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Forty Crows in Paris. A poem for my birthday.

27 Apr

(I write one of these every year, and why should turning forty be any different?)

Forty Crows in Paris

1.

Walking the streets of Paris,

I run into Picasso.

Sun-burnt

Wind-burnt

sandy-dusty

fidgety-edgy

and charcoal-eyed.

He smiles.

I worship a god with a bull head, he says.

Pigeon-wing arms

Crucified over an altar of satin-covered wood.

Huh, I say.

The heart is a ventricle labyrinth, he says.

We are often lost in its chambers.

There is a bull in all men.

The bull-man shares my face.

And at night, he says,

I dream of the minotaur.

Okay, I say.

I have some wisdom for you, he says.

Please, I say.

Love thyself first of all.

No, Pablo.

Then you’ve failed, he says.

Okay, I say.

But never marry.

Too late, I say.

This makes him angry.

Doe-eyed women.

Wolf-bitches in heat.

Kali, destroyer of artists.

Astarte, breaker of men.

His mouth is foaming.

I wave him away.

And off he goes.

 

2.

Picasso.

Impossible at restaurants.

Lover of bullfighting, brothels, women.

Hater of entanglements.

Despiser of interruptions.

Painter of Christs, myths, nude women.

Painter, sculptor, cruel genius.

Bull face half-hidden from the world.

Bulls are wild creatures

of pure id

snorting charging

holy in many lands.

Energy,

Often unfocused,

Goring others with sharp horns.

A symbol of creative destruction.

Picasso:

Pagan hero

praying to broken stones.

 

3.

I leave Pablo behind,

And move along the boulevards of Paris.

Cobalt skies

Sun with perfect heat

sculpted faces radiated

streaks of self-righteous indignation.

The French obsession:

How to be good in a godless world?

I meander through the royal gardens.

I stroll past the Seine.

I trot over to the Left Bank.

I see Simone de Beauvoir sitting under a tree.

She waves me over.

Bespectacled, raven-haired

Thin lipped, high cheek-boned.

Hands sharp like knitting needles.

I worship the first crow, she says.

Creator of all existence.

Midnight wings covering the cosmos with speckled night.

Metaphor? I ask.

She shakes her head.

Don’t worship anyone but yourself, she says.

I don’t know how to do that.

All men do it, she says.

I was speaking through you to your daughters.

Hairy-cheeked men.

Simple-minded and direct.

Zeus and Odin.

Rapers of earth and sky.

Imprisoners of women.

Always misunderstanding everything.

I’m a man, I say.

She shoos me along.

 

4.

Simone the unheralded.

Namesake of my eldest.

Philosopher-queen

Writer of great novels

Existentialist par excellence.

She saw the strictures of the father-world.

The demands that partition a woman’s consciousness.

In bondage to child-rearing,

Home-making

Cooking cleaning

Belittled or ignored.

Entombed in invisible prisons.

Simone!

Lover of life and men.

Neither bull nor wolf.

A being of pure mind.

Wise and wonderful

But worshiper of nothing

Empty voices dissipating into cold, sterile air.

 

5.

I walk on,

My shoes touching the streets of Paris,

But my thoughts anchored in the past year.

2016.

Eater of the great.

Jim Harrison died.

David Bowie died.

Debbie Reynolds died.

Prince and goddamn George Michael.

Died and died and goddamn died.

Amidst the political grotesqueries of my home country.

What the fuck is happening?

In Luxembourg Gardens,

A single crow picks grubs and worms

While my daughters run amok.

Crow the wise.

Crow the lonely.

Crow the portentous.

Dark omen of

Death war mystery

 

6.

Crows were thought to ferry the souls of the dead.

Black bird wings

Cosmic undulations

Souls tiny pebbles in the crows’ beaks.

The pebbles tossed into a giant heap

Melted in a vast smelter

And cooling in an endless semi-conscious sea.

I liken crows to a single year.

They appear,

They make a little noise

Then they fly away.

I am now forty.

Forty years.

Forty crows.

In Paris.

7.

I watch too many movies.

Tis a sickness.

No substitute for wisdom.

Just a tired, bleary-eyed deity,

That is almost self-aware.

The other day,

A character asked:

What is your spirit animal?

What is mine?

I feel a magic connection to wolves.

An affinity with crows.

A psychic corkscrew with bulls.

I feel love for elephants.

And, sometimes late at night,

I reverberate prayers to Ganesha,

The remover of obstacles.

He of the elephant head.

Bulls, crows, wolves, elephants—

Totems of my cloudy mind.

I write and read and work,

Believing that it means something.

Trump says it doesn’t.

 

8.

Okay, politics and poetry

Not the friendliest combo.

But ask a wolf like Trump:

How to be good?

He has no answer.

Wolves don’t care about goodness.

Wolves don’t understand decency.

They hunger and thirst

And go about chomping on things with bloody mouths.

Trump inhabits the father-world.

Cynical and vile.

Billionaire pickpockets

Out to stripmine our very souls.

Prostrate before a dank cave,

Invisible coal dust

Filling their nostrils,

They worship a jade-green snake

Swallowing its own tail.

I don’t begrudge them their selfish

Shallow, superficial meanness.

But these ghouls don’t believe

In any kind of future.

They want to consume the present.

And that, I cannot forgive.

 

9.

From there to here.

I’ve left Paris behind.

Returned to the States.

I turned 10 in Florida.

20 in Alabama.

30 in Iowa.

Now 40 in Illinois.

Forty years.

Jesus Christo.

Twenty-two years of writing?

Carter Reagan Bush Clinton Obama

And now Trump.

I never know where a poem is going.

They zig.

They zag.

They sputter.

They spark.

My antennae cogitate in a zippered buzz.

My thoughts collide like loosed atoms.

Today it’s the bull.

Yesterday the crow.

Tomorrow the wolf.

Picasso and Beauvoir never go away.

Trump will.

Not fast enough.

Not without scarring.

Not without pain.

But he will go away.

Until then,

It’s the search for small gods

With totem heads.

A new decade begins.

Ganesha, I’m still here.

Let’s remove these obstacles.

Or a new god,

Crow-headed

Animist, small-scaled

Housebound, perhaps,

Listening only to my neurotic fears

Powerless but present

Here to vitiate the father-world’s powers

Until De Beauvoir can reincarnate

And lead us back to the Crow’s delight.

