I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
A small card reminding me that I have a haircut on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 at 6 p.m. on Waverly Street. A decade later I still get my hair cut at the same place, though I now prefer Thursdays.
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
A greeting card and a blank envelope. The card has a cartoon king on the cover and inside it says, “You rule!” There is nothing else written anywhere.
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
A tiny, white, blank, one-inch-by-a-half-inch Post-It note.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
Image credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.
Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000.
Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present.
Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground.
John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected — correctly — that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field.
Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author.
Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books.
Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.”
Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times.
Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.”
In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.”
In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin — in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books.
On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?”
In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: “She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane — it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.”
Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review.
Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books — rounded up by librarians — now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe.
Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: “Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her.”
Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent — and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again.
Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.”
What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution.
Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.”
Put your idleness, if you’re fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings:
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875)
What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else’s industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Among the threads in Ford’s intricately woven “saddest story” is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it’s the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide.
Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.”
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967)
One of literature’s most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka’s August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite — or because of — what he describes as her “bony, empty face,” he reported he was “completely under the influence of the girl.”
The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974)
The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson’s hands, and one by Manson’s prosecutor that’s part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981)
Bradley’s nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting — self-inflicted, the legends say — of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter
Carter’s fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995)
A book — call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel — grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
Like many people with at least some superficial veneer of culture and erudition, the books I read when I was a child fall into two main categories. First, I read the books that were just the kind of thing that come your way if you’re a young person surrounded by people who care: Newberry winners, ALA Notables, and books about the spirited young ladies of the past, who reside in places like New Moon, Silver Bush, and The Limberlost. Next, I read the books my parents had around the house. With a talent that stays with me today, I became adept at picking out the novels from among Loeb editions and other things that boded ill for my entertainment (although my strategy was not foolproof: I still give The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony the side-eye when I see it on the shelf).
We can all map our humanity by the oddities and accidents of our youthful bookshelves (or the absence of said shelves), but that’s outside the scope of this revue. The point is that I remember being lured by The Good Soldier because of its child-friendly size and obvious fiction-ness. Skimming through it, I had no idea what was going on. Clearly, though, it was something creepy. (I believe I had the idea that “cut his throat” was an expression meaning to be really upset about something, which is not totally inaccurate.)
The next time I read the Ford Madox Ford novel was in its incarnation as The Saddest Story, in crisp pink facsimile copy of Blast prescribed in a college course on Anglo-American Modernism. I was very taken by Blast as a concept, a look, a typeface, during what might be considered my most revolutionary period, which might also be considered the least revolutionary revolutionary period ever experienced by a person. I latched on to The Good Soldier then because it was far more comprehensible to me than almost anything else we read during Anglo-American Modernism (or indeed, Blast). This text was carrying some artistic ideology, we were taught, but it was written in sentences I could understand.
The Good Soldier is probably the best book to teach in an English class that I can imagine, covering all the hot formal and contextual bases. (First of all, forget Turn of the Screw — here we have our unreliable narrator sans pareil.) Who is this man? An American. Who is his author? An Anglo-German. Where was this published? Blast? And when? Why, just before World Blast I!
What a narrator! To read him is to hear a 100-year-old joke and get it, even if the terms on which you get it are slightly out of kilter from the original. Right off the bat, Dowell, this placid American, describes for us the Ashburnhams, the male half of which will disrupt everyone’s existence with wandering heart and loins: “They were descended, as you will probably expect, from the Ashburnham who accompanied Charles I to the scaffold, and, as you must also expect with this class of English people, you would never have noticed it.”
What else does Dowell, this Quaker with pudding where his balls should be, not notice? That the Ashburnhams don’t speak to one another; that while he ferries his non-invalid invalid wife to healthful spas at Nauheim and elsewhere, Captain Ashburnham is ferrying her vigorously to Pound-town. Talk about creepy. All slices of underdone beef and quiet chats around the bridge table and a particular shade of blue tie, while coursing through it is illicit sex, death, madness, and strong religious feeling.
