This year, through no initiative or orchestration of my own, I read in twos. I realize this only now, picking out from a hasty reading ledger those books I liked or kept thinking about, and it’s not like I read the twos consecutively, more that little symmetries keep making themselves known as I look back, titles pairing off into smaller dialogues, gonzo breakout sessions with improvised themes. I didn’t read more this year but I read longer, with a better attention span, this being the first year in almost 10 that I read more to read than to keep up with publishing, so maybe this is always happening and I just started noticing. I also have a brain that’s unrepentantly hungry for patterns, so who knows.
But for instance: the bookends of my reading year were The Tradition by Jericho Brown and The Shore by Chris Nealon. The latter is a book of likably freewheeling, breezily erudite “poem-essays,” which is a fair if dampening description; the former is a book of fucking poems, orderly and solemn and very robustly beautiful without any undue ornateness. Brown is formally exacting, yet the depth of feeling in his poems is breathtaking, at times literally; they’re at once messy, wounded and lusty and scared and prideful, and sublimely still, composed. Nealon is an anarchic writer-thinker flirting with the politics of anarchism, but I find a fully formed existential moment in his “tepid intellectual watchfulness,” as he puts it, a visceral anxiety no less visceral for the fact that his only move is to articulate it, piecemeal. Both feel something’s not right in the present, know some things have been profoundly wrong for a long time, and though they sense this at different distances from their lives and bodies they inhabit it equally fully, make it equally person-sized and real. Also The Tradition debuts a fixed form Brown calls the duplex, and it is perfect.
The Organs of Sense is the first novel and second dazzling book by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, a teutonically involuted, toweringly philosophical novel that is by some weird alchemy more fun for being teutonically involuted and toweringly philosophical. It pulls you painstakingly along into a telescoping nest of relations of conversations of recollections of revelations of remarkable psychological extravagance, and all the while the story—Leibniz goes in 1666 to visit an eyeless astronomer, is the elevator pitch—is so engaging and fanciful and sweet, and Sachs’s comic timing so dead-on, that all you see is the timeless folly of people being people. It’s like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in that respect, except where that novel burrows deep into a single instant this one expands outward into the cosmos, or a seventeenth-century conception of it. I found The Organs of Sense paired well with Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published in 2017, another engrossingly human tableau bound in a vaguely forbidding formal armature. (Oh! Telescoping. Just got that. You win again, Sachs.) The armature in this case is a staccato accumulation of run-on monologues that dilate breathlessly on the smallest sensory minutiae; the book’s magic is that this makes it thrillingly lifelike, thrillingly like life uninterrupted, somehow like swimming in a bloodstream. My grandmother, who as a rule brooks no experimentalist literary impulse, told me weeks after reading it that she was still thinking about the one passage that’s like ten pages of disquisition about pouring concrete.
Nina Leger’s Mise en pieces is a patient, thoughtful novel about a woman named Jeanne who keeps a memory palace of strangers’ dicks. The title (cleverly translated by Laura Francis as The Collection) means to cut into pieces but also to install in rooms, as art in a museum, and Leger writes with a kind of curatorial dispassion—but what she puts on display is the received logic of The Novel, structurally and sexually, dissecting and redistributing it into bigger or smaller boxes, objectifying it in the very way we were expecting it to objectify Jeanne. It’s brilliantly subversive but always more curious than militant. I also read a lot of Valérie Mréjen this year, in unwitting anticipation of her English debut, Black Forest in Katie Shireen Assef’s translation. The first thing I sat down with was Liste rose, a series of personal ads assembled from names cut out of a phone book, which turned out to be a good model for the way she works: even in more direct forms of storytelling—about a non-start romance, for instance, or about parents and children—her method is decoupage, fragmentation, intimate and clinical in alternating measure. Black Forest drifts intuitively from memory to fantasy to supposition, sifting through the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances and people in anecdotes and people on Six Feet Under in a way that’s at once cold and sparkling with life. I’m not calling it a memory palace of deaths, but I’m not not.
I reread Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station early this year—still find it extraordinary, still not wild about how much Adam Gordon reminds me of me—and inhaled a friend’s galley of The Topeka School over a summer weekend. It excites me to watch Lerner at work, processing the present at a rhythm that feels authentically like thought, and even as he widens his scope to include more zeitgeist, more history, more dimensions in his characters and their relationships, I’m spellbound by his knack for the fundamentally introspective work of airing their reasonings and neuroses and inner negotiations, which seem rational and sympathetic until you realize—eventually for me, I assume very quickly for lots of people—that maybe their shit’s been part of the problem all along. I would have called Lerner unmatched in his ability to pull this off compassionately before I read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (also over a weekend, also a friend’s advance copy): a plottier, smaller-scoped novel that nonetheless ends up being an even-handed, piercingly wise referendum on love and marriage and sex and gender. Both books experiment gently with shifting perspective, Topeka deliberately and Fleishman more sinuously, and both feel like classically ambitious attempts to get at the crux of a knotty modern predicament, in this case the meaning and function of masculinity. I’ll be revisiting both, slower, down the line.
