Among the most obnoxious things one person can ask of another is to “tell me something true about yourself.” Such a banal and breezily intrusive request drastically misunderstands the nature of self-disclosure; it calls for a sort of intimacy on demand, a statement of biographical fact that is expected to reveal, by mysterious inference, the truth about a life. It’s also a question that is close to impossible to answer. What kind of person is capable of talking about themselves in the form of facts? If you’re looking for a way to ruin a perfectly good first date, do the following: lean forward in your chair and, gazing urgently across the dinner table into the eyes of the near-perfect stranger sitting opposite, ask them to tell you something true about themselves. (“Dessert menu? No thanks, just the bill, please.”)
Reading Autoportrait, I found myself thinking of it as a fiendishly appropriate response to just such a question, as the logical comeuppance of a request for personal truth. The book (one paragraph spanning 112 pages) consists of one declarative sentence after another, each of which reveals some new fact about its author, the late French writer and conceptual photographer Edouard Levé. Here’s a sample, selected more or less at random:
The higher the floor number, the better I feel. Sometimes I realize that what I’m in the middle of saying is boring, so I just stop talking. I used to think I worked better at night than in daytime until one day I bought black curtains. I use the shell of the first mussel to spoon out the rest. I can do without TV.
It might sound like a paradox, or a graceless provocation, to say that the book — which goes on like this (and on, and on) — is both conventionally unreadable and almost tyrannically compelling. But that is what it is. It’s “unreadable” in the way that any succession of sentences that refuses to cohere into a composite substance (a narrative, say, or an argument) is, by normal standards, unreadable. The vast majority of these statements do not acknowledge the presence of those on either side of them. You read from left to right, from top to bottom of each page, but Autoportrait doesn’t really reward this approach over any other. You could read it from last page to first and have a similar kind of experience with it. You could even read it from last sentence to first and still come out knowing as much about the author as you would from a conventionally oriented approach (whereas you wouldn’t get quite the same picture of, say, Nabokov or St. Augustine from a backwards reading of Speak, Memory or The Confessions as you would from a forwards one). It’s compelling not just because its formal technique is so radical, but because its thorough abdication of all narrative responsibility — the obligation for one’s statements to stand in some type of logically sequential relationship to each other — leads to a peculiar, and contradictory, expectancy in the reading experience.
It’s possible, in other words, that the book is compelling precisely because it’s unreadable in the conventional sense. (Even if being both French and deceased didn’t disqualify Levé from being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would still be unthinkable anyway.) This has a lot to do with the tension between a relentless control at the level of form and what seems to be randomness at the level of content, a tension which amounts to a sort of fastidious chaos. You know what type of sentence the next one is going to be (it’s going to be a first-person statement of some fact about the author), but you don’t have any idea what it might be likely to reveal. Writers rarely get away with such chilly denial of narrative pleasure while still managing to keep readers turning the page. It helps that Levé intermittently catches you off guard by being plain old funny: “My father walked in on me making love to a woman, when he knocked I said without thinking, ‘Come in,’ blushing, he quickly backed out and closed the door, when my girlfriend tried to slip away, he went up to her and said, ‘Come back whenever you like, mademoiselle.’”
This is a very short book, so it’s possible — and perhaps advisable — to read it in one sitting. I did take a few quick breaks in between bouts, though, as much to clear my head as anything else. And these time-outs have an interesting effect: when you come back to the book, your instinctual expectations for a piece of writing to build toward a narrative are briefly reinstated, and the strangeness of its not doing so is reinforced. Oh right, you think, he’s still at it, still just stating a succession of facts about himself (“I do not judge a country by the quality of its TV […] I have nothing to say about cisterns. I find winks unsettling.”) As obviously avant garde as Levé’s approach to the autobiographical project is, it’s rigorously grounded in experience. He is presenting himself on the page without recourse to exploration or extrapolation, without the intercession of intellect or imagination. The aggregate effect of this is to portray the mystery of subjectivity — the strange impenetrability of the experience of personhood — in a more direct and unmediated way than a more conventional narrative memoir could ever achieve. In this sense Autoportait is a work of extreme and uncompromising realism; it refuses to grant any credence to what Levé once described in an interview as the “fiction of identity.” It’s a sort of post-humanist version of self-exploration, as though Montaigne, in attempting to answer his famous question “What do I know?,” had run it through an algorithm instead of writing his Essais. At the risk of being glib, Levé’s literary self-portrait stands in a similar kind of relation to Montaigne’s as the music of, say, Autechre does to that of Bach.
