Three recent works, an updating of a Franz Kafka story, a rambunctious saga, and a cautionary tale about the home-wrecking potential of home-buying provided my reading sustenance this summer. Each is predominantly about appetite — for food, sex, fame, money, adventure — and its potential wasting effect on the human soul.
By making the narrator of his first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimp — and an orotund one at that — Benjamin Hale pushed the boundaries of the human. He does the same, quite literally, in the title story from his new collection, The Fat Artist, in which a man attempts to become the fattest — or rather, heaviest — man alive under the glare of Guggenheim museum-goers. The artist, Tristan Hurt, is “blessed with the gift of bullshit” and, in thrall to the “fame drive,” has made a name for himself through a series of “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman” installations. Or as he succinctly sums up his aesthetic: “I lived as if my parents were dead.”
And that’s before he plants himself in a glass box, vowing to eat whatever is brought to him by visitors attracted by the ghoulish spectacle. Hale’s glib showman doesn’t register with the same intensity as Kafka’s starving artist-saint, or even the “young panther” that replaces him, but Tristan, blessed with a liberal arts education, is by far the best theoretician:
…in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self-abnegation no longer retains this primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first-century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior. How often have you heard a woman describe a rich dessert as “sinful”? To eat is to sin—in secular society, the body replaces the soul. Good and evil are no longer purely spiritual concepts—these words have been transubstantiated into the realm of the flesh.
Aquinas, who laid out five specific kinds of overindulgence, might have raised an eyebrow at the claim that eating has just now become a moralized behavior. Tristran’s is a facile argument for a facile character, but that doesn’t mean the provocateur hasn’t stumbled on the culminating project of his career, in which his ego and self-loathing swell in equal measure.
Something of a “fat artist” makes an appearance in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table as well: Willy the Whale, a carnival act who dies after eating “half a hogshead of raw crawdads in an hour.” Willy the Whale’s is one of many prodigious appetites in the lusty novel, which could hardly find a more fitting epigraph than Ben Jonson’s “On Gut:” “Gut eats all day and lechers all the night/so all his meat he tasteth over twice….” (Pollock’s debut collection of stories, Knockemstiff, also had its share of lust and gluttony, their connection highlighted in a brief portrait of two women “who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.”)
Early on, we meet a hermit preaching the virtues of asceticism and waxing rhapsodic on the “heavenly table” awaiting us in the afterlife: “Won’t be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.” The rest of the story is about how that celestial vision is translated, or mistranslated, in the earthly realm where human appetites run amok. I say “human” appetites, but one of the more chilling scenes involves a satiated intestinal worm working its way out of a corpse.
The Heavenly Table opens on the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917 as a white sharecropping family shares “a bland wad of flower and water fried in a dollop of leftover fat.” When one of the widowed father’s three sons makes a wisecrack he doesn’t appreciate, a swift chokehold dislodges even that meager repast from the offender’s throat. The father soon dies, and with his passing the novel’s atmosphere of hardscrabble abstemiousness dissipates. The novel shifts tone from eerie Southern Gothic to Rabelaisan picaresque, and the feast, “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock, beefsteaks the size of wagon wheels, buttered biscuits as hot and fluffy as…tits,” begins. And with the feast, a lot of shit — a scrupulous latrine inspector is among the central characters.
First, the three sons gorge on a sick hog: “People most always have a big feed after a funeral, don’t they?” They gorge again after murdering their employer, an exploitative landowner who spends “comfortable evening[s] alone drinking brandy in the dark and idly thinking of all the women he had molested over the years.” The crime commits them to a fugitive life as semi-competent bank robbers — the “Jewett Boys” as they are known in the tabloids — a journey taking them north towards Meade, a southern Ohio town catering to the various needs, and vices, of a nearby army camp preparing soldiers to go overseas to fight in the First World War. Along with a memorable meal — “eight lobsters, along with boiled potatoes and slaw, an entire plate of macaroons” — Meade offers them an opportunity to whet other appetites. “Shit, I could have gone five or six if I’d known what I was doing at first,” says one brother after a visit to the local brothel, the Whore Barn.
