Most of my 2019 has been spent in a blur of hating words—my own. Editing a 140,000-word transcript that would eventually become a book forced me to confront daily misspellings, grammatical blunders, fact-checks, writing tics. It was enough to make me hate the act of writing more than I usually do.
The book hit shelves in September, so most of 2019 was spent getting it ready for publishing. It was a work of nonfiction in line with my day job at The New York Times; an insider story about a tech company’s culture gone awry at Uber. But since I spent most of my waking hours this year focusing on a story rooted in the real world, I prefer using my downtime getting as far away from it as possible. Reading for pleasure instead of work almost always consisted of fiction.
I picked up The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at the beginning of the year, in part because, honestly, I liked the cover design. But I also find reading short stories manageable, especially when I’m in the middle of a big project. To approach the end of a stressful day and be able to finish a 30-page story in one sitting feels damn good, like something akin to meeting the end of a section in a 500-plus page novel, but tidier. Normally I worry about missing the aesthetics of a native language in a translated work, but Jay Rubin’s translation abated that fear. I’m a sucker for magical realism; Murakami’s introduction set the tone.
My crippling reliance on Amazon for the most innocuous items led me down a comment-reading hole in February. As it turns out, people have very strong views on toilet plungers and sugar-free gummi bears.
I finally picked up Friday Black—another short story collection—after seeing Tommy Orange’s rave review of it. Orange was right. The book whet my appetite for looking at the worst possible versions of the future that aren’t as far-fetched as one would think. (I’m a huge fan of George Saunders, so Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work was right up my alley.)
I stopped at Powell’s in Portland while touring for my book and saw a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad on sale, a book I meant to read years ago but never got around to. I devoured it in two or three plane rides, an excellent cast of characters blended with rock music, angst, and the existentialism that comes with getting older. I’m mad at myself I hadn’t read it sooner.
I have this latent guilt when I read contemporary releases, which I will fully admit makes little sense. There’s a never-ending flood of books being released by talented people, but something inside my brain feels like I can’t allow myself to read new books when there are so many “classics” I’ve yet to read. How can I pick up something from 2019 when I haven’t read the best of 1819? It’s like a permanent backlog of shitty self-nagging; I don’t recommend it.
To deal with that, I try to throw at least one classic in the mix every month. I try to read Melville once a year, because I am the type of person who likes Melville. (I remember someone once saying “Never date guys who love Moby Dick,” a tidbit of self-consciousness I’ve never forgotten.) I picked up Pnin earlier this year; Nabokov is nothing if not controversial, but his mastery of voice and style keeps me coming back to him. I have a Willa Cather on my nightstand (My Antonia), and reread Wharton’s wintry Ethan Frome over the summer.
Some people read one book at a time before moving on to the next, but I’ve found reading a mix of books, genres, and mediums simultaneously is strangely soothing. Short stories, novels, a bit of poetry—it keeps the mind fresh, and I don’t feel stalled when I’m moving through something that is longer than 250 pages.
So after something like Atwood’s new book, I’ll go back and read All You Need Is Kill, an old manga that was the basis for the (underrated!) film Edge of Tomorrow. I’ve got a pile of Venom and Spider-Man anthologies I’m picking through—Maximum Carnage is one of them, focused on a fun psychopathic character. I’m also picking through the old Preacher comics; years ago, I bought the entire bound series of nine or so books off of some guy on Craigslist for a song. Totally worth it.
There’s this piece of advice I once received that I’ve never forgotten: “Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying.” Internalizing that felt liberating, and helped me put a few books down this year. (The first time I stopped reading a book in the middle of it was when I realized I didn’t like Jack Kerouac, and sold my copy of On the Road after about 100 pages.) I love Kazuo Ishiguro and read Remains of the Day, Nocturnes, and Never Let Me Go (again) this year, but decided about 150 pages in that The Unconsoled was just a little too out there for my taste.
I dutifully read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and enjoyed it, then moved to One Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t get into it, stopping halfway through. Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys was predictably great.
