Reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, or perhaps any masterwork of its scope, like War and Peace, one experiences a sequence of intellectual, emotional, and bodily responses. They are, at least in part:
Wonder at the impossible genius of the author, who can sense, with panopticon vision, the authentic truths of many worlds, and give voice to them, as if a ventriloquist or an interpreter of dreams;
Thirst for more of those worlds and the words to describe them, words swallowed as quickly and desperately as they can be provided;
Laughter at the absurdity of human desire and failure, rendered in deadpan brilliance and sly humor; and
Melancholy that settles in as sweet sickness of mind and body, the very pain of conscious life, the splendor and the terror.
“Few other contemporary novels had ever involved me so completely,” says director Robert Falls, a Tony Award-winner who is artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He read 2666 in Natasha Wimmer’s English translation as soon as FSG put it out in 2008 and, seduced, began working on a stage adaptation.
Eight years later, the play 2666, which Falls adapted and directed with Goodman’s playwright-in-residence, Seth Bockley, is on stage in Goodman’s blackbox, in a five-and-a-half hour production. The play thrills — indeed producing wonder, thirst, laughter, and melancholy — when Falls and Bockley trust themselves as interpreters, like Bolaño, of conflicted and contradictory reality. When they forget, pigeonholing characters into cartoons Bolaño never intended, the show becomes exhausting. By the end, after almost a quarter day, one is merely thrilled to move again and then to consider sleep.
Hans Reiter, a Prussian boy who goes off to fight in World War II, is the figure at the center of the novel 2666. Detached from his unit and hiding out in a house in a Ukrainian village, Reiter discovers the journal of Boris Ansky, a Jewish writer presumably killed during the war. As he lounges around Ansky’s house reading the man’s journal entry on the idea of semblance, Reiter begins to feel he is Ansky. But at the same time, he discovers a powerful sense of his own original rebirth. “He felt free, as he never had in his life, and although malnourished and weak, he also felt the strength to prolong as far as possible this impulse toward freedom, toward sovereignty,” writes Bolaño. At war’s end, feeling that he needs to mask his identity after killing an amoral Nazi official, Leo Sammer, he renames himself Benno von Archimboldi, the initials a semblance of Boris Ansky’s, and seizes a new identity. Archimboldi’s freedom and detachment is a leitmotif for the unhinged 20th century in Bolaño’s eyes, the specter of possibility, but also of danger and evil.
The various dimensions of human existence — the understood, the confused, the real, and the unperceivable — is the landscape of the novel, meted out in five parts, beginning with the search, by four scholars in the late 1990s, for the mysterious Archimboldi, an overlooked literary genius, who they think really ought to be considered for the Nobel Prize. The four come to understand Archimboldi’s been seen in the unruly Mexican city Santa Theresa, in the north along the U.S. border, Bolaño’s fictionalized Ciudad Juarez. Santa Theresa, where hundreds of young women have been raped and murdered without resolution, metaphor of human darkness, draws the American journalist Oscar Fate, writer for the Harlem-based magazine Black Dawn; the Chilean-born Oscar Amalfitano, depressed philosophy professor and Archimboldi translator recently appointed to a position at the University of Santa Theresa (presumably the only job he could get); and the troubled journeyman Klaus Haas, who has freed himself from end-of-the-road Prussia.
Falls and Bockley’s play follows the novel’s format: Act One is “The Part About The Academics,” Act Two “The Part About Fate” and “The Part About Amalfitano,” Act Three “The Part About The Crimes,” and Act Four “The Part About Archimboldi.” The playwrights also put Bolaño’s show-by-telling prose style to work — no easy task — dividing narration among various characters to keep up the story’s pace. Imaginative staging and the use of video screens, PowerPoint, and film help untangle the novel’s discursive threads, and bring the characters to life. A frequent critique of Bolaño’s writing is that his emphasis on ideas shades the true life and motivation of characters. Here, the playwrights and actors allow us to see our tragic heroes as real people. This is possible in these early acts because Bolaño’s ruminating centers around discrete events. Even the most ambivalent ticket holder will admit to detecting plot.
The Act One and Act Two script is almost entirely Bolaño’s — or, really, Wimmer’s — words, but for one noticeable moment when Falls and Bockley brilliantly augment dialog to make sense of the academics’ growing madness. Enervated by the desire for one another and their growing embattled influence as a scholar bloc in the hidebound world of German literature and Archimboldi studies, the four — Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Piero Morini, and Liz Norton — want to get inside each other’s pants as much as their heads. Norton takes on both Pelletier and Espinoza as lovers and in a London cab, driven by a conservative Pakistani immigrant, they go at it, with cosmopolitan banter and unambiguous groping. The cab driver becomes defensive — imagining the scholars are making fun of him — and takes offense at the lurid behavior in the backseat. “By what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut or pig,” writes Bolaño, “and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren’t English, also had a name in his country and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger.”
Here, the set, designed by Walt Spangler, flexes perfectly to become the cab, and the script leaps from Bolaño’s thick running paragraph page. When reading the novel, what happens next seems impossible and absurd. Espinoza and Pelletier drag the cabbie out of the car and assault him, nearly to death. On the page, the flash of evil passes by, almost inscrutably. But here on the stage, Laurence Grimm, as Pelletier, and Demetrios Troy, as Espinoza, can’t help but defend the Western values the driver has insulted. As Pelletier lands blows, he cries out, in dialog augmented by Falls and Bockley, “This is for the feminists of Paris!…This one’s for Salman Rushdie!”
In fact, the heightening of plot points and characters is necessary for the play’s audience to grasp the impossibly expansive world. Many of the characters in the novel just play out into the ether — they don’t resolve. This is part of Bolaño’s point of the title 2666, a year so far in the distance the world seems to dissolve. The novelist’s role is to reveal the hidden eternal structure of the world and hint at the secret connections, such as that, for example, between Boris Ansky and Hans Reiter. The sprawl — which is geographic but also layering of time and place, reality and other dimensions, ideas and choices — gets articulated in the multi-media format, in the staging, and in the use of a core group of actors to each play multiple parts, a subtle gesture to the secret connections of 2666.
The playwrights have done some necessary clarifying so you’ll care and, as the play continues, thirst for more, and in this sense, in the first two acts, confining 2666 to the stage opens the work to those uninterested in a 900-page slog. Most obviously, they do so by fully situating the maddening Santa Theresa, meant by Bolaño to be a mirror of our own darkness — a consequence of freedom — at the center. “It’s a crazy city,” says Charly Cruz (played by Juan Francisco Villa), the owner of three Santa Theresa video stores, to Oscar Fate. “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It doesn’t work.”
Had Cruz, a kind of drunk soothsayer in Falls and Bockley’s adaptation, said, instead, “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It’s like a mirage,” the playwrights would have kept their central focus but also reinforced Bolaño’s philosophical intent. Unfortunately, with the afterthought “It doesn’t work,” they take a hard turn to the material — and the city, with its violence and corruption, becomes the firm noir-like subject of Act Three, “The Part About The Crimes.” What’s lost in the exchange is the metaphysical possibility that Bolaño emits of different dimensions of reality. Instead, the here and now.
Because of Bolaño’s matter-of-fact handling of the description of the dozens of young women, many of them prostitutes or maquiladora workers, this is the part of the novel that received the most attention. And rightfully, the text is a clear-eyed exposition of evil and impenetrable injustice that no one seemed to care enough about to resolve. I wondered, going into the theater, how the play would handle the endless recital of victims — “That same month of November 1994, the partially charred body of Silvana Pérez Arjona was found in a vacant lot. She was fifteen and thin, dark-skinned, five foot three. Her black hair fell beneath her shoulders, although when she was found half her hair was scorched off…” — and fields, street corners, and colonias where they are found. Falls and Bockley use them, rather effectively, as incantation of evil, in narration handled by various actors, using the text as Bolaño presented it.
The incantation could have set a kind of otherworldly tone. Instead, the staging becomes claustrophobic — perhaps the point — but at the expense of Bolaño’s expansiveness. That fascinating literary depth also got crowded out by the one-note characterization of Santa Theresa police officials Epifanio Galindo, played by a much less nuanced Grimm; Pedro Negrete, played by Sean Fortunato, who had perfectly handled, in Act One, the academic Morini; and Jaime Contreras, played by Demetrios Troy, otherwise quite convincing as Espinoza and sportswriter Chucho Flores. Contreras, a kind of standard bad man who kills his wife isn’t a cop in the novel. But here he’s further cudgeling evidence of the police force’s evil and corruption. The nuance was lost along with Contreras and various other characters’ conflicted natures, and so was the dramatic tension, which had left this reader, at least, not only disgusted by injustice, but also with a feeling of terrifying melancholy.
