The Names

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DeLillo, Lethem, and the Seductive Sentence

 In November of last year I was invited to speak at a symposium on the work of Don DeLillo. I chose the title for my talk — “Don DeLillo and the Sentence” — without really thinking too much about it. It was only after I’d fired off this title to the conference organisers that it occurred to me to wonder why it had suggested itself so readily And I realised that for me — and perhaps for a plurality of DeLillo’s readers–this is what DeLillo’s work chiefly means. For many of us, to read fiction of Don DeLillo is primarily to encounter a series of extraordinary sentences. 

At various points in my life I’ve taken apart DeLillo’s sentences, to see how they worked. I’ve tried to write sentences like them. I even went so far as to publish a short story, ten years ago, that amounted to a pastiche of the DeLillo manner. This story featured a glazed and helplessly ironic narrator recounting events in what I then took to be a coolly postmodern style. (The subject-matter of the story was not, I should say, especially DeLilloesque: it was about a group of college students on a sex-and-drugs holiday in Majorca.) That story now languishes in deserved obscurity. I mention it now because it illustrates something essential about my own relationship, as a reader, to DeLillo’s work. He is, for me, one of the reigning monarchs of the sentence.   

As I drafted my talk. I decided to perform an experiment: I wrote down as many Don DeLillo sentences as I could remember without looking them up. There were quite a few:  
Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the sombre renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. – Great Jones Street 

Weapons have become godless since then. – Running Dog 
It is all falling indelibly into the past. – Underworld 
They got him for his speed. – End Zone 
Tides of ash-light broke across the spires. – Great Jones Street 

For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock. – The Names 
He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” – Cosmopolis 
That I could remember these sentences wholesale isn’t just a testament to my superhuman powers of recall (though it is also that). I know, from speaking to other DeLillo readers about his work, that they, too, have their personal anthologies —  the DeLillo sentences that still loiter in the memory, long after the books have been closed. Looking at my own list of DeLillo sentences, I was struck by how few of them were gnomic epigrams. Epigrams, of course, are designed to be memorable: the epigrammatic writer, from La Rochefoucauld to Oscar Wilde, is the quotable writer, and DeLillo has always been a diligent epigrammatist. From The Names: “What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little.” From Amazons, the novel DeLillo published in 1980 under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell: “If a man’s name sounds right whether you say it forwards or backwards, it means he went to Yale.” There’s no knack to recalling epigrams; they are designed to be recalled. So, I remembered “Weapons have become godless since then” from Running Dog — firmly in the epigrammatic mode — but I also remembered an apparently trivial sentence from Cosmopolis: “He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” The reason I remembered this sentence – the reason I find so many of DeLillo’s sentences memorable – is, I think, because it appeals to what T.S. Eliot called “the auditory imagination” in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) :  
What I call the ‘auditory imagination’ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality.
“He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” What’s memorable about this sentence is its deployment of assonance: the way the ee in details picks up the ee in teeming, seeming audibly to multiply those myriad details – the sentence is elongated by those long, rhyming ees; but this elongation is bracketed by two sharp As: mastered and anatomy. Aurally speaking, this sentence is choreographed to perfection; and visually, it is perfectly balanced: the act of mastery, and the crisp mention of the thing mastered, contained between them those unruly “teeming details,” so that the sentence itself enacts Eric Packer’s mastery – and enacts, also, his larger mastery, of the mysteries of global finance.   

You can do this sort of thing with any number of DeLillo sentences. Look at the opening lines of The Names: “For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock.” I could note the Proustian echo in that “For a long time”; I could note the heavy, ponderous assonance of “daunted,” “sombre,” and “rock” that aurally mimic the physical presence of the Acropolis. These sentences are memorable because they have been engineered with precision: they are elevated into the range of the epigrammatic because they are densely packed with extractable ore, and designed to awake a response in the auditory imagination by penetrating, as Eliot puts it, “far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling.” To read DeLillo at the level of the sentence – as I have done and continue to do – is to encounter a level of linguistic sophistication we rightly call poetic. Rereading Great Jones Street while I was writing this paper, I was struck afresh at how purely original DeLillo’s sentences are. Like Melville – like Bellow – like surprisingly few writers, even those generally accounted “great” – DeLillo has fashioned a prose idiolect of quite striking sophistication and range. His sentences are works of art in themselves; they reward close study; they give enormous aesthetic pleasure.   

