As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books. “Have you read it?” she asks. “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.” It’s on the nightstand. That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority. Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next. Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical — an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read.
That is, until recently.
You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed. The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books — on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes — haven’t. I wanted a nightstand.
And so, an end table was repurposed. Finally, I have an actual nightstand.
What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract. Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand? In what order will they be stacked?
Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide?
A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified.
“Are the students asking for this?” Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: “Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates? We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want.”
Off-line conversations ensued. Professor H came back with an idea:
“[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next…What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.”
To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore. Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.
As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute. Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature. School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.
And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms. An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished. By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these. You. At this moment in time.
What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs. We are chasing something more profound than flies. Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels…important.
Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is — my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next:
A. The 25-Page Test
Standard trial run. I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while. I pick it up and start reading. Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)? Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down? Or — have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking).
B. The Three-Book Shell Game
Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse. I lay them out side-by-side. I stare at them. Which one should get the trial run first? I stare some more. I pick up each one, feel it in my hands — heft, cover material. I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason. I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate.
C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice
As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction. Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins). When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay. Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks? Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate? Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride?
D. Bookshelf Staring
I’ve just finished a book, and I’m on a reading roll. I stand in front of my bookshelves. Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else. I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization. Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing — handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind. At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section. But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section. The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too. I want more of that buzzing, but differently. The last book did X so well, so interestingly. I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z.
I step back, lean in, repeat. I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate.
E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre
This is the most exhilarating — like falling love. The last book did X. I want more and more and more of X. I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas. Maybe I haven’t identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out. More, more, more. Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game.
I do keep wishlists, haphazardly. Or, I used to. When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read. Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring. With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available — the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test.
(As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists. It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet. And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself: Vasily Aksyonov? Dorothy Day? Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them. What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm…)
G. The “Should” Lists
I really should read Thackeray. I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch. Well, maybe. I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out. It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it. So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party? Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it. There are better and worse reasons for force-reading.
If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books. I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E). In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse).
H. Recommendations from Friends
This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories. It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste. That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine. It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives. (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation — as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”).
My shameless plug. When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table. Little did we know how many important writers — important to us personally — we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black. And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam — Item E bigtime).
J. The Dessert Selection
Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure. Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep. As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale. Endorphins or something? But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk. Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies.
So, go throw darts at your bookshelves. Read 10 pages aloud. Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want. If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand.
Photo courtesy of the author.
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
I arrived in New York in 1979, without a literary blueprint. I was a Southern boy, from rural Middle Tennessee (okay, by way of Princeton, I admit). My favorite writers at that time were Dostoevsky and Harry Crews. I didn’t know that a contemporary urban fiction existed. I saw New York at first through my own eyes. It was like Columbus “discovering” America: New York City was a wealth of material, ripe to be exploited, and as far as I knew, nobody else ever had.
Unemployed and impecunious, I spent a lot of time sitting around Washington Square Park, observing people and events which became fodder for my first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. My agent, devotedly but quixotically, was determined to get an excerpt into the New Yorker, although, as one of my friends explained, the New Yorker publishes stories about people who live around the edges of Washington Square. To wit, Henry James, whose Washington Square is one of his least difficult works; here James is still operating in the nineteenth century and still writes like Trollope, though with a keener, doubled edge. Aside from the very Jamesian story line, there was something exhilarating in reading about Manhattan still mostly empty, but for wildlife and domestic cattle: “the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.”
A hundred years later when I showed up, Bernard Goetz was shopping for electronics parts on “the grassy waysides of Canal Street,” Manhattan was full up to the neck (not counting the wide swaths of real estate vacated by insurance arson), and dangerous in a way Henry James could not have imagined in the 1880s, when Second Avenue was still the frontier. Threat was the pulse of the whole city; some neighborhoods were safer than others, but nowhere was altogether safe, and I was young and testosterone-poisoned enough in those days to find the situation more exciting than not. They say fiction requires conflict; well, when New York was a war of all against all, you had all the conflict you could handle any time you put your feet on the street.
I was going to write street life, not that that was the only possibility. I wasn’t so interested in “uptown” writers, heirs to James like Louis Auchincloss (admirable as his opus is, and I have since enjoyed it). Thomas Caplan would prove, in Parallelogram, that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book, but that was later, and anyway I was specifically not looking for New York writer influences; I wanted to preserve my illusion that the thing would not be done until I did it.