Falls perhaps overemphasized the apparent range of the novel’s style, the shift “in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary ‘fairy tale’ section.” The shift in tone, which Falls picked up on as a defining feature of the adaptation, is jarring for the play audience much more so than for the reader, who maintains Bolaño’s rather consistent prose style. It’s most unfortunate in play’s last act, “The Part About Archimboldi,” the lynchpin of the book. Here, Bolaño reveals not a maudlin fairy tale of the 20th century, but rather a secret history filtered through the panopticon’s eyes, through which it’s possible to understand how a man like Klaus Haas, the nephew of Archimboldi, could be an evil killer. Instead, Archimboldi and Haas, both played by Mark Montgomery, turn out to be inscrutable plaything giants, monsters without any apparent real will, so much so that it’s impossible to understand, through this portrayal, the academics’ Act One obsession.
What all this speaks to is the loss of the novel’s philosopher-king, the writer himself, immersed in the inferno of the world, but separate from it, too. As much as the book is about the writer — the writer’s process, the writer’s role, the writer’s place in the world and his psychology, too — the play is about the madness that underlies Santa Theresa. 2666, I was told by a woman who had just seen the show that I met on the Blue Line “L,” is a gaze at the devil. The word “evil,” she said, is contained in “devil.” I frankly hadn’t ever thought about that, not even after reading Bolaño’s masterpiece over and over again.
Kelly Link and I go back a long way. We met in the MFA program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro when I arrived there in 1994, and soon found out that we were kindred spirits in terms of fiction — we were both working somewhat outside the bounds of realism at a time when realism held sway, and we sometimes shared material outside of workshop to get one another’s opinion. We continued our friendship after leaving the program. Kelly has twice been a visiting writer at Clemson University, where I now teach, and we’ve done readings together and a panel at last year’s AWP conference (along with the fabulous Danielle Evans). With my novel Travelers Rest just out from Little, Brown, and Kelly working on her first novel and looking forward to the paperback publication of her latest story collection, Get In Trouble, we thought it might be a fun time to sit down and chat (via e-mail) about the writing process, the novel vs. short story dilemma, dreams, haunted houses, and whether it’s a good idea to have a beer while working.
Kelly Link: I guess first I’ll start off by saying how much I love Travelers Rest. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by you, let’s be clear, but the ending of Travelers Rest just about killed me. Did you know the end when you sat down and wrote the first page? I ask because I almost always know the ending of a short story when I start it.
Keith Lee Morris: First, thank you. I’m happy especially that you liked the ending. And I’m surprised to hear you say that you almost always know the ending to your stories, which I’ll get back to in a minute. I usually know the endings, too — in fact I’ve blamed myself in the past for being too rigid about maintaining my initial story structures. I started writing stories based on dreams as a result — I would take a piece of an actual dream and then start weaving a story around it without thinking about where it might be going — and that’s the method I used when I started writing Travelers Rest. So, no, I didn’t know the ending until more than halfway through. What’s funny, though, is that once I knew the ending, I was right. With my previous two novels, I thought I knew the ending the whole time and then I turned out to be wrong. Characters sometimes do things and say things that you don’t expect and then the story can’t go back to being what it was before, the way you’d conceived it. But I would never have suspected that you’re the type of writer who plans out stories ahead of time. Or maybe that’s not true — in some of your stories, like “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” or “Vanishing Act” (which you know I’ve always loved), there’s a kind of architecture in place that, if you took it apart carefully, you could probably see as something that was intricately planned. But other stories — “The Summer People” and “Stone Animals” and “Travels With the Snow Queen,” for instance — seem kind of enviably “free” to me, loose and comfortable in a way that shows the author is confident enough not to have to know where she’s headed. Or I guess maybe they just give that impression.
KL: Well, if I know what the ending of a story should be, then the beginning is often the most difficult piece to write — and I’d describe writing the middle, actually, as pretty loose and comfortable. Or at least flexible in terms of play. There’s a lot of play in the middle and I mean that in both senses of the word play. Because I often know what the ending is going to be, I spend a great deal of time trying to lay false trails that feel plausible and engrossing to the reader so that they won’t see where we’re headed. It’s funny: I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a novel — a series of novels, maybe, and within a couple of days of thinking about the premise, I knew how I would want to end one book, and then a second book, and then the ending of the last book. It seems like a big project, but I’d really like to get to all of those endings.
Oh, and I remember your dream stories! I didn’t know that’s how you started Travelers Rest. What was the dream? And which character was the biggest surprise to you?
KLM: The dream that it started from was completely different from the novel it turned out to be. The dream was actually about a beach house we go to each summer in St. Simons Island, Ga., and all it involved was a window seen from outside the house that I knew wasn’t anywhere inside the house, and two people, a man and a woman, talking in this nonexistent window. The whole thing morphed weirdly from there. I don’t know which character in the novel was the biggest surprise, but I know what moment regarding the characters was the most surprising. It was [spoiler alert] when I found out that Stephanie was Hugh’s sister. I didn’t know until Hugh literally opened his mouth and said it. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned that — characters doing things I didn’t expect them to or want them to, completely without warning, and ruining all my plans. Sometimes writing is almost like raising teenagers. What about you? Does that ever happen to you? Can you remember a character who suddenly got unruly and started acting out without your permission?
KL: I love Stephanie so much! Let’s see. Unruly characters. I think the most surprising thing a character ever did was in a story called “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” The central character, called Soap most of the time, ends up in a bed with a girl at a party. She falls asleep and it turns out that her little brother is hiding under the bed — I didn’t know until I got to that point that there was a little brother and that he’d be under the bed. Soap leaves the house and the party and he takes the little brother with him. As soon as I thought of it, I knew that was how the story ended. I was on a plane on the way to a workshop when I finished that story — a friend of mine was heading out to the same workshop and he was also finishing up his story. We’d walk by each other in the aisle of the plane and say: Have you finished your story yet? No. You?
KLM: I’ve gotta throw in here that my favorite all-time character(s) of yours are the Loolies in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”–lumpy, soft, hairless, babyish undead creatures who subsist entirely on a diet of marshmallows, if I’m remembering correctly. Love those Loolies.
KL: Thank you! I still remember meeting you in the MFA program at UNC-G — specifically a conversation we had with our friend Margaret Muirhead. We were talking about writing and you mentioned that you did a lot of writing in bars. I was really thrown by that — I couldn’t imagine working in a room with other people. And now, of course, I work in cafes and restaurants and in other people’s houses, preferably with as many other writers as possible. It turns out I get more done when there’s a lot of stuff going on around me. Anyway: do you still work that way now?
KLM: Apparently we switched places in that regard — I now write almost exclusively at home in my little windowless office, although I will occasionally still have a beer while I’m in the process. But I’ve always loved writing in bars — all the noises just drown one another out and I don’t hear a thing after a while. Of course that could also be the beer.
In the interest of informing our readers, we should probably say that we both attended the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro, Kelly one year ahead of me (although I’m infinitely older, let me make it clear). Looking back on that time now, what are your favorite memories of being an MFA student? And what do you regret, if anything?
KL: I don’t do it often, but I love to have one or two beers while I’m writing. I don’t even have an office at home. I work on the dining room table, which we only use for eating on a couple times a year. Mostly it’s just a stack of books and manuscripts. As for UNC-G, my favorite thing was working on The Greensboro Review. Margaret Muirhead was the fiction editor and I was the assistant fiction editor. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published. One person would read the story out loud, including the punctuation marks, and the other would sight read the proofs to make sure everything was clean. Oh, and reading Tristram Shandy. I guess my biggest regret was that I lived about a mile off campus — everyone else seemed to live all on one street near campus. I missed a lot of spontaneous parties and a lot of conversations. You?
KLM: Bartlebying! That’s what Jim Clark [Greensboro Review editor] called the kind of proofreading you’re talking about. I wonder if that’s an actual term or if Jim just made it up: it makes sense — that’s what Bartleby did (or was supposed to do), after all, make exact copies of things, and the goal was to make sure that the manuscript and the page proof were exactly the same — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term used after that. Speaking of Jim Clark, he was one of my favorite things about the program — he made it fun to come in to work every day. I loved the people in the program — we were a really tight-knit group. Like you, I lived kind of away from the action (close to you, actually), but I had a wife and a two-year-old. I think being in an MFA program was absolutely crucial for my development at the time — I needed both that kind of structure and the opportunity it afforded. Do you think you would be the same writer you are now if you hadn’t attended an MFA program? And I’m interested in hearing whether your recollection is the same as mine — to me, at the time, you and I were both writing weird, absurd stuff that left everyone else kind of scratching their heads. Almost everyone was writing more or less straight realism at the time. I sometimes went that route, but I was playing around with a lot of different modes of storytelling. You seemed to have already had your mind pretty firmly made up in terms of the direction you were headed.