I am not, of course, the first person to observe that Don DeLillo writes great sentences. Even James Wood, in his sceptical review of Underworld (published in The New Republic in 1997) describes DeLillo’s prose as “richly exact.” And Wood, in fact, is sceptical of DeLillo’s work, in part, precisely because of what he sees as its focus on smaller units of fictional composition – the sentence, the setpiece, the purple patch. For Wood, Underworld – and DeLillo’s work in general – amounts to “a collection of lavish fragments, set down in a maze.” And Wood, I think, awakens us to a curious risk inherent in admiring DeLillo chiefly for his sentences. In a fascinating essay, “Half-Against Flaubert,” originally published in The New Republic in 1999, Wood presents a case against the kind of sentence-fetishism inaugurated, as Wood sees it, by Flaubert. Prose that lavishes attention on each of its sentences enforces, for Wood, “the tyranny of the detail,” and gives rise to a prose “broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life.” And I think there is an aesthetic risk that comes with valuing a writer chiefly for his sentences – the way I value Don DeLillo. Works of literature are, of course, made up of sentences – there isn’t anything else – but there are other units of composition, from the paragraph to the chapter to the form of the novel itself; and the valuing of sentences tout court can, I think, very easily confine us within a rather claustrophobic, New-Criticism-type box – can leave us blind to other spheres of aesthetic and ethical experience. In other words, there are risks as well as pleasures, in responding to an author in this way (as merely a purveyor of marvellous sentences).  

This is precisely the theme of a short story by Jonathan Lethem, first published in The New Yorker in December 2007. In “The King of Sentences,” the narrator and his girlfriend, Clea, are aspiring writers who work in bookstores (as the narrator puts it: “We worked in bookstores, the only thing to do.”) Clea and the narrator are sentence-fetishists in embryo:  
This was the time when all we could talk about was sentences, sentences—nothing else stirred us…Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and Biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood? 
They central joke of the story is that Clea and the narrator persist in understanding sentences in terms that go beyond the aesthetic – to the political, the ethical, and even the sexual:  

A good brave sentence (“I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring”) might jolly Clea to instant climax. We’d rise from the bed giggling, clutching for glasses of cold water that sat in pools of their own sweat on bedside tables. The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, we were also sure that sentences of the right quality could end this hideous endless war, if only certain standards were adopted at the higher levels. They never would be. All the media trumpeted the Administration’s lousy grammar. 

There are a lot of sly things going on in this passage – I pause to note the hidden joke about Roland Barthes’s concept of jouissance (reduced, here, to its most absurd essence: a sentence that literally makes you come). We might also note that this story about sentence-fetishism is itself composed of sentences that are frequently bathetic, or anticlimactic – a nice irony. “The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at” – this sentence, fairly typically, scales rhetorical heights before collapsing into cliché.  The central joke, of course, is the idea that scrupulous attention to sentences can carry profound political and ethical consequences – a fine parody of one of the unspoken ideas animating the work of I.A. Richards and the New Critics, but also, of course, a joke about idealistic young aspiring writers, who value literature – and literary sentences – so intensely that they are gripped with missionary zeal. At this level, “The King of Sentences” is a satire on the blindness of a certain way of reading – a way of reading that is passionate, incoherent, fetishistic, and focused almost exclusively on the sentence. And I recognise this as one of my own ways of reading – more specifically, I recognise it as one of the ways in which I read Don DeLillo.  