The Good Soldier has often been lauded as a formally perfect novel, a sentiment with which I am inclined to agree, but do not feel quite up to proving, when Julian Barnes has already done it. But I did want to revisit Blast (that “great MAGENTA cover’d opusculus,” as Ezra Pound described it, with characteristic bombast). What a strange, sad, vital text, and how curious it seemed to me that Ford’s story should be in it. Next to Wyndham Lewis’s aggressively experimental “Enemy of the Stars” and Rebecca West’s psychosexual vignette “Indissoluble Matrimony,” The Good Soldier seems formally rather bloodless and Edwardian, suddenly becoming, at its end, positively Gothic (Eunuch and Madwoman: table for two). However, while I found The Good Soldier a beacon of intelligibility among the experiments of the Vorticists, Theodore Dreiser, Ford’s contemporary, found the non-chronological narrative provocative and disorienting — bad modern Art.
Ford did not sign the manifesto part of issue 1, and his relationship with the Vorticists (the name for Lewis and the other people behind Blast) is a matter of some discussion, I gather, after reading several scholarly essays in an effort to understand the period. He was a Modernist, but also an Impressionist. He dabbled in Imagism, which is a kind of Modernism. The Vorticists disliked the Futurists. They all may have been nascent Fascists. So many currents and tributaries to movements — 100 years later, Modernism seems like a biggish tent. But really, it’s about as descriptive a term as “sandwich,” and reading the learned essays invoked, in my crude mind, a long-running argument that my friends have about what is or is not a sandwich. Is a taco a sandwich? A hotdog? It is all a darkness.
Looking back, the particulars of the day’s debates are not clear. But, set as they were against the great cataclysm of World War I, it is easy to focus on the irrelevance of a hotdog’s being a sandwich or not a sandwich, when we know now that millions of people were preparing to die in terrible circumstances. That’s the saddest story! Not some horny, deceitful woman! Even while I admired the aesthetic on the page of the Vorticists, there is a kind of awfulness in all of it, as they celebrate, in a queerly un-celebratory way, those things that will soon blast them all to pieces. (It is worth checking out the searchable PDFs on Issuu, where both numbers are available in their entirety.)
The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY-their stupidity, animalism, and dreams.
We do not want to change the appearance of the world, because we are not Naturalists, Impressionists or Futurists (the latest form of Impressionism), and do not depend on the appearance of the world for our art.
WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s crude energy flowing through us.
The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius, — its appearance and its spirit. Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.
The rest of The Good Soldier/Saddest Story didn’t appear in the second and ultimate issue of Blast, the “War Issue,” because the novel had already been published by John Lane. Meanwhile, Ford Madox Ford had gone off to war, which he wrote about in a poem for this second issue. The Vorticist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, who rebelled against classical forms, died in action, not before sending this dispatch for the new number:
I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of Life.
HUMAN MASSES teem and move, are destroyed and crop up again.
HORSES are worn out in three weeks, die by the roadside.
DOGS wander, are destroyed, and others come along.
WITH ALL THE DESTRUCTION that works around us NOTHING IS CHANGED, EVEN SUPERFICIALLY. LIFE IS THE SAME STRENGTH. THE MOVING AGENT THAT PERMITS THE SMALL INDIVIDUAL TO ASSERT HIMSELF.
THE BURSTING SHELLS, the volleys, wire entanglements, projectors, motors, the chaos of battle DO NOT ALTER IN THE LEAST, the outlines of the hill we are besieging. A company of PARTRIDGES scuttle along before our very trench.
IT WOULD BE FOLLY TO SEEK ARTISTIC EMOTIONS AMID THESE LITTLE WORKS OF OURS.