Along with books, women, and booze, books are avidly consumed. The brothers have memorized one of their few possessions, a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. It is “filled…with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that [the author’s] indignant syphylitic brain could possibly conceive.” (The elder, and most refined, brother covets more refined fare, fantasizing about a well-lined bookshelf rather than a well-fed stomach.) Another character partly blames his son’s dissolution on getting his hands on a copy of Tom Jones, a similarly rollicking episodic adventure. In the novel’s most hamfisted scene, it suddenly dawns on an army officer trained in classical literature that he is gay. His harrowing, ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a ravenous hotel maid is less revelatory than a flashback to his college reading syllabus: “After all, his revered Greeks and Romans had written so much about it. Buggery. Pederasty. Homosexuality.” The Eureka moment brings tears to his eyes, and the formally staid lieutenant is indulging in drug-fueled orgies by week’s end. L’appétit vient en mangeant…
In brief, passions, and portions, are outsized in The Heavenly Table, which gives it an indigestible quality. The fast-moving adventure and gallery of grotesques consistently entertain, but as one shovels down the novel’s 72 chapters, the concentrated flavor of the exquisite opening becomes a distant memory.
Faintly audible behind all the novel’s noise is an elegy for a world threatened by the “ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth century capitalism.” A ravenous economic system produces ravenous subjects, and jumping to the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of the 21st century, we meet two such subjects in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court.
Carousel Court takes place close to the present, during the recent housing crash, yet it feels post-apocalyptic, Flip This House meets The Road. Nick and Phoebe have relocated from Boston to California, planning to rent in Los Angeles and renovate a house in Serenos, Calif., an inland development. The young couple spare no expense in their “virtual homebuilding” — an hourglass pool, Italian marble bathroom, and an indoor climbing wall, which, as events spiral downward, stands as a mocking reminder of their upwardly mobile aspirations. Nick loses his job, the economy tanks, and the 30-something pair are marooned among “rotting five-bedroom corpses,” their desolate neighborhood visited nightly by “mountain lions and bobcats, pit vipers, and Latino gangs trolling for new turf.” They have bitten off more than then they can chew, and are now at risk of the “barren landscape fold[ing] in on itself, this patch of earth swallowing” them whole.
Their underwater mortgage is actually less disastrous than their caustic marriage — an epistolary novella could be constructed entirely out of their hostile text messages — which from the start is threatened by a mismatch in drives. Try as he might to satisfy it, Nick recognizes a hunger in his wife he can never satisfy, “an appetite that seemed to border on compulsion.” The most pronounced, and intoxicating, feature of her beautiful face is “that jaw of hers,” seductive and menacing, even more so as it juts out more prominently from her emaciated face. Phoebe’s hunger is entirely figurative; indeed, her diet consists primarily of booze and Klonopin, and her budget-busting trips to Whole Foods are less about eating, or feeding her child, than restorative glimpses of paradise: “She’ll linger in the wide, bountiful aisles, the cool air, the welcoming faces, and mist will cleanse fresh-cut kale, and time itself will stop.” Allen Ginsberg saw the ghost of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California; Phoebe has had her own, distinctly yuppie vision of the heavenly table.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about attention atrophy and the Internet. And I mean a lot of talk. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because some of the trend pieces are really long (like, 2,000 words long) and your gchat may have been buzzing at a clip that precluded sustained focus on what a given writer for the The Atlantic, Slate, or The New York Times had to say about the latest UCLA study on how Google can affect your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Entering freshmen at the university where I teach are required to read Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It clocks in at 280 pages, and most students will not finish it.
I’ve got nothing against the hand-wringers — idle hands, etc. — but I’d like to advance a modest defense of the good that can come from the browser’s mindset, and from inattentive dilettantism. Indeed, let me suggest that we can find solace for the dilemma not in studies showing that video games make you smarter, but rather in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a long, obstreperous 18th-century work that Virginia Woolf (author of short, prismatic 20th-century works) called “the greatest of all novels.” Shandy makes the Cervantes/Fielding/Dickens picaresque look like a straight walk down a well-lit road. It is both a challenge to read and a sustained work of jumpy, distracted hilarity. Attention deficit, for Sterne, is not something to be feared in the reader — it is the basis for his process of composition.