Idealistic young writers are, of course, prone to the exaltation of their chosen writers above all others, and this is very much the case with Clea and her boyfriend. They worship one writer and one writer only: the man known as the King of Sentences.  
Others might hail kings of beer or burgers—we bowed to the King of Sentences. There was just one…The King of Sentences gave no interviews, taught nowhere, condescended to appear at no panels or symposia. His tastes, hobbies, and heartbreaks were unknown, and we extrapolated them from his books at our peril. His digital footprint was pale: people like that didn’t care about people like him…In the same loft where we entangled, Clea and I drove ourselves mad reading the King of Sentences’ books aloud, by candlelight, when we ought to have been sleeping. We’d tear the book from each other’s hands for the pleasure of running his words like gerbils in the habitrails of our own mouths.  
There are a couple of obvious models for the figure of the King of Sentences. He might be Pynchon. He might be Salinger. But I don’t think so. There are a few clues that lead me to believe that, a few biographical and bibliographical details aside, the King of Sentences is Don DeLillo. We know, of course, that Lethem admires DeLillo – that as a younger writer, he learned to write in part by imitating DeLillo’s sentences. Lethem’s third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), is, in fact, a carefully-wrought DeLillo pastiche. And from what we learn about the King of Sentences, he bears a striking resemblance to DeLillo – particularly to the elusive, publicity-shy figure DeLillo cut in the decades before Underworld was published. Here are some clues. Clea and the narrator discuss the various editions of the King’s books that they have collected:  
We owned his titles in immaculate firsts and tattered reading copies and odd variant editions. It thrilled us to see the pedestrian jacket copy and salacious cover art on his early mass-market paperbacks: to think that he’d once been considered fodder for dime-store carrousels! 
There are indeed some early mass-market paperbacks of DeLillo’s books (Running Dog, End Zone, even Ratner’s Star) that display “salacious cover art” – the mass-market paperback edition of Amazons, from 1981, shows a woman naked from the waist down, attired (left foot) in a hockey boot and (right foot) a slingback shoe. Lethem, an avowed collector of mass-market paperbacks, would know these editions well. There is also Clea’s name, which may or may not allude to the pseudonym DeLillo chose when he wrote Amazons – Cleo Birdwell.  

Of course, whether or not the King of Sentences is DeLillo is only tangentially important.  DeLillo’s presence hovers behind Lethem’s text because, I think, DeLillo is so famously and distinctively a writer who appeals to sentence-lovers, with all their blindnesses, hubristic ideals, and narrow-minded cerebrations. What’s centrally important is Lethem’s sophisticated assault on the pieties and pretensions of his sentence-fetishist protagonists. At length, overwhelmed by their obsession, the narrator and Clea track the King of Sentences down to Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town in Westchester in Upstate New York (which is, according to a profile published in the Daily Telegraph in 2003, more or less where the real Don DeLillo keeps a home). They stake out the King’s Post Office box – and, just as expected, the King himself arrives. Their conversation, naturally, is disappointing: 
“Let me be clear. I have nothing for you.” 

“Take us home.” 

“Not on your life.” 

“We came all this way.” 

He shrugged. “When’s the next train back?” 

The sentences that emerged from his mouth were flayed, generic, like lines from black-and-white movies. I tried not to be disappointed in this stylistic turn. He had something to teach us, always.  
Nonetheless, the King does deliver the occasional extremely DeLillo-like line of dialogue (“I eat only what my housekeeper prepares. A disproportion of sodium could murder me at this point.”) Eventually, the narrator and Clea follow the King of Sentences back to a room in the local hotel, where, in a budget room, he asks them to strip:   

We stripped, racing to be the first bared to his view. I’d lose the race either way, for Clea had rigged the game: she had written a sentence on her stomach in blue marker. The sorcerer lately couldn’t recall whether he was a capable sleeper or an insomniac. Brilliant, I thought bitterly. The King stared. I saw Clea’s pubic hair through the eyes of the King. Clea’s bush was full and crazy. I thought, I will never see it again without seeing the pubic hair at which the King of Sentences once glanced. The King said, “Insomniac, I believe.” 