Another short book that sat on my parents’ bookshelves was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with which I also struggled upon a youthful first read. This week, fresh off a week of reading Blast and trying to plumb its truths, I had a moment of serendipity when I went to see the play for the first time. Parallels abound. Stoppard’s play is about waging war on the styles that came before you — in this case the Romantic rejection of the Classical, with Mr. Noakes the landscape architect rejecting, like Gaudier-Brzeska, the smooth geometry of the Greeks. It’s about the great X factor that sex plays in the human enterprise. It’s about Art, Science, Math, and Machinery. It is also about looking back at the past and not totally understanding things because you are missing key documents and truths, and also see what you want to see. In one play, we cover the impulse behind the Vorticists, the root of the tragedies in The Good Soldier, and my own fumbling around for sandwich metaphors.
At the pinnacle of the play, the young heroine Thomasina laments to her tutor Septimus the wanton weakness of the “Egyptian noodle” Cleopatra, who allowed the great library of Alexandria to burn. For Thomasina, as for Dowell the American, a lady being horny and deceitful — her good soldier being such a fine, fatally weak fellow — wrecked things forever.
When Thomasina, thinking of all the lost books in the library, asks Septimus, “How can we sleep for grief?” He replies in a great moment of literature and humanity, giving us the softer side of Gaudier-Brzeska’s dispatch from the front:
By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady. You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.
Tom Stoppard wrote the dialogue for Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s other best-known work, which was lately made into an HBO miniseries. I don’t know what he thinks about The Good Soldier, Blast, or the rest of it, but he is humming on that creative frequency. The first issue of Blast asserted: “The moment a man feels or realizes himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time. Blast is created for this timeless fundamental Artist that exists in everybody.”
We die on the march, yes. But we have our consolations.
Et in Arcadia ego.
In early February, Amity Gaige’s third novel, Schroder — about a father named Erik Kennedy, who built his life on an elaborate lie and kidnaps his daughter, Meadow, following the bitter breakup of his marriage — was published by Twelve. In the weeks following the book’s release, Gaige — who was my professor at the University of Rhode Island in the early 2000s — and I corresponded via email about the writing life, assumptions made about female novelists, and how no one will ever be able to write like Nabokov.
The Millions: Schroder is receiving positive reviews and even being described as your breakout book. Does that have any meaning for you as a writer? Was the experience of writing and publishing Schroder any different for you than it was for O My Darling or The Folded World?
Amity Gaige: Breaking out sounds wonderful. If it means that lots of people read Schroder, then I will be happy to call it my breakout book. My other books were written with the same goal as Schroder — to write as well as possible about deeply felt themes. But maybe it’s significant that I wrote Schroder very quickly — it felt “channeled.” If you want to talk about the publishing side, that’s been a very different experience, too. I have an editor and publicist at Twelve who’ve been focused like assassins on each stage and challenge of bringing out a book. They responded to the book with gut responses, they hand-delivered it to people, they approached everything creatively and passionately. As for reviews, critical reaction is and always will be something I value highly as a writer — somebody serious and intelligent talking back to me after a long writerly confinement, if you will. But I also value hearing from readers, booksellers, librarians, total strangers. I’ve gotten some interesting emails asking for help with parenting or custody arrangements. I don’t mind. I get energy from the feedback.
TM: Along the same lines, how do you see your writing evolving over the course of your career? In what ways are you a different writer than you were in 2005 when O My Darling was published?
AG: Writing O My Darling felt like chiseling stone — hard and painstaking. It took me a long time to realize that I was simply learning how to write a book, an activity that isn’t inborn. I say while knocking on wood that each book has been easier to write than the next. My 30s have been a heady time personally. Having children, losing loved ones, coming to larger understandings about life; if these things change me, then I hope they change and broaden my writing.
TM: In your novels, a recurring theme is the strength of relationships and the ways they are tested. You recently described Schroder as “a pro-marriage book; a balled-up and then uncrumpled valentine.” Can you talk a little about the importance of this theme in your work and how your take on it in Schroder is different than in your other novels?
