The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.
I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.
When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.
If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.
On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.
After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.
I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.
All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.
As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.
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Publishing for publishing’s sake was the last thing Danielle Dutton had in mind when she founded her independent press called the Dorothy Project three years ago. “Starting a press simply to add to the piles and piles of books in the world (or just in my house) wasn’t interesting to me,” Dutton said via email.
“I’ve long admired presses that seem to carve out a specific niche all their own, such as Dalkey Archive (where I worked for four years before starting Dorothy), or Siglio (a press out of L.A. that focuses on work at the intersection of art and literature, and which, incidentally, published my second book).”
To that end, Dorothy follows a disciplined model: two books a year with the goal “to seek out and publish writing that takes risks, that surprises and challenges and delights us as readers; to have a tightly curated list; and to work to create beautiful book objects.”
The focus on quality over quantity has had good results. “We’ve been incredibly lucky so far for a new small press,” Dutton said, citing “good coverage” for the press itself and many reviews. “I’m very thankful for that, and I wonder if reviewers and editors have been intrigued by our constraint-based plan (only two books per year, all the same size, mostly written by women). We’re doing something specific, and maybe that is, for better or worse, an ‘angle’ by which to approach us.”
Well-known, experimental writers such as Ben Marcus have taken notice: for The Millions’s 2011 “Year in Reading” series, he recommended the Dorothy Project’s reprint of Barbara Comyn’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Future projects will include the final book in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, and a collection of stories by Amina Cain.
The two books Dutton selects each year are intended to form a contrast. “This year’s two books — Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler — both deal with madness. Both are debut novels from younger American women writers. But stylistically they’re worlds apart, and the fact that they came together as a perfect pair was somewhat accidental.” Both go on sale this month.
Fra Keeler begins as an investigation by an anonymous, male narrator into the mysterious death of the title character. The first scene shows him buying Keeler’s house from a realtor.
(Certain) events of the unfriendliest category are now unfolding. I cannot put my finger on these events; I cannot pinpoint the exact dimensions of their effect. The truth is, I haven’t been the same since Fra Keeler’s death. Some deaths are more than just a death, I keep thinking, and Fra Keeler’s was exemplary in this sense. And it is the same thought since I left the realtor’s office: some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated, and, Yes, I think then, Yes: I bought this home in order to fully investigate Fra Keeler’s death.
We’re not told what the narrator’s relationship is to Keeler, why he needs to go so far as to buy the man’s house, or where he came up with the money. These omitted facts — carefully ignored pieces of character- and plot-information — belie how much this narrator depends on the momentum of his thoughts to keep his story moving. The manic energy in the language sustains a careful, unsettling tension that’s central to the plot and the novel’s meaning.
We soon learn that this man is a keenly intelligent person suffering not from grief over Keeler’s death, but extreme curiosity and paranoid fixation. After telling how he moved into Keeler’s house, he suddenly stops to say, ominously, “Things creep up on us when we deny their existence. …I must retrace,” and then he dives into a flashback that takes up the bulk of the book.
In terms of plot action, he accepts a package from the mailman, makes a phone call, looks out the window, drinks water in the kitchen, goes for a walk in the nearby canyon (the valley of death?), and visits a neighbor. Meanwhile, he muses on causation and the nature of time, sits in a canoe he finds in the time-traveling yurt that’s appeared in the yard, and later decides that all of humanity’s perception of time is a “purified lie.” Headaches and dizzy spells come and go. He grows suspicious of an old woman in the neighborhood, then sees her face — or his own mother’s face — in a dream, accusing him of throwing acid at her.
