In the last five days I have driven a little over a thousand miles in a rented Toyota Camry with my two daughters and a large carton of Goldfish crackers. This trip seemed like a good idea when I planned it, but as the date of our departure approached it began to appear increasingly quixotic. For one, the nominal purpose of the trip was to make an author appearance at a book club that I had agreed to visit when I lived in the Bay Area, where it was to be held, and not in Oregon, where I now live. Moreover, the trip was not planned as a straight line. It takes about 10 hours to drive directly from Portland to the Bay Area, but I added several hours to the trip by planning to stop in the town of Alturas, California, to visit my deceased grandparents in the cemetery and spend the night in a historic hotel. (In addition to being quixotic, the trip also seemed like metatextual cuteness, since I had written an entire book about a woman who drives to rural California with a small child in the backseat; it was as if I had decided to insert autobiography where there had been none, and prove my Goodreads detractors correct that the book is artless.)
I decided that the trip was only going to work if I employed all of the tricks that were not available to the book’s protagonist, or to my own parents, who spent a lot of my childhood driving me around in the backseat of a car. I set up an iPad for the older child, a backup tablet for the younger child, positioned the Goldfish carton so that both could reach down into its maw, and for myself downloaded an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, which I realized I had never read despite knowing its plot from various film properties.
The first leg of the trip was supposed to take around six and a half hours. As the road began to incline up toward the snow-dusted trees of the Willamette pass, Jane got sick (Mrs. Bennett made her go to Netherfield without the carriage), and I stopped to pee on an embankment in sight of the car. I drove white-knuckled and 18 miles an hour over the packed snow at the pass, the soothing voice of Rosamund Pike nudging me onward. We stopped to give thanks and pee at a gas station in Chemult at twilight, which was the advent of Mr. Collins, and he delivered his ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth as we passed the turnoff for Crater Lake with the last bit of pink in the sky. We stopped to pee again in Merrill, and the children crowded in a gas station bathroom with me while I devised an impromptu sanitary napkin out of paper towels and wondered what the Bennett girls did in these moments. Between Ambrose and Hackamore, after Bingley decamped for London without warning, we hit an owl.
At one point in the drive my older daughter, who was watching Cinderella, asked if I was listening to a story too, and I said I was. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Cinderella, and I groaned when I heard the voice of the advisor from the backseat, surveying the array of uglies at the ball: “There must be one who’d make a suitable mother…err a suitable wife!” he says. There are so many moments in the raising of girls where the available cultural materials seem sorely wanting. But then I realized that I was listening to essentially the same story, and that it was probably single-handedly responsible for turning an experience that is objectively unpleasant—long car travel with children in sparsely populated country in the early winter dark—into one of the best times I have had in recent memory.
That first night we sat outside the Niles Hotel in twenty-degree weather waiting to be let in, the only guests in a drafty century-old building with period furnishings, and then the girls cozied up together in an ancient bed, and I re-read Of Human Bondage, which I had brought as my physical book. I wondered what was happening with Lizzie and Darcy and Bingley and Jane. I knew what would happen at the end of the book but I could hardly wait to get back into the car to listen to it.
I don’t know if it was the novelty of the trip—Portland to Alturas, Alturas to Petaluma, Petaluma to Oakland to Davis, Davis to San Francisco to Menlo Park—or the iPad, or Pride and Prejudice, but something has encouraged all of us to rise to the occasion this week. As we passed familiar sights I was glad we made the trip: the life-size religious tableaux set up by the In Search of Truth cult in Canby, California, the long-awaited McDonald’s in Burney, the glory of Shasta rising up on a clear winter day. My beloved aunt died in October and I found myself wanting to call and tell her about the things that we saw in her hometown. The importance of aunts is a theme in Pride and Prejudice; aunts as confidants and sources of wisdom. When I was younger my aunt let me smoke in her backyard and tell her my adventures.
