There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order. What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories — the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose — but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.”
I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’…” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection.
This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are.
A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.)
When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes:
[T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of “cycle” is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them…Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole.
Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.)
It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre — to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel — is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory.
Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!)
Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains:
[T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture — but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel — novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human — the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability.
I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies.
There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners.
And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely.
I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me.
And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.
In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.
After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.
Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.
The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.
But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?
I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?
“A good samurai will parry the blow.”
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.
During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.
So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.
From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”
When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.
Introductions, when read at all, might sometimes be considered as an after-thought to the reader’s own impressions after finishing the book. There’s nothing wrong with guarding one’s capacity for surprise when encountering the work of an author who’s new to you, nothing wrong with reading the review after seeing the movie. So, perhaps perversely, I hope you’ll read these three novels and form your own impression, and if my remarks suggest other things, or verify or call into question certain feelings, they’re only that: an appreciative reader’s observations.
But they’re fond remarks. What I have to say teeters between David’s having been my friend, and my awe and continued amazement at his work and what he achieved. Since now there will be no new work, I can only re-read — which might elicit the same responses, because of familiarity. Yet every time I pick up one of his books, I find it more exceptional than it seemed at first. I’m not alone in this response: it’s appreciated and discussed and is often spoken of as representing a leap forward for American literature. I’m still troubled that it wasn’t more appreciated in his lifetime, but I’m less sure that matters — except, obviously, for a writer being able to make a living, and for reinforcing the writer’s sense of self esteem, which are not minor matters. “Rediscoveries” are more and more a part of literary culture: Edith Pearlman; the re-issues in the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series (don’t miss The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott, if The Great Gatsby initially gave you snow blindness). We’ve always had Counterpoint to thank for bringing forth unexpected texts, radical books for acute readers. That doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert to enjoy them.
I knew David in the early ’80s in New York. He lived in Greenwich Village, I lived in Chelsea. We had a few mutual friends. When we were introduced, I hadn’t read his work, but I did know that Douglas Day, who’d also written about Malcolm Lowry, had the greatest respect for David’s Lowry book. I eventually read a couple of David’s early books, liked them but wasn’t over the moon, and as we got to know each other a bit better, he asked if I’d read a manuscript he was finishing called Wittgenstein’s Mistress. As I write, four extra copies are on my bookshelf, in case someone wants to read it. I took the manuscript home with me and read all night. I was speechless. Whatever I did finally manage to say on the phone no doubt let him know how astonished I was at what he’d done. In the back of my mind, I had feared reading a manuscript that would call on my non-existent knowledge of Wittgenstein. And, as writers always fear, if they don’t like what they read, they have to figure out how honest to be in their response. I’m sure I fell all over myself, but he did understand that I thought it was one of the most moving, surprising books I’d ever read. And I’m sticking to that. The character in that novel is either the last person on Earth, or she believes she is.
Absence throbs in the text. The last page is heartbreaking. And while that earlier book is quite distinct from these three, the idea of a solitary thinker, an artist (she is a painter) without reinforcement, but with many memories and confusions, going toward she knows not what, provides a kind of thematic undertow that This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel crest above.
There is no possibility David Markson would have thought of being fashionable. But without any calculation, David’s writing has come to be considered very of-the-moment. I bring this up because for readers who’ve heard of him only recently, perhaps in on-line magazines or various blogs and literary sites, or because his books have been embraced in the academic world, his categorization as “postmodern” might come to mind. I can’t argue with that, though of course it was not the categorization that led David Foster Wallace to write him a fan letter. For Wallace, as for many other writers, it was for his unique mining of a territory that didn’t much exist — at least in the United States — until David asserted its presence. First he discovered the turf. Then he stood on it.