Autoportrait is at its most provocative when it hints at the more conventional work of “life writing” it might have been in the hands of a less formally wayward author. He gives us brief accounts of two incidents that must have had a profound impact on his development, and out of which many memoirists would spin entire books much longer than this one. Out of nowhere (everything is out of nowhere in this book) he tells us about what he used to get up to as a child while playing house with a female cousin:
There were variants, it could be doctor (formal inspection of genitals), or thug and bourgeoisie (mini rape scene). When we played thug and bourgeoisie, my cousin would walk past the swing set where I’d be sitting, outside our family’s house, I would call out to her in a menacing tone of voice, she wouldn’t answer but would act afraid, she would start to run away, I would catch her and drag her into the little pool house, I would bolt the door, I’d pull the curtains, she would try vaguely to get away, I would undress her and simulate the sexual act while she cried out in either horror or pleasure, I could never tell which it was supposed to be, I forget how it used to end.
That’s it– two profoundly shocking and revelatory sentences near the end of the book, and then we’re back to the stochastic sequence of announcements, of plain assertions of things that happen to be the case (“To ease my backache after I’ve been driving a long way, I lie down on a hard floor, arms crossed, legs slightly raised”). Some pages later, Levé tells us about the time he witnessed a 10-year-old boy being masturbated by a counselor on a school skiing trip. Because he doesn’t do elaboration, you have to go pottering around de hors-texte, in the Derridean nothing, to find that the Parisian Catholic school he attended, Collège Stanislas (alma mater of one Jacques Lacan), was at the centre of a national paedophile scandal while he was a student there. You won’t get this information from Levé, and you certainly won’t get his feelings on the matter, at least not in any straightforward way. What you do get, right after this powerful revelation, is the following: “When I read psychiatric manuals, I often find that I have one symptom of the illnesses they describe, sometimes more than one, sometimes every symptom. I do not write in order to give pleasure to those who read me, but I would not be displeased if that is what they felt.” (In the margin beside this last one, I facetiously jotted “Thanks, appreciate it”, imagining Levé nodding and muttering a dry “de rien” before proceeding briskly to his next assertion.)
This is an obsessive work, a text that seems to present itself as a machine for the generation of truth. One of its more striking aspects, though, is the way in which its apparent designs on the absolute — its gestures toward the idea of saying everything there is to be said with certainty about oneself — underscore its hopeless incompletion. The more Levé says, the more facts he sets down, the more you realize he hasn’t said. So alright, he finds silence on the phone embarrassing. And he has an easier time picking out American states on a map than African countries. And he shaves with an electric razor rather than a blade because of his sensitive skin. Fair enough, you think, all well and good. But does he use a Mac or a PC? Has he ever been in a fist fight? For whom, if anyone, did he vote in the French municipal elections in 2001? Does he brush his teeth in the shower to save time? (And would he have been inclined to agree, had he not committed suicide before it was published, that Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, which consists entirely of questions directed at the reader, might make an interesting companion piece to Autoportrait?)
What remains, after 112 pages of statements, is an unnerving bewilderment, a haunting sense of having been spoken to at length by an absence. We have had any number of facts revealed to us, but we are left with nothing in the way of truth; we know nothing much about the person who has told us so many things about himself. As Levé himself puts it in the sole sentence that takes the form of a question, “Everything I write is true, but so what?”
I don’t think this is intended as a rhetorical question, or a slow Gallic shrug. It’s the philosophical core of the project itself, the source of the book’s torrent of assertions, and the question that lingers after that torrent has ceased. If we take Levé at his word (and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t), every sentence in this book is true, but what does all this truth add up to? Like Suicide, the extraordinary book Levé completed just days before he took his own life in 2007 (and which I wrote about here last year), Autoportrait is an oblique and stylized attempt to address a void of meaning. It is what a self-portrait looks like when there is nothing like a self there to portray; it’s an autobiography written by the cold, dead hand of the post-Barthesian author. Levé’s obsessively inward gaze finally yields only the haunting outline of his own absence. But he captures that absence, and the gaze itself, with a chilling precision.