Of course, I still read nonfiction. It helps me make my own work feel and sound better, even if it doesn’t always give me that serotonin hit that fiction affords. I read business classics while writing my own book: The Soul of a New Machine, Barbarians at the Gate, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Den of Thieves. They reminded me how beautiful, elegant writing can be just as present in nonfiction as it is in other mediums.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see friends and mentors write wonderful books that have come out to much acclaim. Namwali Serpell, whom I was a research assistant for during my undergrad years as an English major, wrote the great Zambian novel with The Old Drift. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was, of course, as lovely as everyone knew it would be. I’m in the middle of Anna Wiener’s galley of Uncanny Valley, a memoir of her time spent in Silicon Valley.
I’m trying to branch out a bit more into science fiction, something I’m seeing flourish right now by authors of all walks. I have Jeff VanderMeer and Octavia Butler in the queue, and keep meaning to get into Tana French. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is burning a hole in my bookshelf; that’ll be up soon.
Perhaps I’ll make a dent in all of those in 2020—and hopefully not feel too guilty that they weren’t written at least a hundred years ago.
“I have this feeling, that all it will take will be one moment, even a tiny moment.”
When Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature I was slightly disappointed. I was a “Harukist”—over the preceding eight months, I had been religiously reading the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami. As a series they are recognizable as a related body of work with the same ideas, motifs, often a central piece of music and a certain brand of whiskey appearing with regularity. But with each new book, Murakami follows the growing roots of his literary tree to a new colony. To me, he seemed to have done just as much, if not more than Ishiguro and in a similar vein.
As with a lot of things in life though, I was uninformed. A conversation with a friend led us both to the conclusion that, despite our surprise, neither of us had read one of Ishiguro’s novels, nor did we know a lot about him. A quick Google search led me past The Booker Prize winning Remains of the Day, after reading a quote in which Ishiguro almost admitted he was bored writing it. In an interview with The Times Literary Supplement, he stated that writing Remains of the Day was almost too easy—“a bit like pushing a button all the time.”
Eventually, I arrived at The Unconsoled—conversely, James Wood’s comments that the novel had “invented its own category of badness” piqued my interest. While the conflicting conclusions of John Carey, describing it as a “masterpiece” led me to decide the novel would be my entry point into Ishiguro, albeit with the expectation of not finishing a book that has infuriated many. Instead, I found a book that struck me on a deeply personal level, through a story that paints a startlingly clear picture of the current trajectory of bewildering modern life.
The Unconsoled follows Mr. Ryder, an internationally renowned pianist, over the course of three days, as he arrives for a performance in a city in central Europe. Ryder’s three days are a cacophony of engagements most of which he cannot recall ever having agreed to. Indeed, as the people of the city begin to look to Ryder as the solution to all of their problems, the narrative becomes more and more baffling. Ideologically and physically labyrinthine, Ishiguro projects Ryder through a series of ever expanding, constantly changing events.
A series of encounters extensively developed but never fully resolved—this city in central Europe is malleable and ouroboric. For example, Ryder’s son Boris seems to function as a kind of a narratorial lighthouse, a source of happiness, relief, anger, and guilt, who he is constantly dragged away from by the people of the city and their needs. Regardless of how he makes Ryder feel, Boris is a reminder of Ryder’s role as a father—a redundant aspect of his character for the city, but a crucial part of his humanity.
In one instance, Boris is left in a cafe as Ryder is whisked away to the Sattler Monument for a press opportunity, after this his return to his son is further interrupted by musician Christoff’s insistence he attend a lunch. Ryder’s growing anxiety about having left his son melts away only as the lunch finishes, with the realization that he has been having lunch at the cafe he started in. In this novel, crescendoing bewilderment is often met with the briefest moments of relief (often via discovered geographical convenience), before Ryder is rapidly propelled into yet another tangled social web.
As a protagonist, Ryder is stripped of his control over himself—he becomes the focal point for a city of individuals wrapped up in their own concerns. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ishiguro began writing this novel after an 18-month press tour for Remains of the Day—a connection that allows the tentative planting of one foot in the real world, with regards to this surreal novel. Ishiguro has spoken of his writing a mixture of the unreal and familiar, which has made me think that Ryder’s experience of this central European city, published 23 years ago, is a useful analogy for the direction in which modern life is heading.