You have in front of you his last three books, which have often been addressed in terms of collage. We, in these fragmented times, with our reputed short attention spans and our belief that with enough intellectual coaxing anything can be made to fit with everything, react positively to “collage.” People love to compare writing to visual art, though I don’t think his work has much to do with collage. What I think is that he was his own perfect team of Eliot and Pound, a poet who displaced and projected emotions onto an opaque, little-peopled landscape that, after being re-arranged and judiciously edited, revealed the bones of a skeleton we knew existed, though not in this exact, surprising form. So, okay: I’d have it that he was a brilliant paleontologist as well as a fiction writer with the deft touch of a poet. Teamed with himself, he was absolutely brilliant. He really shuffled those cards: a quote from Diogenes; a little-known fact about Baudelaire (“Baudelaire wore rouge”). (They really were cards; his notes were kept on index cards. Many, many.) So in some ways he was a collector, and metaphorically speaking I suppose he had to eventually glue his sentences down in what he considered the best possible order. But they are all words, the images conjured up, but off the page, the collage — if it’s even an appropriate comparison — assembled horizontally, for the eye to scan from left to right.
Try to stop reading one of these three novels. Meanings accrue; mysteries arise; you laugh when you least expect to laugh; a character (or characters) are indelibly created (though in the Beckettian manner, he uses as few as possible). It’s often observed that when you compile a list, what is revealed transcends the individual notations. Write a play — in which you are primarily restricted to dialogue — and the problem is often that the dialogue takes on too much meaning. A writer as aware and purposeful as David would have been highly sensitized to that. By the time he finished, he knew what the books were. And then, I’d guess, he went on to write a second book in the same manner, because he also knew what the books were not. I’m not the one to say how many books by a writer are enough, too few, or too many. They’d have to all exist, to have a dialogue. There would have had to be many more in this series (how I wish they existed; he was working on another when he died) to know if they’d stretch all the way to the distant horizon line that existed, way in the distance, sometimes obscured by fog, as a definition of what the 20th century was. He, himself, worried about doing the same old thing — but any serious writer becomes inhibited and nervous about that. He was a man of habits, of increasingly small geographical parameters (hey: he got old and wasn’t in perfect health. Also, his beloved Strand was nearby). But he read assiduously (who cares if he didn’t keep up with contemporary fiction? Even his own admission of deficiency seems half-hearted), and developed his book’s trajectories subtly but deliberately, working both on the level of the sentence and keeping in mind the book’s arc. Some sentences are inverted; many present the observation or statement, then fill us in on who said it (“He who writes for fools will always find a large audience/ said Schopenhauer”). And then, when we are used to this system of presentation, he drops in a simple declarative sentence (“Marco Polo died three years after Dante”). Among the questions David implies is this: Does it matter who said what, or that the thing was said? For me, what’s stated, usually tersely, is like a balloon whose string dangles the name of the person being quoted. Interesting questions are raised: of the spoken word vs. the personality of the speaker; how one statement inadvertently continues or calls into question another. And throughout, a fictional persona co-exists with these usually famous artists and philosophers and musicians — a bare-bones sort of person sunk sometimes in a self-pity that seems simultaneously funny, or wandering alone through a maze of concepts that do and don’t have anything to do with his banal day, his banal (but human/therefore human) desires. What we have is fiction, comprised of fact and hearsay and words already written, whether transcribed exactly or not, repeated by David in a different order, appropriated for the purpose of making a new creature sent out to join up with those who already exist.
If at times that might have looked to the writer like a words only version of Exquisite Corpse (the old-fashioned game of two players drawing a figure, then folding the page over so the next person must continue drawing what they’ve never seen), that’s no different than the way a lot of writers work. Even writers who proceed from an outline often remark that as they wrote, something surprised them, or derailed them, or that only as they got near the end of the first draft did they realize the larger meaning of what they were doing. I don’t mean to either disappear beneath the mask of metaphor, or to make an exact analogy, but David was a solitary man who read and wrote and lived alone (though he certainly missed the good old days at his favorite bar, The Lion’s Head). He could continue drawing his own invented figure (so to speak), but in juggling the contradictions, textures, and clashing philosophies of what he was creating, he must, at times, have had to resist forcing something into shape just because it was under his control. (Pound and Eliot hardly had the same sensibility.) You don’t live almost your whole life in New York City and not believe in chance.