The 2012 Best Translated Book Award long list has been announced. Among the contenders in the fiction category are Edouard Levé for Suicide, reviewed on The Millions here; Mathias Énard’s Zone, which our own Garth Risk Hallberg described as “the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots“; and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth About Marie, which The Millions Staffer Mark O’ Connell called “a strange and unsettling novel that upholds its author’s status as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary fiction.” One of Chad Harbach’s year in reading selections, Dezso Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti, also made the list.
“There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind.”
– Colum McCann
Another Year in Reading is behind us, and I speak for all of us at The Millions when I sincerely thank everyone who wrote, shared, and read our articles. It’s a bit daunting to let strangers into our private reading worlds, but it’s also quite rewarding.
There is always the temptation to dive into a new book just after finishing another. There are, as Colum McCann says above, just “so many books” we’ve yet to read. However it’s also true that reflection can deepen appreciation: your reading timeline becomes contextualized, and its connections develop like a filmstrip in your mind. Our series, in the end, is all about such reflection.
We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves.
With 72 participants naming 214 books, it’s safe to say this has been our biggest and most high profile Year in Reading yet. Our participants included the current Poet Laureate, a longtime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the reigning winners of the IMPAC and Pulitzer Prizes, two authors of books named The New York Times’ 10 Best of 2011, a recent inductee to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and more Pushcart winners than I care to count.
A number of authors wrote their own Year in Reading articles as well as books chosen later on in the series. This honor roll consists of McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Orozco, David Vann, Siddhartha Deb, and Geoff Dyer.
Yet in spite of these credentials – impressive as they are – I thought it would be fun to note some statistics, and to award some further superlatives based upon the articles written for this series. (Note that all research is highly unscientific.)
By the numbers: of the 214 books named, 139 were fiction, 68 were nonfiction, 5 were poetry, and 2 were graphic novels. The average length of the books chosen was 338 pages, and the average publication year was 1994. The oldest book selected was Moby-Dick, the longest was Bleak House, and the shortest was Buckdancer’s Choice. If you’re a fan of our Post-40 Bloomers series, you’ll appreciate the fact that the average age of each book’s author, at the time their book was originally published, was 47.53 years old. Most of the books were from the United States and the UK, but many were from Ireland, Canada, France, the Russian Federation, Hungary, and Germany. Six of the seven continents were represented, and these books were published by presses ranging from the New York Review of Books to New Directions to Fantagraphics to Random House. (I won’t release the name of which house published the highest number of selections because I don’t want war to break out in New York City.)
Some favorites from the series, based on feedback from readers and links, comments, and other stats, included McCann on The Book of Disquiet, Jonathan Safran Foer on The Shallows, Ben Marcus on Nothing, Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration, and Egan on Butterfly’s Child.
Three books tied for the most popular selection this year: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (selected by Dan Kois, David Bezmozgis, and Adam Ross), Edouard Levé’s Suicide (selected by Scott Esposito, Mark O’Connell, and Dennis Cooper), and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (selected by Charles Baxter, Kevin Hartnett, and Garth Risk Hallberg). Seven more books tied for second-most popular: Phillip Connors’ Fire Season (selected by Chad Harbach and yours truly), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (selected by Harbach and Emily Keeler), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (selected by Brooke Hauser and A.N. Devers), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (selected by Hauser and Rosecrans Baldwin), Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (selected by Schaub and Chris Baio), Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (selected by Hauser and Rachel Syme) and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (selected by Scott and Garth).
Still I am compelled to award a couple of half-serious superlatives to close this thing out:
The “Gashlycrumb Tinies” Award for Saddest Selection of Books goes to Emma Straub for her tear-soaked article. “Mr. Consistent” is an Award I’d like to bestow upon Brad Listi, who exhausted the Sarah Palin canon only to then go on to exhaust the David Markson one. “Most Indecisive” belongs to Brooke Hauser and her 15 selections, while “Most Topical” goes to Michael Schaub because 90% of his list published in 2011. The Award for Coolest Byline undoubtedly goes to Duff McKagan, but the Award for Coolest Backstory (as well as my unending jealousy) goes to Benjamin Hale. Finally, the Award for Most Valuable Participant goes to you, dear reader, for allowing us to continue our series and for helping it grow with each passing January.