A précis of Shandy is more or less impossible, and tempts Shandean distractions of its own. Nonetheless: the title character wishes to write his memoirs. (The why is unclear, though an encyclopedic impulse runs in the family — Shandy senior has written tracts on the naming of children; pseudo-Descartian meditations on the pineal gland; a discourse on the importance of proper balance between “radical heat and radical moisture” in the human animal — you get the idea.) Along the way, everything goes wrong, both in the writing and the living. A mis-wound clock distracts his parents at the moment of his conception; a scullery maid’s malapropism results in his absurd, medieval first name; the memoirist himself becomes so distracted that he does not emerge from the womb until the novel is one-third done. Sterne writes a chapter on buttons; he writes a chapter on knots. Many of the chapters are shorter than a page. The author’s preface arrives in chapter 20 of the third volume. The novel’s most endearing character — besides the garrulous autobiographer himself — is Uncle Toby, a veteran of the French wars who returns with an embarrassing wound to his groin and, post-convalescence, spends his days in the backyard building scale models of various theaters of battle, the better to relive his glory days. Transitions between high, anarchic comedy and sustained passages of sentiment can be sudden and vertiginous. Shandy is accidentally circumcised by a falling window sash; Shandy falls in love with a “nut-brown maid” in France; a heartstring-yanking obituary for a jolly priest named Yorick is followed by a wordless, all-black page; an inveterate bore named Phutatorius (Latin for “Fucker”) has the misfortune to catch a burning chestnut in his breeches. (Genitalia in general do not fare well in this book.) And an alleged act of bestiality leads to the iconic final words of the novel:
‘L–d!’ said my mother, ‘what is all this story about?’ —-
‘A COCK and a BULL,’ said Yorick —- ‘And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.’
I could go on, but that’s the point — Shandy’s project is telescopically expandable, as he notes with less anxiety than glee: “At this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write.” Days are more easily lived than written, at least with the narrator’s level of detail and errant whimsicality: “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good.” Hamlet saturates certain volumes of Shandy, the Dane’s inability to take action here spun into a structural literary motif: the fullness, absurdity, hilarity, and pathos of life outpace man’s ability to take stock of them — and man, in turn, responds by dragging his feet, gazing at his navel, and losing focus whenever a new and shiny object is presented to him.
Let’s not mince words: this is all deeply silly. And that, of course, is the point. On trial in Shandy are the masturbatory elements of scholarship; distractible humans and their whimsical hobbies; the proliferating literary phenomenon of “biographical freebooters”; and self-involved males who can argue (with a Voltairean antilogic) finer points of causality while, upstairs, poor Mrs. Shandy lies in excruciating, protracted labor. Few novels — even few early novels — have less believability in them. And yet Shandy, in all its digressive, distracted, ADD glory, captures something of life that narratives of linear focus rarely can.
The characters who labored in service to the early novel — the fictional memoirists of Defoe, the virtuous letter-writers of Richardson — told tales semi-intended to be taken as true, and which sometimes were: after the massive success of Gulliver’s Travels, Arbuthnot wrote to Swift, “Gulliver is in every body’s hands…I lent the book to an old Gentleman, who went immediately to his map to search for Lilliput.” The idea of readerly enjoyment was a vicarious identification with characters we might, in an idle moment, fancy to be real. (Richardson coyly dubbed himself the mere “editor” of Clarissa; Fielding, in proto-Sternean mockery of Richardson, insisted on Tom Jones as a “history.”) Sterne took this early and enduring premise of fiction and extended it to its illogical conclusion: a book that seeks to mimic “reality” will, in fact, smack of distraction and madness.
When people talk about Shandy nowadays, it is in the context of the postmoderns. In the inventive and charming 2006 film, Steve Coogan intones: “Shandy was a postmodern classic before there was a modernism to be post about.”
Sterne indeed anticipated many of the tics and preoccupations that came to define (and oversimplify) postmodernism as inherently “self-conscious.” A text is a text, and there is an author behind it, whatever Roland Barthes may say, and somewhere in the 20th century the dominant premise of fiction — the suspension of disbelief, of our knowledge that these characters aren’t real — was no longer enough. The Wizard had to emerge from behind the curtain; metacritical comment became de rigueur. Books of fiction had to declare as such, and to remark, speciously or otherwise, on the process of their own composition.