To quote myself (he’d smile at the indulgence) with something I said when I introduced him for his reading at the 92nd St. Y: “We know that literature is always in dialogue with other literature, but it is our good fortune that David Markson has acted as a facilitator: the good host, introducing all the right people to the right people, while being puckish enough to introduce all the right people to the wrong people, as well. In-jokes appear sometimes as little grace-notes. The works and the remarks of visual artists and philosophers also figure in, as do characters who may not be fictional. In David Markson, backward motion is as important as forward motion.” So this doesn’t become abstract, let me make a few comments about a short sequence of paragraphs from Vanishing Point:
Scholars who are convinced that Shakespeare must certainly have been a military man. Or a lawyer. Or closely associated with royalty. Or even a Jew.
To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman.
Yup; the jury’s out. But the passage tells us so much more than the fact that Shakespeare remains a mystery. It mimics gossip. It addresses the serious issue of identity, and other people’s claim on it. The word “Even” is certainly revealing about someone’s attitude. We are (I assume) made uncomfortable by the distinction being drawn. The following paragraph (“To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman”) does several interesting things: the speculation resumes (and therefore, by extension, this determines a way of speech, and typifies a conversational mode), but we can’t quite recover from “Even a Jew,” although Ms. Terry’s remark — because we do not know her — might be read any number of ways: that she thinks Jews and women are both problematic; that she is a stereotype of a woman who reflexively mentions oft-forgotten women; that she truly believes that Shakespeare might have been female. These are just a few things to notice among many possibilities. But then we drop off into white space. The next paragraph concerns a painter. Since we have no other transition to the first word of the next paragraph (Michelangelo), we hear something discordant: the lingering voice of the last person to speak (Ellen Terry) butting up against Michelangelo. We don’t move from famous writer (Shakespeare) to famous painter (Michelangelo) and feel the coherence of the arts, though; rather, we hear that ambiguous pronouncement of the suddenly vanished Ellen Terry saying something that might have been fatuous, perhaps mocking, perhaps an announcement of a personal belief. . and a sort of echo chamber is set up, in which a voice doesn’t entirely vanish, but is merely supplanted. This happens in music all the time. I would suspect, though, that for those who care to hear it, there is Eliot’s famous line from Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” I’m only guessing, but the world-weariness of Eliot’s famous line seems to bond invisibly to the fact that between paragraphs, a breath has been taken (seen as white space and with no suggestion of a direct way to make the transition), so that we are surprised, yet not surprised, to suddenly be considering Michelangelo.
Michelangelo once criticized the fact that Raphael was unfailingly accompanied by an entourage of pupils and admirers, saying he went parading about like a general—
To which Raphael: And you go about alone like a hangman.
We smile at Raphael’s one-upsmanship. It’s one of those moments of quick riposte we so often wish we were capable of; someone does get the last, clever word. Add that to our Exquisite Corpse as it’s been shaping up, and the accordion (turn it on its side; then my analogy works!) lengthens so that we see that Shakespeare and Ellen Terry have been conjured up, to be followed by another eminence, who gets a put-down from yet another eminent painter. Here, we can laugh — even if a bit ruefully. But rarely does a conversation conclude with someone offering a bon mot. In dialogue, it’s never believable, because it seems like the writer is being too witty, or artificially ending on a high note. (We might get off a witty remark, but then fate seems to decree that the fire alarm goes off, or our belt breaks, and our pants fall down.)
But now here, here David Markson intervenes, with his character Author:
Not that rearranging his notes means that Author has any real idea where the book is headed, on the other hand.
Ideally, in fact, it will wind up someplace that will surprise even Author himself.
There’s the pre-emptive strike, in case we wondered on pages 10-11 where the book was going. Ah, Author does not know! That’s understandable, and part of the fun of writing is in the unexpected discoveries. Who’d begrudge someone that little treat? Author is self-deprecating, willing to confess to potential worries or inadequacies; Author is just like us…except that Markson has interjected Author deliberately, for a little cameo that will grow into a larger role, later. We know that we are not supposed to be so unsophisticated as to believe that Philip Roth the character is Philip Roth the writer, or that the fictional Kathy Acker is Kathy Acker. Got it. Yet if some little part of our brain does conflate the two (privately, silently, as if with a flashlight beneath the sheets), the fictional character inevitably takes on more credibility and meaning because we see the superimposition: it’s a funhouse mirror that both distorts and also allows us to see right through it. Here, Author is released like a genie, and since what is supposedly “real” in fiction really makes us perk up, the writer can have it both ways. Author is David Markson, but Author is also just some guy. Author brings us back to Earth, in a departure that deliberately pricks the balloon that’s been sent up to ask us to consider The Great Men. Yet when we return to basics, when we touch base with an individual who is, after all, something of a guide, even if not an authority figure, Earth has become a bit defamiliarized. It’s slightly destabilized, a place not so much of sunrise and sunset, trees and bees, but a life of the mind, floated in white space for our perusal and contemplation, a concept accruing like a cloud. It’s suspended above us whether we see it or not, though if that cloud is cumulus, it’s rather reassuring that it was formed by one layer forming above another, all parts working together to give the impression of density, the flat surface from which it forms very much like the flatness of a book.
