1. Recently, for the fourth or fifth time in my life, I started trying to read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I bought my copy many years ago, after falling in love with his story collections and enjoying Light Years, probably his best-known novel. A Sport and a Pastime, though not obscure, has a whiff of the occult about it, with its hazy voyeuristic sex and a title taken from the Koran. It is commonly and unironically referred to as an “erotic masterpiece.” Writing for The New York Times Review of Books, Reynolds Price said, “Of living novelists, none has produced a novel I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime…it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
Despite these points of interest and an agreeable running length of right around 200 pages, over two decades, I’ve found myself consistently stymied by something in this novel. I can still clearly remember the thrill of finding it at a used bookstore (it was, I believe, out of print at the time, or at any rate not widely available), taking it home, cracking it open along with a beer, and…not reading it.
This has been my experience with A Sport and a Pastime, our relationship, so to speak, over the last two decades. Maybe it’s the strange narrative setup, the unnamed narrator employed mostly as a camera for the erotic exploits of the central couple. Maybe it’s the slowness of the plot. More likely, I think, it’s something wrong with me.
There is a type of book, I find, that falls in this
category: books that resist you. This is different from books you think are
bad, or books you don’t want to read. These are books you want to read, but for
some reason are unable to. These are books that, if anything, you somehow fail,
not being up to the task.
2. The obverse of this is the kind of book you helplessly return to again and again. Some personal examples: The Patrick Melrose cycle, Disgrace, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flannery O’Connor’s The Collected Stories, The Big Sleep, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary. These are books that my taste and intellect, such as they are, somehow notch into like teeth into a greater gear. Sometimes you outgrow these books, as I feel I have with, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, but by and large these are books that I have read throughout my adulthood and continue getting different things out of with each read.
I’m not sure this is a good thing. In a way, this kind of reading preserves a personal stasis, forever reconfirming your excellent taste in literature, always agreeing with you. They are the yes-men of your library—in reading, as in life, it is good to find people who will tell you no: No, maybe you are not smart enough for this; no, you are not entitled to an immediate endorphin release upon opening me up; no, you cannot read me.
3. Another book of the former type: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This is an especially irksome one, a novel I’ve been attracted to for years, then repulsed by every time I open the cover. My experience with this kind of book does feel, in its way, analogous to a certain kind of romantic flirtation, a pas de deux of advance and retreat—never quite enough advance to win the book’s affection; never quite enough retreat to finally put me off. I have long been drawn to The Volcano and Lowry’s shared mythos: suicidal alcoholism in a hot country. I’m intrigued by its aura and stature as one of the greatest books of the century. I want to read it.
But man, that first chapter—I’ve read it several times and never made it any further. From memory: the initial, oblique conversation between Laruelle and Dr. Vigil (okay, I looked these up) on the hotel balcony as they sip anis and gaze out at the titular volcano; the references to the Consul, Fermin (who I am aware, theoretically, will at some point become the actual main character), and shared recollections of his misbehavior and disappearance; Laruelle’s interminable saunter down the hill and into town; an equally protracted sojourn at a bar that, again, if memory serves, is strangely connected to a movie theater. There, Laruelle is given a book for some reason. Other things happen, or don’t. My memory of that chapter feels consistent with the mode in which I have most frequently encountered it: falling asleep in bed. Which is to say that the first part is most vivid, and, as it goes on, the lights grow dimmer and the enterprise seems to begin repeating itself.
4. But this is clearly user error. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice, with both Under the Volcano and A Sport and a Pastime, a personal difficulty with books that dwell too long in the perspective of a peripheral character. No matter how good the language and description—and the language and description in Under the Volcano are, of course, very good—at a certain point I want it to get a move on. The truth probably is that I am not an especially good, or patient, reader. Maybe good compared to the average casual reader, but not compared to many other writers and academics I know, who seem to omnivorously inhale all manner of book no matter how difficult or slow, like woodchippers dispatching balsa.