After not reading it for several years mostly because I thought the title was boring, I read Marie Chaix’s 1974 memoir-novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance, then promptly reread it in Harry Mathews’s translation, The Laurels of Lake Constance, just to keep the spell going. Chaix makes Lerner’s and Brodesser-Akner’s perspective jumps look elementary, darting between voices and tenses sometimes from one sentence to the next, not out of formal showiness but to grapple with the multitouch impact of World War 2, and her father’s collaborationist career, on her family. (She herself was born in 1942, and comes into the story as a narrator maybe a third of the way in.) I no longer remember which prepared me for which—as I said, it’s a hasty ledger—but I recognized the same sly chameleonic interiority in Morgan Parker’s second poetry collection, Magical Negro, which tracks a sleepless mind’s path through a world of “Dylann Roof, Burger King, Urban Outfitters.” Parker’s is the cooler, nimbler voice—she sows devastating punchlines like landmines throughout her poems, while Chaix’s prose holds you pitilessly in the moment—but both model, unflinchingly, what it’s like to experience history as a simultaneously abstract and personal affliction. Parker: “And nothing rises up. And horror is a verb.”
I love environmental disaster movies and have an above-average tolerance for immersive theatre experiences, so reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth in Paris during a record heatwave—“so intense that a weather map of France looks like a screaming heat skull of death,” according to a Business Insider headline—a headline!—felt about right. His work in synthesizing a massive body of scientific research is admirable; his willingness to lean into its monumentally terrifying conclusions, to use fear and alarm in a way scientists can’t or won’t, is crucial. Some time around then I also read Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’s Rap on Trial, which expands on the excellent work the authors have been doing separately for over a decade cataloguing and decrying the harrowing trend of rap lyrics being admitted as evidence in U.S. criminal cases. May both books shake something loose, though I realize our failing to address the first issue will eventually render the second moot.
Everything about Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, a diaphanous little volume whose content is most expediently described as “silkworm giving a TED talk,” is strange and lapidary, right down to the obscurely troubling six-word description of how it was initially created: “written nanoscale on clear silk film.” There’s precedent for this kind of exploit—see for instance Christian Bök’s xenotext experiment, which encodes a short poem “into the genome of an unkillable bacterium”—but Bervin, whose previous works include erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Nets) and a sumptuous facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s envelope drafts (The Gorgeous Nothings), is concerned more with materiality than with spectacle. As the difference in titular textures suggests, Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book is mostly what Silk Poems is not: gritty, folksy, squalid and chatty, sexy and gross, aimed with care and craftsmanship at something earthlier and more astral at once. I came away from both feeling better in tune with the intangible, by way of the utterly tactile.
What else? I was grateful for Damon Young’s essay collection What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk, both supremely lucid, good-natured but unsparing inquiries into how race, which is to say racism, gets inside your head to make you question how successfully, how convincingly, you’re inhabiting a pigeonhole you didn’t opt into in the first place. I was enchanted by Max Porter’s Lanny and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, both of which wrap inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss. I took a difficult journey with Jeannie Vanasco as she navigates the deceptively prosaic semantic aftermath of sexual assault in Things We Didn’t Talk about When I Was a Girl, and another one with Irma Pelatan, in L’Odeur de chlore, as she maps her body cathexis against a childhood spent swimming in a municipal pool designed according to Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale. Janelle Shane’s futuristic op-ed about feral scooters is hands down the 1300-word sci-fi novel of the year, and—since I’m not about to abandon the pairs conceit this close to the end—the last great thing I read as of this writing was Émilie Faure’s interview, in the biennial high-art review Mémoire Universelle, with world jigsaw-puzzle champion Sophie de Goncourt. She’s a magistrate by day who can put together a 500-piece puzzle in 40 minutes, a pastime which requires, she says with an irresistible lack of guile, “neither agility nor precision. A piece fits, or it doesn’t.”
This year, I had the jarring experience of reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble after Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I do not recommend this pairing, nor would I have chosen it for myself, except that Fleishman was on hold at the library with a 400-person waitlist, and if I didn’t read it right away, it would be another four-month wait, and it wasn’t a book I wanted to buy, mainly because it’s on the long side and would be cumbersome to carry around in hardcover.
The Overstory, on the other hand, was an even longer book that I did buy in hardcover a few months after it was first published, in the spring of 2018. I started reading it shortly after I bought it, and was immediately impressed by the narrative variety of the first 200-some pages, which contain a series of discrete short stories about people and their relationship to trees. Although the stories are from the point of view of humans, the lives of trees quietly steal the narrative.