2016: A year of disrupted reading.

3 Jan

(2016 was a terrible year for me and for our country. A series of professional setbacks jarred my writing, sapped my resolve and left me an inner stew of rancor and resentment. As above, so below. The sinister election cycle and the ghastly result haven’t helped any. I’ve neglected the blog, too, although I have a dozen or so posts in various states of decay. But I did maintain my reading log, and here it is, 2016, with notes and annotations. I also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and a smattering of monthly comic books. Around November I stopped keeping track of everything I was reading, and a few books slipped off the list. The most memorable novels I read were probably The People in the Trees and The Painted Bird. Anyway, here’s to a new year.)

 

Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances—Richard Poirer’s essays on writers and writing, focusing on Whitman and Mailer and others, is funny, well-written and intriguing.

 

The Seven Madmen—Roberto Arlt’s astonishing novel of murder, madness and social instability. A down on his luck inventor decides to kidnap an insane friend to help fund an insane man, known as the Astrologer, who wants to destabilize the world to bring back an age of mystery and magic. Sounds funny, but reads as tragedy. Excellent and unforgettable.

 

Crow—Ted Hughes, y’all! His astonishing poems concerning the origin of good and evil, centering on a sometimes sinister creature named Crow, who is part Lucifer, part Pan, part Amerindian totem. Haunting stuff, and a great place to start for poetry neophytes. (A category I will probably remain in the rest of my life.)

 

The Armies of the Night—Norman Mailer inserts himself into this extended piece of new journalism, “history as novel,” as he calls it, and “the novel as history.” It’s a great companion to other books on the sixties, and Mailer’s abilities are on display. But it feels a bit dated. I keep coming back to Mailer (and Burroughs) even though he as often as not disappoints.

 

Exiles Return—Malcolm Cowley’s revisiting of the Lost Generation—their values, their ambitions, their triumphs and failures—is a masterpiece of criticism, belief and biography. I’ve wanted to read this for years.

 

Mapuche—Argentinian crime novel about a detective obsessed with the disappeared. Pretty good, solid stuff, if maybe not quite as strong as it sounds. A transvestite is murdered.

 

The Thirsty Muse—A critical and literary history of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill through their alcoholism. Pretty damn good stuff.

 

The Hundred Days—Joseph Roth’s novel of Napoleon’s return from exile is interesting, if a major letdown compared to His masterful The Radetsky March.

 

Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s—A solid history of the Lost Generation and their adventures and travails in Paris. Really enjoyed this one.

 

The Movie Book—I can never read enough overviews, histories, anecdotes and biographies about the movies and the people who make them. Great photographs.

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Diaz’s polyglot novel traces a cursed family from the Dominican Republic, back and forth in time. This novel is many things, most of them enjoyable, some of them profound, but the pop cultural references and the occasional light touch barely conceal the anger.

 

Breaking and Entering—Joy Williams’s novel follows a married couple who break into vacation homes in Florida, as a way of adventure and relaxation. Stunning prose; she makes it all look so easy. (She’s kin, writer-wise, to Ellen Gilchrist.)

 

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale of trauma and sadism with little moments of kindness is compelling to read, but the engines are mucked with narrative torture-porn. She can write and write well, but the punishing, relentless torment of her abused man-child is . . . hard to understand. Why write a 750-page novel about how grim and shitty life is? Thomas Bernhard does this in 100. Still, unforgettable.

 

Three Hainish Novels—On a recommendation, I tried these novels from Ursela Le Guin. I shouldn’t have. The ideas are fine but the writing isn’t for me. There’s a couple of hours I’ll never get back.

 

The Story of a New Name—Elena Ferrante’s second novel of a sour friendship in the violent, mafia-controlled poor sections of Naples. Lean and superb.

 

Captain America: Loose Nuke—Writer Remender finds his groove with this third arc of his Captain America run. (His first two involved Cap trapped on another earth, with Arnim Zola in control. A great idea, but poorly executed.) Remender uses Nuke, the great cipher of Marvel comics, a stand-in for American foreign malfeasance, weakness and strength, depending on the author.

 

Terrorist—Moving and compelling comic portrait of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand and inadvertently started World War I. Great, haunting art and a firm presentation of the background conflicts in the Balkans. The best book on the subject since Hans Koning’s Death of a Schoolboy.

 

Best of Enemies—Comic history of the first order, about U.S. relations with the Middle East. Insightful and excellent.

 

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds—The cover lists Alan Moore as the writer but he isn’t. He’s more of a story consultant, and it shows. Old characters from his late-90s run of Wildstorm comics make their appearances here, but the pacing is off and the story isn’t clear. Would probably unread this if I could.

 

Bacchus: Immortality Isn’t Forever—Eddie Campbell, underground comic artist extraordinaire—kicks off his long-running series of Bacchus in the present-day with moody art and a light, narrative touch. Not for everyone, but intriguing.

 

The White Hotel—A strange companion, of sorts, to Nabakov’s Pale Fire, a novel with poems, surreal catastrophes, and a case file written by Sigmund Freud. Perhaps not as great as its underground reputation—and inferior to Pale Fire, but most novels are—but still a good read. Pretentious weirdness.

 

Love Me Back—Fierce and stunning debut novel, about a troubled waitress and her navigations through an often sinister and traumatic world.

 

A Brief History of Seven Killings—Marlon James won the Man-Booker for this explosive crime novel based on a real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley. James captures the rough and tumble terrors of Jamaica by utilizing the pidgin English of its people.

 

Solo—Wright Morris, a very fine writer now mostly forgotten, wrote a memoir of his time in Paris before World War II. He was young, hungry and alive, and this is one of the better books about the joys and risks of travel.

 

The Voyeurs—Graphic novel that is hilarious and self-lacerating, an American woman’s journey with her boyfriend to Paris. Similar to Peepshow.

 

An Imaginary Life—David Malouf’s novel of the ancient world follows Ovid and a feral child. Ovid has been banished to the edge of the empire by Augustus. There he tries to civilize a wild child. Short, lyrical, memorable.

 

Between the World and Me—Te-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son outlines the dangers his son faces in America. It’s a very fine book, more of an extended essay really, that is touching and angry. The sections about his own experiences with police are jaw-dropping.