This is the introduction to this new edition of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel and Other Novels.
Well, what did I read? Epictetus’s Discourses. I read Samuel Pepys’s diary entries for 1660 and 1665. I read William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew. I read a bunch of Jonathan Edwards, in the Yale Reader and the old American Writers Selections. I read the first few delicious cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. I read Samuel Johnson’s life of Dryden.
Like everyone else, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (just Book One). I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read five preposterously good genre novels: David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Tana French’s The Secret Place; Stephen L. Carter’s Back Channel; Megan Abbott’s Dare Me; and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I also liked Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, but the writing isn’t up to the story. (Shafer will slip a Hopkins line into his narrative without explaining it, but Pessl writes, “Did they think I’d been exiled to Saint Helena, like Napoleon after Waterloo?” Oh, that Saint Helena!) And I read a few of Philip Kerr’s fucking marvelous Bernie Gunther novels.
People keep writing poems, so I read some. I liked Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians and Dorothea Lasky’s Rome and some poems by Anthony Madrid and Patricia Lockwood and Jessica Laser and Adrienne Raphel and Sarah Trudgeon. And I read some Archie Ammons and some of C.K. Williams’s Flesh and Blood (couldn’t finish it; he reminds me of someone’s dad, and the paean to his new car still makes me angry).
I read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, a very useful précis (although it can’t replace a reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I think is the most important book published in the last decade). Too bad it’s nearly ruined by pandering quotations from absolutely terrible bands and movies. In Stanley Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe I discovered the definitive answer to the idiocy of certain know-nothing pop-science writers: “If we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.”
Oh, I finally read Henry Green’s Loving! It’s like if Downton Abbey were good. And funny. One of the best English novels ever. I read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I’m embarrassed to say I only this year got round to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I loved it, but I still prefer The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors. Maybe that’s only because I read them first, when I was young. Splendor in the grass!
I read a bunch of other things, too.
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The Conde Nast building is located just off Times Square, an uncomfortable area of NYC I try to avoid like the dickens. The flashy billboards and the noise and the crowds disturb me, and I wasn’t at all pleased to see a person in a dirty Elmo suit waving at me. I did not wave back at Elmo because I had other things on my mind, namely an appointment to talk with D.T. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery (check out the Amazon.com book description and read what “prions” are; they will frighten you), and most recently the author of a biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.
The new book tells the difficult, at times joyful, but ultimately sad story of Wallace’s life, couching it in a forward-driving narrative that is difficult to put down, bridging the life and the work in a way that is sensitive to the complexity and ambition of Wallace’s literary project. All told, the book promises to do what a good literary biography should do: return old readers to the work and gain new readers for the work.
I met Max inside the Conde Nast building’s “cafeteria” where he was kind enough to purchase your interviewer a small drip coffee and chocolate chip cookie. “Cafeteria” is in quotes because the place was really more like a fine dining restaurant or night club with large twelve-person booths and low lighting and high windows and an aura of exclusivity — pretty much the opposite of my idea of “cafeteria.” Despite my confusion, Max and I settled into an hour long conversation about his book, a truncated and edited version of which follows.
The Millions: What initially drew you to Wallace? Was his work the kind of stuff you typically read?
D.T. Max: Well, I had this long love affair with David — embarrassingly enough, I loved the wrong book. I loved Broom of the System for most of my 20s and 30s. It was only when I wrote the piece after his death that I found out he had turned on the book. I didn’t know that he referred to it as written by a very smart 14 year-old. It stunned me.
TM: Well you put up a pretty good defense of Broom in your book.