AG: A smart piece of recent criticism said that the book does not use the 19th-century marriage plot but the “twenty-first century divorce plot.” Schroder concerns what happens after love is over — or in this case, discredited. I’ve always been preoccupied by the transience or ephemerality of experience, good and bad. As a minor character in the book says, there is the temptation to try and “box up” experience and “keep it.” But happiness — and love — cannot be possessed, controlled, quarantined…In Eric’s case, he’s dealing with the unwieldy fact that he still loves his ex-wife even though she has completely washed her hands of him. She thinks that because he’s a liar, he lied about loving her. But I don’t think he lied about loving her, and I guess that’s the uncrumpled part of the valentine.
I didn’t really answer the question, though. I’m not sure why I keep writing about marriage. Marriage is just a metaphor for human relationships in general. It’s the relationship in which we live or die in terms of our own self-concept, in terms of our reputations with ourselves.
TM: Let’s talk about Erik Kennedy/Schroder. You’ve said you feel “a lot of ambivalence towards him” and certainly navigate between his good qualities and his terrible qualities when portraying him to readers. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? A lot of importance is often placed on the “likability” of characters. Was this something you thought about as you were writing Schroder?
AG: Well I find Eric likeable, but in the way you love a classic naïf. The narrator of Updike’s “A & P” or Dowell in The Good Soldier. You think, wow, what a limited person, but at least he cares about something. If I had to choose between the extremes of sentimentality and cynicism, I’d always choose the former.
But yes, I do feel ambivalence towards Eric. What he does in lying to his wife is unconscionable. And I think part of the poignancy of the father-daughter relationship here is that his daughter is fated to wise up, and to eventually be really furious at him. She loves him now because he’s all she knows. But how messed up would Meadow be as a grown-up? Schroder suggests, I think, pretty messed up.
TM: Was it difficult to write Erik’s young daughter, Meadow? What are the challenges you faced portraying a child?
AG: My son was probably about four when I started writing Schroder. I poured all the love, amusement, and self-doubt I felt on a daily level as a parent into the characterization of Meadow. Also, my son just said a lot of fabulous things, and I wrote them down word for word and gave them to Meadow. When people cite their favorite lines from the book — and these are often Meadow’s lines — I have to laugh and say, Let’s face it, the best lines in this book were written by a six year old.
TM: You’ve said the book was in some part inspired by the Clark Rockefeller case and what he said about some of the happiest moments of his life being spent with his daughter after he abducted her. How did the idea for Schroder come about and evolve as you wrote the novel?
AG: As you mention, Schroder began with the seed from that now-infamous ripped-from-the-headlines story, one I deliberately never followed. But that story was relevant only in that I was already preoccupied its themes: identity, parenthood, immigration, self-invention…Can you be a fraud and still love others sincerely? Can you be a troubled soul and also a loving parent? I am of the Chekhov school in regards to literature “posing questions correctly” as opposed to answering them. Wondering now if I have — even privately — answered these questions — I think no, not conclusively. Eric is still new to me, and as I travel around reading from the book, my attitude towards him alternates between compassion and bitterness.
TM: Schroder functions as an apology/confession from a man with an elaborate false identity. Both of those elements have a rich literary history. How does your novel fit into that literary landscape?
AG: I am sure there is a buried influence of Dostoevsky, even Poe, both of whom I read at a fairly young age, probably assuming these men were describing the inevitable lunacy of adulthood…I loved the hair-tearing confessions of deeply inconscient madmen-narrators, driven by guilt to confess. But Schroder is probably my agon-with-Nabokov book. Nobody writes like Nabokov; nobody ever will. What I would give to write one sentence like Vladimir! I adore Lolita, but I am more conscious of the influence of Pale Fire. Maybe it’s a minor point, but the fact that Eric’s document is “written” is so important to the novel, just as “written-ness” is central to Kinbote’s confessions in Pale Fire. This is where I saw the need, in Schroder, for footnotes, playlets, questionnaires…But of course all these examples I give were written by men. I think it’s true that I simultaneously “honor, update, and reject” some of these literary antecedents with Eric Kennedy/Schroder. (I’m referring to a statement here in Kathryn Shultz’s lively New York Magazine review.) I think I give Eric a softer side than most of these men-written-by-men. My gender seeps in between the lines, in the ways I judge him or his effect on the women in his life, in the sadness I feel about what remains an essential otherness…
TM: The writing of female authors — particularly those who write about relationships — is often marginalized into two categories: “chick lit” or “women’s fiction.” As a woman and author of literary fiction, is this something you ever think about when writing? Do you think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all?