 

“The Great God Pan”—Arthur Machen’s short story I’ve been meaning to read for almost a decade. Atmospheric and intriguing, yes, but written in the Victorian style that I have less and less patience for as I get older.

 

“The Killers”—Gots to read it as often as you can, Hemingway’s perfect short story about two hitmen waiting to murder a boxer, while Nick Adams is held hostage with a black cook and the owner. So good.

 

The Oxherding Tale—Making my way through Charles Johnson’s oeuvre, and this is a funny—laugh out loud funny—novel about a mixed-race slave child who is educated by a free-thinking weirdo intellectual. Part renunciation of Candide, part picaresque romp.

 

Memorial—poet Alice Oswald invigorates the dead from the Iliad in a haunting and majestic 80-page poem. An absolute stunner.

 

Bacchus, volume one—A phone book, and a rich, strange, diverting, digressive comic book that follows the aging god of wine through essays, history, and gang-land violence. Eddie Campbell is fun, but not easy. For fans of literature and comics, here you go.

 

The Farmer’s Daughter—Jim Harrison’s latest novellas, and there quite good. My favorite is The Games of Night, a werewolf story in typical Harrison fashion, as a metaphor for sex and fishing and hunting and meat-eating.

 

The Long Home—the great William Gay’s first novel, and it’s a great and ghastly southern gothic, with loads of humor thrown in. Gay is a master of funny, deep south dialogue.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

The Painted Bird—Jersy Kosinski’s World War II novel follows a lost child wandering through the Polish countryside. Kosinski paints one horrifying atrocity after another. One of the hardest, meanest, vilest novels I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read 120 Days of Sodom, The Story of the Eye, The Story of O, and My Dark Places.)

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 1.—Hickman’s beginning of the end. He uses cosmic dangers to turn the super-intelligent characters—Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Hulk, Tony Stark, and a handful of others—from heroes into world-destroying monsters. It’s a grim and in its way terrifying feat, but Hickman pulls it off.

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 2—The second installment, and it pits an aged Captain America against the Illuminati, the cabal of elite Marvel heroes who are destroying other realities to save the earth. Hickman is my kind of nerd: he uses Starbrand.

 

Uncanny Avengers: Avenge the Earth—Remender is a solid writer, but Acuna is a great artist. The storyline follows Thor’s failure, the destruction of the earth by one of the Celestials. The X-men are shunted away to an alternate timeline, where the children of Kang rule. But Kang has a trick up his sleeve, a way to save the old earth, by erasing everything that’s happened on their new planet. Convoluted, grim, but rewarding. (Not for new fans.)

 

The Getaway—One of the few Jim Thompson novels I haven’t read. It’s a crime caper gone wrong, with a quick double cross after a bank job and a surreal, violent journey into Mexico. Sam Peckinpah made a movie version that was pretty damn good.

 

Joe Sacco: Journalism—A collection of Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces. He’s an excellent journalist, and his work is a great argument for more comics journalism.

 

The Monster Show—David J. Skal’s history of horror movies (and to a lesser extent, horror fiction) shows time and again how atrocities in the real world impacted the presentation of horror tropes. I’ve come across most of it all before, but still a damn good book.

 

Area 51—comic reportage on the government testing site that is shrouded in mystery and, apparently, the air force likes it that way.

 

Winter’s Bone—Woodrell’s very fine crime novel follows a young woman looking for her missing meth-cook of a father, across a wintry Arkansas haunted by violence blood feuds and bloodshed. Great stuff.

 

Robert Altman: Jumping off a Cliff—For research, but worth reading. A careful study of Altman, his methods, his friends and collaborators, his victories and failures.

 

Junkets on a Sad Planet—Tom Clark’s biographical poems about the life of John Keats. I wanted to like it more than I did.

 

Palefire—diverting graphic novel about a young woman’s night at a party and her crush on an angry dude. Not bad, but . . .

 

Watermelon Wine—research, but excellent. Frye Gaillard wrote this in the 1970s, about the country music scene in Nashville, and how big money invaded the angry, hillbilly and mountain music.

 

Winners Got Scars, Too—I’ve owned this book for 15 years, was never sure what it was about, and never read it. Until now. It’s the story of Johnny Cash, zipping back and forth in time. Pretty damn good, if a bit straight-forward.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels: Bad News—I read the first of these a few years ago. It’s brilliant, funny, devastating, about young Patrick Melrose and his horrid, rich family. I was so upset by the first book I put it down. Now I’ve picked it back up. Acerbic doesn’t begin to describe the rancor and rage hiding beneath the cleverness and wit.

 

West of Everything—Brilliant examination of western films and novels by Jane Tompkins. Picked this up at random, and enjoyed every minute of it: personal, academic, historical, a spicy and pungent book.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

The Devil all the Time—Donald Ray Pollack’s first story collection, Knockemstiff, knocked me on my ass. This, his first novel, is similarly strong, grotesque, masculine. A very fine writer who shoves the reader into the gutter.

 

Patience—Daniel Clowes time travel fantasia is beautiful, cruel and fascinating. One of his better books, which is saying a lot. I can’t stop thinking about it.

 

The Trial—Mairowit’z graphic adaptation of Kafka’s best book. His notes are excellent, and informative.

 

Eat this document—Dana Spiotta’s subtle story of two ex-radicals living new lives after an act of terrorism twenty years prior. Spiotta is a strong writer, and does great work comparing the radicalism of the 1960s with the weird rebellion of the early 1990s.

 

Lovecraft Country—Matt Ruff riffs on America’s racism, pulp fiction from the 1930s, and the contemporary horror literature scene. Reminded me of Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine.

 

Animal Man, vols. 1-3—Grant Morrison’s self-reflective run on Animal Man remains not only one of his greatest comics, but also one of the best interrogations of morality, fate and responsibility in fiction. It’s getting better all the time.

 

Warning Shadows—Gary Giddins essays on film are chewy and delightful, intriguing and fun to read. I loved this book.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go—A southern noir, or Appalachian noir, that’s pretty good stuff. An eighteen year old man-boy works for his meth-kingpin father. Then it all goes to shit.