This week in the car stands in stark contrast to the last week I spent alone in the company of my children, which was when we moved to Portland at the end of July. The move has turned out to be the best possible thing for our family, but that week, when it was hot and we were in a new city with no furniture and nothing to do, was one of the worst weeks I can remember. My most vivid memory from that time is chasing a 22-month-old around a Fred Meyer grocery store, sobbing on the phone with my former Primary Care Practitioner in San Francisco, with whom I have always had a very cordial and impersonal relationship, to see if there was anything she could prescribe me to get through this experience (she reluctantly but kindly prescribed me Prozac, which I failed to pick up from my HMO before we were switched over to a PPO, and for all I know is still sitting there in a pigeonhole marked K).
The move is one of the reasons I feel as though I haven’t read anything this year. But as in every year, I did read things. Before we moved I read The Revisioners and Women Talking and Lanny and Heavy and The Unpassing, all of which made me weep for different reasons. I read The Parisian and The Old Drift, which are both long and wonderful and address history and which I envied for their beauty and complexity and verve. I know I read other things, but the spring is a blur of thinking about whether to move and discussing the particulars of the move and preparing for the move and then doing the move itself.
Post-move, when my children started camp and daycare and I was alone in the empty house with a number of home improvement projects and a book project I lacked the wherewithal to do, I opened a box of galleys I had previously felt too burned-out and defeated to read. I read Normal People and felt like the raw edges of the preceding weeks smoothed over. I read The Altruists. I went to the library and got a library card and read Loving Day on the porch and on the bed my poor husband put together by himself after going to a new job and coming home to find me crying after a day at the indoor playground. These books helped me feel pleasure in things again.
When I was settled enough to get to work, I read The Smartest Guys in the Room. I purchased and read the “Women of Enron” issue of Playboy, a real object that exists and was produced by our society. I tried to remember the excellent things I had already read for this project, back before moving consumed everything. Before we moved I had read The Oil and the Glory at a table of the Ingleside branch of the SFPL, and an anthology called Working for Oil. At the library of the beautiful Morrison Reading Room at UC Berkeley I read The Oil Road. (It occurs to me now that I am trying to write a book that combines what all these authors know about extractive industries and business culture and imperialism with what Jane Austen knew about the women of her acquaintance sitting together in a room, and I am still not sure how to do this.)
When I adjusted to the fact of our new city, when we got a bookshelf and a dresser, I could look back and see clearly how anxious and unhappy I had been for a lot of the last year. Oddly, work trips, which seemed like a pain in the ass at the time of their planning and execution, were some of the moments that I remembered most fondly, and they were lonely and strange times. In May I traveled to Miami for a work thing and sat at a restaurant alone reading Cities of Salt in the sea breeze, glowing with happiness at the luxury of solitude and an immersive novel. Over two solo road trips to Los Angeles, also for book stuff, I listened to the entirety of Oil!, finishing it just before hitting the In ‘n Out burger at Kettleman City on the way to San Francisco. In Los Angeles I sat at a bar and read The Sea, The Sea for the hundredth time.
Every book that I’ve managed to finish since we moved feels like it helped me regain my equilibrium in some crucial way. Before Halloween, I read Chimerica, which is a book that sounds slightly batshit (it has a talking giant lemur who is the subject of a court case) and turns out to be one of the smartest fictional engagements with the American legal system that I’ve ever read. I read Perfect Tunes with a whiskey sour my husband made me, the children asleep in bed, and I felt young and happy. I read American War on the plane to California to see my aunt for the last time. After Halloween—which since having children marks the start of a period that lasts until mid-January and during which I don’t get anything done due to holiday obligations and inevitable winter illness—I lay on the couch reading In the Dream House at nearly one go while my children watched shit on the iPad and my husband made our dinner in the toaster oven (we were at this time living out of the dining room). It feels peculiar to have such a singularly enjoyable reading experience from a book that arises from someone else’s pain, but that’s one major paradox of reading, and Carmen Maria Machado is so talented that it is pure pleasure to be in that swiftly-moving book. I read Giving up the Ghost, which is also pure pleasure rooted in someone’s pain, Hilary Mantel with her treacherous endometrial cells and her subtly idiosyncratic prose. I read How Much of These Hills is Gold, which is gorgeous and close to my heart because it is about a quixotic trip through California, undertaken for family and personal reasons.