In 1979, I moved over the bridge to the Williamsburg waterfront, a good 25 years before gentrification. The pedestrian walkway had not been caged in, and anyone foolhardy enough to go up there had it entirely to himself, with its astonishing vistas of Manhattan. I worked those views into so many books a friend told me, “that bridge is your white whale.” In my bed (a foam mat on the floor, that was) I had Cormac McCarthy’s early novel Suttree, set not in New York but in Knoxville, and yet it was the most rich and vivid urban novel I had ever read (over and over for over a year). I cannibalized its style and attitude for my own second novel of the New York understrata, Waiting for the End of the World.
By then I felt like I had got out from under the anxiety of influence problem and was secure enough in my own writing that I could afford to look around and see what other people were doing and had done. The vogue at the time was for super-skinny minimalist fiction, heavily influenced by what was later discovered to be a full-on collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. I tried to care about Carver but couldn’t, just as I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon, and somehow I wanted to read something with more depth and dimension, with red meat on the bone.
Then, Shazam, there was Mary Gaitskill and her first collection Bad Behavior. These stories were everything the other stuff wasn’t; a mirror of life (for people like me even) in New York in the eighties that captured and reflected everything, with a marvelous, sculptural realism, down to the gum wrapper stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. Gaitskill is a writer to stay with; her masterpiece novel Veronica is much more deeply internalized than those early stories, and still it gives you glimpses of New York City you won’t find anywhere else.
But who was doing the real nitty-gritty? I was beginning to wonder. Hugh Selby for one. Just last week I took Last Exit to Brooklyn on a ride to Fort Greene; the book’s as startling and horrifying as I remembered it, and the writing more sophisticated and just plain better than I remembered it, though at the end of the day the Freudian mechanism driving all that sheer brutality strikes me as a little too much… I like better a couple of other books from the boroughs: Bloodbrothers by the pre-Clockers Richard Price, a novel mostly set in the Bronx, but including some dizzying tours of the Manhattan I was exploring around the same time. This novel reaches the same scary heights of violence as Selby’s, but Price really loves his characters, and his story evokes a sympathetic compassion for them, in the place of Selby’s disgust.
Down in Brooklyn, I discovered Jay Neugeboren in the Williamsburg branch of the Public Library, a curious oasis in what was then a very broad desert of urban blight — and a good shelf’s worth too, Neugeboren being perceived as a local boy. From these books, and especially Sam’s Legacy, I began to learn what kind of civilization had once existed in territory which now looked to me like something out of Mad Max. Sam’s Legacy gives you the old Brooklyn neighborhoods as they begin to crumble, and also this extraordinary lagniappe: an embedded novel with a completely different voice, called My Life and Death in the Negro Baseball League: A Slave Narrative.
Robert Stone, a New Yorker born and bred, writes about New York very obliquely (as he wrote about the Vietnam War so elliptically in the classic Dog Soldiers). One doesn’t necessarily think of his solo-sailing extravaganza, Outerbridge Reach, as a New York City novel, and yet the city is vividly present in more than half of the scenes, in most of its variations and many of its different social strata — from the toniest suburbs to the price of a parking place in Manhattan. The book probes the city, embraces it, and surrounds it all at the same time; one of the most memorable bits involves a microcosmic circumnavigation, when the hero Browne sails his catamaran down the Arthur Kill by night, exploring one of the city’s cloaca:
…the hulks lay scattered in a geometry of shadows. The busy sheer and curve of their shapes and the perfect stillness of the water made them appear held fast in some phantom disaster. Across the Kill, bulbous storage tanks, generators and floodlit power lines stretched to the end of darkness.
The richness of this place, and its myriad stories! In the end, one can’t just take them from the city on the cheap. Outerbridge Reach contains another home truth for all writers (though Stone slips it into a filmmaker’s offhand remark). “She told me her stories,” Strickland said. “I had to trade for them with mine.”