Once the two are naked, the King of Sentences shreds their clothes, in “a weary frenzy of destruction,” and walks out the door. As he leaves, he says: “That’s all, you ask? Yes, that’s all. That’s more than enough.” And in the story’s final sentences, the narrator remarks that now he understands “just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs.” 

This is, I think, a brilliantly dark and amusing fable about the risks inherent in making grandiose aesthetic, ethical, and political claims about what are, after all, only sentences. (It is also, I think, a riff on Henry James’s famous line, from “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark, we give what we have…The rest is the madness of art.”) Significantly, we never get to read a single sentence written by the King of Sentences; we meet him only as a bland avatar of white American masculinity – with an accompanying sexual rapacity, or interest in crude sexual power, that we might see as typical of a certain generation of white male American novelists (though not, I should think, of Don DeLillo). Lethem’s interest is in exposing his young literary idealists to the enigmatic textures of the real – the real, in this case, being that which goes beyond mere sentences, into realms of ethical experience that they have only begun to explore.  

For me, “The King of Sentences” is a warning about a certain narrowly passionate way of reading. No matter how marvellous the sentences, Lethem reminds us, we should be careful to see beyond them. We should look at what a sentence points towards, as well as at what it does. It is, I think, the kind of lesson that DeLillo’s work itself repeatedly teaches – or would teach us, once we begin to look beyond those carefully engineered, verbally rich, instantly unforgettable sentences.

The Novel Still Exists: The Millions Interviews Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is a famously unprolific interviewee. He does a certain amount of publicity, though you suspect he calculates exactly how little he can get away with while still remaining in good standing with his publishers. He’s never come close to being a Pynchon-level recluse, but he’s also avoided becoming anything like a Public Author; despite being in many ways a deeply political writer — and in all ways one of the most significant of living English-language novelists — he’s not someone with whose opinions we’re routinely furnished. (Which is to say that he is not, for instance, Martin Amis, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen.)

It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to even seek an interview with DeLillo if the topic of his new book, Zero K, had not been one I’d spent much of the last two years researching and writing about for a non-fiction book of my own: the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology. Zero K is a haunting story — both sharp and opaque, in the way of DeLillo’s late style — about an aging billionaire named Ross Lockhart who arranges, under the auspices of a techno-utopian quasi-cult called The Convergence, to have himself cryonically suspended along with his terminally ill younger wife, in the hope that the scientists of the future will resurrect them both and enable them to live indefinitely. In a sense, it seems a strange sort of topic for DeLillo, the stuff of broad sci-fi; but it’s worth bearing in mind that technology and the terror of death have been converging topics in his work for many years. “This is the whole point of technology,” as one character put it in 1985’s White Noise. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”

I was somewhat taken aback that this interview happened at all. The appropriate word here, I suppose, would be “granted.” We didn’t speak at any great length — we were only getting going on the topic of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination, I regret to say, when the interview had exhausted its allotted time slot. (Although it’s probably true to say that you could talk to Don DeLillo about the Zapruder film for the rest of your natural, un-cryonically extended life, and you’d only ever be getting going on the topic.) I called him at his hotel room in Washington D.C. (“of all places,” as he somewhat mysteriously put it). For the first five minutes or so of our conversation I had trouble focusing on what either of us was saying, on account of not quite being able to get over the fact that I was on the blower to the guy who wrote Libra, and Underworld, and White Noise, and God knows how many of the best sentences I’ve ever read.

My voice recorder, thankfully, had the wherewithal to document what was being said. It went, apparently, as follows.

The Millions: Just over a year ago, I visited a place called Alcor, a cryonics facility in Arizona, for a book I’ve been writing about futurists who want to live indefinitely. And one of the things I kept asking myself was “What would DeLillo make of this stuff?” It was very strange to have that question answered in such a direct way when I read Zero K. I’ve been wondering about the level of research you did for the book, how deep you went into the whole area of cryonics.