AG: No, I never think about it in regards to my own work. But do I think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all? Not sure. The contemporary woman novelist still faces some troubling assumptions when she tries to publish. However, I was recently on two different panels with extraordinary women writers (Claire Messud and Victoria Redel, Karen Russell and Claire Vaye Watkins). All of these women are acclaimed writers, not to mention inspiring speakers. I like to think of their confidence — and success — as a bellwether.
TM: You once advised “stay[ing] true to your artistic vision, even if you fail in other ways” — also noting a quote from Mario Vargas Llosa: “That is what authenticity or sincerity is for the novelist: the acceptance of his own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible.” Can you talk about how accepting your demons/decisions and staying true to your vision has served you over the course of your career?
AG: I think many writers write out of a longing to be understood — to be heard, legitimized, respectabilized. So if you’re not staying true to your artistic vision, what good is it for that vision to be legitimized? It’s not going to be gratifying. Of course, in some ways, you don’t have a choice about sticking to your artistic vision. Llosa says this, too — that writers don’t choose their themes, but rather that these themes are foisted upon them by personal history; Updike even said the same thing about style, that a writer’s style is inherent to him, simply the written equivalent to how the world “hits his or her nerves.” I don’t mean to say you should ignore criticism, especially when it’s made repeatedly, nor should you cling to some unbending, macho notion of integrity. For some people, compromise is radical. I say, surround yourself with trustworthy people, put your knife between your teeth, unplug, stop talking, and write.
TM: What are you working on now?
AG: Playing with my baby daughter. Wondering what her future will be like for her.
Through the Window, Julian Barnes’s sparkling new collection of essays, is a veritable treasure house of letters on novels and their authors. His subjects span the Anglo and French traditions within which Barnes work is rooted – Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England highlight in his own fictional oeuvre the interplay between the two – from Orwell and Kipling on the one hand to Mérimée and Houellebecq on the other.
This is not to say that the American pantheon is neglected. Far from it. Barnes is not immune, for example, to the work of John Updike. “Any historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit Quartet,” Barnes concludes, labeling Updike’s Angstrom sequence “the greatest postwar American novel”:
It’s rare for a work of this length to get even better as it goes on, with Rabbit at Rest the strongest and richest of the four books. In the last hundred pages or so, I found myself slowing deliberately, not so much because I didn’t want the book to end, as because I didn’t want Rabbit to die.
The collection concludes with an essay of searing clarity on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story. Barnes is somewhat kind to the book in general terms, labeling it “novelistic and expansive” and arguing that in focusing in the main on “the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief,” Oates plays to her strengths. Moreover, he goes some way to defending the lax character of her prose, arguing that if it appears repetitive, obsessive, or incoherent, well, “so is grief.” Barnes is critical, and oddly so, of Oates’s failure to disclose her decision to remarry following the death of her first husband:
This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore’s line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have good case for breach of narrative promise. Was not Ray “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man”? And what about all those perennials she planted?
In the main, however, Barnes appears drawn towards a certain type of trans-Channel writer. His take on Rudyard Kipling is at once jarring and refreshing in the way in which it seeks to highlight the bond between Kipling and France. “He seems to us such an English writer, such a British imperialist, such a pungent purveyor of the lore and language of his tribe,” Barnes writes, “that it comes as a surprise to find how well known and widely read he was in France.”