KL: Jim Clark is a marvel; UNC-G always felt like a family because of him. I was waitlisted when I applied. He called and said that he liked my stories, but that I was young and unformed and ought to get married and divorced a couple of times and maybe do a stint in jail before I went to an MFA program. So I sent him a picture of me dangling from a rope over a bridge — bungee jumping — like a literal depiction, I guess, of The Fool on the Tarot card — and Jim was so tickled by this that he let me into the program.
I hadn’t written a lot before UNC-G. Maybe four stories in all. Every story that I wrote for workshop at UNC-G, I would think: Am I allowed to do this? Will this work? I think the first of those stories was “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back.” I’d applied to UNC-G because I hoped it would be okay to write weird stuff there (Fred Chappell taught there and I knew his fantastic Lovecraftian story “The Adder” and Orson Scott Card had gone for a little while, so there was at least a tinge of genre.) But yes, everyone else wrote realism and then you would turn in these weird gem-like pieces and stories, and I did whatever I was doing. I only wanted to write stories that were, more or less fantasy, science fiction, ghost stories. I couldn’t think of a story that I wanted to tell that didn’t tend in that direction. What UNC-G taught me as a writer was that I loved workshop. I loved hearing people argue about, and take apart, and defend stories — hearing writers talk about language and the architecture of narrative, and what they anticipated in stories, and what surprised them.
When I teach, I always ask my students: What do you read that you love and admire? And what do you read that you love but you don’t know why? What do you read that you love that embarrasses you, just a little? Because all of that is useful to you, especially the things that you love where maybe you don’t understand why you love it — that you love in spite of feeling that other people might not understand or approve.
You’ve been at Clemson for a long time now. I have a couple of questions about that — what do you read and love that is farthest from the kind of fiction that you write? What kind of stories or narratives? (For example: one of my students a while back ago, when I asked, said he read D&D manuals. He’s a poet. Greg Purcell.) And what do you like about teaching? What don’t you like? And do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
KLM: Hmm…what do I love to read that’s furthest from what I write? I guess the easy answer to that would be the sports page. I spend a lot of time every day perusing basketball statistics and the outcome of tennis matches on ESPN.com. My father was a football and baseball coach and sports are pretty deeply ingrained in my system, even though I was never that great an athlete. That probably explains in part why I gave 10-year-old Dewey in Travelers Rest outstanding athletic ability along with his curious existential angst — it was something I always wished I had. You know how people always ask what superpower you would choose if you could? I would choose to be able to drain 30-foot three-pointers at will. Another answer would be that I love big, sprawling, ambitious 19th-century novels — I wish there were a way to write Middlemarch or War and Peace or Germinal today. Some writers try to match the scope, the structure, even the laconic pacing — Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt come to mind as authors who’ve done so successfully — but even The Goldfinch is still a very different novel from Great Expectations or Sentimental Education. I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country right now. It’s probably not one of her better books, but the feeling I get when I start reading is something that I really miss in most contemporary literature — the feeling that neither of us, the author or myself, is in any kind of hurry. There’s so much emphasis on getting in an early “hook” now, something dramatic and captivating at the beginning of the story. That’s nice, of course, to be able to draw the reader in from the outset, but it also gives you less room to expand, less opportunity to create something that keeps building and building momentum until the tension becomes almost unbearable — the adrenaline rush is already there from the start a lot of times now. With Travelers Rest, I probably pushed my affinity for the slow burn about as far as I felt I was able to. And yes, I love teaching but I don’t like grading. And despite all the years I’ve spent in the South (including being born in Mississippi), I still don’t feel I know the South well enough to call myself a Southern writer. I mostly stick with the Pacific Northwest.
KL: What a useful conversation this is for me, here in the early throes of novel-writing. I take your point about pacing and scope. One of my favorite novels is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which signals right from the first sentence — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — that it’s going to be about domestic concerns, but also about the strange accommodations and bargains that everyday life and relationships require. I Capture the Castle isn’t necessarily long, but it feels expansive. In the same way that you feel big, ambitious, contemporary novels don’t quite have the same enveloping appeal as Middlemarch, I will always feel a vague sense of disappointment in how much of contemporary realistic fiction works and instead yearn for strangeness, whether it’s the lurid flourishes of Gothic novels, the worldbuilding of science fiction or fantasy, the irresolution of ghost stories, or the peculiar and elliptical language and structure that you get in Kathryn Davis’s novels.
In other words, there are so many novelistic modes that I do like that I’m finding it very hard to make the most basic decisions about the way to tackle a novel. There are so many appealing options! I’m drawn to all of them! I’ve spent over 10 years now working with novelists as an editor and it’s become increasingly easier for me to see the questions that I can usefully ask a novelist during the revision process. But I can’t do that for myself. What’s revision like for you? Did Travelers Rest go through multiple drafts? Are there alternate ghostly versions (which seems appropriate for this particular book — the writer Howard Waldrop says that every book or story works as a metaphor for the way in which that writer wrote their book, by the way)? Do you save the versions as you go? And finally, I’ve heard any number of novelists say that figuring out how to write one novel doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to write the next one. That each book is its own set of problems. Has this been true for you?
KLM: I agree that the sense of freedom you experience when starting out on a novel can be daunting. The field seems so wide open, and yet you realize that if you make poor decisions you could be wasting months, even years of your time (and I’ve got a “drawer novel” to prove it). At the same time, the process can feel more restrictive. I found that I had to do some things I normally wouldn’t do in writing short stories — make an outline, for instance, write character sketches in order to try to maintain consistency, especially with characters’ backstories. And yes, each novel feels like a completely different excursion, so that the lessons you learn one time don’t necessarily offer you any assistance the next. But even though Travelers Rest was a much different kind of novel in some ways than the ones I’d written before, I did find that there was a substantial amount of carryover. My previous novel, The Dart League King, employed a rotating third-person POV, and I used the same technique in Travelers, which made things seem more familiar even though the story itself was very strange and difficult to navigate. And regarding your question about multiple drafts, I wouldn’t say that there were a whole lot of drafts but a single draft that kept constantly shifting and flowing and resettling itself into new shapes and formations. Chapters moved around, scenes expanded and contracted, narrative sequences popped up out of nowhere while others disappeared. It was kind of like a pot set at a rolling boil. My editor, Ben George, really put me through my paces on every level, and the novel is much better because of his efforts. Here’s something I’m interested in asking you. First, Get in Trouble is your fourth short story collection — do you see any clear differences between your early stories and the stories in this book? And, now that you’re working on a novel, do you see it as an entirely new endeavor or a simple extension of the ideas you’ve already been working with in your short fiction?
KL: I’m not the best judge of my own stories. There are a couple in Get in Trouble that I like as much as anything that I’ve ever written, and I truly hope that they don’t feel like I’ve been treading water. My Israeli translator, Debbie Eylon, who is much smarter than I am, said that these were harder stories to translate because in the earlier collections, the metaphorical language was more loosely attached to the characters and ideas and descriptions. This time around, she said that it was more of a pain to figure out replacements when there was no exact match in Hebrew for a particular word or phrase, because the relationship of the metaphorical language to the matter of the story was more enchained. She seemed pleased by this, although it meant a lot more work for her. As for the novel, I’m of two minds. With a story, I usually come up with a piece of structure or misdirection that seems difficult to pull off successfully, and most of the fun in writing comes from achieving something that I wasn’t sure how to do before I sat down to do it. For example, I wrote “The Lesson” from the ending backwards for about three or four pages because I was curious about whether or not I did know the ends of my stories before I began — and because it seemed to me that it would change the way I wrote the beginning. With a novel, though, the thing that I would most like to achieve is a long-form narrative that has a conventional and pleasurable shape in which the reader gets to spend a couple of days with interesting people. I have no idea whether or not I can pull that off.
KLM: What do you mean by “writing from the ending backwards for about three or four pages”? I’m fascinated. Please explain.
KL: I wrote the last sentence of the story first, and then the next to last sentence, and so on for as long as I could — maybe I could have done it all the way back, but at a certain point I got really interested in figuring out how it started.