I never canceled the book club thing in California I think because I wanted to tell myself that moving to Oregon would be just like moving to another neighborhood, and that I would continue to be able to access my family and friends and the landscapes of California with total ease. This road trip has made it clear that it is not the case. There’s the distance, which is vast but surmountable; more than that I’m realizing how difficult it is to visit your grown-up friends when you have children in tow. This is a trip where I’m seeing very few friends, despite my breezy assurances when we moved that “I’ll come back all the time.” This realization is one in a series of recalibrating lessons, but I’m in a better frame of mind lately to receive it. I’m typing this at two in the morning in my grandmother’s house in the Bay Area, and my children are sleeping, and they have been such good girls, and I have been such a comparatively calm and pleasant mother to them on our strange road trip, maybe because it was one I conceived of and undertook entirely on my own steam, or maybe it was because Pride and Prejudice made me happy. Tomorrow we will start the long drive back home; I downloaded Sense and Sensibility to ease the way.
My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.
When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.
Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.
I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.
After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)
Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.
Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.
I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)
I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.
Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things. The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes. This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby. I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.
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Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, Kristin Hersh’s chronicle of her long and complicated friendship with the musician Vic Chesnutt, was the first book I picked up this year, and little did I know then that its title would set the tone for what was to come in the following weeks and months. “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a pact Hersh and Chesnutt made, with regard to their music, with regard to their lives, and through her book Hersh attempts to come to terms with the loss of her cranky, tender, and at times cantankerous friend who died from an overdose on Christmas 2009.
But 2016 followed much in suit, full of broken promises, full of much sucking and dying, heralding the loss of visionaries David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics and music provided a soundtrack for my coming-to. I can’t help but think their absence has set us further off-kilter as we stumble into a future aligned with Cohen’s dystopian vision:
“the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”
Books like Fanny Howe’s Indivisible offered refuge. When reading Howe, I sense the necessity of writing as if breathing, of seeking the sacred alongside the profane. “Snow is a pattern in this story,” she writes, and it is; she follows the singularity of experience against an awareness of the multiplicity, community. Protagonist Henny resists complacency; an act that causes her discomfort tells her she’s doing something right: “I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me.”
With depth and melancholy and bitter humor, Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor pits narratives of a greedy billionaire CEO against an impoverished laborer focused on one goal — killing the CEO. The apathy of the wealthy and those in power, their ability to act with impunity, without conscience, and with cruelty towards laborers and those on strike resonates too deeply with the times.
And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending:
The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot.
This may be couched from the CEO’s perspective, but the question stands: how does one reconcile the impossibility of making a difference in the world while attempting to live as if you still can?
Fantasies, or rather, delusions and the way these delusions imposed upon others can have deleterious results, even a kind of violence, is what intrigued me most about Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. I read this book while staying at my aunt’s house beside the ocean for two weeks, and I could deeply understand Arrowby’s desire to retreat from his hectic theater life to a refuge where he could reflect and write. But in doing so he fools himself into thinking what he lacks is what he desires, and he goes to great lengths wrecking havoc on other’s lives with his hapless grasping.
I also read Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle while staying by the sea. The ocean is filled with water and whale and fish and ships and detritus, and together they comprise its vastness, even if when we think ocean, we think body of water or perhaps its outline on a map. Evening Oracle is a collection of poems that contains the sea and herons and plums and crossing vast distances; it also features other poet’s poems and excerpts from many email messages exchanged. The plurality of voices together remain spare, taken together form a patchwork quilt of a document.
Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is a book I carried with me for much of the year. Opening its pages is like entering a portal to elsewhere, dipping in sloughed sleep from my head, or rather maybe pushed me further in. Mommy is such a tender term and yet here it’s slippery and laced with contempt: mommy is caretaker, mommy is authoritarian, and with her swarm her body multiplies. Mothers eat moons, rats devour rabbits and pigs, rats crawl through corpses, flesh is rotting, it’s a garden of earthly delights as all hell breaks loose.