Until next year, happy reading.
The Millions staff
P.S. If you’re curious as to how we put the series together, please do check out Electric Literature’s interview with our founder, C. Max Magee. The series, the articles, and the site itself would not be possible without him.
What with the renaissance-like state of new American writing these days, not to mention the wealth of fresh and innovative independent and micro publishing houses, it’s even more incredibly difficult to pick ten best books of the year than it always is. To try to do so, I stuck to fiction and poetry, and I selected only one book per imprint. Blake Butler’s novel There Is No Year (Harper Perennial) not only thrilled me via its amazing mechanisms, but it was further evidence of how much his prose promises in general. Suicide (Dalkey Archive), the first novel to be translated into English by the late French writer Edouard Levé, was dazzling in its sublime combination of Oulipoian lightness and terrible sorrow. I also loved Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl (Emergency Press), in which she outdid her already impressive work. Like many others, I’ve been anticipating the publication of Laurie Weeks’ long in-process novel Zippermouth (Feminist Press) for almost a decade, and it fulfilled my every wish. Gary Lutz is one of my very favorite prose stylists, and his new story collection Divorcer (Calamari Press) might be his best ever. Another favorite author, Lynne Tillman, released the crazily good short fiction collection Someday This Will Be Funny (Red Lemonade) this year. A great discovery for me was Jeremy M. Davies’ gorgeous and complex novel Rose Alley (Counterpath Press), and I was very happy to see Patrick deWitt’s highly original and pleasurable western-themed novel The Sisters Brothers (Ecco) rewarded with deserving accolades and prizes. Finally, in poetry, the work of one of my all-time very favorite poets Tim Dlugos was collected in the crucial book A Fast Life (Nightboat Books), and the new poetry collection Click and Clone (Coffeehouse Press) by another longtime favorite, Elaine Equi, was her most exciting and illuminating to date.
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It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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Right now, the book that I read in 2011 that exists most powerfully in my mind is The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, of course, is best known as a poet, and this was the only novel he wrote. Perhaps that is why it functions like no novel I have ever read. The book consists of Brigge’s experiences of Paris (and they are obviously autobiographical to an extent, as Rilke visited Paris for the first time at about the same age as Brigge). In this series of self-contained journal entries, Rilke creates a portrait of something powerful and mysterious (something that would later come to inhabit the fiction of Kafka and Beckett), bound together by a poetic logic. I would like to some day take apart some of these sections just to figure out how they worked, but I think to do that I might have to destroy them, as sometimes happens with paintings when scientists peel them apart to see what is underneath the final layers of paint.
To continue with the literature/painting metaphor, I’ll also recommend The Prose of the World by the French critic and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This was his final book, and it remains uncompleted, and in it are expressed remarkable thoughts about the nature of language and its relationship to perception. I’m not too versed in the inter-relationships of French philosophers, but I can only guess that Merleau-Ponty in some way anticipated or instructed Roland Barthes, as there is much correspondence between the writing of both men.
My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space — back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble. The best description for the book — one that might also be suitable for Sebald — is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes.
As for a second book, I have to give pride of place to my friend Barrett Hathcock’s first novel, The Portable Son, just published by Aqueous Books. Obviously I’m biased (although I have been publishing Barrett for five years at The Quarterly Conversation, so it’s not like I’m a latecomer), so don’t take my word for it — take the word of Publishers Weekly, which gave the book a starred review and wrote, “Hathcock writes haunting, unforgettable stories.” Or you could take Michael Martone, who writes, “The Portable Son makes new the New South effortlessly, effervescently, and endlessly.” Or Diane Johnson: “Barrett Hathcock is a writer I know and think is one to watch. I look forward to the debut of his work.”
And just to toss a few final 2011 releases at you: Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, Suicide by Edouard Levé, Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt, and George Craig’s excellent pamphlet on translating Beckett, Writing Beckett’s Letters.