 

The Sellout—A dense, complex and funny as fuck novel about a black man in contemporary Los Angeles who ends up owning a slave. References galore, and a brisk pace that doesn’t hide the seething anger at all. Went on to win the Man-Booker.

 

Country: The Crazy roots of Rock n Roll—Nick Tosches being Nick Tosches. A rumination on and rooting around in early rockabilly and country music stars, stitched together with first-class research and Tosches demon-dog sensibility.

 

The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs—I’ve been on a kick lately, reading books on music and musicians. I enjoy Greil Marcus’s writing as much as anyone’s, even if I don’t always agree or even quite understand. He has a strange lyricism, a chewy way with words, that grips me. Here he roots around in the lesser known songs that often resulted in big hits.

 

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh—An astonishing biography of Tennessee Williams, one of the best I’ve ever read, sexy, erotic, heart-breaking. A must-read for everyone interested in theatre, fiction or wild lives on the periphery.
Killing Yourself To Live—wunderkind Chuck Klosterman’s personal journey visiting the sites where rock stars died, only it’s really an odyssey through his fuckups, relationships, tastes.

 

Beatlebone—Kevin Barry’s follow-up to his acclaimed City of Bohane follows John Lennon over a four-day crack up, as he tries to visit his own personal island. An astonishing marvel of a novel.

 

The People in the Trees—Hanya Yanihagarah’s first novel is a compelling, sinister experience. A Nobel-prize-winning anthropologist is accused of sexually molesting his adopted children. His defense—and the novel­—is his life story, layered with intimations of psychopathic impulses and a bizarre disaffection for fellow human beings. Excellent stuff.

 

The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend—the story behind the story, with the captive narratives of the 1830s and 1840s, on up to John Ford’s drunken misbehavior on the set. A good, solid book.

 

The Fifth Beatle—graphic biography on Brian Epstein, with beautiful art, if a bit sloppy storytelling.

 

In a Lonely Place—Dorothy Hughes’s absolutely smashing crime novel from the 1940s—and a damn good film from Nicholas Ray ten or so years later—follows Dixon Steele, a psychopath and murderer, as he meanders through Los Angeles in the post-war years. What makes it so good, besides the spare and clean writing, is Hughes places the reader’s sympathy with Steele, showing is repulsive, but identifiable, self-rationalization and self-pity.

 

A Manuel for Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin’s autobiographical stories are straight-forward, brilliantly written, heart-breaking and wonderful.

 

Paper Girls—Brian Vaughan’s newest science fiction comic, and it’s a fun ride. Papergirls, who delivery newspapers, run afoul of a war between time traveling factions in the suburbs of the 1980s. Great fun.

 

Showman—Had this book for a long time. Film critic and historian David Thomson covers the life and films of David Selznick, the brilliant, contradictory, self-sabotaging movie producer who made Rebecca and Gone with the Wind, among other films.

 

The Expendable Man—Dorothy Hughes’s mid-century crime masterpiece, a tour into the dark corridors of American justice, where a black man is accused of murdering a white woman.

 

Father of Lies—A very disturbing novel by Brian Evenson, his first, about a pastor in a church who is hurting his parishioners, but he doesn’t see it that way. Reminiscent of Jim Thomson, in a good way.

 

The Bad and the Beautiful—An interesting overview of 1950s movie culture, with the gossip rags as the narrative through-point for the book. Douglous Sirk, Charles Loughton, Burt Lancaster, Kim Novak—an intriguing book, if perhaps not quite the overview of the decade’s movies that it seems.

 

I Lost it at the Movies—Pauline Kael’s best book? Probably. A collection film reviews and essays, including her devastating, and hilarious, take-down of La Notte, La Dolce Vita, and Last Year at Marienbad.

 

The Dick Gibson Show—Stanley Elkin’s superb, and very strange, story of a man’s love affair with radio, and the pitch and timbre of people’s voices, including his own. Similar to Pynchon, although with more syntactic control.

 

The Great Movies III—Roger Ebert’s astonishing last collection of film essays, every bit as good as part II, and a very fine piece of writing. I loved it.

 

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies—Hard to describe, as it hasn’t dated well, but a precursor to most of the great American movie critics.

 

Post Office—Charles Bukowski’s first novel, a very funny, bitter exploration of a working man’s life, and how he hates his job. A great place to start with Bukowski.

 

Women—Bukowski’s pornographic novel about his relationships with different women, when he is in his fifties and beginning to build a reputation as a poet.

 

The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking—Olivia Laing’s excellent history cum travelogue of the hard drinking of a handful of great writers, including Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Unforgettable; Laing is a masterful storyteller in her own right.

 

The Paper Menagerie—Fantastical short stories from Ken Liu. Read most of them, and like a lot of fantasy writers nowadays, he is a controlled and talented stylist.
The Reivers—Faulkner’s last novel, a picaresque journey involving a stolen car and horse racing. Pretty good, pretty funny, a meandering little thing.

 

Intruders in the Dust—Two-thirds a good novel, one-third a didactic piece of butt. A black man is arrested for the murder of a white man, and a white teenager—who loathes the African American man because he once did the white boy a favor—who tries to prove his innocence.

 

Sanctuary—Faulkner’s gothic potboiler, one that he was embarrassed of and tried to rewrite. The result is odd; it feels trashy, but it’s written in an often dense and opaque style. Not sure what to make of it, really.

 

The Looming Tower—Should have read this years ago. Lawrence Wright’s epic reporting on the formation of terrorist groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and how these often educated men became involved in a foreign war in Afghanistan, and how their hatred of the Soviet Union turned toward the U.S.

 

The Hero’s Journey—Transcriptions of interviews with Joseph Campbell. His erudition, and his eccentric interpretations, are legendary, and rightly so.

 

“The Swimmer”—One of John Cheever’s most haunting short stories, which is saying a lot. A middle-aged man decides to swim home through the backyard pools of his neighbors. It sounds silly or droll or dumb, but it is none of these. It’s magnificent.

 

Storm of Steel—Picked it back up in October—it’s amazing. Junger’s memoir of being a German soldier in World War I might be the best book about that war I’ve read.

 

Barbarian Days—William Finnegan’s astonishing memoir of a life consumed by surfing. The writing is jaw dropping.