Perhaps this masochism and curiosity with messy and failing bodies explains too why I go to Adam Phillips for insight into human desire, motivation, fantasies, and our (at times) delightfully misguided ways. This year it seems we’re no closer to knowing what we desire, in fact as a plurality we seem to be drifting even further away. The Beast in the Nursery and Terrors and Experts go hand in hand, pitting the capacity of knowing against the ability to be absorbed, investigating what we’re avoiding with the thriving business of distraction, the tantrums we throw when we feel deprived, the curiosity that drives our inquiry into the unknown, the unrelenting desire for power and control.
Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” is a good place to start, when thinking about power and the presidency:
Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, to rule over others, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby. Winning drives winners, and maybe losers, too, Madame Realism considered. Power, that’s what it’s all about, everyone always remarked. But why did some want to lead armies and others wanted to lead a Girl Scout troop, or nothing much at all? With power, you get your way all the time.
Madame Realism, Tillman’s alter ego, is a divining rod to offset the cartoonish post-factual state, and so I consider the newly released Complete Madame Realism as part of the antidote. And, I remind myself, with the end of this year, a new one begins. Will I read differently? Yes, I’m certain. I will start the new year with a more auspicious title, or one that’s better equipped for what’s at stake — perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or Patty Yumi Cottrell’s forthcoming Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
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The remarkably prolific Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels over a 40-year span; today, she’s best known for 1978’s The Sea, the Sea. The novel won the Man Booker Prize, and deservedly so: it’s a world-eating emotional chronicle in which the elderly narrator, Charles Arrowby, tries to fix his greatest mistake: letting his first and only love go. But almost 20 years earlier, Murdoch, who worked and reworked similar moral themes throughout her entire career, wrote a much more potent and incendiary novel than The Sea, the Sea. This delirious little book, A Severed Head, is a dirtier, more bizarre study of the messiness of human desire, complete with incest and spouse swapping, and it’s arguably the better book.
In selecting A Severed Head for his “top 10 relationship novels” for the Guardian, novelist William Sutcliffe had this to say: “Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch’s other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down.” Sutcliffe pinpoints what makes A Severed Head such an oddball masterpiece. The novel succeeds by following a structural pattern so obvious — each character sleeps with another character, then another, then another — that it at first seems too easy and too coincidental, but then the obviousness becomes, through repetition, strangely unfamiliar and enigmatic. And because human desire is the rudder of the characters, A Severed Head is one of the great novels about the unknowability of others.
The novel begins with Londoner Martin snuggling his mistress, Georgie, as he idly considers whether his wife, Antonia, might find out. The reader might encounter a similar scene in the work of a number of realist contemporaries of Murdoch: John Cheever or Richard Yates or John Updike. Before the snuggling session turns into heavy petting and then rounds third base, there’s just enough time for Martin and Georgie to name every character the reader will meet: Antonia, Palmer (Antonia’s psychoanalyst), Honor (Palmer’s sister), Alexander (Martin’s brother), Rosemary (Martin’s sister). Toward the end of chapter one, the reader is given a hint that Martin’s situation (indeed the situation of all the characters since they are all about to engage in one giant game of sexual musical chairs) is presented only to be torn down:
It was for me a moment of great peace. I did not know then that it was the last, the very last moment of peace, the end of the old innocent world, the final moment before I was plunged into the nightmare of which these ensuing pages tell the story.
The most significant word here is “nightmare,” and the reader quickly discovers why: in chapter three Antonia confesses to Martin that she has been sleeping with Palmer, and is leaving Martin for him.
It’s true that Murdoch subverts the reader’s expectations, but since the Antonia-Palmer affair is revealed in chapter three, this is only the first part of Murdoch’s trick. Indeed, if it turned out that the adulterer was also being cuckolded we’d still be in the safe, predictable terrain of realism. But A Severed Head, a surrealist novel in the guise of a realist novel, doubles down, then triples down on its premise.