What is lacking in the more paranoid of the postmoderns is a Shandean sense of textual play as total entertainment. Did Sterne agonize over the “constructed” nature of his opus? No; he reveled in it. His footnotes were not self-lacerating interrogations of the potential dishonesty of the enterprise — they were postscript punchlines to jokes that already had you splitting your sides and getting weird looks in terminal D at O’Hare. The book is a total funhouse, full of toys, surprises, and regressive loops. Volume IX leaves two chapters totally blank, where the author sees fit to introduce the events of chapter 25 before returning to numbers 18 and 19. In lieu of describing the toothsome Widow Wadman in Volume VI, Sterne allows you an empty page on which to draw your conception of the perfect woman: “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—-as like your mistress as you can—-as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you–’tis all one to me.”
‘Tis all one to us, as well. Sterne invites us to skip passages that bore, forget passages that displease, to hop and jump between chapters, and to reimagine scenes to our own liking. In elevating to muse-status his own fickle fancy, Sterne indulges ours, creating a book that is less a novel than the longest sustained joke in the English language.
And yes, it is long. But here’s the secret: you don’t really need to finish it to get the joke. Just follow the big F, if you prefer — you’ll miss the climax between Toby and the Widow, but so did Coogan et al. in the film. (There was just a lot happening on the set, see, and they got distracted.) Information overload is not a new phenomenon — it’s sort of just part of being alive. Our current objects of distraction may be somewhat newer and shinier, and fewer of us read Latin and French, but the Shandean truths abide. If Sterne can teach us anything, it is to enjoy the flightiness of our mortal minds — not to lament, but to laugh.
In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”
In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new.
Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted — an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one.
Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.” This double perspective is often mentioned as one of the pleasures of rereading, especially of reading books from childhood. Hazlitt writes rhapsodically of opening Tom Jones and feeling like a child again, and Spacks, too, makes a tour of her childhood reading to see what holds up to adult scrutiny. She finds Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still enchants, but the Narnia series feels flat and lifeless. Ferdinand the Bull delights, as does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped enthralls her. Thus rereading is a way back into the past, to a time when one was more innocent or more susceptible to the powers of imagination or just younger, and different. It inspires introspection and self-reflection through the workings of memory: How am I the same person as the last time I read this book? How am I different?
Rereading is also a form of pedagogy. To know a book you have to reread it, as Harold Bloom writes in his How to Read and Why (though he is apt to plea, as he does here, for careful reading rather than repetition; it is taken for granted that only through multiple readings will knowledge will seep in). “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.” Though rereading we get to know a book beyond its surface elements, we read more deeply and are rewarded not with an easy experience but with a richer one. We learn to take a book apart, pick out crucial scenes, ponder characters’ motives, see its flaws, tease out its themes. In part, through rereading we become skilled critics. Spacks too explores the professional aspect of her rereading: as a teacher and literary critic, she has read certain books over and over as part of her job and been surprised when they surprise her, or when students find aspects of a book she has passed over in her multiple readings. Even the pros sometimes miss a detail in Moby-Dick, or the book Bloom confesses to reading twice a year, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.
To really love a book we must spend time with it, and that means rereading — for love, too, falls under the heading of Bloom’s “difficult pleasure.” Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays culled from the “Rereadings” column she edited in The American Scholar explores the strong feelings that arise between rereader and book. In her introduction to the collection, Fadiman claims that “each [column] was a miniature memoir at whose heart lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love.” Some of the most memorable essays in Rereadings involve letting go of love, or becoming disillusioned by rereading. For example, Luc Sante’s essay on Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud describes a vehement case of hero-worship in which the idolatrous fever eventually breaks. You see, Sante confides, “At some point before adolescence, I had decided to be a child prodigy,” and he chose writing as his field. At 13 he encountered Rimbaud in a poetry anthology, and soon after he found the aforementioned biography “with a picture of a big-haired, pensive, beautiful adolescent” on the cover. He read it everywhere he went, and realized he had chosen a remarkable idol: “He was hipper than anyone alive.” Sante was smitten.
Yet there were attendant issues with such a role model: “He wasn’t even divisible into parts, you couldn’t be half a Rimbaud. The alternative to being Rimbaud was to be nothing.” Inevitably, Sante grew out of his passion. “I can reread the Starkie biography today…and no longer feel as though I will have to set the book down at some point and go put on music or think about something else, because the race is over now.” Rimbaud has won; he won by never having a Rimbaud to worship. But then, he also never had the adulthood Sante has, or the knowledge that has come with it. Rimbaud lost too by never growing up, by his truncated biography, by always coming to a tragic early end.
