Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor. They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed. They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife.
The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this. Don’t get me wrong. These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me. Chances are that you’re already familiar with these fine titles. As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don’t really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes.
But who needs such unpleasantness! 2010 was a great year in books! This was a hard list to assemble! There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide!
The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic.
Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years. It isn’t often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container. In addition to the book’s telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer. Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco. The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield. He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did. Just because he had a Jewish surname.” Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets. Perhaps because it’s too readable to be true.
Toby Ball, The Vaults – “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.” That’s probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that’s going to infuriate the Millions readership. The time has come to loosen up. From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn’t we know the origin point of the post? Why shouldn’t we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations? These may seem flippant questions. But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s.
Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black’s marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.” In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”’s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals. Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety. But these stories don’t just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance.
Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep. Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you’ll find a perverse passage (“She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn’t been arrested for outright neglect. (What “things” did this mother try? And why is her partner so complicit?) Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don’t have the stones to publish such material anymore. Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap.
Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded. Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox’s fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence. Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky. I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn’t fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish. The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon. Imagine that you’re a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification. Now imagine that you’re given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life. Brox’s book is loaded with such examples. And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849.
Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin’s debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don’t know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!) that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed. Like the Amend and Bomer books, it’s very much the kind of book you don’t see published by a major house anymore. No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers. See a trend? Anyway, this book’s about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary. It’s funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting. It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly). Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man.
James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it. Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes’s backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space. I don’t say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal. He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others. But you won’t see him in The New Yorker anytime soon. And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well. Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job. The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective.
Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on. Does it come from fatherhood? Some larger sense of responsibility? The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing? Manhood’s certainly part of the game, but the chessboard’s much larger. And Huston only gets better.
Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in. One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason. (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust? Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony? Just a few wild stabs in the dark.) Such foolish snaps don’t even begin to approximate what Orringer’s magnificent debut novel does. Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity…without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.” This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered. It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance. It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times.
Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi’s excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year. But Gary Rivlin’s understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look. The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum. There’s Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check ‘n’ Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union. And then there’s the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation. Like Howard Karger’s Shortchanged and John Lanchester’s IOU, Rivlin’s book is vital in understanding some of this nation’s most underreported issues.
Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.” There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We’re told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.” Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed. Sometimes not. There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.” These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe’s extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O’Brien’s madcap spirit.
Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas’s subtle efforts to examine the relationship between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y. For this masterful novel — defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas’s previous pageturners — is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner. By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James’s Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles.
Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that Westlake was far more than a mystery master. The book’s taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville’s trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end). Which isn’t to take away from Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Westlake’s wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise. Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating.
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New this week: Paul Auster’s latest, Sunset Park; a new collection of short stories from Stephen King called Full Dark, No Stars; The Memory Hole, a memoir by the historian Tony Judt who recently died from ALS (the essays collected here appeared in recent months in the New York Review of Books); and the latest obligatory obfuscatory presidential memoir Decision Points.
It’s always difficult to play the sheepish part of the converted hater.
The novels of Paul Auster blend into one another. The same tropes emerge time and again, and after a few reads, the inevitable attitude becomes, “Okay, pal, I get it, I get it.” Every time there’s a new Auster novel out, I think it may be different, and I give him a chance, and soon find I’m back in the usual territory: identity puzzles, murky timelines, ominous danger. And I’ve given the guy so many chances.
The New York Trilogy was taut and thrilling, and seems to be Auster’s most lauded work to date, but the novellas are so terse in language that I often felt frustrated, wanting more. Granted, this is coming from a reader who champions maximalists like Wallace and Vollmann, but I’ve also liked the spare prose of writers like Coetzee. There’s just something missing for me in the Trilogy, a sort of isolative quality.
