make of one’s image or the sound of one’s voice or any other outward manifestation of oneself,” Lasdun writes, as he finds himself a character rather than the captain of his own story. She has hijacked his very sense of self. “Life, death, honor, reputation. Such, at this point, are the terms and stakes of the challenge.”
However, in order to paint Nasreen as a mad woman with a powerful grudge, Lasdun takes an unnecessarily dry and impersonal tone, using supplementary texts on the nature of obsession to further his case. (On his reading list: Tintin — the books with Arab villains, natch — Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, D.H. Lawrence’s personal biography, or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Perhaps we should give Lasdun credit for not citing Fatal Attraction and Sunset Boulevard.) As he goes into his analysis, painting Nasreen as a stalker and himself as a heroic naïf, the more he starts to sound like Humbert Humbert, more complicit than innocent, more culpable than defensible. There are moments where his humility cannot help but sound like a humblebrag: “I want to know what she thinks she is doing. [ . . . ] What happened—between us, or to her alone — to make my unremarkable existence matter so much to her?” He does acknowledge that in trying to write this story, his motivation is as cloudy as Nasreen’s:
I have a strong vested interest, after all, in claiming that Nasreen was fundamentally sane. I want to hold her responsible for her behavior. [ . . . ] But I also have to admit that if I didn’t, I would probably feel uncomfortable writing about her. Uncomfortable not only from a personal point of view but also from a litery one.
Heaven forbid that Lasdun’s literary ethics be violated in depicting the actual truth — perhaps this is the problem when the author is also the main character. In trying to mount a self-defense, Lasdun’s case rests on giving Nasreen full agency — an impossibility, given that throughout her attacks, he never once confronts her directly. “I wasn’t thinking about the effect of my not answering,” Lasdun noted in his interview, “[nor] the effects of silence on someone who is obsessed with you.” Incidental or not, Lasdun’s silence allows him to be the “bigger guy” in this scenario, and so his descriptions of Nasreen are anything but empowering: he compares her to a groundhog, “defiantly present in my garden every morning.” In the final section, set during a trip to Israel, Lasdun tries to provide a global context for Nasreen’s behavior, and in doing so overly simplifies her crimes to a simple clash of cultures. (Comparing Nasreen’s missives to the Wailing Wall is even more grating.) In the very act of writing down his “side of the story,” Lasdun denies us the chance to cross-examine him.
So what did really happen? Yes, Lasdun was pursued; yes, he was attacked; yes, he remains wary of Nasreen’s next move even today; and yes — he will continue to represent himself as victim even as he promotes this book. It’s a pity that while so many stories of female victimization (sexual and otherwise) are grouped into the “women and gender studies” category, Lasdun may sit front and center on the “New in Nonfiction” table . . . a categorization that only holds up as well as you can believe that a one-sided story can be taken as irrevocable truth. Lasdun himself does express doubts at the very writing of this story: “It is a recurrent anxiety of mine, this fear of irrelevance, and I have no argument against it other than [ . . . ] that sometimes the urge to write these very private things is stronger than the doubts about whether they are worth writing.” Only Lasdun can tell us whether the story was worth it — the bigger question, the one that snakes itself to the front of my mind at each line of flowery recrimination, is whether Lasdun should’ve taken his story public. “Was I am objective, impartial observer, a purely neutral participant in those early months of our exchange?” he asks, and then answers: “I was not. Nobody ever is.” And so I wonder, as the praise-laden reviews roll out, if a certain former student is clicking onto Amazon and Goodreads and slowly, methodically, conducting her own self-defense.