As a result, literary critic John Carey’s assessment of the novel being about stress is a useful starting point. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ishiguro described the novel as being about the idea that we expectantly live our lives leading up to one big performance. A performance he simply defines as the one great event of our life we hope for and look forward to. An event that is surrounded by anxiety and demands our attention, but one that life does not stop for. We see this in Ryder, as he navigates the days preceding the concert, his thoughts are sidelined by the people of the city. Characters lost in their own concern look to Ryder as a tool to solve problems. He is foiled by his renown and the fact that he is in the city to perform amidst an artistic crisis, which makes him recognizable and accessible. There is an unwilling messianic quality to Ryder who is abused as a kind of whiteboard for the problems of the people.
It is this idea of accessibility relieving Ryder of his free will that is crucial. In the world of the book everyone knows one another intimately, all aware of the machinations of the city. Indeed, in some passages, Ishiguro even goes so far as to transplant his protagonist into the minds of others. Everything becomes public, an idea accentuated by the claustrophobically shifting geography of the novel—deployed by Ishiguro as a kind of temperature control for Ryder’s fluctuating levels of frustration, stress, and anxiety. One episode sees Ryder awoken and driven to an evening party in only his dressing gown. After dinner, as he is about to return to bed, he discovers he is already and always has been at his hotel. Often when Ryder appears to have left a place, he will go through a door after an event and find himself back where he left from.
Ryder’s experience of this intimate, gossip-ridden, self-obsessed city is accentuated because of his celebrity. A celebrity comfortably replicated by the way we use technology. Indeed, this technology thrusts us into the center of our own small community and makes us accessible regardless of where we are. We represent ourselves with a variety of online profiles that serve different functions and are interacted with in different ways. Similar to the way Ryder serves a variety of both perceived and pre-empted functions for the people of the city.
The fact that these profiles are never “turned off” means you lose the element of control over how and when people contact you. It conjures the same access-all-hours situation that assaults and irritates Ishiguro’s protagonist. Often multiple events appear without warning, detracting from the importance of Ryder’s performance and contributing to his lack of agency and rising anxiety. We are presented with a character who is overwhelmed and unable to locate his sense of priority—an experience replicated by opening and unlocking your phone to a mountain of notifications from a variety of communicative platforms—a situation presented through the interiority of the narrative. The protagonist’s actions are often introduced with lines like, “Suppressing a sense of panic, I set about formulating something to say that would sound at once dignified and convincing.” Ishiguro gives us a character who feels harassed and, despite his acclaim, rendered inadequate by the demands of those around him—reflective of the kind of stress that can accompany the unnatural levels of interaction technology and social media bring.
Despite his renown, Ryder is rarely assured as he stumbles through social encounters, which in turn, elicit the kind of strong reactions that are emblematic of the sensitivity of the Internet. So Ryder’s predicament seems to be similar to ours: he is the centre of a small, inescapable community to which he feels obligated and is open all hours. Of course, the novel is an accentuation of real life. Our interactions with this “community” can be beneficial and are often treasured, yet, they have the ability to cause bewilderment, anxiety, and stress, while also being a distracting from the important things in life. This is best exemplified by Ryder constantly being pulled away from Boris, his son—a representation of truly important duty, and whose company the protagonist is his most emotional and human in.
Thankfully, the novel represents a world more accentuated than our own. In the book, Christoff, a mechanical cellist, is the musical predecessor socially dismantled by the new artistic beginning Ryder symbolizes to the city. His social destruction is based on the precedential hope of Ryder calling out the error in his musical philosophy. Ishiguro usefully convolutes Ryder’s motivation for contradicting Christoff: “I could feel, almost physically, the tide of respect sweeping towards me.” The protagonist is encouraged by the mob and crucially by what they expect of him. Ironically, a rare scene in which Ryder is finally assured represents one of the fullest realizations of his lack of agency—even in his area of expertise he still succumbs to the demands on the city.
So the idea is formed of two aspects. The first is accessibility and knowledge, seen in the way we are always available online to our small community and the manner in which Ryder is viewed as a tool, to be utilized, for a town in crisis. The result of this is pressure, to constantly respond and engage with what is going on around us, made immediate by the Internet, however distracting it may be. At the moment, we are privileged enough not to be in Ryder’s situation stagnantly spinning like a hamster on a wheel.
The novel also goes beyond this: with the idea of expectation and precedent. The public nature of our lives means there is recorded history to our actions. Ryder is expected to be the advent of something new and better for the art world in the city. Even before his arrival, they have created a character for him, a mold to fill. In the same way that social media encourages experience rating and expected precedents. Indeed, the precedent set by three, four, or five stars alters experience in the same way Ryder is seen to be pushed and pulled even in the subject in which he is an expert. There is a dangerous circularity to living up to expectations, especially when this behavior is well received.