Here’s a summary of the novel’s amorous transactions. First, Antonia predictably finds out about Martin-Georgie. But then Martin, after assaulting and slapping Honor (Palmer’s sister) in a basement, realizes he’s in love with her. Then Martin discovers the incestuous relationship between Honor and Palmer. Antonia and Martin make up, but then Alexander (Martin’s brother) announces he’s marrying Georgie. Finally, after Georgie attempts suicide, Antonia tells Martin she’s been sleeping with Alexander for years.
Perhaps the exact points of transition vary for different readers, but A Severed Head goes from realist to straining credibility somewhere around the incest reveal. Except: Murdoch smashes the old rule that you can’t have more than two coincidences in a narrative, and so the book passes through any dubiousness and out the other side, landing finally in a space so exceedingly nonsensical its only forecastable pattern is a kind of kitchen-sink-cum-Murphy’s-law (one is reminded of the scene in the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons, in which Sideshow Bob steps on rakes, repeatedly and for nearly 30 seconds, as the joke becomes funny and then not funny and then funny again, but in a twisted manner). Somewhere around the second or third revelation that one of these characters is sleeping with another one, you stop expecting the unexpected and begin expecting everything. It’s as if Murdoch is saying, “Yes, that can happen. And so can this.” And if she can get you to buy into her rules that completely, isn’t that its own kind of realism?
The illogic of the design of A Severed Head is so perfect as to be logical. The reader is reminded of the sister/daughter slapfest in Chinatown or, even more exactly, the slap at the end of John Fowles’s The Magus. The slap, that amazing image of flabbergasted absurdity, is an especially appropriate image since the point in A Severed Head when Martin slaps Honor is more or less the hinge that divides the two halves of the book (half one is Martin’s blissful ignorance, half two is the cascade of truths). Even the respective language in Fowles and Murdoch is similar.
I do not know why I did what happened next. It was neither intended nor instinctive, it was neither in cold blood nor in hot; but yet it seemed, once committed, a necessary act; no breaking of the commandment. My arm flicked out and slapped her left cheek as hard as it could. The blow caught her completely by surprise, nearly knocked her off balance, and her eyes blinked with the shock; then very slowly she put her left hand to the cheek. We stared wildly at each other for a long moment, in a kind of terror: the world had disappeared and we were falling through space. The abyss might be narrow, but it was bottomless.
I could see her face just below mine, the black hairs on her upper lip, the white of her teeth. I lifted myself a little and with my free hand struck her three times, a sideways blow across the mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to turn her head away. I saw that clearly in retrospect too.
After I had hit her the third time I began to wonder what I was doing. I let go and rolled off her. She got up without haste while I got myself into a sitting position. My head, suddenly asserting its existence, felt terrible. She brushed down her coat and then without looking at me and still without haste she mounted the cellar steps.
I sat quiet for a minute feeling extremely confused. Then, holding my head, which felt ready to break open, I got shakily to my feet.
The dream/nightmare theme remains throughout. As he creeps toward Honor’s bedroom, where he will find her with her brother, Palmer, Martin thinks, “By now I scarcely knew what I was doing. My movements took on the quality of a dream.” At one point Martin pleads with his mistress, Georgie, “in the name of that reality.” Preceding her suicide attempt, Georgie sends a box of her hair to Martin who, trying to convince himself briefly not to assume the worst, thinks, “The arrival of the hair had had the heavy significance of a token in a dream; but there was no need to apply nightmare logic to it.” Except it turns out he should think the worst because Georgie is at that moment unconscious on the floor of her apartment. And, it seems not insignificant that the book is told in Martin’s first-person narration, as a dream or nightmare would be.
The most surreal, dream-like scene happens in the middle of the book when Martin, “somewhat tipsy,” encounters Honor in the dining room. She has a samurai sword. Martin asks her about the sword and when Honor, an anthropologist, replies that she obtained it while working, it seems to Martin that “she spoke as out of a deep dream.” Martin asks her to “show me something.” Honor tosses napkins into the air and slices them in half. Martin thinks, “I felt an intense desire to take the sword from her, but something prevented me.” Then Honor, no longer “attending to” Martin, “moved the sword back and laid it across her knees in the attitude of a patient executioner.” This strange scene, packed with halts and nebulous logic, bores so deeply into Martin’s psyche that he has a dream about it, at which point the book folds in on itself and refracts its own strangeness. By the very last scene of the novel, in which Honor cites the apt story of Candaules and Gyges from Herodotus’s The Histories (in which king Candaules pridefully shows Gyges his naked wife and Gyges kills Candaules, becoming king), we know the mythical has more currency than the “real.”