Van der Vliet Oloomi’s spare, clear language sets this novel apart from other fiction about mental illness. The controlled tone adds complexity to the narrator’s unreliability as we maintain an immediate awareness of who he is versus what he’s telling us. Well-placed surreal scenes are also described plainly, and then mocked sometimes, as in this moment where a cactus turns into an old woman:
I spotted a cactus a few feet away. The stems were bowing down toward the ground. Not like a light bulb, I thought, this cactus, and I walked one full circle around it. It is a green mass of death, I thought. I stood there for a while, the cactus occupying the whole space of my brain, just as the sky had occupied it a moment earlier. I mused over the shape of the cactus until a chubby, toothless old lady formed in its place. She stared at the horizon. She said, “Take a good look, because this is me now, this is me as I am dying.” I felt a second pang go through my chest. I didn’t know if it was the cactus talking, or the old lady. Weren’t they one and the same, hadn’t they emerged from the same entity? Then, I thought, what rot, the things in one’s head. Because images just appear, an old lady out of nowhere, where the cactus had been. One minute, and then the next, what is the use of these things?
He’s a kook with depth. As a person, he comes across as witty and self-effacing, not powerfully cold and psychotic. He later comments on why madness may be necessary in life, and makes moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Naturally, these aspects humanize him and elicit our sympathy and it doesn’t hurt that he acts like a lovable goofball at times. “Dumb as a lobster, you are Mr. Mailman,” he says at one point, while after a snack and a stroll, he says with childlike joy, “How helpful the slice of bread had been, the walk in the canyon!”
He would be charming. But there’s the book’s violent ending to consider. And as I did, I saw this charm being put to a specific purpose. As I thought about it, Fra Keeler reminded me of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence, not to mention big classics like Crime and Punishment and Lolita. And what emerged as I considered a bit of context was that one vital aspect is Fra Keeler’s construction: the ending recasts the whole tenor of the book, illuminating who that realtor truly was and who the narrator might really have been. Then something clicked: the book had ingeniously play-acted a role I had wanted it to perform.
From this angle, Fra Keeler can be viewed as a critique of the attraction many writers, readers, critics, and scholars have to the clichéd glamor of evil, who fetishize the gorgeous anguish associated with men struggling with mental illness. And once we make this connection between novels that revel in spectacles of madness to the male violence at its roots (see Raskolnikov, Humbert, et al), and after we acknowledge that readers thrill to such spectacles and scholars add them to the canon – should this not prick at the conscience and urge us to examine our tastes?
Sure, it may only be fiction. But our enjoyment of it says a lot. Avoiding this issue seems to do ourselves and these male characters (and their male shadows in the real world), a disservice, waiting as it were for the next male-ghoul to be put on mad-parade in front of us to jab and laugh at as we turn the page — while pretending we’re actually learning more about the glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
To be clear, Fra Keeler does not abuse its male narrator in this way. Van der Vliet Oloomi hints sympathetically that war, that poisoned source of eternal male vainglory, is what might have driven the narrator to violence and madness. Rather, one of the things Fra Keeler does is offer a wondrously clear lens to those who want to examine tastes that have been taught to lurch grotesquely in the direction of male anxiety, mental illness, and violence when seeking so-called good literature.
Nothing: A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close
This year I read Nothing. Nothing is about the history of our attempts to conceive of the void, vacuums, nothingness. It’s about the infinite sea and the Higgs vacuum and the new Void. It hurts to read. It completely defies my understanding. I love it.
The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick
Information has been likened to blood before, but the case here is air tight. The Information is a lucid history of the machines, soft and hard, we have fabricated in order to share our pain with each other. I read this right after reading Tom McCarthy’s novel C, and The Information seemed like the perfect, suspenseful guide book one might have excavated from the heart of that very strange novel.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
Speaking of strange novels, this is one of my favorites, re-printed beautifully by a new small press called Dorothy Project. Barbara Comyns’ novel is deranged in ways that shouldn’t be disclosed. On the surface things are not so odd — but deep inside the sentences is the delirious, mad energy one finds in the work of Jane Bowles, Leonora Carrington, and Diane Williams.
The Case For God by Karen Armstrong
An encyclopedia of the most primal act of the human imagination: to wonder where we came from and to ask what we should do now. In the end this book is a consummate survey of how civilizations have strategized to cope with the unknown. The project is not finished.
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