How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories” of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” “addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions.
What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely.
Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time.
Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that ‘fact’ become an image for the family?” Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother’s intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this “fact” of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him.
Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: “The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open.” This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke’s filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking.
It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious.
Much of the book’s first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: “Images don’t mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them.” However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.)
As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)”
Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world’s a stage” — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism:
[Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper…Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them.
Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else?
Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his “Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already.
The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren’t mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist:
Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’
This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there’s a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study.
“Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project.
Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and “Men in Quotes” features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman’s Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers’ imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.
Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves.
Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not — and one of them is currently incarcerated — so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them:
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.
Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound
Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon.
Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?”
Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego.
The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded — or so his detractors quipped — after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.)
Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original.
Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction.
And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go.
Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne
Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections — “I read it in one sitting” — which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley — White Teeth perched on the handlebars — in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.”
The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature.
Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser.
Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.”
Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.”
Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines — or progressive causes truth be told — but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins.
Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name
Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify — and many a review confirm — that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso?
Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]”
He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.)
Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy.
His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him.
“I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece.
As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.”
Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead:
To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself.
Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.”
A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand
“How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…”
Und so weiter.
“It was a silver knife.”
A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count — or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book.
Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard — a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question.
For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems.
Valerie Plume: Critical Agency
Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.”
Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission.
And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her.
Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets.
Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years.
Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards.
Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.