The truth probably is that my normal reading taste level lands somewhere just north of middlebrow. I have read Ulysses (and is there a more loathsome sentence to type than this?—the literary equivalent of mentioning your SAT score). But I skipped large swaths of the especially difficult chapters like “Proteus” and “Oxen of the Sun.” My highbrow taste is defined by a narrow niche of books that are well-written and also, for lack of a better word, fun.
Nabokov’s novels, for example—as strenuously modern and well-written as they are, they also move. They are not boring. The reader’s attention is rewarded like a good dog, receiving periodic treats for trotting along behind the master. “Fun” is a strange descriptor to apply to a book about pedophilia, but in spite of its subject matter, Lolita is, well, a pretty rollicking read (really, this is the novel’s perverse central project, to coax a reader into an aesthetic pleasure that mirrors, horribly, Humbert’s), jammed with the darkest comedy, suspense, wordplay, twists, turns, and the climactic ending to end all climactic endings. It is fun, as is Pnin, as is Pale Fire. Even early juvenilia like The Eye keeps you interested.
5. Interestingness, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But would it be completely unfair to say that a large swath of what we consider literary fiction is, by its nature and/or by design, uneventful? My Struggle is an obvious recent example—the first 200 pages of Book One are the story of the time young Karl Ove and a friend tried (spoiler alert: successfully) to get a case of beer to a high school party. Later, he devotes dozens of pages to the description of cleaning a bathroom.
Knausgaard’s work may provide an extreme example, but it remains generally true that in what we consider highbrow literary fiction, plotlessness often serves as a genre and status marker. Presumably this has something to do with a semi-consciously received idea of literary fiction being realistic fiction, and reality being uneventful. Brian Cox, portraying the screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Adaptation, had this to say on the matter:
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!
My Struggle received overwhelming critical praise for its rejection of that stuff and for its strenuous, almost ostentatious, dramatization of the banal and prosaic—all of the bits that typically get cut out of plot-driven fiction. Zadie Smith, praising the books, said, “Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting.” The intellectual enshrinement of non-event is worth considering on its merits for a moment. It might be argued that this high literary conception of real life as a frictionless enactment of societal rituals, unconscious consumerism, and media absorption is essentially a safe, bourgeois version of reality, and that plot-free literary fiction aestheticizes that principle of non-event. And so it might further be argued that literature that tests a reader’s ability to endure boredom and plotlessness is, on some level, testing the degree of that reader’s integration into the late capitalist fantasy of a perfectly isolated and insulated existence just as much as a writer like James Patterson affirms that integration by the obverse means of testing a reader’s willingness to accept product as art. The extremes of event and non-event both affirm this version.
6.Then again, maybe (probably) this is bullshit, rigging up an objective rationale for personal taste. And besides, I can think of so many counterexamples—books in which nothing much happens that I adore. The Outline trilogy, for example, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I would listen to Faye listening to people until the end of time; I’d follow Lerner’s valium-popping liar Adam Gordon to the ends of the world. In the end, it probably just comes down to something ineffable and mysterious in the writing. That connection between author and reader, the partnership and compact that must occur, something in the handshake that slips, that doesn’t quite hold.
In June of 2016, I started a podcast with my friend Jesse called Fan’s Notes, about our two favorite topics of discussion: books and basketball. To date, we’ve recorded 58 episodes, a rate of about one book every two weeks. The project has been somewhat time-consuming, and extremely unlucrative, but it has been hugely rewarding in terms of reading. A quick scan through our list of published episodes in 2018 (the project comes in handy here as a kind of diary of my year’s reading) reminds me of many new favorites: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women among them.