Toward the end, as Martin and his wife, Antonia, are briefly sort-of making up, one of the narrative tensions is the question of whether Martin staying with Antonia is “right.” Psychoanalyst Palmer first encourages Martin to leave her, then states, “On reflection I feel sure that in returning to Antonia and mending your marriage you have done the right thing.” But there is no “right thing” because the book’s scope includes nothing outside of the blending relationships between the characters. Very little of the outside world is shown; the book is a series of scenes in which different combinations of characters are situated together — Martin goes to visit Palmer; Antonia visits Martin; Martin picks up Honor at the train station; Martin visits Alexander’s studio; all the while, characters are meeting off-stage and then meeting Martin to reveal the results. The world of A Severed Head is restricted to conversations in rooms (the extent of our knowledge really only includes the occupations of the characters, and London is foggy throughout); how can there be a right or wrong answer to Martin leaving Antonia if we don’t know what the world contains if he leaves? During Martin’s profession of his love to Honor, she tells him, “Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. As real people we do not exist for each other.” But we aren’t in the real world. Are we? In a narrative guided only by the affections of the characters, Murdoch so rapidly scrambles them that no relationship seems viable or trustworthy at all. Who is to say, finally, that even Martin’s love for Honor is to be trusted? Given the book’s final conversation, even the characters themselves are aware of the unreliability of anything. “I wonder if I shall survive it,” Martin says.
Murdoch’s body of work is consistently concerned with the space between order and chaos — The Sea, the Sea, in fact, is an extended series of asides from, accidents against, disruptions of, and derailments from its premise. But in A Severed Head, one of her shortest books, the reader can experience perhaps her most harmonious blend of the two. Like a small diamond full of inclusions, it paradoxically depicts human life at its most crystallized and muddied.
When I was 21, three weeks after I’d moved to San Francisco to live with my boyfriend Stephen, his lung collapsed on the way to a party. He was casual about it—he had cystic fibrosis, and though he’d only had one health crisis before this moment, he wasn’t surprised. I panicked and went into a coughing fit. The next morning, we headed over to the hospital at UCSF, and began the part of our life together for which there was no map. That evening, home alone, I wandered around our living room. We were sharing an apartment with two of Stephen’s friends, both English majors at Berkeley. I browsed through their books, looking for good end-of-the-night-on-the-day-your-life-has-changed reading. Unlike most of the books I’d brought with me from the University of Chicago, the books on these shelves were written by living authors. (I remember feeling jealous: my roommates had gotten to read these books for school?) I crawled in bed with a book my roommate Steve had raved about, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. In the morning, I woke up with the light still on, my face pressed into the book’s pages.
Hospital time is funny—both heart-quickening and slow. You know you are at the center of life, that what’s happening right where you are matters, so you feel a constant sense of urgency, and at the same time, the hours themselves are vacation-like, stretching out long, not much to do. In the evenings when I visited Stephen, we’d lie on his bed, talking, watching movies, and reading. He didn’t want to read any of his favorite books in the hospital, on the grounds that they’d carry the aftertaste of the hospital once he got out. He stuck to magazines—the current issue of Rolling Stone, or something football-related. And there’s some truth to his theory—the characters and the landscape of Housekeeping are somehow connected to the hospital in my mind. But the reverse is true too, which was what made it worth reading the book while sitting in a beige chair eating chocolate pudding. The hospital became infused with Housekeeping. I looked forward to diving into its world those evenings. It offered an escape unattainable from a football magazine—or maybe escape is the wrong word—it offered a depth of experience that was part-escape, part-reckoning. The two sisters in its pages, whose mother had died, faced a loss much larger than any I’d ever gone through, but I was dipping my toe in, glimpsing the loss that likely lay in my future. And more, the story evoked a strange state that I was newly experiencing and had no words for—the sudden awareness of how little control I had over life, which left me both at sea and sharpened, helpless and purposeful. That hospital visit, which was longer than expected, I moved from Housekeeping to Beloved to A Personal Matter. And though these three books are so different that their authors might be surprised to see them all appear in the same sentence, they are linked in my mind, for the broad understandings they offered me of suffering and joy, and the complications of love.