DTM: You can’t take something away from me that I love! I think the book’s terrific. But I do see what he’s saying. So I grew — one of the pleasures of the book was that I grew as a reader and I grew as a Wallace reader. So where I always appreciated Infinite Jest, writing about David and reading Infinite Jest made it richer and richer. And I was also just willing to be engrossed in Infinite Jest in a whole different way. (I’m talking about now when I was working on the magazine article.) But then when I was done with the magazine article I felt I just barely scratched the surface. I felt like what I’d written was very focused on his later years. I wanted to do something that was bigger and wider and less focused. I was very affected by people who said things to me like, “He was much happier than you portrayed him as,” and, “You didn’t catch his laughter.” So let me try to do a book and catch his laughter.
TM: So what was your approach to the biography?
DTM: Well one thing I was trying to do in the book was if David wrote realistic fiction for a world that was no longer real, then I felt an obligation to write a biography for a world that was no longer real. I wanted — not to extent that it was impossible for the reader to negotiate — I wanted to in some ways strip away some of the biographical conventions, in terms of what you can know and what matters, so that his story would feel a little more consonant with who David was and how he wrote. Really the two great factors in David’s writing are an affection for the reader and a refusal to write realistic fiction, so you’ll notice that the book has an emphasis on story. It begins, “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” And then the last line of the book is, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” And the idea is that we’re dealing with story, that every story is a ghost story, and among other things that’s a gloss on biography.
TM: Same with the epigraph from the Oblivion story “Good Old Neon” (“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant”).
TM: I was thinking about the epigraph as talking about the limits of language and storytelling, and also that your subject lived in his head to a great degree, which poses particular challenges for a biographer.
DTM: Yes well, you know, I wanted to make David live in a modern way, the way his characters live in his fiction — slightly more than a classic biography would provide. I don’t know if I achieved it or if anyone will notice it — but for instance I don’t try to do every year of David’s life. I think every year is in there, but I’m doing it more as memory would do it, almost like a memoir written by another person. It was a big effort to keep stuff out. There’s lots of wonderful things I left out.
TM: Were the decisions about what to exclude surrounding Wallace’s family hard? The relationship between Wallace and his mother seemed like delicate terrain.
DTM: It is delicate, but it’s also really hard to know. The biggest impediment to telling is knowing. And even when you think you know do you ever really know something as delicate as relationships?
TM: The relationship between Delillo and Wallace surprised me.
DTM: What surprised you?
TM: I didn’t imagine the relationship as Wallace looking for advice, bouncing his anxieties about writing off him, Delillo playing the role of the consoling father, especially in the letter where Delillo tells him he belongs to elite club of writers who suffer.
DTM: “Let the others complain about book tours.” It’s a wonderful line.
TM: The Franzen relationship, too — I was surprised that Franzen had a little more power in the relationship. I always imagined Wallace as the more domineering author, I guess on the basis of his reputation as the Big Novelist with the Big Book. But Franzen really steered him the whole moral fiction direction.
DTM: Well, Franzen caught him at a “teachable moment.” David’s just out of rehab, he feels he can’t write well anymore. I think if he met him at any other time in his life he would have bounced right off him — they knew each other before — Jon just keeps offering his ideas in a modest way — forthright way — eventually he catches David when he’s open to the ideas. He’s desperate. What’s stronger than to look for both your life and your writing? He was looking for both obviously. That’s one thing that makes him a great biographical subject is that there’s so little division between the work and the life.
TM: Part of the fun of your book is catching Wallace when he’s exaggerating and misrepresenting himself.
DTM: Oh God, I’m sure he got some by me. I took all the letters at face value initially. And then when I began to think a little bit harder about some of the exaggerations in the non-fiction I would see similar patterns in the letters. And I began to think, you know, this seems like a very unlikely scenario. He mentions that he goes and plays a basketball game in this rough neighborhood — this is the letter to [critic] Steven Moore when he talks about his nose being broken for the second time — and so he breaks his nose, but that doesn’t really sound like David. David was sort of fearful, basically.
TM: And you say he wasn’t much of jock.