Such was his fame in fact that when Kipling’s family would tour the country by automobile after the war, they found that “three days was the maximum they could stay in one place without his identity being discovered,” without being invited into the local church by the priest or accosted in the street by grateful soldiers. In terms of the latter, Barnes notes how on a tour of the front lines in 1915 in his role as a war correspondent, Kipling discovered to his astonishment how well read his stories and poems were in the trenches.
Indeed, the bond between Kipling and France was “made lifelong – and sealed with blood – by the Great War.” Kipling spent a good deal of his postwar life there, working with the War Graves Commission, advising that Ecclesiasticus 44:14 – “Their name liveth for evermore” – be chiseled into the Stones of Remembrances. Kipling came to admire in France “what he thought his own country could do with more of,” qualities of “work ethic, thrift, simplicity.” Enforced military service, Kipling believed, “promoted not only civic virtue but also a fundamental seriousness of mind which he felt his compatriots lacked.”
But Barnes goes further, attempting to assert that France would influence his literature, too. “Direct literary influence is small,” Barnes concedes, yet he sees in his work an inspiration “of a more diffuse kind.” Kipling was criticized for being “democratic in personnel and truthful in theme and detail. An early exposure to French literature,” Barnes concludes, citing Rabelais, Balzac, and Maupassant, “would have endorsed this aesthetic.”
Barnes also sees a converse influence, of Kipling on France, though this appears to be minimal, too. In a second essay on Kipling, Barnes analyses Jérôme and Jean Tharaud’s 1902 roman à clef, Dingley, l’illustre écrivain, perceiving the protagonist to be unmistakably Kipling – “his energy, his ceaseless curiosity are all acknowledged; what is questioned is the use to which the famous imagination and the public fame are put.” In this vein, the novel emerges as a “critique of British imperialism and a warning against literary populism.”
Barnes’s efforts to impress the link between Kipling and France feel clean and are indeed intriguing. It is evident that Kipling, like many Englishmen, had Francophile tendencies, with a feeling for the landscape and the people. But Barnes is less persuasive when attempting to expound literary influence. Not so with his take on Ford Madox Ford novel of the First World War, The Good Soldier. “France certainly provided The Good Soldier’s point of emulative origin,” Barnes states, noting Ford’s ambition to do for the English novel what Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort did for the French form.
Ford sought to imitate the “violently transgressive passion” of Maupassant, applying the “tropes of torments” of Fort comme la mort to “a very English set of characters.” Barnes concludes that while The Good Soldier is “much less of a social novel” than Maupassant’s, it is “in terms of emotional heat even Frencher than Fort comme la mort.” Whereas Maupassant “turns up the burners only towards the end of his novel,” Ford goes all in, raising the stakes of “madness and terror,” audaciously starting “at the highest emotional pitch” and only continuing to elevate it thereafter.
The result, Barnes believes, is “Ford’s masterpiece,” noteworthy for its “immaculate use of an unreliable narrator, its sophisticated disguise of true narrative behind a false facade of apparent narrative, its self-reflectingness, its deep duality about human motive, intention and experience, and its sheer boldness as a project.” It is a novel which “constantly asks how to tell a story, which pretends to fail at narrative while richly succeeding.” Yet for all its qualities, The Good Soldier and also Ford himself was derided by his contemporaries. Barnes proposes why:
He presents no usefully crisp literary profile; he wrote far too much, and in too many genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation which was probably a bad tactical move.