After that first health scare, Stephen and I lived a double existence. He was healthy for the most part, and we were kids in our 20s like the rest of our friends, and yet we knew he’d be lucky to live until he was 35, so we were sort of in our 80s, too. It was an unusual existence—no one we knew had gone through it—and you’d think this would have sent me straight to the psychology section, or at least the illness memoir section, of the bookstore where I worked. But the closest I ever got to reading a book that directly addressed my circumstances was when I braved the “issues” shelf in the children’s section, and picked up The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst, in which a family grieves over the death of their cat. It was partly denial, but it was also the same force that had driven me to fiction since I was kid—I didn’t want to read about my own life. I spent enough time in my own life—I wanted to read about all the lives that I’d never have. Though occasionally, a glimpse of my own life snuck in without my asking. I remember reading The Sheltering Sky, and feeling my stomach drop when the main character dies halfway through the book, and his wife takes over the story. I also remember reading Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant by Aurelie Sheehan, thinking, yes, I know that feeling, Kerouac but tied down, the road trip and the responsibilities all taking place at once.
By the time we were 27, Stephen’s health had begun a dangerous decline. We were living in Cambridge, where he was attending grad school, and we had to admit that we couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore—he needed to quit school and get on the list for a double-lung transplant. At that time, the risks of a transplant were huge, as were the possibilities. If Stephen survived, his lungs would be free of CF for the rest of his life. But the operation was at the cutting edge of modern medicine—half of the people who underwent the surgery died in the first five years. It was a big decision, and we made it together (so sweet, Stephen’s doctor joked, young couples, deciding on everything together—the couch, the kitchen table, the transplant). We packed everything we owned into our 1976 green Volvo and headed back to California to make this next move. This was the first time I ached for nonfiction, for someone who’d been there ahead of me to tell me what to do, or if not that, how to go about living with the unknown. My friend Caitlin was a poet and she gave me Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. I recently looked back in my journal from that time, and there are pages devoted to notes for the letter I planned to write to Doty after reading his book. (I never got around to writing the actual letter.) Reading them now I feel a little embarrassed. Why would this stranger want to know about all the small and large ways I felt connected to him? And yet I did—more so than I did to the other partners of transplant patients, even to our friends and family who loved me dearly. He’d written intimately about his life with his partner who’d died of AIDS, offering observations that you’d never hear buzzing around a support group, admitting feelings and thoughts I shared but had hardly admitted to myself, much less to Stephen. I was grateful for Heaven’s Coast in a way I can still feel, even though it’s been over 15 years.
Still, in the eye of the storm, when the midnight call for the transplant came, I reached for fiction. Packing hurriedly for the hospital I grabbed Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us and Ethan Canin’s Blue River. The adrenaline rush of the day of surgery, the euphoria of seeing Stephen breathe with new lungs, it was all mixed up with the stories I read, sitting by his bed. Usually when I read, the story I’m devouring is more dramatic than the events of my own life, but for those weeks, the lives in my books felt calmer and slower than my own, digestible, the authors offering subtle reflections on complicated relationships when there wasn’t room for me to do any reflecting myself. And somehow this allowed me to slow down, too, to sink into the daily events of the transplant a bit. Even if I couldn’t quite reflect, I could observe, and this in itself made the days less harrowing.