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It would be an interesting experiment to sit someone down in a chair and present them with a copy of Edouard Levé’s Suicide from which front and back covers, promotional blurb, author bio, translator’s afterword and other such paratextual trimmings had all been removed. Such a reader, blinkered against the novel’s context, might well find it a strange and unnerving and hypnotic read, but it would, in an important sense, be a very different experience to the one that awaits every other person who picks up Levé’s final work. Ten days after he submitted the manuscript of Suicide to his editor at the age of 42, the author killed himself. And this fact, which is presented to us on the back cover (and also, naturally enough, in everything that has since been written about the book), isn’t something we can choose not to take with us into the fiction. In an even more extreme way than David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (to take another recent example of a work of fiction published in the shadow of its author’s suicide), Suicide denies us any chance of separating text from context. Perhaps the most compelling thing about this deeply compelling novel is the distinct possibility that Levé himself wanted actively to foreclose any such possibility of separation. To write a book about a suicide, to call it Suicide, and to then take your own life before its publication is, whatever else it is, a way of exerting an overpowering influence over how that work is received.
During his life, Levé was best known in his native France as an artist and conceptual photographer. The reality of Suicide, which is his fourth prose work and his first to be translated into English, is that it functions almost as though it were one panel in a diptych, the second panel being Levé’s actual death. Reading the novel, the eye is continually drawn back to that second panel; it isn’t that the first makes no sense without it — it does, or at least it would if there were some way of viewing it separately — but rather that its presence utterly changes the way we see the first. The novel’s subject, only ever referred to as “you,” is the narrator’s childhood friend who committed suicide at the age of 25, and the narrator addresses this oddly totalizing pressure that suicide exerts on a life retrospectively considered. “Isn’t it peculiar,” he remarks, “how this final gesture inverts your biography? I’ve never heard a single person, since your death, tell your life’s story starting at the beginning.”
In certain respects, the book presents itself as an attempt by this narrator to work his way past the blank exterior of facts into his friend’s inner world, into the circumstances around his taking his own life. If it could somehow be cut free of the wider context that envelops it — if we could somehow erase or bracket the knowledge that its author was almost certainly planning his own suicide as he wrote it — the opening passage of the book would still make for deeply disquieting, even painful reading:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared.
It’s a shocker of an opening gambit, not just for the calamity it lays out before us, but also for the pitiless and affectless clarity of the style in which it does so. There then swiftly follows a passage that is close to unbearable in its intimacy, in the access it allows us to both a scene of imagined grief and the imminent real grief it eerily foreshadows. “Your wife screams,” Levé writes. “No one is there to hear her, aside from you. The two of you are alone in the house. In tears, she throws herself on you and beats your chest out of love and rage. She takes you in her arms and speaks to you. She sobs and falls against you. Her hands slide over the cold, damp basement floor. He fingers scrape the ground. She stays for fifteen minutes and feels your body go cold.” I don’t know whether Levé left behind a wife, and I think I would prefer to continue not knowing.
This is fiction, but it is fiction of a sort that raises some very serious questions about the possibility of cordoning off actual realities from imagined ones. Another way of putting this would be to say that you can’t help wondering what it must have been like — what it must have taken — for Levé to write these sentences knowing that his own cold body would soon be left behind for someone to find, and that this opening scene would be read by people aware that he was aware of this. It is dizzying and disturbing in a way that is quite unlike anything else I have ever read, and it hardly needs pointing out that this is not necessarily a good thing. We know that Levé was deeply influenced by Georges Perec, and I think it shows in strange ways; it is almost as though this book were written in response to a particularly unplayful version of an OULIPO imperative: “Write a fictional work about a suicide called Suicide and, upon completing it, commit suicide yourself.”
After effecting this initial devastation on his subject, this anonymous “you,” Levé then sets about a faltering process of reconstruction. The portrait is radically unchronological, the narrative less fractured than pulverized. The narrator alights on one memory of “you,” briefly expands upon it, and then moves on to another, usually unconnected to the last (and then another, and then another). At one point, he offers a fleeting defense of this fugitive approach: “To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” To the extent that a portrait does emerge, it is a hauntingly incomplete one, providing only isolated coordinates along the trajectory of a life toward its own end. Levé’s style — controlled and yet erratic, arbitrary and yet precise — seems to reflect art’s confrontation of the randomness and fragility of memory and the self’s nebulousness as it is experienced.