As a fairly slow reader, the podcast has benefited—dictated, really—my reading list, I think to the benefit of my writing. Not just in terms of regularly discussing literature in a somewhat structured (if beer-accompanied) format, but also in terms of simply venturing a little beyond the confines of my usual taste. I would not otherwise, probably, have sat down and read straight through two collections of Borges, would have been content with my passing familiarity with the greatest hits: “The Aleph,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Like most people, as much I intend to read new things, the attention-draining demands of life always make it easy to stick with what I’m confident will bring a good return on my reading time. That Patrick Melrose collection on the bookshelf, for example, is a constant familiar lure and pleasurable threat to experiencing novel novels.
Of all the excellent books the podcast introduced me to in 2018, none was more unexpected or exciting than Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I’d been vaguely aware of McCarthy as someone in the 20th-century literary landscape, had heard of The Group. But I’d never read her, and I’d never heard of this novel, her first, published in 1942. That this book was published 77 years ago, going on a century, is truly hard to believe—it is one of the most modern novels I’ve read in a long time, more modern than most modern novels.
The book’s political concerns are shockingly timely, somehow prefiguring #MeToo and DSA 80 years ahead of schedule. The Company She Keeps follows its protagonist, Margaret Sargent, a young bohemian Trotskyite, as she destroys her marriage, finds odd jobs to make ends meet, engages in a series of love affairs, and navigates the ’30s-era New York communist scene. Margaret’s sexual and political agency feel bracing, radical even by today’s standards. She is accorded the traditionally male prerogative to destroy and rebuild her life as she sees fit—to make, at times, foolish and selfish and self-destructive choices—without apology or justification.
The novel’s form, too, is unusual and daring. It comprises six long, sometimes novella-length chapters, stories all published independently in outlets like The Partisan Review. Despite being anchored by Margaret’s consciousness and concerns, the POV moves from third person to first to second. In one story, Margaret only appears halfway through and functions as the antagonist. McCarthy employs every possible vantage point to probe Margaret’s character—her principled bravery, her fears and anxieties, her generosity and snobbish prejudices—in a kind of dialectic analysis mirroring the Marxist and Freudian thought that dominated both the author and characters’ intellectual circles. As soon as Margaret believes a proposition about herself or the world to be true, something else proves it false, and the two truths must be synthesized in order to allow her to edge forward. Margaret’s mental landscape—and this is where the real action of the book takes place—is like an impossibly large mansion of locked rooms. Unlocking one door, she only finds herself trapped in another.
The book posits self-awareness as a kind of comic hell. In the memorable conclusion to “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” the main character, Jim Barnett, a smug leftist (and avatar of white male privilege decades before that was a phrase in circulation) ruefully considers his extramarital fling with Margaret:
What did he regret, he asked himself. If he had to do it over again, he would make the same decision. What he yearned for, perhaps, was the possibility of a decision, the instant of a choice, when a man stands at a crossroads and knows he is free. Still, even that had been illusory. He had never been free, but until he had tried to love the girl, he had not known he was bound. It was self-knowledge she had taught him. She had shown him the cage of his own his nature. He had accommodated himself to it, but he could never forgive her. Through her, he had lost his primeval innocence, and he would hate her forever, as Adam hates Eve.
Once the door to honest introspection is cracked, it cannot be closed again, can only be flung wider and wider as each confounding truth barges through. It turns out a little self-perception goes a long way, and a lot goes a little.
The comic, brutal irony of McCarthy’s narrative regard—toward Margaret and the motley cast of secondary characters—is what struck me initially as most bracingly modern about the novel. As I read on, however, I began to question this proposition. I’m not sure, in fact, how much patience modern readers would have for a narrative voice this unsparing, or a protagonist as flawed and vexing as Margaret Sargent. She is not, in the horrible modern formulation, relatable. She is not nice, and neither, to its credit, is The Company She Keeps. This is a book that pulls no punches—about art, politics, psychology, and human nature. This is a book that tells the truth because there’s something at stake, politically and personally, something that would be lost by any intellectual fudging or false comfort. In a period of such rank political and cultural dishonesty, we need books like this—now more than ever, I want to cornily say, though probably this has always been the case. There have probably never been enough books like this.
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