I reached for fiction again when Stephen went into the hospital for the last time. I didn’t know it was the last time right away, but he’d landed in the ICU with a ventilator, which was as worrisome as things had ever been. I’d been reading Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, so I brought it along, and sank deep into the stories that first morning, sitting by Stephen’s bed, waiting for him to wake up so we could decide whether we needed to call our families. I read for two hours straight, and kept laughing out loud. A nurse asked me to write down the name of the book for her. She didn’t care what it was about. “If it’s got you laughing in the ICU,” she said, “I have to read it.”
When Stephen died three weeks later, I was reading Platte River by Rick Bass. And while soon I’d read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and find deep, specific solace in its pages, I also found solace in Platte River, if less personal, maybe more expansive, too—an acknowledgment of the mysteries in living, of all that we can’t know. It was partly the characters in Platte River, with their bottomless and invisible longings that drew them together and kept them apart, set against the sudden hole in my own life. And it was partly the landscape of Montana, both physically and personally too large for any frame. Montana was the place where my father’s family was from, holding everything I’d never know about his childhood, his parents, why certain family events unfolded the way they did. And its sky and plains were coldly soothing, as endless as the ocean, and offering a similar sort of comfort, with their indifference to my own ups and downs.
Still, when I’m grappling with my life, I reach for fiction. In the years of emerging from grief, of falling in love and marrying again, of having kids and being a part of several families cobbled together, I’ve been up late with The Deptford Trilogy and A Gathering of Old Men, with The Sea, the Sea, and Olive Kitteridge and Sum. I am lost in worlds far from mine, and yet grateful for what they tell me about my own life, too—that it’s only a variation on a theme, that maybe it’s unusual to lose your first husband at 29, but so what—love and loss and grief and more love are out there for all of us, unremarkable in the human scheme of things.
Image credit: Flickr/erikccooper.
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby?
Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so.
That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him.
The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year — in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that.
Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity — both in size and subject matter — every 10 years sounds just about right.
Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?)
Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.”
So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share.
Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
1. Dry Spell
I’m going through a period where I’m not reading very many novels. I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: “I miss reading,” and “I used to read a lot, too.”
Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won’t want to have sex all the time. No one is trying to hear this.
Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details—this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still.
But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life.
In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time.
These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology—it’s impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage. And while you can think long about a particular book—its plot or its meaning—there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.)
Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail. Reading memories are cat memories—a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices.
Often, there are snacks.
I was moved by Leah Carroll’s poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort. I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books. For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients. Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness. Proust’s madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia.
On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother’s style—with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon—and spread it on melba toast crackers. I poured a coca-cola over ice. I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through. And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life.
I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon. Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard). When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish.
The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood—a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese. Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666. The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible: I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti. I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust.
Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor.
It was not my first spaghetti madness. One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents’ pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods. I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt. Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall.
In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby’s homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months. (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.)
An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated:
. . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.
In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated. I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt. At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots. I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan. Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances.
I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch’s best novel, and smoking cigarettes. This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia—now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5 Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb. I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra.
Some foods are not my own creation. Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King’s novels. Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth. During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it. That’s where I read Under the Volcano. I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin.
Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel—do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance. Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant. I wouldn’t talk sense into her now, though. These memories are too precious.
All is not lost and melancholic. The dry spell will end, god willing. There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future. There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad.
Image credit: Flickr/galant.
I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster. Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest. And now I want what I want when I want it.
Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet. There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops. When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long. For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels. In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog. Which is a good thing! I’m better for having read them all. But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent). I require specific titles now. I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. It’s kind of a bummer, actually.
(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them. But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own. In case there is an emergency. It’s a thing about me.)
Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet. I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting. I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth. After eight days, the novel arrived. All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.
Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available. It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own. I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here. If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village.
I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative. I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers. So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course). Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person. The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later. I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished. But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny. They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels. Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing. Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next. I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us. I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good. Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising. Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived. That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years. I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954. In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company). But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel. Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.
The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing. It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies. I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet. Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.
I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS². It’s a little fluffy. But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock. Pluralities are weird. Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster. That’s one for the list. Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet. That’s one against.
Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it. I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own:
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts. Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals. At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write. But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist. The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces. This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out? There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you. I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007