 

Mississippi, 1964—Dispatches on the civil rights movement from here and there. An interesting and diverting piece of writing, with some great anecdotes.

 

Innocents and Others—Dana Spiotta’s fractured novel about artists, filmmaking, success and purity is a very fine, very thoughtful piece of work. She’s always good.

 

The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner’s novel about art, artists, motorcycles, business and Italy is intriguing and worth reading.

 

<Trump won the electoral college around here; my reading life, along with every thing else, was disrupted; I read four or five books here but can’t quite remember what they were. I think I read two other Brian Evenson novels, but that might have been last year>

 

It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, not a good novel at all, but chilling, about an American dictatorial takeover by a tough-talking non-politician.

 

The Plot Against America—Philip Roth’s very fine counter-factual novel, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war, anti-Jewish platform. A very fine, very disturbing novel about how quickly American politics can go wrong.

 

The Death of Jim Loney—James Welch’s near-perfect slim novel about an American Indian’s last days. He is deranged by the past, and alienated by the present, meandering towards a bitter end. Excellent.

 

Dead Man’s Float—Jim Harrison’s last collection of poetry is beautiful and soothing, like swimming in a cool creek on a hot summer day. His same obsessions—horses, fishing, sex and food—are infused with an end of life acceptance of death and suffering.

Jerzy Kosinski and The Painted Bird.

30 Mar

(I’m not dead and I’m still writing. All the time. I just have a lot of irons in the fire. Anyway, still here. Have a new pre-strike entry coming and loads of movie/book stuff.)

Good title, great writing, horrifying novel.

Good title, great writing, horrifying novel.

In 42 points!

  1. I just finished Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. Yowzers.
  2. I’ve written on him before, on his award-winning Steps, one of the few works of fiction that I think could be categorized as evil. (My review is here.) It’s also a masterpiece of creep and menace, a one-of-a-kind collection of stories.
  3. The Painted Bird is his World War II novel. His Holocaust novel.
  4. And it is a catalog of atrocities. A road show of horror. An astonishing menagerie of depravity.
  5. Incest, rape, bestiality, mutilation. Check.
  6. The story is simple: a young child wanders the countryside of Poland during the war. He bounces back and forth between various villages. He is . . . ill-used by each and every one.
  7. Put another way: peasants spend the entire novel abusing, tormenting and torturing him.
  8. One widower hangs him from ceiling straps above a hungry dog. A farmer whips him twice a day for no particular reason. A group of children try to drown him in ice. A mob tosses him into a pit of excrement. And more and more and more.
  9. For most of the novel, the boy is under ten years old.
  10. Kosinski is breaking one of the unspoken rules of fiction, inflicting harm on a child. Most writers will only dip into this pool, but then pull back, or have the harm happen off-page, or have some type of comeuppance for the perpetrators.
  11. Um, not here.
  12. The boy also encounters strange peasant beliefs, backcountry anti-Semitism, and scorched earth poverty.
  13. (Some of the scenes reminded me of Bela Tarr’s last movie, The Turin Horse. A kind of end of the earth desperation.)
  14. The running commentary on peasant superstitions got him in trouble. For he isn’t just describing them, but rather arguing that the horrors of World War II were at least in part caused by the irrational beliefs, and tremendous suffering, of the countryside peasants. Superstition equals murder.
  15. How do I read this? How am I supposed to take this?
  16. The boy witnesses astonishing acts of cruelty to animals. The book is first and foremost an index of maimed and mutilated animals.
  17. Here’s a scene, where the boy is tasked with killing a rabbit before skinning it:

 

First I cut the skin on the legs, carefully separating the tissue from the muscle, anxiously avoiding any damage to the hide. After each cut I pulled the skin down, until I got to the neck. That was a difficult spot, for the blow behind the ears had caused so much bleeding it made it hard to distinguish between the skin and the muscle. . . .

I starting detaching the skin with added care, pulling it slowly toward the head, when suddenly a tremor ran through the hanging body. Cold sweat covered me. I waited a moment, but the body remained still. I was reassured and, thinking it an illusion, resumed my task. Then the body twitched again. The rabbit must have been only stunned.

I ran for the club to kill her, but a horrible shriek stopped me. The partially skinned carcass started to jump and squirm on the post where it was suspended. Bewildered and not knowing what I was doing, I released the struggling rabbit. She fell down and started running immediately, now forward, now backward. With her skin hanging down behind her she rolled on the ground uttering and unending squeal. Sawdust, leaves, dirt, dung clung to the bare, bloody flesh. . . .

Her piercing squeals caused pandemonium in the yard. The terrified rabbits went mad in their hutches, the excited females trampled their young, the males fought one another, squealing, hitting their rumps on the walls. . . .

The rabbit, now completely read, was still running.

