It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
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Once, I had to go to the hospital. There was no reason to be afraid. The procedure was, at least for the doctors, routine. The chance of death was slim to none. Driving on the highway, for instance, just to arrive at the medical complex, had incurred about the same risk of serious injury. It was a pretty, sunny day in July. The doors were massive glass, revolving at a slow speed. I approached them willingly, but right before crossing through, I hesitated, overcome by sudden fear: I had the feeling that once I went into the hospital, I wouldn’t come out again.
I did—happily. Though it’s likely others who entered that day never would. That isn’t surprising. It’s very common to die in a hospital, so much so that the place has absorbed into itself the roles and artistic possibilities of the death-bed room, the graveyard, the pastoral house of worship. The religious leaders who once stood at the threshold between life and death are often replaced by a nurse, a doctor—caring, attentive, or sardonic, who knows?—hovering over a solitary patient and presiding over the mystery.
When the narrator of Ahmed Bouanani’s incantatory novel reaches the gates of the unnamed hospital, he experiences no immediate sense of foreboding, though the unforgettable and haunting first lines make it clear that he has strolled into the end of his life:
When I walked through the large iron gate of the hospital, I must have still been alive. At least that’s what I believed since I could smell on my skin the scents of a city that I would never see again.
Casually, he adds his name to a “yellow sheet already covered with flyspecks” and says “thank you four or five times to heads nodding behind screens in tiny, enclosed spaces where decades of paperwork and x-ray films were piling up on dusty shelves.” He follows a nurse deeper through the halls to C Wing, a place where time has seemingly come to a standstill, where the outside world ceases to matter, and where illness is a perpetual state, with no instances of or real hope for recovery.
The patient—suffering from an unnamed illness—becomes trapped in a bewildering twilight between life and death. The hospital is a haunted shadow world where memory struggles for a breath of air, where the grotesque facts of the outside country are gone over at leisure. Indignities and past sufferings (long-ago familial deaths, a childhood friend left asleep under a streetlamp, the violent and petty offenses of self-proclaimed criminals) are felt again, perhaps made worse by the removal: the ability to sit and think over events with no further possibility of investigation, action, or intervention.
Stasis is the rule here—for character and reader both. In The Hospital, there is no emphasis on the “and then…” of traditional narrative. There is no real story—which might sound like a critique but in fact is a kind of writing that can be just as cogent and enjoyable as the other, more plot-based or emotionally arcing sort, when the bursts of dialogue, bits of mordant wisdom, and small occurrences are done as well as they are done here. (Praise must go in part to Lara Vergnaud’s eloquent translation.) Take, for instance, the shadows of hunched patients like Easter Island giants, the mind like a “wild horse imprisoned in a serene body,” or this portrayal of pervasive mortality:
I rub shoulders with death every day now, that’s why I no longer fear him. I see him in my companions’ eyes, dressed like them in squalid blue pajamas, smoking crappy tobacco like everyone else, shooting the shit while waiting for dusk. He doesn’t hide in the dark corners, behind low walls, under beds, in humid, stinking latrines, he joins us at the dinner table, he laughs when we laugh, he shares our madness, then he leads us to our beds the same way you’d lead a mischievous child who refuses to go to sleep.
In some respects, Bouanani’s character is not unlike Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp (who, in The Magic Mountain, enters a sanatorium intending a three-week visit and stays for seven years) for the slow and imagistic ways he lives beside his own death, and in a place where health is the ostensible but seemingly impossible aim. The character also shares with Castorp a richness in metaphoric layering, for he, Bouanani’s patient, is not only an accentuation of the mortal human but also a specific representative of his country at a very particular moment. As Anna Della Subin’s introduction helpfully describes, Bouanani (who died in 2011) was writing during a politically fraught time in Morocco, when, in an overzealous attempt to erase a legacy of colonization, artists like Bouanani were subjected to extreme censorship and threats. He was criticized for writing in French, forced to work under the watchful eye of the government, and fated to make films that were often immediately banned. As if that wasn’t enough, he also composed while struggling against an international culture that, in his view, demeaned the history of Arabic storytelling.
The hospital, then, becomes not only a state of mortal purgatory but also the intellectual and economic purgatory of a stuck generation. “Are we really a people?” asks one withered patient, known only by his nickname, Fartface. “Think about it. We were born with our right hands outstretched, begging in our blood…Too much servitude has made us forget what dignity, generosity, and tolerance truly are.” Another character’s self-description sounds doubly of metaphysical plight, and the shared providence of Morocco’s lost age of artists and thinkers:
I’m in between jobs, sir. Like everyone. My life is temporary, my hopes are temporary, my sleep and my dreams are temporary. I am temporarily counting a lot on the future, and here, look, sir, I have a temporary work certificate for when I’ll be temporarily well.
Not everything in Bouanani’s novel is so strikingly clear. There are flights of fancy and symbolic reaches in The Hospital (for instance, the hospital’s lush interior garden, the characters living and not living who haunt the patient, one with an axe) that carry vague and fairly muted meanings. Still, the central conceit of Bouanani’s novel is powerful and lucid, and the trim novel leaves a lasting impression. You enter the hospital; you lose yourself in its labyrinth, its rhythms, its silence like “the silence of a jar.” Sometimes you re-emerge and sometimes you don’t (“The world doesn’t care,” writes Bouanani, with bite, “but your mother does”). In the end, though, the difference was always overpronounced: You were just as mortal outside the hospital as inside, just as trapped. The mysteries that exist in the hospital—that peculiar factory where the living often become the dead—exist just as much beyond the iron gates. All true. All seemingly obvious. But often it takes an author like Bouanani to tap our arm and lead the way into an intense reminder.