I gave it another shot with The Brooklyn Follies, and enjoyed myself more. Of course, it isn’t by any means a perfect book (Walter Kirn, he of Up in the Air fame, called it an “amateurish novel”). I found elements in it that I’d later come to recognize as the tired techniques to which Auster returns in nearly every outing. The narrator is old and busted, and begins the story by telling us, morosely, that he moved to Brooklyn to die. His name is Nathan Glass (get it, glass? Auster can’t refrain from name-dropping his own book, City of Glass, from The New York Trilogy). Glass is compiling anecdotes to write a book about human foolishness. Another predictable subplot involves an illegal caper that fails due to betrayal and greed. All that being said, the book is easy to get through—breezy and kind of pleasant. The second protagonist, Glass’ nephew Tom, is bumbling and likeable, easy to root for. I felt happy after finishing it—not bowled over, but amused.
Timbuktu, my third Auster choice, shattered my good graces. The book is silly, even childish. He pulls off the dog-as-narrator feat, sure, but the thing is so short and flat it feels completely unnecessary. “Mr. Bones,” really? And his friend is a homeless guy named Willy G. Christmas? Oy. I couldn’t even feel charmed by what I can only imagine is an animal hero that Auster lovers adore. Instead, I was bored and annoyed. Sections are introduced with hokey phrases like, “Thus began an exemplary friendship between man and boy.” Characters speak like they’re on an episode of Leave it to Beaver. “We’ve just got to keep him, Mama,” a girl begs her mother when Mr. Bones shows up at their door. Sure, Auster is mocking such spoiled American Dream families, but overall, it more often feels like he is trading in clichés, rather than sending them up.
It got worse from there. The book that would kill my interest for good (I thought) was Travels in the Scriptorium. It begins with an unnamed man, in an unnamed location, confused about—shocker, here—his identity (cue up Tony Soprano in his coma: “Who am I? Where am I going?”). Finally we get a name: Mr. Blank. The room is filled with post-its on objects: LAMP. DESK. It’s like a game of Clue. Did Mr. Blank kill his cousin, Mr. Doppelganger, in the ROOM with a RUSTY KNIFE? I finished the book in a few hours’ time and felt cheated. Paul Auster had become, for me, the literary equivalent of Weezer—an artist I respected and had once loved, but could no longer continue supporting and feel good about myself.
That was where I stood when he came out with Invisible. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t accidentally attended a reading of his in Manhattan just days after the book’s release. I had gone there with the roundabout purpose of meeting Rick Moody, who would be introducing him (you can read my full “report” on the experience here), but in so doing I had to stay for the reading.
Auster strolled out confidently and launched into a vivid, unapologetic scene of incest between a biological brother and sister. He stepped on stage and belted it out, reading quickly and almost angrily. It was in second person narration so it felt, creepily, like he was telling you about the time you had sex with your sister. And boy, it was graphic. “As your sister gently put her hand around your rejuvenated penis (sublime transport, inexpressible joy), you forged on with your anatomy lesson,” he read. “When Gwyn came for the first time (rubbing her clitoris with the middle finger of her left hand), the sound of air surging in and out of her nostrils…” Oh my God.
He didn’t even make some self-deprecating joke after finishing, the way you’d expect an author to do (something to lighten the mood, perhaps, like “Well, hope that wasn’t too awkward!”). Instead, he shut the book dramatically and walked off the stage.
Such a move was fitting of the work. Invisible is not funny. And sure, Auster isn’t especially known to be a funny writer, but there is a fair wealth of light humor in Brooklyn Follies (albeit not always adult humor—a page-long fart joke comes to mind). Invisible has no interest in that territory; it’s a very serious story.
It is also a terrific read. It’s different from his others—or at least, it’s a better presentation of those same tricks. Clancy Martin, in his Times review of the book, nails it: “As soon as you finish… you want to read it again.”
Our protagonist is Adam Walker, who is likable in a very ordinary, easy way. He’s a student at Columbia, works in the school library (Auster calls it the “Castle of Yawns”), nurses a wound from an old family tragedy—a typical character. Where the book shines is in its narrative structure. It’s divided into four different sections, with three different narrators. The passing of time is gorgeously handled. The first section, told in the first-person, provides the bulk of the narrative at Columbia in 1967 and covers Adam’s friendship and conflict with Rudolph Born, the story’s cartoonish villain.