  1. I’ll stop there. The passage only gets worse, ending with the young narrator stomped so hard he is bedridden for weeks.
  2. It’s strong writing. Muscular, vivid and evocative. And it’s a precursor to a Kalmuk raid on a peasant village full of slaughter and rape, equaled in ferocity only by Blood Meridian. I won’t quote from either here.
  3. I love Blood Meridian. Through it’s astonishing prose and mythic underpinnings, it somehow leaves me warm and inspired. (It also has a thesis, that war is god, and so the poetic and lyrical descriptions of bloodshed seem fitting.) McCarthy carries weird religious convictions, and is the direct inheritor of Melville. McCarthy cares about the horrors he’s cataloging somehow. Life matters to him.
  4. Kosinski leaves me cold and terrified. And also a bit disgusted. There’s something slick and sinister and overly sexualized to his work. He doesn’t seem to give a shit about anyone.
  5. My god, there’s a disgusting rape scene in every one of his novels I’ve read, but here there must be a rape every five pages. Kosinski was, by all accounts, quite the kinkster in his own life, although I’ve only stumbled across innuendoes.
  6. I’ve said it elsewhere, but every time I read one of his novels I have a startling feeling that he raped someone in real life.
  7. An unpleasant sensation.
  8. Kosinski carries no religious belief, weird or otherwise. And in its absence, without some type of spiritual or moral balance to the peasant superstitions and the repugnant violence, the novel feels like a shopping list of perversity.
  9. Why am I reading this?
  10. (I read the bulk of it in the emergency room of a suburban hospital, on Easter morning. How’s that for a sequence of non-sequiturs? I wondered, while reading it, if I were the only person on earth in this exact situation? And, why am I reading this?)
  11. Kosinksi alluded that the novel was, in essence, a true story. That he was the little boy.
  12. Which makes the novel that much more powerful, a survivor’s tale. Truth casts the atrocities as documented; writing about them gives the author some power over the experiences, and helps expiate guilt.
  13. Only, well, it probably isn’t true.
  14. Which makes the litany of dismemberment much, much harder to understand. As well as the chilly, amoral point of view.
  15. The Painted Bird has the most heinous murder scene I have ever read on page 55—I won’t write it out here), and I’ve read DeSade, Bataille and the gamut of horror fiction. The gamut.
  16. I shudder.
  17. A few more things.
  18. Kosinski isn’t a minor writer. He was a full-blown celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show. He was also a judge for a variety of writing contests, and the president of P.E.N. He won dozens of awards. He was feted. He was praised.
  19. Kosinski was close friends with Roman Polanski. By all accounts, he was supposed to attend the get-together at Polanski’s house the night the Manson family attacked. This strikes me as so fucking strange, and in a way I can’t explain, helps me understand his novels, even the ones he wrote before the murder of Sharon Tate.
  20. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it makes sense to me. Charles Manson is everywhere.
  21. Kosinski was critiqued for much of his later writing life. He was accused of all manner of malfeasance, including plagiarism, and paying unknown authors to write books under his name.
  22. Paul Auster, in one of his biographies, either alludes to this or outright claims it. (The book he says he wrote some of is Pinball.)
  23. Kosinski eventually killed himself. Here’s his suicide note: “I am going to put myself to sleep a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”
  24. How long did he consider those words? Is that supposed to be . . . funny? It isn’t.
  25. I won’t recommend The Painted Bird, but you will never forget it. You just can’t un-read it, either.
  26. The consistent vision of his books is one of moral decrepitude and fathomless evil. Self-analysis?

 

NBAW, number 40: 2015’s non-winner, A Little Life.

9 Feb

1.

In 2015, Hanya Yanigara did not win the National Book Award for her astonishing novel of childhood trauma, A Little Life. And although it doesn’t exactly fit with this series to focus on the non-winners, but I’ve been so enraptured and consumed by this horrifying novel that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Two weeks ago, my wife read A Little Life. She cried, gasped and even sobbed while she read it in a mad spree of near-constant reading. I picked it up the day she left off. And I feel headlong into the same compulsive experience.

A quick synopsis:

There are four college roommates—Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB—who all go on to immense success in a variety of fields. But as the year’s pass, Jude’s childhood traumas, and his inability to talk about them or deal with them in any meaningful way, continue to bubble up to the surface. The friendships are handled with delicacy and care, and the various characters, except perhaps Malcolm, are finely drawn. The novel follows them for close to 50 years of their lives.

Time passes, everyone is rich and successful, New York is amazing, and the actual struggles most people have—the stuff of real life, no matter how big or little—are mostly elided. But it doesn’t matter, and might even be part of what Yanigara is up to, as Jude’s self-loathing and self-disgust are the twin engines of much of the novel. The novel is about Jude’s suffering, and how his traumas impact the decent and caring people around him.

Yanigara’s latched on to something profound. Maybe. The story is propulsive, but in a tormented and disgusting parade of suffering, pain, suffering, pain, self-loathing, disgust, suffering, pain, all punctuated by moments of human warmth and decency. She writes in the Stephen King style, fun to read and sliding back and forth through time, when convenient for the author. This isn’t a criticism, but rather something interesting in a novel so ballyhooed. (She was, after all, short-listed for both the Man-Booker and a finalist for the National Book Award.)

She writes well. She’s a natural storyteller, creating strong scenes. And if she lacks the zip and pow of the fiction I enjoy reading, the dissonant dialogue, or the jangly electric shock of a character’s sudden shift in attitude or behavior (I just finished Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering, which is all of these things and more), she’s still a very fine writer. A sense of inevitable doom hangs over everything, and she does little to cut against it. There is little humor, and some of the subplots go nowhere.

So, I continued to read it out of a disturbing desire to see what fucked up thing the author was going to subject Jude to next. Base prurience. And this would be brilliant, if she were forcing me to interrogate this desire to see a fictional character suffer. (Go see Funny Games, if you want to know what I mean.) But there is no meta-fictional satire or challenge to the reader. It’s basic presentation, layered onto social situations where Jude, as an adult, is reliving over and over the traumas of his childhood. It works, only there’s so much dread and suffering, it begins to lose its power. By the time she cuts loose with her inner DeSade, ecstatically delineating the rape and mutilation of Jude as a child, it feels obscene. And not in a good way. Great art is as much about what isn’t on the page, and here, by her uncompromising and unflinching encyclopedic exploration of Jude’s various disasters, it loses its power and its shock. It’s almost funny—if you see excess on the page as a kind of over-the-top carny show, especially when gussied up with literary window dressing—how much horror she heaps on her main character. The near-relentless degradation of Jude reads like parts of Oldboy, or some sado-masochistic paperback pulp novel from the 1950s.

Unforgettable and haunting.

Unforgettable and haunting.

But she writes the scenes of abuse with such precision, it’s difficult to dismiss. Here he’s discovered by a character who narrates a few sections in the first person:

“He turned toward me then, and his face was an animal skinned and turned inside out and left in the heat, its organs melting together in a puddle of flesh: all I could see of his eyes were their long line of lashes, a smudge of black against his cheeks, which were a horrible blue, the blue of decay, of mold.”

Or here, later:

“At lunchtime he changes the bandage he had applied the night before, and as he eases it off, his skin tears as well, and he stuffs his pocket square into his mouth so he won’t scream out loud. But things are falling out of his arm, clots with the consistency of blood but the color of coal, and he sits on the floor of his bathroom, rocking himself back and forth, his stomach heaving forth old foods and acids, his arm heaving forth its own disease, its own excretia.”

There’s always more, more, more. More suffering. More degradation. More damage. All rendered in a direct, descriptive and compelling style.

 

2.