Currently, technology and social media are similar to the most basic definition of Ryder’s distractions. Put simply, the fact that he has to go to a lunch, or take a photo for the press. Upon his arrival in the hotel lobby, in the opening pages, he no longer decides where he goes or what he does, which contributes to a rising distraction from his performance and an anxiety presented in bewilderment and lack of action. And it’s the same for us: problems and engagements via technology can distract from being human by creating an overbearing sense of duty on a social and working level.
The Unconsoled, however, is more complex than this—it is wonderfully and terrifyingly forward looking. Ryder is often the center of events because of who he is and throughout the novel he is prodded and poked, cajoled and encouraged into behaving a certain way. He becomes a symbol of how the people of the city expect him to be. Any forays he makes into being himself are often met with strong negative reactions. When Mr. Hoffman, the hotel manager, questions Ryder’s reluctance to change rooms, he puts the pressure on the protagonist. Indeed, he accuses Ryder of being oddly attached to the room when in reality, it is he who is strangely insistent on the room change. Ryder is consistently forced into a behavioral corner, an easily comparable situation to a life increasingly dominated by the way we are being presented and recorded via the Internet.
The Unconsoled explores the slippery slope of anxiety caused by accessibility and perceived responsibility. In this sense, it can work as an analogy for the direction in which we are heading—as we make ourselves more available and knowable via technology and the Internet, we become subject to the same kind of pressures Ryder experiences due to his fame. And resultantly, subject to unending levels of additional social pressure. Ultimately, at the heart of this inescapable, complex maze of a novel is a character who is constantly losing control of himself because of his inability to disengage.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
Between the World and Me
A Little Life
Go Set a Watchman
Book of Numbers
Fates and Furies
The Heart Goes Last
The Paying Guests
Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (#101). It’s the first appearance in the Hall for both authors.
In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book’s opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010.
For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me tops our list. It’s an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he’s only won a MacArthur “genius grant,” been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite.
Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life occupies this month’s number two spot. The book’s steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it’s likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work:
A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels.
Indeed, it’s as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim’s works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it’s happened…) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas?
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
In the days prior to the publication of his second novel, The Millions had the pleasure to chat with Ben Marcus about The Flame Alphabet — an apocalyptic tale about the toxicity of human language — along with everything from the development of his work and the labels people assign fiction to the ranking of MFA programs and the perils of colicky babies.
The Millions: The Flame Alphabet — which features first-person narration and a single protagonist — has been described as your most “accessible” book to date. Would you agree with this assessment? Given the more “experimental” nature of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String , how did the structure and prose style for The Flame Alphabet come about?
Ben Marcus: Who is setting the bar for what you call accessibility? The definition of “accessible” is “easy to understand,” and so much of the fiction I love is just… not that. It is complex and rich and sometimes puzzling, and it stays with me precisely because I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Sometimes it is lucid and approachable on the surface, and other times the language is congested in order to fire up strong sensations. Accessibility is such a strange, sad measure of the writing I love. Dora the Explorer is accessible. The Unconsoled is not. But I have never been deliberately difficult, if that’s what you’re getting at. That has no appeal to me. I’ve always tried to write the fiction that compels me the most — I have to feel passionate, engaged, and nearly desperate if I’m going to get anything done. When I’m working on material that is conceptual or abstract or in some way difficult, I strive for clarity, transparency, a vivid attack. After Notable American Women was published, I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to try something different, just on the compositional level. I wanted a single narrator, a precise timeline. I was curious what narrative momentum would deliver to me and how that would impact the fictional world I wanted to create. I was just hungry to put on a new disguise and go prowling. At that point I had no idea what the book would be, but I must have been craving order, some formal simplicity. Of course I quickly found a way to muck it up, but for a little while it was like writing with a new body and the whole experience woke me up and mattered, at least for a while. If The Flame Alphabet, as a result, is easier, then that’s an accident. If anything, I hope it is a much harder book, on the emotional level at least.