KLM: [Deep, deep sigh.] I can’t even bend my mind around that. I’m not even going to try. It sounds like an impressive thing to be able to do on a level at which I would be completely incapacitated.
KL: Let me ask you a couple more related questions before we wrap this up — you can do both things. Short stories and novels. Are you more drawn to one than the other? When you get an idea, do you know if it’s a short story or a novel idea? And what are you working on at the moment?
KLM: As I get older, I’m increasingly drawn to novels. I like waking up every day and knowing that I’m working on the same thing I was the day before, and it almost makes me sad when I get to the end of a draft. For that reason, I think, my ideas these days tend to take the shape of novels. I almost have to force myself to think in terms of short stories, and I write short stories now, mostly, as a way to fill up the time in between book projects. That said, I still find short stories really satisfying — I just finished one called “Sleigh Bells for the Hayride” that I feel very good about. And I’m not working on anything new as far as novels go — I like to let one thing completely play out before I start on another. One last question for you — do you want to tell us anything about the novel you’re working on, give us readers a sneak peek?
KL: Well, I had been thinking about that particular story for a couple of years and hadn’t figured out any other way to write it. Furthermore, this ending wasn’t a plot driven ending, more of an emotional capstone. And what a persuasive argument to make for the novel. I’ve been married for 15 years now. I’ve lived in the same house for almost a decade. I like the same thing for breakfast every morning, so maybe it will be comfortable to settle into a novel and stay for a while. I’d been wistfully thinking about how science fiction writers in the pulp era used to knock out a novel in a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be fun to try? But already I think I’ve spent too much time wrestling with this book. So far it has a bunch of ghosts in it and a high school music room. I badly want to put some haunted houses in it too — not the real kind, but the fake kind that you pay a lot of money to be chased through.
KLM: Haunted houses are fun, real or fake. I guess part of the fascination is with that time in our lives when we can’t tell the difference. I remember going into the haunted house at Disneyland with my sister when we were kids. I saw my dad buy the tickets, but that didn’t convince me I wasn’t about to die. I suppose that was the impulse behind Travelers Rest, too — I wanted to put an average, everyday family in an old, abandoned hotel and see what happened to them. So I hope you find a place to include the haunted houses, and I’ll look forward to reading the book.
Last month, when I started reading War and Peace again, this time with the intention of finishing it, I decided that I would do so methodically, opening the book at least once every day, and not closing it until I’d finished a chapter (which, in that novel, is relatively short — a handful of pages at most). I would read it on the train or I would read it before sleep. I would read it while standing in the kitchen making toast. This way, I thought, the book would become a habit as much as a pastime. It would become part of my routine. I would get through it little by little, even if my pace would be that of a tortoise.
There was the danger, of course, that I was approaching the book as a chore — measuring my progress too closely, not enjoying it as much as I ought to have been, or could have been. But I was amenable to that. I mean that if this is what it took (approaching the book as a chore) in order for me to finish it, then that is what I was prepared to do. For I had decided that if I did not read the book now, at this point in my life, then I would never. And for some reason this scared me.
One day, about two weeks ago, having finished the first 150 pages (my paperback version, a Signet Classic, contains 1,455) I walked into a bar to have a beer before going home. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and I had gone to the park to read. But I hadn’t got much reading done. There were people everywhere, and I’d felt distracted, restless, bored. Maybe there was a reason for this feeling and maybe there wasn’t. I wouldn’t say it was the book’s fault.
In the bar was another man, older than me by about 20 years, and he said to me, when he saw the book (for I didn’t have a backpack or satchel to hide it in), “It’s too nice a day out to be reading.” And when I casually agreed with him, not wanting to start a conversation but not wanting to avoid one, he said, in an irritable voice, not looking at me but away from me, as if he didn’t expect an answer, or desire one, “Then why are you doing so?”
It would have been easy then for me to get in an argument. I wanted to, in fact, because I was irritable myself and because I was embarrassed now about the way I must have appeared. Fortunately, however, the bartender was there, and she said to the man, before I could reply, “Listen, you, just because you’re in a bad mood doesn’t mean you have the right to take it out on others.”
The man, surprisingly, apologized. “Sorry,” he said to me, in a chastened voice.
And because I felt as though my embarrassment now had lessened, and in fact had been ridiculous, I said to him, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” or something to that effect.
The bartender got me a beer, and when she placed it on the coaster in front of me, she said, having noticed the book herself, “War and Peace. Now that sounds like a book that covers everything.”
I smiled at this, but the man said, as if he’d been waiting to say something and now had the opportunity, “It doesn’t actually. It should’ve been called War and War. Even the parts about domestic life aren’t tranquil.”
We all considered this a moment in silence.
“How far along are you?” the man said.
I thought back to the chapter I’d just read, where Prince Andrei leaves his father’s estate to join the Russian army at the front, which at that point is in Austria. “There’s about to be a battle scene,” I said.
“I like battle scenes in movies,” the bartender said.
“I like them in movies, but in books they can be better,” said the man.
A trio of girls came in, and the bartender moved away to greet them.
“I’m sorry about what I said,” the man said to me again, this time in a confiding voice. “I’m having a bad day.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“No reason,” he said. “Or you could pick any reason, and that would be it. This city used to be different. I used to have a job I liked. I used to be happier.”
“Why?” I asked again, and immediately I regretted it. Not because I didn’t want to hear him, but because I was afraid that if I did hear him then I’d have to respond to what I’d heard. And I knew that in a conversation like this, at some point my responses would seem inadequate, or blasé. Not because I intended them to, but because conversations between strangers require an energy that other conversations do not. And I knew that I lacked that energy, or that I possessed it but couldn’t maintain it for long.
But for some reason, anyway, the man didn’t reply.
He got up and went to the restroom.
And when he returned he didn’t sit down again, but continued on out through the front door of the bar, and out onto the sidewalk, where he disappeared past the windows, on his way to wherever he was going.
When the bartender returned to get me another beer, she didn’t seem surprised that the man was gone. She had a pleasant, unworried look on her face. And when I said to her, “Where did that guy go?” hoping she’d shed light on who he was (for now I was curious, if not interested), she said, “Probably home. He’s been coming in here every day for years.”
And that was that.
I mean it was the end of my conversation with the bartender, though I did stick around and finish my beer.
As I walked home it was sunny, and I thought I’d sit on the stoop of my building and read another chapter of War and Peace. But when I got there I was tired, and I went inside and up to my apartment and fell asleep on my bed.
The comics theorist Scott McCloud has a status no one in the comics community should have. At the MLA Conference in Vancouver last January, I attended a comics studies panel at which the respondent chastised academics who cite McCloud and only McCloud, ignoring the 22 years of scholarship that followed the publication of his book Understanding Comics. McCloud compares himself to Sigmund Freud. He may be wrong about everything, he says, but he was the first in his field — or almost the first — and everyone still has to grapple with his ideas.
Whatever his status, McCloud is really a professional amateur, a journeyman who’s spent most of his career pursuing a series of intriguing small projects. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he wrote and drew Zot!, an independent black-and-white superhero series. He maintains a website, where, pivoting off of ideas from his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, he develops “inventions” that rethink the comics form for the digital age. In 2006, he wrote the instructional book Making Comics. Last month, First Second published his first graphic novel, The Sculptor, which one approaches with the curiosity one once approached the first novels of Lionel Trilling or James Wood. It is the ambitious first attempt by an important critic to write and draw if not the Great American Graphic Novel, then at least a good American graphic novel.
The Sculptor tells the story of a 26-year-old man trying to make it as an artist in New York. He strikes a Faustian bargain with Death that allows him to sculpt any matter his hands touch into the visions he carries in his mind’s eye. In return, he will die in 200 days. He has no immediate family left, and only a few friends he will be leaving behind. After agreeing to the deal, he falls in love with a woman.
I talked to McCloud in Seattle on February 12. We met at a café in the U-District a couple hours before his appearance at the University Bookstore. The following is a pared-down transcript of a one-hour conversation.
The Millions: After reading the [Understanding Comics] trilogy and looking at all the experiments you’ve been doing online, it surprised me to discover that The Sculptor is, formally-speaking, a very conservative book.
Scott McCloud: I agree. I’d describe it the same way.
TM: You’re not playing any tricks. There’s no Chris Ware Building Stories attempt along the lines of “let’s see all the games I can play with this idea called the book.” These are the tried-and-true techniques of graphic-novel storytelling. Why was it so conservative?