It might be a bit much (and I dare say a little rude) to venture that like Ford, Barnes as a novelist remains under-appreciated, or at least under-read, when compared to his contemporaries. But it bears mentioning because, due to the personal nature of the format, Barnes’s examinations of these authors can’t help but say a little something about the essayist. In both Kipling and Ford, he strives to unearth the ties and sentiments which he holds most dear, which most impact upon his novels, those of an Anglo inexorably bound to France. Through the Window confirms not only this love of England and of France, but of language and literature as well.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter’s translation of the year award, I’m going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I’ve read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I’ve read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It’s an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady’s father, and I’m sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel’s path from the epic to what we would recognize today as “normal” realist fiction, it’s a thoroughly engrossing tale that’s plain fun to read. Fielding’s flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I’ve already convinced roughly 20 people (that I’m aware of) to read this book. It’s rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges’s best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled – with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don’t know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don’t understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He’s easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan’s theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It’s too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that’s partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway’s career. He’s also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it’s the best unreliable narrator novel I’ve ever read. Parade’s End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn’t count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann’s book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno’s thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I’m quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I’d read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya’s English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier’s descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome – they actually make me feel like I’m back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I’ll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you’ve been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier furthers what Henry James had begun to chip away at with his novels of manners and paves the way for the modernist dilemmas that comprise the work of Joyce, Beckett, Eliot and Pound. How do individuals define themselves and interact with others when everything they have known changes? John Dowell’s cagey narration folds in on itself and doubles back, making for more questions than answers as the story of two couples besieges what is thought to be the “extraordinarily safe castle” of their lives. As one of the four primary characters, Dowell relates how this quartet’s existence was like a minuet, lives of orderly precision that never inspired questioning, until it was too late. The story is Dowell’s post-mortem report, which is rich with point-of-view tactics and metaphors cribbed by Ford’s successors. As Dowell warns early during his tale: “I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.”Four decades later, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions hit the increasingly surreal, overtly commercialized scene, a potent cocktail of Christian morality, creative license and New York City bohemia. Fitting in somewhere between Joyce and Pynchon, Gaddis’s pages read with ease, though he devotes much ink to the blasé poses of just about everyone trying to be someone else. At the center of this carousel of masquerades, painter Wyatt Gwyon, his talent so prodigious, and crippling, he begins to forge the works of Flemish masters. Crafting his own canvases and paints, Gwyon’s lines, shadings and textures fool everyone, even Gwyon, to such a degree that his greatest anxiety, and the novel’s for that matter, is how to create a copy of something that has never existed. The lexicons of the transfiguration, academia, fine art and advertising mingle and bristle – a wonderful novel of ideas, full of jokes, japes and jabs.The Roberto Bolaño bug also bit me this year, the excitement orbiting around 2666 prompting me to finally read The Savage Detectives and then 2666. Both books have been picked apart enough, and my praise for them echoes much of what has already been written and said. But, for me, what has made the emergence of these translations most exciting is Bolaño’s Shakespearean appreciation for jokes. I haven’t seen much exploration of this particular aspect of his writing, but both of these novels brim with humor, from the tense tomfoolery of two writerly rivals dueling on a beach to the darkly vicious jokes of the detectives investigating unsolvable murders: “Then the inspector, exhausted after a night’s work, wondered to himself how much of God’s truth lay hidden in ordinary jokes.” Laughter requires humility, which forces you to put your ego in check, oftentimes easier said than done. Bolaño baits these moments, however, reminding his characters and readers that life, while not a joke, is not a dance. Life is not a prescribed set of steps, but a consistently inconsistent stream of events and happenstance, full of contradictions and confusions, sorrows and the sublime, it can ramble, deviate and detour, and like many jokes, the punch line is not always delivered correctly, or even understood as humorous.Both Gaddis and Bolaño use laughter – at times crass, inappropriate and awkward – because it possesses the tremendous power to disarm you, an effect the characters in Ford’s book would have avoided at all costs. Had Ford’s narrator acknowledged laughter as an invaluable impulse, perhaps the circumstances of his life would not strike him as so strange. But of course, that was Ford’s point. For my taste, too much contemporary fiction forgoes laughter. There just is not enough laughter (smirking at irony doesn’t count), probably because the authors and their characters take themselves too seriously. There’s nothing wrong with being serious, but as Gaddis and Bolaño demonstrate, laughter can morph into the proverbial light in darkness, revealing the unnoticed or unrealized, much of which is serious, though it surfaces when we least expect it, caught off guard in the throes of belly-holding laughter.More from A Year in Reading 2008