And she pulls it off, up to a point. In fact, up to a point, A Little Life is one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time. But Yanagihara lost me with this sentence, right here: “At the home, they knew what he was, they knew what he had done, they knew he was ruined already, and so he wasn’t surprised when some of the counselors began doing to him what people had been doing to him for years.”

Let me unpack it for you: Jude has been beaten, raped, assaulted, debased, degraded his entire life. And then, after he’s been saved from a pimp, the counselors and therapists who are assigned to help him, they decide, oh, well, let’s just rape him some more. It isn’t just highly implausible—that this particular boy has the worst luck in the history of the world—it becomes nigh impossible, the endless succession of sexual predators who work in the field of childcare and mental health. And without plausibility, a novel about the effects of trauma falls apart.

This passage cut into the verisimilitude of Yanagihara’s novel, and turns any metaphor into mush. It isn’t enough for Jude to be betrayed, beaten, savaged and raped; he has to be subjected to these things by everyone. That isn’t the way the world works, and it isn’t the way her novel works, either; she’s breaking the very rules she’s created in the first 400+ pages. Two, and this is a stranger critique, I don’t think a writer should pummel his/her characters with endless horror for no particular reason. There is still some type of moral structure, I believe, in fictional worlds. Most writers, when pressed, agree on this. Roberto Bolaño, for example, had this great realization that he would never kill another child in a story or novel again, not after having his own children. He found the idea indecent. And Bolaño was, anyone can attest, not a prude.

Then there’s the sexuality. The horror of it. Yanagihara captures Jude’s disgust, with himself and with all sexual acts, well. But she seems unsure of her own writing prowess, returning to it over and over. As if to re-iterate and reinforce the psychological bedrock of her novel. It grows tedious. And inelegant. And long.

Here’s a line that threw me, too: “. . . he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had.” Um, what? Is there some immense colony of bi-sexual men hiding in plain sight? Yanagihara has already established the sexuality of her characters. Five hundred pages in, all of a sudden? It isn’t just a strange writing choice; it harms the novel’s central relationship. This surfeit of shifting bi-sexuality distracts from the love and affection many of the characters share with each other. As if Yanigahara lives in a world where sexual preferences are obsolete and a thing of the past. A place where people can just jump into bed with lifelong friends.

It’s excess of a different type. And excess in fiction is its own worst enemy. Any act becomes tedious when repeated, ad nauseum, in print. Restraint is needed.

Every novel over 300 pages has problems of one kind or another; it’s inherent in the epic form. Yanagihara hints at an answer of her over-the-top trauma, pointing to Jude’s damaged psyche—so hollowed out and ruined—that the narrative itself has taken on skewered and nightmarish dimensions. (But, honestly, I’m being generous.)

 

3.

And just as I was ready to toss the book aside, with only 75 pages to go, she reigns it back in, switching the tone to somber meditation, ruminating on the feeling of loss and the passing of life. The epic sweep of the book is re-installed; the other characters offer glimpses of their own trials and tribulations. The horror of the flashbacks solidifies. The demons in Jude’s life don’t diminish, but gain power with time. She pulls it all back together, reigns in the squalor, and

The book is moving, heart-rending, one of the saddest literary journeys I’ve been on. The writing is strong—it’s hard to write about it without misrepresenting either its power or how much you care about the characters, and even my criticisms above seem bitchy when thinking about the novel as a whole—but I kept feeling like I was being punished for caring about the characters. Which is a very strange feeling indeed. The ultimate theme of the book seems to be, you can’t escape your past; life is (mostly) suffering. But this feels like a copout, and too philosophically tidy, when extended over 750 pages. Everyone who reads the book says the same thing: it’s punishing, powerful, I wish I hadn’t read it. The last 60 pages, in particular, captures the feelings of loss and melancholy as well as any novel I’ve read. It’s a shattering. The closest thing I can think of is Michel Houellbecq’s The Elementary Particles, or Richard Flanagan’s The Long Road To the Narrow North, or perhaps Bela Tarr’s film, The Turin Horse. But Houellbecq’s novel is short (if not probably grimmer and harder to get through), and Flanagan’s novel has dozens of characters and shifting points of view.

Anyway, here, near the end, are two passages that broke me up:

“His life is a series of dreary patterns.” (Does it matter which character she’s describing?)

And,  “ . . . it feels as if his heart is made of something oozing and cold, like ground meat, and it is being squeezed inside a fist so that chunks of it are falling, plopping to the ground near his feet.” Who hasn’t felt this way? I can’t remember the last novel I read that exactly evoked the precise mood I had experienced. (But here’s a weird one, Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion, where a character feels he is about to be captured and killed, and turns to the character next to him and says, “Tell me the most beautiful thing you know about God.”)

So many novels feels closer to gnomic puzzles, or ironic experiments in narcissism, or cutesy semantic labyrinths. The trend in serious novels is to cut against the novel’s themes through a variety of signposts of authorial inaccuracy or narrative deconstruction. A little voice saying, “You’re reading a novel, you know.”

Yanagihara rejects this trend, staking the entire apparatus of her novel on the emotional resonances of the characters. It’s a risky move, and mostly pays off.

But my recommendation comes with a warning, straight from my wife, who got me to read it in the first place: “I can’t really recommend it to anyone. Not in good conscience.”

 

Eugene O’Neill, in 41 points.

28 Jan

(Reading and writing and reading and writing and not doing enough for the blog. But I’m pushing ahead on other things and I’m submitting as much as possible. Here’s a quickie on Eugene O’Neill. Why not? He’s only been dead for 60 plus years. You can always rely on me to be timely.)