SM: Well after trying to make visible all of these various techniques, I wanted, as much as possible, to bury them, to conceal them. I am something of a formalist and one of the formalist tricks that we like to check off as we’re going down the list of things we can do is to impersonate our opposite number. To become a more intuitive pure storyteller and not necessarily call attention to formal artifacts that previously we were hoping to call attention to.
At the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily backwards looking. I was trying to move towards a sort of comic that I wasn’t seeing being done. I would say that in the past decades, there weren’t that many comics like this one, in terms of the way it incorporates reader participation, [which is] something I see in manga but rarely see in American comics. The use of lettering and coloring choices [are] geared towards mapping out the intention and consciousness of the protagonist. I haven’t seen that done much, but I was employing [these concepts] all in the interest of the story. So they lurked quietly in the background and they helped buttress the story.
TM: The question of reader participation is a tricky one. I can read a prose novel and forget that I’m reading words on a page, but it’s impossible for me to read a comic and remain unaware of the fact that I’m reading a comic. That awareness leads to reader participation.
SM: I agree with you to an extent about there being a fundamental reader participation component to comics and that achieving that transparency in comics is a lot harder than it is in novels. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And I think younger readers achieve it much more often than we do as adults. And I wanted to see if I could get that across. It wasn’t easy, but I think I achieved it and I am getting a lot of feedback from people who do have that sensation of being lost, and getting caught up in the story and just seeing the characters as human beings.
In comics, if you open with a street scene, people are going to see drawings of a street scene. And every time they move from one artist to the next those drawings are going to be different. And each change of style just becomes a reiteration of the fact that those are just lines on paper. And I don’t think that’s the case with film and I don’t think that’s the case with prose because…they both relate a world in a relatively seamless way. In the one case [it’s] from the verisimilitude that comes from straight photography. In the other case, [it’s] with the verisimilitude that comes from the consistent texture of our imagination.
Comics puts up a lot of barriers. I think one way to get around those barriers is consistency of approach and length. This is a very long book, so people have time to adjust to my style. It’s not just a little 22-page packet. [Hopefully in my case], by paying close attention to the rhythms of real people in conversation and things like facial expressions and body language, [I] managed to bring a little life into the characters so they pop from the page more than in things I’ve done in the past.
TM: Your characters are good-looking. This isn’t Daniel Clowes.
SM: No, they come from a more attractive, heroic tradition, partially because I don’t have the skill to pull off something less generic.
TM: Are there any other reasons for that?
SM: I’m drawn as a viewer to that, and as a romance I think it would have been entirely possible to tell a story like this while creating characters that were physically unappealing, but I’m just not that good. And so this fell into that general familiar realm of a romance in which both characters are on some level attractive. It’s not a barrier I was prepared to cross when I was trying to cross so many others. Certainly, the business of learning to write and of learning to draw was going to keep me busy from beginning to end. Trying to do something more subtle or more unconventional with the character design just wasn’t within my skill set.
TM: Zot!, by your own admission is filled with many mistakes. It’s not slick.
SM: No, not at all. It was my very first book.
TM: You were learning. The movements aren’t right. You don’t always know where your eye is supposed to go based on the composition of the page. I won’t continue on, because that’s just mean. I have to say for myself that part of what drew me to reading comics or what drew me back to comics when I was 19, wasn’t so much about looking for masterpieces. It was about enjoying the mistakes, enjoying comics as a form of handwriting, enjoying the lack of slickness. I often feel that what we call great comics have a problem, because the better and more slick you make them the more you lose something. This medium makes these mistakes look aesthetically pleasurable in a way that they’re not in a prose novel.
SM: I’ve long been aware of that way of looking at comics and sometimes I share that perspective. But then there are other artists who are prominent exceptions to that. It’s not my primary passion to look for that. It’s not what I hope for in comics. It’s something I accept as something that can make comics warmer and more appealing. But it’s not a prerequisite for things I love in comics. And I do enjoy comics that are much more finely tuned.
I think that Jim Woodring, for example, very rarely has a line out of place. His craftsmanship is absolutely impeccable. I don’t wish that his line was more unsteady or that his pen would run out of ink halfway through. I’m glad that those lines are complete because I think it enhances the work. Likewise, I think Chris Ware’s control is one of the elements of his work that I value.
Nevertheless, when I was working on The Sculptor, even though it was done digitally, I went through great pains to make sure that the line that I used was, if anything, somewhat uneven. [I designed] my brushes in photoshop [with] a pretty grotty line. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s very knobby and imprecise. But that’s simply because I thought it gave it a warmth that I liked rather than that clean vector line.
TM: You made a point in Understanding Comics about how time equals space in comics. These full-page panels at the end of The Sculptor are meant to represent the elongation of a moment. [Note: We are not showing you these pages in order to avoid spoilers.] It’s the comics equivalent of slow-motion. As a reader, I feel it’s my responsibility to read these pages very slowly.
SM: Actually, could I just say that as an artist and writer I don’t feel that it’s the reader’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of me as the storyteller to give the reader cues that would encourage them to quite naturally read at a slower pace.
TM: Yes, but it’s very easy to flip through this and not feel the duration of time.
SM: My hope as a storyteller is that I embedded enough density of detail, enough narrative density that the eye would begin to slow as well. That I put enough speed bumps [in] the growing complexity of those pages, that people would more naturally slow down. I can’t control that, but it’s my intention to give the eye more incentive to move more slowly through those pages, to slow down time. I don’t think the reader has any responsibility at all. The reader, technically, doesn’t have any responsibility to read from left to right. But it’s usually to the mutual benefit of reader and artist to do it that way.
TM: So you don’t believe the reader should be doing work?
SM: No, I just don’t believe in the idea of responsibility. The reader should encounter the work in whatever way the reader thinks is beneficial to themselves. And 99 times out of 100 that means reading the work in the expected way.
TM: How do you handle the differing experiences various readers will have based on the various paces with which they will approach these pages?
SM: Well, there’s an ideal duration and I’m trying to pitch the delivery in such a way that to the best of my abilities most readers will experience it as I intended. I just accept that it’s not mine to control. I can only encourage it.
TM: In a review I wrote of Best American Comics 2014 [which McCloud guest-edited], I noted that great comics, unlike great fiction, are allowed to be sentimental. I think The Sculptor is a case in point. It is a very sentimental book.
SM: I think so. I think that’s fair.
TM: Is sentimentality something you’ve run away from or is it something you’ve actively embraced?
SM: Neither. I’ve just come to recognize it. I’ve been aware of it for some time. It was pointed out to me early enough. I’ve tried to reign it in when I felt it was toxic. In this particular story, I tried to maintain a balance to the benefit of the story. I’ll leave it to others to gauge whether I’ve managed to achieve that balance. I’ve never been sentimental as a deliberate aesthetic choice. It’s more just a natural outgrowth of my own personality. My protagonist in the book is described at one point in the book as having an “irony deficiency.” This is a phrase I copped from Leonard Bernstein’s kids who described their dad that way. I always thought that was pretty funny and also pretty on the mark. And when [I heard] it I realized it was probably true of me too. And so I’ve tried to gain a wider aspect of that part of myself. And to try to be more on guard for the ways that can trip up my work.
In this particular story, I tried to earn whatever emotional effect it might have on people through a number of avenues that I felt at least would cut that sentimentality with something else. But I was looking for a strong emotional effect. It’s what I felt when approaching these themes. I had strong emotional associations with them. So I wanted to convey that, but I wanted to earn those emotions, not just try to go straight from A to B, which I think is one of the downsides, one of the toxic effects of excess sentimentality. Quickly, cheaply conjuring strong emotions, especially sadness. But there’s no way I’m going to completely change my stripes overnight. I’m not going to stop being a sentimental person, no matter how I approach the work. All I can do is just try to be more self-aware in that respect. And I do think that the book is far more self-aware than say my early stuff like Zot!, where I think I was too eager to go from A to B, A to Z in that emotional journey.
TM: What are the talents that you don’t have that you would most like to have?
SM: Simplicity. Eloquence. An automatic drawing instinct that would allow me to invent life naturally in improvisation, rather than having to refer to models, which was a necessary evil in this book. I needed to get a lot of life reference, to get across these gestures. I still feel strongly that the very simple rendering approach can be effective. It just wasn’t appropriate for this particular story, so I was stuck in a more realistic mode of drawing than I might have necessarily chosen. You know I tried some early experiments where this was rendered in a much more simple style and it just wouldn’t have worked, partially because of the sensuality that was involved in parts of the story and partly because it was very much concerned with people as things and that’s better conveyed by a more representational style.