Vivian Gornick’s essay in Fadiman’s collection also deals with lost love. “When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.” Colette is the only writer who can describe their condition, the way they had to live. “The condition, of course, was that we were women, and that Love (as we had long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched.” Like Sante worshipping Rimbaud, Gornick and her friends’ fixation on Colette had its problems. They were intellectual girls (young women, really), readers, of course, who lived out their fantasies in books. Gornick writes of their identification with the great literary heroines, Henry James’s Isabel Archer and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, “passionate young women destined for tragedy at the hands of famously unworthy men.” Yet they were also new women, championing Mary McCarthy and relishing their sexual independence. Colette combined these two forces, or so it seemed. “She seemed to know everything that actually went on inside a woman ‘in the grip.’ Her wisdom riveted your eyes to the page, gathered up your scattered, racing inattention. It made A Woman in Love as serious a concern for the novelist as God or War.” Gornick’s descriptions of communing with Colette’s books, particularly The Vagabond and The Shackle, are hungry and spiritual. How would they stand up to rereading?
Not well, is the short answer. After 30 years they seem melodramatic, contrived, alienating. Though she says Colette’s “writing is incomparable,” Gornick exclaims of the lovers, “But what appalling strangers these people are to one another! Not a speck of reality between them. How preoccupied [Colette] is with aging. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? And the aimlessness of them all, women and men alike — especially in The Shackle. No one has anything to do but lie around brooding about love.” Note that love has lost its capital letter for Gornick. These novels about passion felt dispassionate. Where in her 20s Gornick had believed love was the territory she would stake her claim on, life has intervened and shown her their lives are much larger. Gornick is struck by how much smaller Colette’s world seems, and though the comparison is with her first reading, it is also with her own world. Gornick’s final thought is a melancholy one: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.” Rereading has taken something away from Gornick that she valued, an illusion about love, and life, that cannot be retrieved.
Rereading does not have to lead to loss, however. Plenty of people reread because they find it soothing, fortifying even. And a disproportionate number of those rereaders seem to pick up a novel by Jane Austen. When Patricia Spacks started researching rereading as a topic, it was Jane Austen who was most often the answer to the question of who people reread (especially women, it seems, men, according to nothing more than anecdotal evidence, keep a volume of Tolkien nearby). She asked a young woman in China why Austen was her favorite author, and then a group of Holocaust survivors who met to read Austen aloud to one another. From their answers, Spacks concluded that Austen meant civilization. “We may plausibly surmise that a considerable proportion of Austen’s many rereaders, from adoring members of the Jane Austen Society to casual pleasure-seekers, find comfort in civilized discourse: carefully formed plots that end predictably in satisfactory marriages, style that reflects the author’s dominion over her material, characters rewarded and punished according to their deserts.” The fact that her world is one that values words — think of the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — also gives the rereader an extra jolt. Spacks writes, “It’s not just that Austen teaches us about life — life teaches us about Austen.”
Allegra Goodman’s essay in Anne Fadiman’s collection, “Pemberly Previsited,” traces the motions of one Austen rereader, from a girl too young to understand much of Austen’s subtlety to a young mother whose own mother has just died and is looking for solace in Austen’s world. It is her third reading of Pride and Prejudice, a tribute to her mother who loved Austen, that really makes the novel click into place for her. “What I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination didn’t seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying.” While after her second reading Goodman had found the book lacking compared with more complex or darker classic novels, this time it seems just right. As Goodman wryly notes, “A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.” In a time of darkness, Austen has provided a fairy tale, but one with enough grounding in reality to viscerally satisfy her. It is hard to ask more of a book.
Goodman keeps rereading Pride, finding more and more to admire in it, and coming to this conclusion about the process: “I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.” This image echoes one Spacks uses, that of the palimpsest (an ancient scroll where a text is scraped off and another written over it), where each reading is layered upon the last. “Although one never altogether recovers previous layers,” Spacks writes, “they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version.”
As long as we keep rereading, however, we never have the ultimate version of a book. Whether we go back again and again to a classic (and the ability to hold up to rereading is how a book becomes a classic) or pick up an old favorite to see how it has fared or dig deep into the treasures of our youth, rereading is an experiment that is bound to change us, and to change our impressions of the books we read. Rereading can certainly surprise, it can instruct, and it can make us feel safe. Maybe it is not indulgent to reread a book, but a way to learn; and what is any sort of reading but a way to learn, whether it is something new about the world or just something new about ourselves?