Image source: NYC – First Ave & 83, 1983
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, is a descent into a netherworld of convicted sex offenders, banished to the outer edges of a seedy Florida city called Calusa, beside the primordial “Great Panzacola Swamp.” It’s a novel of the ruin and possible renewal of the Garden of Eden, where “maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit.” It’s a novel about the interpenetration of real and digital skin, and of self-hatred and self-gratification, in their basest and most exalted forms. Banks here is an old American master taking on a new world run not by the gossip and slander of small towns, as in many of his earlier works, but by Facebook and YouTube, Pay-per-View and the bottomless archive of online porn, coursing through communities of individuals who are at once infinitely connected, lost in some huge shared dreamscape, and, at the same time, fundamentally incapable of confronting the reality of other people. As such, Lost Memory of Skin is a pretty harrowing look at loneliness in America today, following the long path away from being “a mere loner” toward being “someone desperately lonely.” The novel leaves us with the hope that, beyond this point, reality might finally begin, even as we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century.
Like most of Banks’ work, Lost Memory is about the inner turmoil of American men. It combines elements of social realism with an intense inquisition into its characters’ collapsing and regenerating inner lives. In many ways, it’s classic Russell Banks, but it’s more than the shift in setting from frozen north to sultry south, and from hushed small town to roiling big city, that sets it apart from Banks classics like Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and makes it a book that demands to be read, substantially enriching the already-overflowing Banks canon.
Just as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the main character here is a young man known only as “The Kid,” a lost soul that, at the beginning, prefers the apathetic ease of being lost to the hard responsibility of being “found.” He prefers to remain a Kid, despite the fact that he is drifting into his twenties, which helps explain why he never quite accepts the guilt for the crime he was convicted of, as if he and the fourteen-year-old girl he attempted to have sex with were internally the same age, even though externally, in the eyes of society, they very much are not.
Furthermore, like McCarthy’s Suttree, Lost Memory takes place on the bottom rungs of an unglamorous American city, down by the water where trash and sewage pile up and ooze away. Here, the sex offenders live like animals under a causeway because they are forbidden from residing within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might congregate. Also like McCarthy, Banks uses italicized text rather than quotation marks to set off his dialogue, giving the narrative a feverish, melting quality, as if the descriptive prose and the dialogue were all of the same essence. What his characters think and try to conceal, and what they say about themselves versus what others say about them – none of these are separable into an ordered, permanent record. On these pages, lies can take root anywhere and dissembling is the rule rather than the exception.
Although Banks’ world is less sweepingly Shakespearean than McCarthy’s, adopting instead a shaky conversational tone built from scraps of Facebook postings and chat room dialogue, his work, like McCarthy’s, is marked by its insight into American manhood, and its aspirations to permanence beyond time and place. Unlike McCarthy, however, and unlike Banks’ previous novels, Lost Memory of Skin is about sexual criminals rather than violent ones, and so the ways in which it thematizes manhood are different. It’s about men locked in cycles of desperate make believe, men who can only “picture having sex with… people who couldn’t reject them. Like dead people. Or little kids.”
Earlier Banks novels tend to be about the ways in which men commit and get away with acts of violence, in a society that tacitly tolerates them. The sex crimes in Lost Memory are likewise products of American society, but now the tacit tolerance has been replaced with vindictive hysteria. There is a commonly held belief, I think, that violence is not something we all do, and thus, paradoxically, something we can do, when we must, because it’s already contained in its own separate category. Our understanding of sex, on the other hand, because it is such a common part of commercial and private life, cannot tolerate any such deviance. Thus, society produces sex offenders – nurturing the requisite starving loneliness, and then offering the entire pornographic and predatory infrastructure of the Internet to satiate it – while at the same time exercising extremely punitive power over them. The power of Banks’ premise comes from the volatile nature of this paradox.
As Banks construes it, society’s decision to banish sex offenders into its most unseen corners is yet another form of self-deception, a vast cultural unwillingness to engage with other people, as vast as the Kid’s unwillingness to find a mature, reciprocating partner. Thus, the colony under the causeway is a hiding place for what society does not want to see: it’s a deep, police-enforced lie.
More than a study of societal hysteria, what Banks has written is a meditation on the cultivation of lies over time. The truth about the Kid is available online to anyone who has his real name and wants to look him up in the National Sex Offender Registry, and yet, without porn’s lies about sex, his name never would have been in that Registry in the first place.