Mostly though, in terms of what I want to improve, it’s not so much that I want to improve it as that I want to expand. There are other things I want to do. I want to explore color. I want to explore much more radical styles. I still have a very, very long wish list in terms of digital comics that I would like to embark on. So yeah, I just want to run to all four corners of the globe, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.
TM: In Reinventing Comics in 2000, you noted that we have yet to get the War and Peace of comics. What for you is the closest we’ve come?
SM: I think for me my favorite graphic novel right now is Market Day by James Sturm. I wouldn’t compare it to War and Peace. I think that’s silly. Actually, I think using War and Peace as a comparison point was silly, but I was younger. I don’t know. There’s a lot we’re still waiting for. But we’re beginning to build that shelf of reliable, strong, perennial works that can give us some comfort that this form does have this potential that we’ve talked about. I pick Market Day because it is one of a very small number of works in comics that I consider bulletproof. I think it’s a bulletproof book. And that’s something I’d like to see more of.
TM:What do you mean by bulletproof?
SM: There’s not a line out of place. There are no excess artifacts to the book. It’s the visual equivalent of the perfectly crafted sentence. I think if it was just all words then E.B. White would be proud of the way he omitted everything needless [if he had written it]. And I think the story is very moving. What it says to me is sufficiently inscrutable that it rewards repeat readings. I like that book a lot.
TM: Do you feel the graphic novel is overrated? At least within the medium. Do you think we grant it a certain prestige that unfairly places it above other forms the comic may take?
SM: I think some graphic novels are overrated. But it goes project by project. I don’t think Jim Woodring is overrated.
I think some people treat us with kid gloves. You know there’s an arbitrariness to critical perception. I think a lot of what you’re asking has to do with the arbitrariness of critical communities’ approach to graphic novels. We have a long critical bias against comics as a form. And I think as that bias has melted away, I certainly think some are willing to give us a pass and be much gentler with some of our flaws.
TM: I’m sorry, Scott, but I don’t think you’ve heard me right.
SM: Oh, I’m sorry. Let’s do it over.
TM: Okay. Do [you think] we honor the graphic novel above webcomics or comic-book serial storytelling in a way we shouldn’t? For a very long time we all considered television beneath movies, but now we consider it the place where really innovative work is being done. Is a similar thing going on in comics?
SM: No, actually I don’t. And the reason is that I think right now the most impressive work that’s been done in the last 20 years is in graphic novels. In my favorite work, the most complex, the most ambitious, and the most gratifying work to me as a reader has been in that realm. There’s some great work in webcomics, but it’s scattered. I think there’s some great work in rethinking serial comics. But I think there’s a reason why the best and the brightest in comics are moving towards lengthier works.
Obviously, it would be a mistake to think there’s something inherently better about the format. There’s not. It was just a mountain a lot of very good climbers wanted to tackle. And that’s still true. I know some people hate the term “graphic novel,” because some people still use it [to signify] an art form. It’s not. It’s a format. But there’s an implicit challenge in the words “graphic novel.” I think a lot of cartoonists see in their mind’s eye when they hear it something they think is worth making but that very rarely comes into existence. And so it makes sense that they would like to give it a try themselves.
“Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story,” The Onion announced on July 10, 2012. There’s truth there, but only so much. Critics in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, NPR and The New Yorker now appraise individual comics without questioning the value of the medium as a whole. The cliché still appears in outlets whose editors should know better, but it’s unlikely The Onion could tell the same joke in another 10 years.
The best way to kill a debate is to avoid acknowledging it and comics artists are as guilty as anyone else of prolonging the argument. In 2004, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman on his September 11 book. He explained his layout methods in detail. It was a good discussion. He also kept defending the right of comics artists to sit at the adults’ table. That was irritating. In 2006, Houghton Mifflin added comics to its Best American series list. Alison Bechdel, the guest editor of the 2011 edition, was ambivalent about working in a “newly legitimized art form.” The problem is generational. Younger comics writers and artists tend not to defend the seriousness of their vocation. If they inhabit the margins of culture, they know there’s nothing intrinsic to the medium that places them there.
Scott McCloud, the guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Comics, — the series editor is now Bill Kartalopoulos — is famous for improving the debate. In the early ’90s, McCloud wrote Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that explained how the medium reinvents time and space and imagines realities that can’t be adapted to other media. Reinventing Comics, which was published in 2000, was a prescient analysis of how the Internet and the digital world would affect comics readers and creators. He can be as defensive as Spiegelman, but he’s also a smarter interpreter. Like the earliest political philosophers, McCloud points out the obvious and makes it sound profound only because no one before him wrote the obvious down.
The Best American Comics 2014 reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century.
What makes a great comic great? McCloud summarizes the criteria:
Is the story built around quiet everyday events or autobiography? Check. Does it have a dark satiric undercurrent? Check. Does our protagonist have a low opinion of him/herself? Check. Is there a complete absence of anything that might remotely remind you of a superhero comic? Check.
He’s being facetious, but the gatekeepers, those who honor what Ted Rall once told me was “the Fantagraphics crowd,” seem to always honor comics that follow at least one of these criteria. Many of the comics McCloud selected from an enormous pile Kartalopoulos gave him follow at least one of the first three and pretty much all of them follow the fourth. (McCloud wanted but was unable to include Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comics.)
“Great Comics” are not the same as “Great Fiction” or “Great Non-Fiction.” Any New York Times critic would have savaged the sentimentality in Craig Thompson’s Blankets if it came packaged in a prose novel. Bechdel needs her images to sell her wit; in a comic the famous “Bechdel Test” is astute, but the average male reader would roll his eyes if he first encountered her theory in one of the online essays it spawned. A great comic does not have to be sentimental nor simple, but sentimentality and simplicity are not problems for comics.
“High Road to the Shmuck Seat” by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Viewotron #2. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
That much is obvious in the opening section of McCloud’s anthology, dedicated to the recent work of old masters. In “High Road to the Schmuck Seat,” R. Crumb portrays himself as a happily married aging pervert and not as a raging Mickey Sabbath. His grotesque line drawing, which he’s used throughout his career to express an unrelenting sexual anxiety, now obscures a sweet loving heart. In Charles Burns’s The Hive, teenagers bond over anatomical drawings. Burns’s cleanly-drawn entrails sit comfortably next to his old-before-their-time adolescents. It’s a touching scene. Call it dark sentimentality.
“Drama” (excerpt) by Raina Telgemeier from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Drama. Copyright (c) 2012. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
“Dark sentimentality.” I put the phrase in a Google search and out came a list of indie rock reviews. Take from that what you will, but it’s the dominant mood in the anthology and it bleeds from one comic to the next and one section to the next, from adventure comics to family memoirs. “Raising Readers,” a section dedicated to children’s comics, contains excerpts from two devastating depictions of childhood loneliness, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox and Me. The excerpt from Drama ends with a full-page panel of an empty playground. A small-scale strip from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which McCloud names as the best book of the year, serves as a grim counterpoint with its depiction of a mother discovering the pain of solitude as her child grows older and more independent. Ware and Raina Telgemeier understand the eerie power of bold block colors and negative space. They make clichés sublime. They make small emotions huge.
Hip Hop Family Tree” (excerpt) by Ed Piskor from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Hip Hop Family Tree. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
You may not have to adjust your mood from one comic to the next or one section to the next, but you do have to adjust your eye. The “Testimonials” section includes excerpts from two histories of American music, Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s wonderful The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Both books are infused with melancholic nostalgia in as much as modern country and hip hop no longer express the joy of emerging subcultures. They are staid institutions. And Lasky and Piskor explore that nostalgia by employing the grammar of vintage comics. Lasky borrows from early 20th-century comics strips. His stars achieve iconic status thanks to his careful, simple lines. The panels follow a clear linear trajectory, like the steady beat of a country song. Hip Hop Family Tree is a campy re-rendering of a 1980s de-saturated comic. The motive for each comic is the same, but like the subjects they depict, they belong to separate realms.
McCloud asks his readers to notice the ways the comics in his anthology talk to each other. They do talk to each other, but they spend more time talking to themselves. With the exception of the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, not a single character from one comic here could find a home in another. Everyone owns the particularities of their sadness.
In Reinventing Comics, McCloud admitted that no one has written the War and Peace of comics. In the 14 years since, we may have come closer with Fun Home and Julio’s Day. The Japanese may have come even closer, but the truth is comics, at least American comics, don’t need a Tolstoy any more than country music or hip hop needs a Beethoven.
Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, the most widely read comic in this collection, could only have come from someone robbed of worldly ambitions. Her crudely-drawn webcomic describes the wreckage of mental illness, outwardly describing exactly how a depressive feels herself and the world around her. Her style is primitive and humorous and according to McCloud “rewire[s] a million ideas of what ‘good’ comics look like.” She’s writing postcards from the abyss and she’s giving her audience fleeting moments of comfort. And that should be enough. Question: Why does “Great Non-Fiction” about depression produce a William Styron, but “great” comics about depression produce an Allie Brosh? Why do we accept dark sentimentality from our comics but not from our novels?
The modern novel is made up of words printed in a uniform font, but the comic is made up of drawings, clearly the work of another human being, the closest thing our culture still has to handwritten letters. Reading a comic, like reading a novel, is a private experience, but the texture of the thin paper of a comic is far more powerful than that of the pages of a novel, thanks to the presence of the communicator’s human hand. Even a computer drawing that you read on a laptop is connected to an organic body, in the sense that you can acknowledge the presence of a human hand on a mouse or a digital pen. When you read a comic, you are accepting a direct message from one singular honest soul. Your hand touches theirs. That soul can be strange. That soul can be sick. And it can also be oh-so earnest…
The comic book emancipates adults from irony.
What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.
From the crucial moment in second grade when I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, I became hooked on the intimate practice of grasping the world through words. Eventually moving on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series, I would carry around a book the way younger children would hold onto a beloved blanket. I read so much, and so often, that my parents considered taking me to a child psychologist, to find out why in the world I resisted getting a little fresh air every once in a while, for Pete’s sake!
My second crucial discovery came in seventh grade, when a lucky encounter with an abridged edition of War and Peace helped me take a giant step into the pleasures of reading adult literature. From then on, journeys into the internal worlds of characters rather than the quick thrill of external adventure fueled my reading habit.
As a life-long reader, I reveled in the pleasure of introducing books to my son Nathaniel from his earliest days: Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, the Spot books, the Berenstain Bears, the Little Miss and Mister Men series. Every night, first my wife, Alma, and then I would read to him, giving Nathaniel a combined bedtime reading of a good hour or more. Even after he learned how to read, he insisted on continuing our evening ritual, and so we marched through the Encyclopedia Brown detective series, the early Narnia books, even some of those old Hardy Boys mysteries.
When our daughter Hannah was born, Alma and I expanded our evening regimen to both our children. We created a kind of tag-team structure, reading to Hannah in her room, and to Nathaniel, then eight years old, in his. Inevitably, after a couple of years, our son grew less interested in what he had come to consider a babyish ritual, and he read on his own, mostly sci-fi adventures. By the time he reached 12, I worried that my son might be stuck in a literary rut, as I had once been — old enough to enjoy more challenging work but unaware of where to begin.
Maybe those days of curling up in bed with a story were long gone, but what if we read the same book together silently, side by side, in the living room? If I bought two copies of a novel, we could take on chapter-length chunks each evening and then discuss what we’d just read. Perhaps in this way I could gently lead my son to an appreciation of the deeper internal landscapes that literature offers.
Where to begin? I remembered a book I had loved in my teens, an obscure Jack London novel, Before Adam, about a modern man haunted by intense dreams of an earlier, ancestral existence as a proto-human named Big-Tooth. The book combined rollicking pre-historic escapades with serious issues of developing consciousness and what it means to be human. Though a bit skeptical at first, Nathaniel agreed to my proposal. And so one evening, as he sat on a chair by the fireplace and I settled on the couch across the room, my son and I read of Big-Tooth and his friend Lop-Ear, the implacable Red-Eye, the desirable Swift One, saber-toothed tigers, wild boars, packs of wolves and, lurking in the background, the dangerously advanced Men of Fire.
The pace of the plot kept us constantly engaged. Sometimes Nathaniel would draw in his breath, and I knew some surprise awaited me, or I’d pull ahead in the reading and laugh, and he’d ask, What?”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” I’d reply.
The novel also grew contemplative in unexpected ways. At one point in the story, as Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear played along the banks of a river, a log that Lop-Ear rested on drifted into deeper water, a danger the two friends realized too late: “Swimming was something of which we knew nothing. We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem.”
I remember Nathaniel and I both paused in our reading at the idea that a character’s limited understanding might lead to disaster. But Lop-Ear was still stuck on that drifting log, so we returned to the story:
“And then, somehow, I know not how, Lop-Ear made the great discovery. He began paddling with his hands. At first his progress was slow and erratic. Then he straightened out and began laboriously to paddle nearer and nearer. I could not understand. I sat down and watched and waited until he gained the shore.”
Soon, Lop-Ear and Big-Tooth learned how to manipulate the logs in the water, even combining two together for better balance, but only up to a point: “And there our discoveries ended. We had invented the most primitive catamaran, and we did not have enough sense to know it. It never entered our heads to lash the logs together with tough vines or stringy roots. We were content to hold the logs together with our hands and feet.”
This passage occupied us for some time. Would the characters we’d come to care about be able to expand their minds enough to help them out of any future dilemmas? And what of our own limitations — what insights, what solutions to seemingly intractable problems were just beyond our understanding in our own lives?
The novel’s 18 chapters held us for nearly three weeks, and our discussions were so rewarding that I thought something quieter might not be too much of a reach: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. The novel recounts Einstein’s dreams during the spring and summer of 1905, when he was living in Berne, Switzerland, and developing his theory of relativity. Each short dream chapter is ruled by a different law of time: in one version of Berne, time is discontinuous, creating minute, barely observable changes; in another, time has three dimensions, like space; and, in another Berne, time is visible. Nathaniel and I often spent many more minutes talking about how Lightman turned time into a kaleidoscope of possibilities than we had spent reading an individual chapter.
As with Jack London’s novel, we kept to the rule of only one chapter a day.
Normally, as a reader I plunge in, reading page after page after page, burrowing into a fictional world (my secret rule is that if I make it to page 30, I’m committed for the rest of the book). I can read a novel in a single day if the book’s imperative and my schedule permits. But pausing for a day after a single chapter? I’d never done this before, but both Nathaniel and I grew to enjoy the stately pace of our reading. We had 24 hours to reconsider or linger over particularly exciting or intriguing moments, and anticipate what would come next. A few years after our reading experiment, I came upon the poet James Richardson’s Vectors — a marvelous collection of “aphorisms and ten-second essays” — and found a gem that underlined the discovery Nathaniel and I had made: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?”
With our reading ritual well established, while we were in the middle of one book I’d already be considering what we might try next. When I read the Lightman chapter on how a lack of memory alters time — “Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first. A world without memory is a world of the present” — I thought we’d next try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an elegiac novel on the stresses that come to undermine a traditional African culture. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? When Nathaniel was six, he’d lived in a West African village one summer with his anthropologist mother and me, among the Beng people of Ivory Coast, and the daily rhythms of rural African life was a world he knew. It was while we lived in the village of Asagbé that Nathaniel had taught himself how to read, following my finger pointing out the word bubbles of the Tintin books I read to him. But his African experience couldn’t easily be expressed or shared with any of his friends in America. Now, I thought, Achebe’s novel might help Nathaniel set his memories and give him a space to remember and reflect.
Nathaniel settled in easily to the depictions of village life with a nostalgia that was touching to see in a 12-year-old. But soon the more uncomfortable aspects of the novel took over, particularly the rift that grew between the main character, Okonkwo, and his son, Nwoye. With my son on the outskirts of adolescence, this aspect of Achebe’s novel disturbed me in ways it hadn’t when I’d first read it many years before. Now I worried that it presaged the inevitable distancing that all fathers and sons must one day face. But this wasn’t a subject I was ready to confront, and so I didn’t bring it up openly in any of our discussions.
By now I thought Nathaniel might be ready for Kurt Vonnegut and his signature blend of humor, empathy, and excoriating truthfulness. And thus arrived the beginning of the end of our reading ritual. Starting with Slaughterhouse-Five, Nathaniel refused to stop after a single chapter, and so we’d read two, three, more at a sitting. When we moved on to Cat’s Cradle, he began reading on his own during the day, arriving at our nightly book sessions scores of pages ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up with him, and so eventually, and reluctantly, I left him on his own.
