Our current condition of ambient despair gets an excellent portraiture in Evelyn Hampton’s The Aleatory Abyss. It’s an obscure book about being obscure—or at least it is a book about occupying forgotten interstitial spaces and about being of and among technological detritus. In Hampton’s world we live our lives not in streets, schools, libraries, parks, or other public commons but online and in Barnes & Nobles, Starbucks, malls, parking lots, and other privatized spaces; that is, Hampton shows us a familiar world. Personhood and agency here in the Anthropocene are moribund concepts, if not already vestigial, and great creatures called multinationals and state actors roam the terrain while we endure like plankton or parasites below and beside their decisions. This short book also pays homage to and is haunted by Hampton’s friend, the activist and writer Mark Baumer, who died in the middle of a mythic project that found him walking barefoot across America. Both artists are turned helplessly into elegists. Baumer’s work was part durational performance piece, part environmental fundraiser, part quixotic publicity stunt, and part personal protest. He kept record of his walk through a series of videos and blog posts, many of them heartbreakingly prescient, especially his final video, posted the day after the Trump inauguration, the day he died when struck by an SUV. Hampton’s work transmutes Baumer’s extroverted dissent, his syncopated poetic voice, and his manic video edits into its twinned flip: an equally clear-eyed but introverted analysis, a quieter but no less fierce objection. The Aleatory Abyss is a beautiful work, and profits from sales will go to the charity Mark Baumer was walking for: the FANG collective.
Until recently I hadn’t heard of Brian Castro or of his 2003 layered labyrinth of a novel called Shanghai Dancing. This, despite his checking off some primary boxes of personal interest: an English-language experimental novelist of Asian descent—a winner of nearly every major Australian literary prize, Castro was born in Hong Kong to a Portuguese father and an English-Chinese mother—whose erudition and interweavings of history, identity, and literature have garnered favorable, though perhaps misleading, comparisons to W.G. Sebald. Though their interest in history’s palimpsest is similar, Castro is boozier, more lush and improvisational, and much more of a sensualist than Sebald. He is free and risking, but usually his literary daredevilism mesmerizes with grace. This large, brilliant, messy book suffers from a cliched status of criminal critical neglect, or, as a writer put it on this site, Shanghai Dancing is “the best contemporary book in English that most Americans have never heard of.” But rather than make its neglect the takeaway, let’s celebrate the fact that the excellent Kaya Press has brought another of Castro’s novels, The Garden Book, to stateside readers.
The personal is ever political in Bae Suah’s A Greater Music. Similar in content to Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate, if wholly different in style, Bae’s novel concerns love affairs across class and cultural lines. Described by the author in an interview as “a story of an unequal love,” a Korean woman recalls two affairs in Berlin during a time when she was struggling to learn German: one with the unrefined and practical Joachim and another with the hyper-educated “M.” The original title literally translates to The Essayist’s Desk, which the author says she chose because she wanted “a slightly freer form, one that would give me greater distance from the melodramatic excitement that fiction can generate.” And almost as if the people were mere means to learn German—though by the end of the book we realize how inseparable the two are—a great deal of the book’s focus slips away from the relationships and lingers on the internal convolutions of identity and self-alienating processes required when learning a foreign language. One of my favorite, perhaps unintentional, enjoyments was a long description of the narrator encountering a novel that she thinks notably avoids the cliches of “East German melancholy,” which made me think of the already overplayed American critical use of “Korean Han,” of which nonetheless Bae’s writing could be thought of as invoking.
It’s best to experience Anne Garréta’s Sphinx with no prior knowledge about it other than to know it is pretty good. Maybe that it’s sinister and transcends clever but probably even that’s too much. Sometimes it muddled in my brain with James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room—not entirely sure why, but maybe the pairs of star-crossed Parisians. Not knowing anything about it also includes not reading Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent introduction (which itself advises the same) and also avoiding the copy on the back cover.
In the age of ubiquitous and inescapable End User License Agreements (the ones where you have clicked “I accept”), we are all now collaborators—in both the crowdsource sense and the Vichy-esque one. Barbara Browning’s The Gift shows our interactive lives can and do allow enormous and strange forms of intimacy. It’s a smart and joyful autofictional game of a novel that suggests we shouldn’t underestimate the level of sensuality and vulnerability in even our more transactional or semi-anonymous contacts. Her novel begins with a loving reply to a spammer and goes on to include many different kinds of, as Browning calls them, inappropriate intimacies—from downtown performance art to Occupy’s Free University to dinner parties with members of Pussy Riot. Of these, the most central to the novel is with “Sami,” a musical virtuoso amputee living in Cologne, or so he claims to be in his and the narrator’s increasingly involved correspondence. Browning writes in one of the novel’s many confessions: “Actually, the book I’m beginning now is about collaboration, and the eros inherent in the collaborative process, which is also the process of writing the novel.” Her style is both gossipy and academic, utopian yet present, flirtatious yet steely, classically observed but zany in closing aphorism. If Rachel Cusk’s and Ben Lerner’s seem to be made in a humorless or self-aggrandizing black and white, Browning’s autofiction is a highwire gamble of vulnerability, true lies, and eager friendliness wrought in popping, saturated technicolor.
A historical survey, even one as well researched and balanced and clearly written as Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America, wouldn’t normally have commanded my attention with such emotion, but the country has renewed its racist vows, and so certain episodes in our national past now glow in the different light. Some, in fact, seem worse than unfortunate parallels with the contemporary—they’ve become taunts of impending/begun cataclysm. As others have noted, periods like the era of Asian exclusion acts and the years of Japanese American internment suddenly appear, rather than moments of national shame, now more like precedents, if not how-to’s. (One story I discovered in Lee’s overview, eye opening in its relevance, was the story of Canada’s Continuous Journey Law and the resulting epic of the Komagata Maru. The racist 1908 law was challenged in the courts and overturned by a surprise decision from an activist judge only to be eventually upheld, effectively banning South Asians from entering Canada. That is, the obviously illegal ban was defeated in the courts before a surge of stoked racism and a dearth of political courage allowed it to become law.) A Woody Allen joke packs a lot of terror in its casual delivery: “Don’t you even care about the Holocaust, or do you think it never happened?” one character asks another. The riposte: “Not only do I know that we lost 6 million, but the scary thing is that records are made to be broken.” That joke seems more truthful than the George Santayana observation about the unremembering ignorant being condemned to repeat history. Perhaps ignorance has little to do with it.
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Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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