So the Kid is trapped in the midst of this network of lies. A “white guy in his early twenties,” unemployed and estranged from his single mother, he shares plenty of traits with typical Banks characters: he’s an alienated outsider, looking into society with a mixture of fear, disdain, jealousy, and longing. He’s self-taught and self-reliant, determined to maintain “strictly enforced surface relations with people.”
From telling others that he’s just returned from Afghanistan, to disguising his real name like a paranoid ex-spy, the Kid hides behind smaller lies to mask the giant lie that hovers over him: that he does not know who he is, nor even how to be certain that he’s alive and not dead. It is this larger lie that recoils from the nuances and ambiguities of love and sex, and craves pornography’s static, one-sided comfort. While online, he’s connected to the outside world and everything in it, and yet, at the same time, he’s profoundly alone, lacking even his own company. He cannot imagine what to do while not watching porn, and, while watching it, he hangs suspended between worlds, imagining himself participating in the virtual sex act on his computer screen, while actually participating in a very different act just in front of it.
Although in many ways “an Innocent,” he is in no way innocent. He is, rather, like all the men under the causeway, both a victim and a victimizer. He has been victimized by his mother’s indifference, by a school system that failed to reach him, by the military, which discharged him for giving away a few porn DVDs, by “brandi18,” the young girl he went to visit who told her father to ambush him when he arrived at her house, and by the justice system that sentenced him to ten years of exile for a single offense. Victimization is a common theme in Banks’ fiction, especially the victimization of children by adults, and the ways in which this both stunts moral development and also, frighteningly, stimulates it, as if the very process of passing into adulthood were necessarily one of being victimized by the adults who’d passed that way before.
The Kid’s fall into damnation is hard and sudden: the moment he shows up at brandi18’s house, it’s all over. After being burned on his first attempt to reach out, it will be a long time until the Kid works up the courage to try again. The process by which he begins to do so makes for a dramatic coming-of-age story, but what really fleshes out Lost Memory’s considerations of truth and falsity is the Professor, one of the most intriguing characters in all of Banks’ fiction. When he appears beneath the causeway, ostensibly to study the Kid as part of a project on homelessness, and begins to coerce him into giving candid, taped interviews, the novel shifts toward exponentially weightier mystery.
Morbidly obese and colossally brilliant, the Professor’s ideal life is “one with no witnesses,” lived “at the extreme outside edge of human interaction.” Addicted to binge eating alone in the middle of the night, and unshakably convinced of his right to tyrannize everyone he encounters, the Professor introduces something grotesque, even bizarre into the novel. His disquieting effect exceeds even that of the worst and most unrepentant of the sex offenders.
Like the Kid, who comes under his wing but never learns whether or not to trust him, the reader has to scramble to keep up with the Professor’s constantly changing intentions and explanations. He is not the Kid’s foil, nor his double, nor, quite, the novel’s antagonist, although he fills all of these roles. A walking “quarter ton of flesh,” he’s at once an almost unbearably physical presence, and also a specter, someone about whom so little can be known that even the fact of his existence feels tenuous and provisional. Ultimately, he becomes a kind of gross manifestation of the unknowability of absolute truth, as hard to reach in reality as the porn actresses deep in their digital lair.
Like the Judge in Blood Meridian, who has a similarly threatening hand in helping or forcing McCarthy’s Kid to grow up, and like the victimizing adults in other Banks novels, the Professor serves as a highly unstable model of adulthood. Because of this, he stands as living proof of the inherent instability of being an adult, the acceptance of which may itself be the rite of passage that the Kid must undergo. Through his failed efforts to establish the truth about the Professor, the Kid begins to appreciate how maddening uncertainty can be, and to devise some rough belief system to preserve his sanity against this.
When real danger starts to infect this uncertainty, a sense of acceleration and impending cataclysm gathers, especially after a hurricane wrecks the colony under the causeway. As the Kid sees it, the hurricane is “like Noah and the Flood.” It is, essentially, the bottleneck through which the novel’s spirit must pass. It is also the culmination of a long series of biblical motifs that underscore the Kid’s attempts to move from guilt and willful blindness into innocence and self-recognition, aided by his discovery of a Bible in the tent of a deranged former senator. These motifs sharpen Banks’ portrait of the causeway colony as a land of lepers, or a polluted Garden of Eden (much like the snake-infested Panzacola Swamp). One could well see the Kid’s move away from porn, through the limbo of his exile, and finally toward the possibility of love, as a journey away from idol-worship and into a sturdier, harder-won religious faith, one as crucial today as ever before, but also harder than ever to arrive at.