DTM: He was and he wasn’t. But playing basketball with a bunch of rough street kids is not something he would have done. And then, theoretically, he has his nose broken again during a fight with a downstairs neighbor over Wittgenstein’s Mistress, so when he writes that to the editor [of Wallace’s piece on Markson] — what better way to show your commitment to the piece? And also fundamentally David was a joke writer, he loved jokes. He began as a joke writer at Sabrina at Amherst. So then I asked Mark Costello who lived with him at the time who said, “No, David never had a broken nose.” So then I began to suspect a lot of things weren’t true.
TM: Did you feel any kind of special responsibilities writing the first biography?
DTM: Responsibilities, oh yeah. I mean, it’s a privilege. The privilege of being first is that it’s all new. You’re not glossing someone’s gloss. I’ll be glossed eventually — in the near future probably. So that’s the advantage. But the disadvantage is that you will be rewritten and new things will be found. More correspondence will surface. You can’t help that. But what’s the ultimate goal of the biography? It’s certainly to bring readers to David’s writing. And in that sense to be the first after his death to bring readers to David’s writing is a very special job. You want to do it the right way. You have to really show them how this writer can matter to them, and if the book does that I’d be very, very pleased. If you can take a reader who’s on the fence about David and whether it’s worth the effort and get that reader to really dig into Infinite Jest — I would think that’s really exciting.
TM: So that was your audience, people who had heard the name but not read the work?
DTM: Maybe one level more involved than that. Maybe people who read the cruise ship piece [“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out”] when it was offered to them or at least thought they’d like to, or who always looked at Infinite Jest, maybe given it as a present, tried 70 pages. They would be people who could come back to David — I think they’re already on their way back to him, so it’s not as if I’m starting any sort of trend that isn’t already underway. I mean, he has this quasi-readership that almost no writer has, and I would love it if that quasi-readership became a readership for him.
TM: Do you think it’s surprising he went into fiction? Wallace says he uses more of his brain when writing fiction, but with all the logic and sports in his background — he’s not a typical literary type.
DTM: George Saunders has interesting things to say about that — he comes from an engineering background. You know, on some level fiction for David was never what I think it is for an ordinary or even an extraordinary writer of the John Updike variety. David’s always seeing the seams and the struts — it’s always artificial — that’s probably why he had issues with The Pale King because he never gets past the artificiality of what he’s creating. There’s a wonderful quote by Thornton Wilder that fiction is the art of orchestrating platitudes. And I think for David that was always difficult because he had seen so far beyond those platitudes. I don’t think he was ever somebody for whom characters were really alive. The closest he comes is Infinite Jest. Of course the reader and writer see things from different perspectives, but I don’t think for David those characters were ever really alive in quite the way that other writers experience their characters as alive.
TM: Why do you think people care so much about his work?
DTM: It’s many things, but it’s not really that he had any answers for people. Because when you read the biography you have to understand how much he struggles with things that most of us have fairly compact. But he never stops taking his life seriously and he never stops taking the reader’s life seriously. And I think that’s the connection: you never stop mattering to him and he never stops mattering to himself. He never quits in that way. And I think that even non-readers of David’s books must be getting that now, given what’s gone on with his reputation, the amount of places you see his name, even how the Kenyon College speech has become so well known, deservedly so. But it’s an aspirational speech. It’s not what David achieved, it’s what he wanted to achieve. In the end you are the writer you are, and if there’s anything David teaches us it’s very hard to change the writer you are, and I had to be a writer who was interested in his efforts and difficulties. Because I never saw him as the pure joyous person that some people insisted he was.
TM: “Saint Dave.”
DTM: Well, I think the “Saint Dave” name is valid in the sense that I think what David teaches you, which is what a saint should teach you, is to take yourself and your life seriously. I don’t think he’s a candidate for the sainthood on the basis of his behavior, but many saints weren’t. So I don’t disown the saint idea. There is a way in which, faced with the massive seductions of modern culture, he did a pretty good job of pushing them away. Certainly in those later years there’s a kind of saintliness to his behavior —
TM: A kind of literary saint in his defense of fiction.
DTM: A literary martyr really. With Malcolm Lowry — who else never finished their last book?