For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me. Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn’t help–it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing. During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge. The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on. Something had to be done.
Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge. For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration. Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you’re one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.) Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room. Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company?
I also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives. The first thing I look at when I walk into someone’s home is their bookshelf. That is, if they’ve got any–lord help me. On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, “If you go home with someone, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em!” This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I’d like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don’t read, I don’t want to be your friend…I don’t even want you to serve me a drink at a bar. If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov.
Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library. “You’re not actually going to re-read these, are you?” he asked. It should come as no surprise that he isn’t a reader (I wish I could say, “If you don’t read, I don’t want to be your daughter”…but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.) Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched. We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left. “But I need them for teaching!” I cried. I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student. “You’re not a librarian,” Patrick replied, that witty asshole.
So, one Sunday, we began. My first idea was that we would do each other’s dirty work. I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine. Nothing would leave the apartment without the other’s consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter. Patrick had no idea how much I’d enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn’t mean all that much to me. That stung–but he was right, and into the exit line it went.
It wasn’t long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily. We were even a little frenzied. It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn’t read it, let them. Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins. I didn’t need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear.
The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well. The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things. I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers. Let them live on! I was in the service of humanity now!
Of course, we didn’t get rid of everything (sorry, humanity). Our favorites remained. Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson… and these were just a few of the authors who survived. Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two “favorites” shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts. We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag. We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened. Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.)
Our best change is “The Unread” (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you). I am happy to say, it’s only a short pile, and it’s in no danger of blocking that movie poster. This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it’s difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us. Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I’m halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).
It’s been a little over a week since we’ve cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves. To my surprise, I don’t grieve the change. Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books. It’s like a flattering new haircut that no one sees–they just think you look great.
So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books? Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I’ve previously established). But we weren’t so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd. If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 2 focused on Historical and Geographic Setting. N.B.: Today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 3: Audience, Character, and ConclusionGarth: What makes a kids’ book a kids’ book, in the popular sense of the phrase? After having thought about this a lot, the answer I’ve come up with is: kids’ books often have a kind of “educational” component adult novels can get away with bypassing. This is a way of broaching the topic of audience. You mentioned earlier, Emily, that you wondered about the audience of this book, and I wanted to suggest that the question of audience may persist even if you ignore, for example, Anderson’s debt to Adorno (as one can easily do.)Emily: Yes, I think I agree with your idea that didacticism is what makes this YA, but I still find myself wondering what I would have made of this book in my early teens – I wonder if I would have liked it, or even understood it. In my own teaching at the university level, I have seen students struggle with 18th-Century literature. Of course, there are a lot of children’s books that abstract their plots and characters from philosophy and history that is more adult (Narnia’s Christianity, Jane Langton’s use of American transcendentalism in The Hall Family Chronicles, Jenny Davidson’s use of an alternative history of Europe (if Napoleon had won at Waterloo) in The Explosionist, Matthew Skelton’s use of Faust legends and the history of Gutenberg and his press in Endymion Spring). But I feel like Octavian is harder – the style is harder, the form is harder – even if the history itself will