BM: The simple answer is that I have changed my techniques in order to avoid the relentless sameness of my material, but I have probably only found new costumes, not new creatures entirely. In the past, if I wanted to sound a note on a piano (in prose), I didn’t just have to purchase and install the piano, I had to build it. But before I built it I had to grow the trees whose wood would yield the piano, and probably I had to create the soil and landscape through which those trees would burst. Then there was the problem of the fucking seeds. Where did they come from? I had to source them. With such mania I was either onto something or I completely misunderstood what a fiction writer was supposed to do. Simple things, even entirely undramatic ones, could not occur unless I created them from whole cloth. I was superstitious about taking anything for granted, but it also locked me into a kind of fanatical object fondling that could, on a bad day, preclude any exploration of the human (even though the process of trying to remake the world on the page is fairly, pathetically, human). This set of interests kept me away from what is usually called narrative. It wasn’t some ideological position, or an artistic stance, it was just one set of obsessions winning out over another. On the other hand, I think that I have always tried to create feeling, and then to pulse it into the reader with language. It’s very difficult to figure out how to do this. Storytelling is one way — conventional narrative or whatever you want to call it — but are there other methods worth exploring? The ground shifts, and I change my mind about what might work. How to create immense, unforgettable feeling from language? This ambition hasn’t really changed, it’s just that I want to cultivate new approaches, to try to circle in on a more vivid way to accomplish it.
TM: Was your writing process at all different with The Flame Alphabet given its more traditional narrative structure?
BM: It was. I wrote The Flame Alphabet relatively quickly, in less than two years. I worked every day and usually produced a few pages. I rarely reread the previous material each day before starting to work (whereas in the past I have been a compulsive re-reader before beginning the day’s work). I also, against my nature, allowed myself to use functional, placeholder language sometimes in order to keep my momentum, telling myself that I would go back later to make the language more interesting. And I did go back later, and later, and later. Unlike with my earlier books, I cut as much as I kept, or more. I have four or five hundred pages of deleted material. After I finished the first draft, I cut a 70-page section in the first third of the book and re-did it from scratch. I also cut a 50 page section, in Part 2, that introduced a new set of characters and conflicts. These people never returned. Thank god.
TM: I read somewhere that you began writing Notable American Women after discovering an old — and somewhat patronizing — encyclopedia actually titled Notable American Women. The Flame Alphabet is a book about the toxic language of children. What was the genesis of that idea?
BM: The idea came about when an obsession — language — collided with a fraught emotional container — family. I think of language as being tremendously potent. It causes deep feelings in us, so much so that its effects would seem nearly chemical, medical. Once I started to think of language as medical, a kind of drug, I wondered what an overdose would be, what would happened if the drug of language was toxic to some people if taken in high doses. This alone wasn’t that interesting, but it did give the book a basic problem, a conflict, to work from. At the time I was thinking about characters who have something crucial taken from them — what they’ll do to recover what matters most to them. So I took language away from Sam, my narrator, but that wasn’t enough of a loss. He also had to lose his child, his family. And these losses had to be connected to each other, maybe inextricable: thus the child as weapon. The child you love is the one who is harming you. This made the morality of the problem much more difficult, more inaccessible. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but I think that I was looking to escalate the problem at every point in the novel. If there was a crisis, it needed to deepen, to worsen, and the escalation had to maybe beget the plot. This all sounds a bit too insider baseball. I didn’t know a thing when I started.
TM: In the book, Sam and Claire are part of a secretive and strange Jewish sect? And toxic language is, by some, thought to emanate first from Jewish children. What was behind your decision to make your main characters Jewish?
BM: The forest Jewry that Sam and Claire practice is invented (maybe). They worship in isolation, in the woods, receiving their Rabbi’s sermons through a complex, hard-to-operate radio that frequently fails them. But even if their process is invented, the content of their religion is tied closely to Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah — it is not strikingly fictional. They respect the ineffable and see religious wisdom as essentially nonverbal, enigmatic, and elusive. The cautions against language, against understanding itself, to me come from not just Kabbalah but from Christian mysticism as well. I quickly determined that if I made up a name for this religion it amputated the whole thing of its vitality. I wanted the religious activities in the book, for all of their strangeness, to feel believable, to feel true. To me, Judaism, with its deep respect for intellectual interrogation, for the slippery vicissitudes of Torah interpretation, could accommodate a sect like the forest Jews in this book. As this sect started to take shape, and I explored the isolated nature of such anti-communal worship, the intense loneliness of true religious commitment, this produced a lot of dramatic material, and the potential for sorrow. Connected to this, I have always wanted to invent a religion in fiction, and to me this was a chance to do so in a way that felt bound to my own personal religious experience.