Don DeLillo: It’s curious, I know about that place in Arizona. I know it’s there, but I know very little else about it. I did limit my research on this novel, simply because there would be an endless amount of it to be done, and I wanted to start work on it. It’s a work of fiction, so as I started the work, I started to imagine. You might be in a good position to say how accurate everything is. You’re probably a better position than I am.

TM: I do think the book reflects in an uncanny and oblique way the culture of radical optimism that emanates from Silicon Valley. I’m curious as to how aware you of that culture, and how much that fed into the book.

DD: I’m not deeply aware of it. I know that certainly it exists and that it’s part of this whole area of cryonics that I’m writing about. But I made a point not to funnel that path too deeply. Even Ross Lockhart, the father of the narrator, is of course interested himself in becoming a man in a pod. But I don’t know that he expresses any particular optimism. He thinks it’ll work, yes, but I think he’s a fairly realistic individual. What he wants is to accompany his wife. This is a genuine feeling on his part.

TM: That aspect of the novel brought me back to White Noise, in particular, where the relationship between Jack and Babette is characterized by this anxiety about who will die first.

DD: It’s funny, I have a very dim memory of White Noise. I’ve never had reason to re-read it. It was, I don’t know, 30 years ago. I don’t know much of what happens in that book. I even had a little difficulty recently trying to remember the main character’s name. I understand what you’re saying, of course. But it’s pure coincidence, the connection between these two books.

TM: So is it a strange thing for you, looking back over these books you’ve written, to see these kinds of connections being made by other people?

DD: Yes, it’s a strange feeling. I’ve been thinking lately, I’m not sure why, about my earlier novels, and I’m quite surprised how little I recall of them. I don’t know whether it’s liberating or worrying. Even The Names, which was set in Greece. Much of it, at least in terms of the travel in the novel, came out of personal experience. And even that seems very distant to me now. And Point Omega, my last novel — of course I know, essentially, what was going on there. But I could not have a serious discussion about it, I don’t think. Not at this point.

TM: One of the things that struck me about Zero K, and I suppose all your recent work, is the extent to which it seems saturated with the texture of contemporary culture, with technology in particular. There’s a very haunting passage toward the end of the book, where one of the leaders of The Convergence talks about “the devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.” She talks about “All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata.” It really gets at this sense of being “unfleshed” that comes from being online all the time, as so many of us are now. But my understanding is that you yourself are not online all the time. You write on a typewriter. I’m curious as to how you absorb this texture of technological anxiety.

DD: This is correct. I have an iPad that I use for research, but I’m not online at all really. I don’t own a cell phone. I was just discussing this with the people I’m traveling with here, people from my publishers. I simply feel more comfortable without these things. But one feels it and sees it. It’s been around me for much of the day today, because the people I’m traveling with, one in particular has trouble with her cell phone. There’s something wrong with it. She doesn’t know who’s trying to get in touch with her, what it is they want to say to her. It’s a minor thing, yes, but it’s worrying and frustrating her. And she’s unhappy.

TM: How do you see the novel as a form fitting in with this technological culture you write about in Zero K? How do you see it speaking to or against it?

DD: The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form — people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself.

TM: Do you make a point of staying current with younger writers, with what’s happening now, or do you find yourself as you get older re-reading more?

DD: No, I’m in touch with younger writers. I do read the work, when I can. In general I don’t read as much as I used to. But I haven’t gone back to the past either. My book shelves are filled with books that I have enormous respect for, but I don’t find myself rereading very often, if at all. I assume that’s just another function of getting older. And speaking of that, it took me nearly four years to write this novel. It’s only a book of average size, and that’s kind of surprising to me. On the other hand, this is what the book wanted, and I just followed where I was being led.