probably be more familiar. I like the idea of younger readers liking this book, but I am, nonetheless, a little surprised by it.Garth: This may be one of those things you’re not supposed to ask for from books about American slavery, Sept. 11, Naziism, and so forth, but I thought that the subtlety of Anderson’s moral sense lagged at times behind his technical gifts. Octavian offers an essentially monochromatic vision of the institution of slavery. He does a great job revealing the way it was bound up in the culture, extending the responsibility to most participants of that culture, but he leaves little room for gradations of evil. The ironies are often negations, rather than complications or paradoxes. Juxtaposed with his extraordinary formal achievements, this made me wonder, for whom was this book was written? Younger readers may find fusillades of prose flying by over their heads, while older readers may be disappointed by the lack of moral complexity. It may be argued that melodrama is one of the archaic conventions Anderson is playing with here, but Harriet Beecher Stowe got there in the 19th Century, and did it more convincingly. I should issue another spoiler alert here, by the way. I think we might have to give away some of the book’s secrets to discuss our criticisms.Emily: I wouldn’t say I have criticisms of Octavian as much as I have questions because it is a difficult book.Garth: Maybe this is a way of exposing myself as overly hungry for irony in the novels I read. But for me, the problem of moral certainty (and its potential solutions in Volume II of Octavian Nothing) is grounded in the characters themselves. After watching Anderson painstakingly reconstruct the cultural environment within which anyone found slavery sane, I was disappointed to see Mr. Gitney, the head of the Novanglian College of Lucidity collapse into simple villainy. I was more interested in him when he seemed merely compromised and self-deluding. Similarly, the virtuous Private Evidence Goring, who befriends Octavian, was a little too virtuous for me. He had this kind of Rousseauvian innocence – he seems genuinely colorblind, and naturally assumes his friend Octavian’s equality. He’s like a son of the soil. Could he really be uncontaminated by the pervasive ideology of slave-owning? I wanted at least to see him be really dismissive of a woman, or something. I guess I wanted him to be capable of change.Emily: I share your disappointment in Mr. Gitney. The one aspect of this book that I found kind of clunky was the way Gitney pursued his experiment on Octavian. He aims to discover if Africans have the same intellectual and moral capacities as Europeans, but that would necessitate having a European subject raised alongside Octavian in the exact same conditions. The betrayal of the rationalist empiricism that Gitney claims to defend is glaringly obvious – but not to him. Maybe a way around our dissatisfaction is to think of Gitney and Goring as allegorical figures? Goring as the bright, naive, fresh-faced idealism of a soon-to-be nation; Gitney as… well, maybe the inhumanity of which science and commerce are capable? Something like that? And Octavian – who I think will develop into a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character in future volumes – is trying to orient himself in the midst of all of these?Garth: Ah. This might explain my lack of feeling for Gitney and Goring. I don’t have much of a taste for allegory.Emily: Though, in truth, I was not so bothered by Goring as a character, allegory aside. Perhaps because I am more at home with the idioms of the eighteenth century, his character did not seem false to me – kind of Tom Jones-y, though a bit more religious. I found his naive idealism appealing and believable. A matter of taste, I think. I can appreciate irony but do not require it in my reading. Indeed, I have been known – forgive me, Oscar Wilde – to cry uncontrollably when Dickens describes Tiny Tim’s empty stool and crutch leaning against the wall in A Christmas Carol. My occasional problems with sensibility aside, though, I think allegory might be the key here.Garth: Dr. Trefusius, Octavian’s tutor, was a much more interesting character to me, because his complicated relationship to “the peculiar institution” recalled the Jeffersonian one I sketched in Part 2 of our conversation. Trefusius is hopelessly compromised and complicit, but is not beyond redemption. Indeed, his is the kind of character who necessitates redemption. Likewise Bono, the slave you mentioned earlier, who almost forms a dyad with Dr. Trefusius. His clear-sightedness comes at the cost of his optimism. I suppose I think this kind of muddled moral position has more to teach us, because it’s the one we’re more likely to find ourselves in – beneficiaries of institutions that would bother our consciences, if we allow ourselves to see them for what they are. But here I’m starting to sound like I’m asking for more didacticism. Perhaps didacticism in literature is a paradox. For the bald didactic “moral” can only teach us so much. It precipitates a gestalt shift; we can only learn it once. Whereas putatively amoral irony and ambiguity constitute an ongoing lesson in what life is like. This is what’s so remarkable about Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, by the way. It has volumes to teach us about how one human being can tolerate owning another. Speaking of character, what did you think of Octavian himself?Emily: Octavian is hard to grasp, elusive, there is a lack of emotion about him, a lack of self-knowledge that makes him seem something like autistic at times (added to his encyclopedic knowledge of natural and classical history, there’s a bit of a Rain Man effect). This might have bothered me more if it didn’t remind me of some of Defoe’s best heroes and heroines, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and also Coetzee’s equally