Now in his mid-20s and a father himself, Nathaniel is still a voracious reader — not of novels, but mostly books (and blogs) on politics, economics, and alternative architecture. At times I wish fiction had taken a greater hold of him, but mainly I’m proud that he navigates his own reading catamaran. Back when he was 12, my son did Big-Tooth one better: he’d strapped together two logs with his own imaginative cord and then paddled on his way, my reading companionship no longer needed, into the waterways that matter to him most. And now, Nathaniel reads to his 15-month-old son Dean some of the same children’s books my wife and I once read to him. Who knows where the comfort of a lap, a steady voice, and Five Little Monkeys will eventually lead his child?
Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.
In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation — a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft.
“Ah, Mr Genç, I am so sorry for you,” the student affairs woman said with a genuine feeling in her voice, “but there is nothing I can do.”
There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand.
The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead.
Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of.
“I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face.
“Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!”
I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane.
It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers.
“Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.”
I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos.
But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret.
There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker.
As I tried to come up with intelligent-sounding solutions to the problems of the Turkish military, I began to feel like Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts — of course there was no way to charge each commander five cents for my services but if I did I would surely be a rich man now.
So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics’ qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.)
How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread.
Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper — a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books.
Image Courtesy of the Author.
Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
Like many recovering English majors before me, I have a longstanding infatuation with heavy Russian novels. So on one level, a new edition of Dead Souls seems like a no-brainer: an excuse to return to a story that has endured for nearly two centuries.
Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece centers on a con man named Chichikov who is literally buying dead souls — or more accurately, serfs who have died but are still counted on official tax rolls. His journey sweeps through a swath of 19th-century Russian life, as he glides from landowner to landowner, trying to charm and flatter them in an effort to buy as many deceased serfs as possible. The book is smart and funny; it deftly unpacks the social structure of 19th-century Russian life. It says something profound about the dehumanizing effects of buying and selling everything. And it’s the first of the great Russian novels — predating War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those weighty tomes that pretentious undergraduates lug around to coffee houses. And that gives it mystique.
But as I sat down to read Donald Rayfield’s new translation of the book, I felt a sensation I didn’t expect — guilt. I got to thinking about my reading over the past few months, as I’ve hopped from The Radetzky March to Jude the Obscure to Demons to Chekhov’s plays. All of them brilliant, and all of them properly vetted by the relevant authorities. And I realized I don’t want to get in the habit of “checklist reading” — paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it. Ultimately, we live in a consumer society, and it is really easy to let the habits of consumption, the habits of a collector, seep into everything. Even our reading choices.
As Dwight Macdonald pointed out decades ago in his (now ironically canonical) essay “Masscult and Midcult,” “The chief negative aspect is that so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating, a catching up on our reading on a continental scale… We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped by the proper authorities.” And that’s why I can’t manage to love the classics without reservation. I am afraid that it is far too easy to read them passively — to get so caught up in their mystique that the words don’t matter. And I fear it would be very easy to get stuck in the books of the past, and miss out on newer ones that might relate more directly to the world as I experience the rest of the day.
For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, while nowhere near as brilliant as Dead Souls, made a profound impact on how I think about contemporary media. Shields’s book-length essay, which came out about two years ago, is downright dismissive of the traditional novel, announcing, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” But, more importantly, it backs up its iconoclasm with a fragmentary style that genuinely captures something about the way people read today. A literary collage that collects fragments (mostly) taken from preexisting works by other writers and then weaves them into a single “manifesto,” it is a genuinely unique work, one that captures something very real about our — or at least my — current reading habits.
Engaging with Reality Hunger’s bits of text made me more attuned to the way much of my reading — on Twitter, or just surfing online — consists of gliding between small bursts of words. Instead of presenting a clean, straightforward argument, Shields makes his case for collage-style writing through accumulation. His fragments build and build, until the reader is able to piece together the argument is his or her own mind. I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world. Shields’s book finally made me aware of something I had done unconsciously for years. This is what literature is supposed to do — call our attention to the way society or technology or history has shaped us.
Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking. What I love most about books is the way they force the reader to get involved. Unlike other leisure activities, a reader needs to actually participate in the experience. You don’t just turn a book on and enjoy it — you need to actively engage with the material, not only sorting out the words, but imagining what they describe. The scenes, the characters, the voices: all of it needs to be created inside the reader’s mind. In that way, reading itself is an imaginative act.
I’ve always seen a minor parallel between a reader and a concert musician — a pianist for example — just in the sense that both are taking notations written by someone else and bringing them to life. In both cases, the work of art as it exists on paper is mediated by someone else. A reader may follow the cues of the author, she may give every word her full attention, her emotions may stir in exactly the way they were intended to — but the images and voice she creates in her mind are hers. But they are not only hers — they are a collaboration between her and the writer. Alone among the arts, reading/writing involves mingling the thoughts of the artist and the audience. In a way, reading is itself a performance.
When a critic like B.R. Myers sniffs at contemporary writing by declaring, “Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread,” I immediately worry that an entire reading life spent rehashing books approved by the proper authorities risks turning a reader (like me) into a perpetual student, someone who treats literature as a way to check off titles on an imaginary syllabus. Someone passive. I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like. I worry Dead Souls belongs to so many people, it might never belong to me the way a book really need to. I worry my performance as a reader will borrow to heavy on the performances of others.
And yet I want Gogol’s novel in my head. It remains a profoundly inventive book, with a narrator who comments on the story as it goes along, even to the point of upbraiding the audience:
I apologize. It would seem that a phrase picked up on the streets has slipped from our hero’s lips. What can one do? That’s the situation a writer in Russia finds himself in. Though, if a street word finds its way into a book, it’s not the writer’s fault, it’s the readers’, above all readers in high society: they’re the last people you will hear a decent Russian word from…
Harold Bloom has used the term “canonical strangeness,” and it is precisely an inherent weirdness that makes Dead Souls so hard to give up. Think of a symphony, where a certain movement may repeat in a slightly different key — the subtle repetitions built into Gogol’s text help build the absurdity, the humor, and the emotional force of his tale. It isn’t very realistic — life is not so well constructed — but that’s okay. It gives us an opportunity — if only an opportunity — to stand outside our regular way of looking at the world, and perhaps notice something we have been taking for granted.
The strangeness of Dead Souls, its alien subject matter and its realistic-but-not-lifelike narrative structure actually aid a reader’s performance precisely because, when taken on their own terms, they draw attention away from the process of reading the book. They demand so much energy to really follow, to navigate on their own terms, that the reader’s performance becomes, if not unconscious, at least less self-conscious. As soon as I realized that, my guilt about spending so much time immersed in old books began to melt away.
The way to avoid passive reading is to pay attention to what is on the page and engage it as best you can. This matters because reading offers us something quite rare — a quiet, solitary activity that allows us to clear a little space in our minds. This feels especially true in the context of my own daily habits, which involve spending an extraordinary amount of time online, a decidedly noisy, un-solitary environment that encourages the reader to respond — through retweeting, commenting, or “liking” — as opposed to reflecting.
Reality Hunger sticks with me because it made me more sensitive to the noisy media landscape I inhabit almost continuously. The book forced me to read actively by calling attention to just how I was looking at text. Its fragments made the fragments in my head all too obvious. Dead Souls does the opposite. It is quiet and strange and in some respects inaccessible; it uses a plot that doesn’t dwell too much on the rambling pointlessness of daily life; it is set in a past I don’t understand as much as I pretend to. It is the opposite of the tailored, easy-to-digest world of social media. With the right attitude, the right approach, its contrast with today’s fragmentary reading environment can be every bit as valuable as Shields’s effort to engage it.
The key is to take both together — to avoid getting trapped only reading classics, like Macdonald’s “catch-up” reader, or only reading fragments or bits of text online. The point is not to set up a dichotomy between old and new — and certainly not between “good” and “bad” approaches to writing or reading. What both Shields, with his contempt for traditional narratives, and Myers, in his contempt for everything else, both miss is that each kind of text — those grounded in the technology of the present and those insulated from it — is equally valuable, because it offers the reader a chance to perform (to think) in very different ways. Both matter because a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.
In conversation, I’m fond of telling people that the difference between a work of art and a mere product is that art ultimately aspires to contemplation, while a product aspires only to consumption. I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that “art” exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing. Art can’t exist without an audience to take it seriously.
The wonder of a book like Dead Souls comes from its silence, the way it offers us a calm place to think. But that place is only as valuable as the reader makes it. A calm place to think is only worthwhile if the reader seizes the opportunity to do some thinking. Perhaps it’s not really guilt I fell about the classics but trepidation — because at the end of the day the classics need to earned. So now, it’s up to me to put in the effort to earn them.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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