TM: Do you find yourself liberated in some ways, as a writer, by getting older?

DD: I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way. I’m hoping to find enough time one of these days to start work on a short story. And I’m eager to do so. It’s just been somewhat difficult, but I’ll get there.

TM: The new novel, like Point Omega before it, is permeated by a kind of eschatological mood. The opening line is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” And there’s a sense in the book, and in your work generally, of capitalism moving into an apocalyptic endgame. Is the prospect of future catastrophe — the reality of climate change, for instance — something that preoccupies you as you get older?

DD: I wouldn’t say these things preoccupy me. I would say that I’m aware of a level of concern that didn’t exist before. For a very long time, nuclear war was the thing that people were concerned with, at some level of consciousness. And that seemed to vanish at a certain point, but even that has a tendency to return in one way or another. Nuclear accidents, or all-out war between two or more countries. The concern is there certainly, and it can be almost palpable at times. Particularly when you see film footage or photographs of certain areas of the globe, in which enormous changes are taking place.

TM: This is a motif that recurs throughout your work, filmed imagery of catastrophe and violence. It’s there in quite a focused way in Zero K, in frequent interludes where the protagonist Jeff watches footage in the cryonics compound of terrorist atrocities and self-immolations and natural disasters and so on. How do you account for this recurrence of filmed disaster, filmed violence, in your work?

DD: There’s always been a level of film in my writing. And I think at some point it became associated with violence or with destruction of some kind, environmental destruction. I wonder whether it all started with Libra, when I was writing about the assassination of President Kennedy? Is that the act of violence on film, the Zapruder film, that put me in that particular lane of awareness? There are no definite answers, I don’t think. I think in Mao II, there are conversations with people that concern terrorism, and elsewhere as well. It just happened because it is part of the culture. My wife and I lived in Athens for about three years, and it was everywhere around us. Aircraft hijackings. People fleeing certain countries. And many of them coming to Athens. And elsewhere too. Entire governments falling. Revolution in Iran. It had an effect on me, because it was palpable. It was right there. And it’s had an effect on my work ever since.

TM: Now that you’ve brought up Libra and the Kennedy assassination, I may as well tell you that reading Zero K, and thinking about you and your work for this interview, led me to watching the Zapruder film on YouTube. It felt inevitable, in a way. And it struck me that that footage at the time, and when you were writing Libra, was a kind of secret text. People knew of it, but you couldn’t just sit down and watch it. And now you can watch it a hundred different ways on your phone, on your laptop. You sit through an ad for life insurance or whatever, then you watch JFK getting shot in the head at your leisure.

DD: Yes, that’s true. Although I can tell you that when I was writing Libra, I managed to get in touch with a guy in Quebec who was advertising this kind of material, which he kept in his garage. And he sent me the Zapruder film, and some other footage as well. So I had it before it became legal to look at the film. Believe it or not, in fact, I was told this morning that Zapruder’s daughter Alexandra is finishing a book about the film itself. So it’s still in the air.

TM: My feeling is you’ll almost certainly be asked to blurb that book.

DD: Yes. No doubt I will be asked.

[Strained laughter. Voices off. Exit DeLillo.]

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Books

Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read.  Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.

Over the years, this has changed.  Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable.  I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution.  It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.

One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read.  One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those!  Should should should.  Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt.  I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust!  And Dickens!  And Virginia Woolf!  And (these days) Bolaño!

My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose.  And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence.  I’m not getting any younger, after all.  Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time.  Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.

My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.

Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual.  For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment.  As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):

Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin

Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is.  You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:

Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)

It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it.  And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many.  What can I say…

Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

The following category speaks for itself:

Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake

I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons.  There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.

Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.

“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego.  An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level.  But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity.  So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games.  I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way.  It absolutely was not.  I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:

Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End

The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett

This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary.  This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read.  I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.

In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience.  I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable.  Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking.  But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing.  This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.

Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift.  If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older.  I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life.  To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.

Surprise Me!