emotionally opaque Foe. With the exceptions of Evidence Goring and Dr. Trefusis, all of the characters in Volume I strike me as emotionally broken and joyless, either by slavery or by a deformed and deforming commitment to a perverse version of rationalism.Garth: With Octavian, Anderson clearly wants to do something with the idea of scientific observation (in which his protagonist is trained) versus engagement, but Octavian’s tendency to become a transparent eyeball at key dramatic moments made it increasingly difficult for me to get a read on his character. I longed for a dawning complexity befitting the maturity of the language, but Octavian became less plausible to me the older he got. That is, I think I saw what Anderson was up to, but had some trouble suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen more of a moral duality in Octavian himself: struggling with his own urge to dominate others, to lash out in violence at weaker characters, to achieve Oedipal one-ness with his mother… you get the picture. Though perhaps the point is that observation versus engagement is itself a moral quandary. I wanted, finally, to see Octavian as a particular human personality, rather than as an Everyman shaped by forces beyond his control. I’m hoping this is what Part II is for…Emily: My question is whether Octavian can get beyond this broken, stunted, deadened quality in future volumes and if such an evolution can be convincing. Garth: So maybe this is a good point to leave off the discussion. This has been fun, Emily. Maybe we should do it again.Emily: Indeed!Bonus Link: A 2008 profile of M.T. Anderson from The Washington Post
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
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions….And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
For better or for worse, Salman Rushdie is never at a loss for words. At a star-studded PEN reading last week, Rushdie surveyed the youthful audience and said something to the effect of, Maybe the novel’s not dead after all. Hermione Lee makes the same observation, though for different reasons, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Her tone is light, almost tossed off: “But 2006 seemed, to me at least, to be a year when the novel’s survival and significance were not in question.” Her import, however, is important.Once upon a time, the novel was derided as frivolous, ephemeral, commercial – even an incitement to immorality. In Book XIII of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding invoked not Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, but “fat Ufrow Gelt” – Mistress Money. “Instructed by thee,” he joked, “some Books, like Quacks, impose on the World by promising Wonders; while others turn Beaus, and trust all their Merits to a gilded Outside.” The commercial printing press, Fielding suggested, was unseating the substantial in favor of the superficial.Such arguments against the novel recall Socrates’ argument against writing in the Phaedrus, as well as the more recent arguments privileging analog over digital media. Without weighing in on those debates, though, I’d argue that the barriers between writing and speech, print and writing, online and print, have proven infinitely permeable. The virus of triviality (if virus it be) can infect words no matter what form they take. And in the centuries following Fielding, the novel’s fortunes have ascended like those of a Balzac hero. Its reputation burnished by Austen and Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Joyce, its base beginnings have receded into the mists. Now we look to the novel as the repository of the best that has been thought. Hence the periodic outbreaks of hand-wringing over its death. (See, for example, this well-worn Philip Roth quotation).What Rushdie and Lee have noticed, however, is that the myth of the “Death of the Novel” has lately lost its potency. Perhaps because we have not, after all, reached the end of history – perhaps because we, like the Moderns, find ourselves in a time of both shimmering possibility and immersive fear and suffering – a form built on “belief in the value of the individual” is vital again. I’m not sure that a young, hyper-educated, and largely white audience at a PEN event exactly proves this point, nor that the novels anointed by the critics and Nielsen BookScan are those likely to be read in a century from now. But in the moral universe of the novel, these quibbles seem minor, at best. Lee quotes Edward Mendelsohn: “The novel offers one of ‘the most intellectually and morally coherent ways of thinking about human beings. [That is,] as autonomous persons […] instead of as members of any category, class, or group.'” Think about the literary sturm und drang of the past decade: Tom Wolfe’s too strident manifestos, B.R. Meyers’ too close readings, Jonathan Franzen’s too public anguishings, James Wood’s critical dialogue with Zadie Smith… n+1 versus McSweeney’s, Ben Marcus versus Franzen, Dale Peck versus nearly everything, and, most recently, Marilynne Robinson’s and Cynthia Ozick’s attempts to synthesize it all. Or read the Hermione Lee article, citing an entirely different set of sources. Or, if these strike you as too Ivy League, peruse the mission statements of The Underground Literary Alliance. The vital arguments in 2007 are not about whether the novel is alive, but about what kinds of novels we should be writing, and how we should be reading them. These are, of course, insoluble questions. But the mere fact that we are asking them again seems to bear out an idea of DeLillo’s: “If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.”It’s possible that the sense of the novel’s vulnerability has in the past spurred authors to their best work. But now we must write from a larger awareness: the vulnerability of the world as we know it. So quit your damn web-browser, novelists of tomorrow, and get to work!