TM: I was discussing The Flame Alphabet with a friend and she said that children’s language as a toxin was an idea that only a parent would have. As a father of two, what impact do your children have on your writing or the way you approach your work?
BM: My daughter, who is seven now, had fierce colic as a baby, and her scream was military grade. I remember once I was changing her diaper on the bed and out of nowhere she released a scream so piercing, so beyond anything I’d ever experienced at the sonic level, that I nearly threw up. But those days are gone. She is a sweetheart with a gorgeous voice and we tease her sometimes because even if she tried she can’t scream like that anymore. One thing that’s been interesting to me about having kids is how I now see myself differently as a son to my parents. I am more aware, I think, of how easy it is to take them for granted as providers: machines of support and love. Parents are the people you can sometimes safely experiment on, testing dark moods, dumping anger and fear. Bragging. There are so many behaviors you can only really safely show to a parent.
TM: Shifting gears a bit, when it was published, some readers said that Notable American Women was not experimental enough. So that is possibly something you’ll hear about The Flame Alphabet. Does being labeled an “experimental” writer” mean anything to you?
BM: Anyone who believes that you can make art from language is part of a small, nearly-vanishing community, and we should all form a wedge and march on the enemy. Do we need different uniforms in this struggle, different stripes on our arms so that it’s clear who the realists are? Maybe, but I care less and less. I find myself fascinated by various techniques of fiction writing, and ever since early college I have tried to read all across the divides, before I even know there were divides. I love what William Trevor can do with a short story, and at the same time David Markson is staggeringly brilliant to me: the simplest language, yet utterly original on the page. We are in a time when narrative tradition is getting honed and exquisitely refined by the novelists who are considered major: very subtle improvements on an established method. But the premise of art is that writers will seek new methods to reach people with language. This isn’t experimental at all: it’s traditional. It’s a tradition for artists to push forward and try to do new things. Such a project has defined the making of art from the very beginning. There’s nothing more traditional than that.
TM: Shifting gears again, every year we see a ranking of “the best” MFA programs, followed by numerous rebuttals to the list of “best” MFA programs, followed by vigorous defenses of various MFA programs. As someone who has been both a student and a professor at MFA programs (at Brown and Columbia), what’s your reaction to this annual ranking and subsequent controversy?
BM: I don’t pay much attention to the rankings of these programs. I do spend time trying to improve the fiction concentration at Columbia, and I am very much engaged by the question of how best to teach students of fiction, how workshops should be structured, how the secondary reading courses might work, what form of criticism can best incite a student’s improvement. I’ve been teaching in MFA programs for over 20 years now. I wonder how to make the Columbia program matter as much as it can, how to build its value to student writers, how to improve it at every level. I care a lot about teaching, and what’s interesting about MFA programs is that there is not a lot of history to fight against. It’s relatively new, when it comes to academia, anyway, and this is, I think, liberating.
TM: What are you working on now?
BM: I am editing a collection of stories, which should be out sometime in 2013.
TM: And looking at the year ahead from the point of view of a reader, what books are you most excited about?
BM: John D’Agata’s Lifespan of a Fact, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Michael Chabon’s new novel, Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection. Then there’s a novel by some freaky writer I’ve never heard of named Heidi Julavits. It’s called The Vanishers, and it’s amazing.
BM: I met Erin through Creative Capital, an angelic organization that is boundlessly helpful and generous to artists. I watched a feature-length animation of Erin’s called What Manner of Person Art Thou? and I was just stunned by its genius. So I asked her if she might want to make a short film that could serve as a book trailer, and she agreed. We bounced around a bunch of ideas but we kept returning to the notion of a traditional trailer. Because Erin works in animation, she could animate whole scenes and we could build up the kind of atmosphere that’s in the book. Erin worked tirelessly, for months, and the result is what you see. I’d really love to work with her again.