In the second section, which begins in 2007, an old friend of Adam’s (an author and clear Auster stand-in) receives a manuscript, which provides the content of the section—it’s Adam’s patchy attempt at a memoir, and it tells the story of Adam’s history with his sister, before he ever met Born. It’s written entirely in the second person.
In the third section, the friend, James, has received the second half of Adam’s manuscript, which now brings us back to 1967 and describes Adam’s time in Paris, in traditional third person narration. During this section Adam spends most of his time with two women. Neither is as important as the book’s central female figure, his sister Gwyn, but one of the two, Celine, is the young daughter of a woman Born is set to marry. Adam befriends the girl, but they have a falling out and he leaves Paris.
In the final section, we are back in the present of 2007, with James as he tracks down Gwyn and then Celine. The section ends, of all things, with a series of entries from Celine’s journal, describing a spontaneous, strange trip she took as a grown woman to visit Born, her would-be father-in-law. She flies to see Born at his remote, Moreau-like island home, and, as they say, hilarity ensues. By hilarity, I mean the Auster variety: surprising dramatic tension that can be darkly funny, but is really quite serious and usually not funny at all.
The different narrators provide fresh voices and insights, and the shifting narrative style (first, second, and third person are all used) keeps us intrigued. Yet the tone of each section is never so radical as to feel jarring.
Everything flows and fits nicely to create a reading experience that is exciting, but also simple. This ain’t Melville, but obviously it isn’t Stieg Larsson, either. Even though Auster has churned out some duds, he has the ability to write simply and intelligently, and he really knows how to move a plot along. He might be the least technically challenging writer of those revered by the high literary establishment, but nonetheless, he has always been perceived as part of it.
Invisible has its flaws. It has its fair share of Austerian (can I coin that phrase right here and now?) language—overt, tactless, groan-inducing. After Adam first meets Rudolph Born at a party, he is hesitant to get to know him more, and reflects to himself, “There is much to be explored in this hesitation, I believe, for it seems to suggest that I already understood… that allowing myself to get involved with him could possibly lead to trouble.” Oh, gee, okay. I suppose if this were a fifth-grade exercise the teacher would circle that and use it to define foreshadowing.
Above all else, the “bad guy” at the center of its plot, Born, is something of a joke. He spouts off cheesy idioms like a movie character (“your ass will be so cooked,” he threatens at one point, and at another, warns, “not a word, young Walker, not a word”). Recently, a nice piece on The Millions that discussed the influence of Shakespeare’s Iago on modern fiction did not mention Born, which seemed to me a surprising omission at first. But in fact, it’s only natural that Born wouldn’t come to mind in a discussion that includes characters like Barbara from Notes on a Scandal or American Psycho’s Pat Bateman. Rudolph Born just isn’t the cool, calculating emotional menace that other great villains have been.
But poor dialogue and a one-dimensional “bad guy” do nothing to ruin the novel. No one reads Auster to find beautiful prose, and Born’s role as a thorn in Adam’s side, though a bit contrived, is necessary. The book’s final scene castrates his power, anyway.
Born isn’t even the biggest obstacle to Adam’s happiness. That title belongs to Gwyn. It is their volatile sibling relationship that makes Invisible a compelling story, and leaves its troubling questions still lingering after you’ve put the book down.
Auster’s next novel, already up on Amazon for all to see, is called Sunset Park; it’s another New York story. According to a Booklist plot synopsis: “four flat-broke twentysomething searchers end up squatting in a funky abandoned house in Sunset Park.” Characters include such stock types as a guitarist, a struggling artist, and a grad student, as well as a fugitive “poisoned by guilt over his stepbrother’s death.” Another character plagued by a tragic event in his past? Uh-oh.
This one could go either way; it may be standard genre fare, or perhaps it’s something new and exciting. After Invisible, I’m at least willing to give it a shot. I guess I’m back on the Paul Auster bandwagon, for now.