What becomes apparent as this fragmentary portrait gradually takes shape is that it may be a kind of estranged and dislocated self-portrait, that the “you” may really be a displaced “I,” or perhaps a complex compoud of self and other. Certainly, the narrator couldn’t possibly know much of what he tells us about “you.” The phenomena of dissociation are central, in fact, to many of the experiences Levé relates. At one point, “you” is put on a disastrous course of medication for his depression, which results in uncanny and distressing intervals of complete self-alienation: “You tapped your fingers on your head; it sounded hollow like a dead man’s skull. Suddenly, you no longer had a brain. Or rather, it was another person’s brain. You sat like this for two hours, asking yourself if you were yourself […] You recognized your physiognomy, but it seemed to belong to someone else. Fatigue disassociated you from yourself.” To externalize and scrutinize oneself in this manner — to act out a kind of performative self-displacement, even self-erasure — is to engage in a very particular form of narcissism. And Suicide is a highly narcissistic piece of writing; in a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise, in the way that a suicide note — and a suicide itself — is unavoidably self-focused.
This is not to suggest that “you” is a straightforward surrogate for the author, or that the book itself should be read as a suicide note; if Edouard Levé had wanted to write a prose self-portrait, he would have done so — and did in fact previously do so, giving it the typically utilitarian title Autoportrait. (It was originally published in 2005 and is due in translation from Dalkey Archive in March of next year). There is nothing so simple going on here as self-expression. The jacket copy insists that Suicide “cannot be read as simply another novel” — which is, I think, accurate enough — but it then also describes it as “in a sense, the author’s own oblique, public suicide note, ” which is a considerably bolder and riskier claim. It can certainly be read that way, and, as I’ve been saying, it’s often nearly impossible to avoid doing so, but whether that’s what it actually is is another question entirely. Levé’s intentions are weirdly obscure, even for a work of experimental fiction (which this book more or less is); there is a constant temptation when reading to stop and ask yourself why he wrote this thing when he wrote it. But it seems to me that this isn’t just a futile question, it’s also the wrong sort of question (why does anyone write anything, after all? What, while we’re at it, is the purpose of art?). And it’s connected to another, perhaps even more futile pursuit: the pursuit of the meaning of a suicide. When “you” is found dead by his wife at the very beginning of the novel, a possible explanation for his suicide is alluded to, but it is a lost explanation, an aborted approach to meaning. “On the table,” we are told, “you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.” The deceased’s father later buys dozens of copies of this comic book and distributes it to everyone who knew “you” in the hope that someone, somehow, might be able to extract some meaning from this text, which — like Levé’s novel itself — is at once provocatively overcharged with significance and endlessly obscure:
He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
This is both profoundly sad and bleakly playful, as though Levé were at once acknowledging the essential inscrutability of a person’s decision to end his or her life and shrewdly alluding to the way in which his novel, which he must have intended to be published posthumously, would be picked apart and ruthlessly scrutinized for potential explanations of what he was about to do. It’s almost funny, in fact — but only almost.
And that is, in a way, the most disquieting thing about Suicide — how artful and calculating it is, how it is never quite as sincere as you would want the writing of a person about to kill himself to be. It seems almost indecent to point out that Levé’s prose is occasionally affected, even contrived; it feels somehow wrong to point out that a sentence like, for instance, “your suicide was scandalously beautiful” is in fact scandalously crass. It feels wrong in the way that it would feel wrong to point out stylistic infelicities in a suicide note. But this is not a suicide note; this is a work of art, and — despite its occasional tonal flirtations with grandiloquence — it is a controlled and pitilessly uncompromising one, too. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the novel, a passage in which the narrator inquires into what has become of “your” widow, is also perhaps its most cruelly clinical:
What became of her? Has she resigned herself to your death? Does she think of you when she makes love? Did she remarry? In killing yourself, did you also kill her? Did she name a son in your memory? If she has a daughter, does she speak to her of you? What does she do on your birthday? And on the anniversary of your death? Does she put flowers on your grave? Where are the photographs she took of you? Did she keep your clothes? Do they still smell of you? Does she wear your cologne?
To devise such a series of questions about a bereaved wife in a work of fiction is to combine empathy with something suspiciously close to cruelty, but to ask these questions while planning to take your own life is something else again. To be absolutely truthful, I don’t know what it is; and I’m not sure, either, that I would want to know.