Image Credit: Flickr/Double–M
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Tragically, I had already arrived at the beach by the time my last essay went up (the one about a reading rut, for those of you who don’t keep a scrapbook). Like a fool, I had packed the William Vollmann, taking up space that could have been used for an economy-size block of cheese or some charming article of lounge wear. My beach day goes like this: Bud heavies and scads of potato chips. A crab encounter. Bocce injury, and several restoratives. A sand sandwich, and a sunburn. In this context, Europe Central was as useful, to use the bewildering colloquialism, as tits on a boar. Meanwhile, the wonderful suggestions piling up in the comment section of my post mocked me, in my bookless universe.
The beach rental, like a hostel, had a little library–a ragtag gang of abandoned holiday volumes. I found a Harry Potter, which was cold comfort, but easy to read while napping. Three hundred pages in, I realized I had already read it. Cedric’s death left me unmoved, again. The day before we departed the beach, I found and purloined, a water-swollen copy of A Perfect Spy. I love John Le Carre. Whenever I read one of his novels, I spend the whole time feeling as though I missed something crucial, but according to him in this marvelous article, that’s how the actual spies felt too. I had wasted five jobless days on warmed-over Potter, another week in the rut, While Edan was eating her frittata, I spent my holiday eating stale eggy-sandy from that restaurant with the yellow arches. Although I did develop the approximation of a tan.
When I got home, Nocturnes was sitting in my mailbox, a small package representing a great change in my fortunes. As I began reading, I felt the clouds breaking up above my trench. Nicole Krauss said a thing about Roberto Bolaño, a thing that I’ve seen so often on his dust jackets that it’s actually started to annoy me (like Updike on Nabokov writing ecstacially): purportedly, Bolaño made her believe “Everything is possible again.” I’ve made it clear before that a flame burns eternal in my bosom for Roberto Bolaño, but Krauss’ soundbite better describes how I feel about Kazuo Ishiguro.
It is a great thing to be surprised by a novelist. I don’t mean surprised like you feel surprised when Cedric dies, or when Lydia runs off with Wickham, or Piggy falls off the cliff. The surprise in a large part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is that he changes the very quality of the world in some subtle but deeply alarming way; suddenly the sky is a gray shade, your own voice vibrates at a slightly different frequency, and an atonal humming sound wafts on the breeze. Imagine the Pevensie children entering a wardrobe that led to an ordinary dining room, on another planet. That’s an Ishiguro Narnia.
The ease with which he shifts between the heimlich and unheimlich, within his oeuvre as a whole (say, from Artist of the Floating World to Never Let Me Go), and within a given novel (When We Were Orphans, or The Unconsoled, or here, in Nocturnes), is phenomenal. Truly, Ishiguro makes me believe in the limitless possibilities of the written word. And the thing that I love about Kazuo Ishiguro is that, for someone who tampers with the way the world is made, he does not sacrifice the cherished conventions of English prose. This means that, for me, he does not sacrifice readability. Anyone can turn things weird when he or she decides that pronouns are unnecessary and the second person singular is preferred.
Nocturnes, comprising five medium-length, loosely-related stories, is not a giant work, but Ishiguro manages to suggest a lot, while saying not a lot. It is brief and lovely and achy, like smelling a long-forgotten smell, or hearing a snatch of song you recognize (to borrow one of its themes). Nonetheless, it retains the bizarre quality of which I am so fond. To me, the world of Nocturnes is not the world; the people, simulacra.
I realized I’ve said about Ishiguro generally, and very little about Nocturnes specifically, but I don’t have much else to say. Like telling someone else your dream, describing the stories in any detail would be sort of incoherent, and boring. And I think, had I not been in my reading rut, that I might have felt bereft at the end of the book. It is short, and while I sometimes confuse length with quality, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it’s a touch spare. But, given the listless summer I’ve had, Nocturnes was the perfect thing, a real rut-breaker. Acting upon me like an exquisite and prudently-sized hors d’oeuvre, it left me, finally, ravenous for reading and anxious to see what else is possible.
I’ve got a John Le Carre to finish.
Not wanting to be left out of the fun and controversy generated by the New York Times list of the top books of the last 25 years, the Guardian has rounded up 150 celebrity judges of its own (120 agreed to particpate), like Monica Ali, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Safran Foer, to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005. “How they defined ‘best’ was up to them” is the caveat the Guardian gives us.After the votes were tallied, they bestowed the honor on Booker winner Disgrace by Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee. Money by Martin Amis was runner up, while Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie all shared third place. Will this list generate as much fevered dicussion as the Times list? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.