During one of their interviews, the Kid asks the Professor, “You ever wonder why they call them skin mags and skin flicks, by the way? …I mean they’re not really skin, they’re just pictures of skin. The only skin they get you touching is your own.” Pondering this question, we come to see that the novel’s title refers not only to the Kid’s distance from reality at the moment of his crime, but also to a hope that this lost skin – his own and that of others – might not be forever lost, but might one day be “remembered,” or found for the first time. As the hurricane recedes and the Professor’s fate rushes toward him, snaring the Kid in its undertow, the novel approaches its harsh but by no means hopeless conclusion. Still under the causeway but beginning the work of climbing out, the Kid leaves us with the possibility that he may one day emerge from the Internet’s murk of avoidance, and accept the difficulty of reckoning with other people, understanding at last that the price of not doing so is more than he can pay.
Looking back over 2009, there are far too many books that I loved to write them all up here, but here are some of the standouts that may not have received the attention they deserve.
As a judge for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award, I read The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, originally published in the Netherlands in 1958. Plotwise, it’s as riveting a detective story as I read all year, but its purpose is far beyond that of your average noir. The book dramatizes the experience of a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II, but with a twist: eventually he, and we, become uncertain as to which side he’s actually working for, with disastrous consequences. When the book was published in 1958, Nazi collaboration and Holocaust guilt were huge factors in Dutch society (they remain so today), so the book was attempting to grapple with a major issue of the day. It remains wholly affecting as both a novel and as a dramatization of the fog of war.
We continue to hear rumblings that postmodernism as a cultural and literary era is ending, and that we’re moving on to whatever comes next (post-postmodernism?). If so, I have the feeling that the literary ideas and techniques bequeathed to us by postmodernism will, like those gifted us by modernism, live on in the literature to come, whatever form it takes. One book that did a superb job of embracing and tweaking postmodernism as a literary genre was 2009’s The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller. As I wrote in my review at the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the book “is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD.” He’s not Philip K. Dick but rather Phoebus K. Dank, and the two men writing the encyclopedia about his life’s work are: 1) Dank’s sycophantic best friend, and 2) his pompous, angry arch-rival. The result is an honestly hilarious “novel” that’s part Pale Fire, part murder mystery, and part grad student Easter egg hunt. It remains one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I hope lots of people give it a shot.
This year I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which was not only a wonderful reading experience but also a revealing one: those who think they know him from his post-Blood Meridian work aren’t nearly as well acquainted with McCarthy as they think. Real McCarthyites need to read the four novels that came before Blood Meridian, the longest and most amazing of which is Suttree. The book, quite simply, is McCarthy on Joyce. It’s a pastoral, quasi-epic set on the Tennessee River; it’s been called an anti-Walden, a worthy sequel to Huck Finn. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s the longest, lushest most intricate and baroquely bizarre thing McCarthy ever wrote. (Those who think Blood Meridian is baroque need to read this.)
A book that had long been recommended to me and that I finally got around to was Stoner by John Williams, which has me convinced that Williams was a devotee of Thomas Mann. Like Mann, Williams shows here an ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character’s function in the book with leitmotifs. He also resembles Mann in that he masterfully orchestrates the evolution and interplay of numerous ideas throughout the course of the novel while never neglecting the very human drama that forms the heart of the story. Stoner is essentially about the value of a life: the titular protagonist is a perfectly mediocre academic who lives and dies without ever making much of an impact. Yet in Williams’ hands we see all the value and struggle that goes into a life that has no historical importance. Williams won a National Book Award for Butcher’s Crossing, which I’ve heard is even better, all that more reason that I’m glad NYRB Classics has brought him back into print.
Lastly I’d like to mention The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas as one of the more interesting critical works I’ve read this year. Striphas simply sets out to describe the publishing industry and associated apparatus in which he calls the “late age of print.” In order to do that he must recapitulate a good deal of the publishing industry as we know it, going back into the middle of hte 19th century. The resultant book is interesting both as a history of publishing and a look at this late age and where publishing might be headed tomorrow.