As an example: The first story in the book seems to be about an immigrant couple moving to the Midwest at the turn-of-the-century but is actually about the chestnut seedling that the husband carries in his pocket and plants on his farm. As the tree slowly grows and reaches maturity, three generations of human life unfold nearby, lives full of drama that could be the subject of multiple novels, but instead are quickly summarized. The real miracle, Powers tells us, is the survival of this particular tree, which evaded the blight that killed four billion American Chestnut trees in the first half the twentieth century.
The Overstory is full of miraculous stories about trees, and it changed the way I see the green giants in my neighborhood. Now I notice their behaviors: In the small park near my apartment, I’ve observed that a number of the trees nurse shoots at the base of their trunks, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this reproductive strategy—does the parent tree think it’s going to die soon and is hedging its bets? (Then, when the Parks Department prunes the saplings, I wonder how the trees feel about that.) In another part of the park, two trees of different species lean toward each other, their leaves intermingling to form a picturesque canopy. There doesn’t seems to be any reason for them to grow so closely and I wonder if they’re friends, or if there is some other benefit from this growth pattern.
The most beautiful trees on our block are the gingkos that tower alongside the Catholic church. In the fall, their fan-shaped leaves turn golden and drift into the backyard our family shares with our upstairs neighbor. One afternoon, when I was sitting outside reading The Overstory, I noticed that a gingko seedling had grown up in the crack between two patio stones. I was struck by its fragility as well as its strength: here was a tiny thing that could potentially grow into something taller than my apartment building, taller even than the church. It could outlive me and my children—depending, of course, on its ability to adapt to the saltwater flooding that will become a regular occurrence in my neighborhood in the coming decades.
I decided to save the seedling, and transplanted it into a small pot. Then I went on vacation. I took The Overstory with me, but I also brought along my seven-month-old baby. I thought for sure I’d read during her naptimes, but instead I dozed off. When I finally got back to The Overstory, a few weeks later, I found I couldn’t remember several of the characters. It felt daunting to start over. So I put it aside—for a year! Meanwhile, my ginkgo seedling grew ten inches and sprouted three leaves.
I returned to The Overstory during another summer vacation, this time with older children and the determination to set aside reading time. I got the book out immediately after the kids went to sleep, and read for two-hour stretches for five nights in a row. To read every night for two hours is generally wonderful, but when I finished The Overstory, I felt a kind of awe. I think it’s the best book to read on the climate crisis, and I say this as someone who read several books on the subject over this past year, including The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, Falter, and The Myth of Human Supremacy. I got a lot of useful information from these books, and they definitely stoked my anger, but I didn’t stop, midway through any of them, to plant a gingko seedling—though I did engage in panicked online real estate searches for inexpensive property in elevated regions.
Which brings me to Fleishman Is in Trouble, the novel I read immediately after The Overstory. This was a book that everyone seemed to be talking about, and I was very eager to read it. It’s set in contemporary Manhattan, and follows a newly divorced single dad as he navigates online dating apps and feels aggrieved about the poor treatment he’s getting from his ex-wife. Later, we hear the wife’s side of the story. Like everything Brodesser-Akner writes, it is ridiculously entertaining and smart, but when I was about halfway through, it occurred to me that I had just read 200 pages without a single reference to plants or animals. Eventually, the divorced dad gets a dog, somebody looks up at the stars, and I think the dad notices a tree. But that’s it. After the rich tapestry of The Overstory, it struck me as a flat, desolate world of buildings and cell phones. I felt sorry for the characters not because their marriage had ended, or because their children were unhappy, but because they were blind to other living things. I thought: no wonder they’re so lonely.
To be fair to Brodesser-Akner, any number of contemporary novels would have struck me as overly focused on human concerns after The Overstory. Most fiction is filled with human characters who don’t give much thought to non-human species. While writing this essay, I came across this passage in Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This quotation is from a filmmaker named Sergei Gurin, who documented the evacuation of the contaminated zone. After showing one his films to a group of schoolchildren, he is startled by a boy who asks why the animals weren’t also evacuated:
I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not of everything living: animals, plants, that other world. . . I want to make a film called “Hostages,” about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed.
I think this “strange thing” is what must happen to all of us if we wish to address the environmental crisis. We need to get closer to plants and animals, to remember that we are all living on this planet together. If you read the climate action platforms of the leading presidential candidates, you’ll see a lot about creating jobs, saving the economy, and averting catastrophe, but nothing about the beauty and value of plants, animals, insects, fungi, and clean air and water; nothing about our shared love of particular landscapes and bodies of water. That seems strange to me, even disturbing. It also seems like poor rhetorical strategy. Our affinity for other living things is our spiritual inheritance. We need a global leap of imagination to reclaim it. A book like The Overstory is one that starts to get us there.