TM: Ralph Ellison…
DTM: Another good example. I don’t remember him having agonized over his last book. David was never that way. He agonized over it. That’s what makes it so sad. So, no I don’t disregard the saint idea. I think Franzen had it right. He said at one of the memorial services that there’s nobody who seemed simpler and delightful on first meeting who grows more and more complex, yet all the same — he didn’t say appealing — but all the same endearing. In other words, as you get to know David better you just don’t like him in the same simple way that you started liking him. I think that’s got it exactly right.
TM: It sounds like you really enjoyed working on the book.
DTM: I loved thinking about him, writing about him, being in his head, reading his letters. I’d be very sad if the book makes people feel that he’s any less worthy of their love. The goal is the opposite. The quality that he has that he cares about you — that he cares about you caring about yourself. That’s very uplifting. I don’t think you get that from most writers.
This was the year my son became a toddler — which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called “How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits” … along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it “Reviews I Did Not Write This Year.”
The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding — and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an “Ecology of Mind”, e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking…) But Bateson’s method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject — alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises — toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, “Systems Theory,” which is another, uglier name for “Ecology of Mind,” comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that it changed my life.
Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, but I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I guess there’s no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it’s either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism … or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don’t take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson’s. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it’s a pricey import.)
The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won’t catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy’s style — his “port-wine irony,” as Pritchett puts it — looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy’s astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class.
I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it’s done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste.
4. Best New Fiction
As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that’s a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go ’60s rather than the go-go ’80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the ’60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn’t have. It’s a wistful little f–ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis’ best book … were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.)
IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami’s temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who’s going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, “simple meals,” crazy religious cults, and “little people”? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn’t wait to get back.
5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees
A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn’t be more unlike IQ84. It’s short, for one thing — I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It’s wickedly funny, for another (writers’ colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it’s just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year’s resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012.
Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc’s The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon — an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc’s comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange.
The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn’t mean what you’d think it means. Basically, you just have to read it.
Somehow I’ve gotten through the “shorter books” section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too.
Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis’ memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis’ voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis.
Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it’s true. The debt to Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven’t read Sullivan’s beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they’re really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm.
I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn’t get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can’t say when you’ll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it’s time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime.
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The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)
Point Omega by Don Delillo
Reality Hunger by David Shields
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
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Christopher Sorrentino’s second novel, Trance, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award and was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He is also the author of Sound on Sound and American Tempura, a novella.I taught two literature seminars this year, so although I like to believe I’m picking great books to read in class, I’m going to disqualify those thirty or so titles; eliminating from consideration (but not, of course, really) such personal favorites as Light in August, The Power and the Glory, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Third Policeman, and The Confidence-Man. Neatly enough, the two books I read at opposite ends of 2008 certainly stand out among the most interesting: Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a really smart and wonderfully written exploration of pop culture’s limits, limitations, and transformative power, as embodied by the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, and Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, which I read near the beginning of the year; and Lynne Tillman’s American Genius (a re-read, actually), a masterpiece of mannered, circular, and obsessive monologue, issuing from a resident at either MacDowell or a mental hospital — it’s as if Wittgenstein’s Mistress were to combine with one of Bernhardt’s deeply disaffected, monomaniacal narrators.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Scott Esposito’s excellent literature and culture blog Conversational Reading likely needs no introduction here (don’t forget his Quarterly Conversation either). Lucky for us, Scott has kindly pitched in with his best reads of 2006 for our year end extravaganza at The Millions:Looking over the books I read in 2006, it seems like a banner year. I see a lot of novels that amazed me, and many that have expanded my view of what literature is and what it can be in the future.Still, one novel towers above all the rest: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. This is a book that is experimental is the very best ways while also providing more traditional literary pleasures like well-defined characters and beautiful prose. Anyone who hasn’t read it should make an effort to tackle this masterpiece.A very close second (and it’s very difficult to choose which of these two I enjoyed more) is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.Other books:Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David MarksonBouvard And Pecuchet by Gustave FlaubertAtomik Aztex by Sesshu FosterSuite Francaise by Irene NemirovskyThe Rings of Saturn by WG SebaldThe Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael MartoneMulligan Stew by Gilbert SorrentinoThe Moviegoer by Walker PercyThe Gold Bug Variations by Richard PowersCatch-22 by Joseph HellerPale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne PorterThanks Scott!