 

  1. Eugene O’Neill. One of my heroes.
  2. Hero isn’t the right word here. One of my favorite writers?
  3. That isn’t quite right, either. Somewhere between hero and writer. Anyway.
  4. His life, Jesus.
  5. Born in a hotel. Alcoholic father. Alcoholic brother. Drug-addicted mother.
  6. His father was a struggling actor who died from intestinal cancer in 1920. His father’s last words: “Life is . . . rotten.”
  7. His mother died less than two years later from a stroke, and his brother, Jamie, had to travel with the body, on a train, across the U.S. Jamie drank and drank during the five-day journey, and he was eventually robbed by a prostitute.
  8. (O’Neill wrote a play about this, his last:A Moon for the Misbegotten.)
  9. Jamie didn’t last much longer. In 1923, after a life of whoring and boozing, the life of a vagabond and rake, Jamie drank himself to death.
  10. His entire family eradicated. In just three years.
  11. Think on that, when you’re having a rough week.
  12. The grim parade isn’t over. His oldest son, Eugene, 27 years later, drank a bottle of whiskey, sliced open his veins in a drunken stupor and then wandered around the house, bleeding to death. His suicide note: “Never let it be said of O’Neill that he failed to empty a bottle.”
  13. His younger son, Shane, after 58 years of abject failure, jumped out of a window.
  14. And his daughter, Oona, married Charles Chaplin when she was just eighteen (he was 54), and O’Neill disowned her. They didn’t speak again.
  15. (So, not one of my heroes then.)
  16. O’Neill spent just a few weeks each writing his early plays, includingThe Hairy Apeand The Great God Brown.
  17. His early work: American settings, Greek themes. Infanticide, patricide, matricide, murder, revenge, fate, suffering.
  18. His early work: patches of brilliance with moments of leaden dialogue.
  19. His early work: rich, complex roles for black actors! O’Neill helped start the career of Paul Robeson.
  20. O’Neill loved drinking, and knocked around the bowery and basement bars of the lower east side. He cavorted with hustlers, card sharks, drunks, hoboes, shitbirds and losers. Even after he had children, he would disappear on benders for weeks at a time.
  21. When he drank, he raged, punching out his wives and smashing furniture, threatening his friends and shrieking at the moon.
  22. He suffered from an undiagnosed degenerative condition that caused his hands to shake. He thought it was DTs, and combated the shakes with more drink. His first drink in the morning required a couple of towels to keep him from spilling whiskey all over his shirt. He went through this routine every morning. Imagine.
  23. He and his brother, Jamie—before he died—would embark on epic drinking bouts, one time spendingone entire weekin a hotel room, guzzling liquors, arguing, talking about when they were going to leave. There’s a play in there, somewhere.
  24. He was friends with Hart Crane, another boozer extraordinaire. Imagine their nights out together. (Malcolm Cowley often accompanied them.) There’s a great play in there, somewhere, too.
  25. Those early plays. Many of them aren’t produced anymore. Many of them are forgotten. Who performs “Marco Millions” anymore? Who remembers “The Dreamy Kid”?
  26. After a horrifying bender in Singapore, where he almost lost his fiancé, O’Neill got on the wagon and stopped drinking. He stayed sober.
  27. Sobriety suited him. It is his late work, undertaken after close to 20 years of non-drinking, that regale. He spent years on a cycle of plays on a fictional family. Near the end, he destroyed almost all of them.
  28. Now that’s gangster. Or insane. Or something.
  29. He wrote “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night”at the same time. Two of the greatest plays ever written.
  30. “Iceman” follows a group of bottomed out rummies in a dive bar, the kind of characters he caroused with in his youth: losers, hustlers, gamblers, addicts. The play begins with drunks scattered about a bar, slowly regaining consciousness and beginning the hard drinking once again. They’re waiting for their friend and life of the party, Hickey. The language is ribald, furious, poetic, self-lacerating, repetitive, and explosive, mimicking the cadences of the down and out drunk. The characters are self-loathing, self-sabotaging hypocrites, each hauling around—and finding meaning in—delusions and excuses. Their delusions are what keep them going.
  31. There’s nothing like it. It’s a goddamn four-hour miracle.
  32. Hickey appears and begins puncturing the delusions, berating and destroying his former friends. Why he does this is part of the play’s magic. But the last third is a punishing odyssey, a series of bleak epiphanies, grimness and the void. It remains one of the most powerful plays I’ve ever seen. (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen movie versions.)
  33. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is the better play, O’Neill’s autobiography. The dad is a retired actor and boozer; the brother is a weak-willed rummy (named Jamie) with terminal tuberculosis; the other brother, Edmund, is a booze-addled rake; and the mother, Mary, is a drug fiend, sneaking off throughout the play for her fix. The play is set in a single day, where the family’s ghosts, demons, failures, recriminations and regrets douse each character in a torrential flood. As the day turns to night, the outbursts grow more and more violent, and the tension increases.
  34. It’s an astonishing work, personal, mythic, poetic, dirty, timeless and heart-breaking. O’Neill didn’t want it published or performed until25 years!after his death, and made accommodations to that effect. (His wife interceded.)
  35. About the wife, Carlotta, the same fiancé he almost lost in Singapore. She saved O’Neill from his drinking, that’s indisputable. But they both eventually became addicted to sleeping pills and painkillers, and their relationship suffered, turned vicious and sour. One time he fell outside in the snow, breaking his leg. She mocked him from the front door and left him there to die. (He was saved by a random passerby.)
  36. Of course, during the boozy years, he slapped her at least once in front of a large party of people, and punched her at another. There’s that hero thing again.
  37. Here’s O’Neill on the characters in “Long Day’s Journey”: “At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.”
  38. Doomed never to be able to forget. The perfect mantra for the doomed man.
  39. O’Neill’s life the stuff of enormous tragedy: spiraling addictions, abuse, suicide, disease and death. And a discernible pattern, a kind of dramatist’s flair for plot, irony and just desserts.
  40. His final days were spent in a hotel room. He knew he was dying. His last words: “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a goddamn hotel and dying in a hotel room!”
  41. A dramatist ’til the end.

Thomas Ligotti, Grimscribe, and Songs.

15 Jan

Yep, Ligotti got me.

  1. Thomas Liggoti, ye gods.
  2. After True Detective, I reviewed/interacted with his Conspiracy against the Human Race a few years ago. Despite my rejection of its philosophy, it stuck with me. It isn’t a book you can easily forget.
  3. Short summary: human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake, responsible for all our suffering. Humans should, as a species, stop procreating and die out. This will end our turmoil.
  4. I totally reject this notion. (And I’m not making this up.)
  5. I finally read his first two story collections, Grimscribe and Songs of a Dead Dreamer.
  6. Ligotti, take a bow.
  7. His stories are deeply, jarringly unsettled. Burrowing maggoty narratives that rattle your dreams.
  8. Ligotti is, like Lovecraft, using the parameters and tropes of horror fiction to convey his profound pessimism about the human condition. He believes in nothing, Lebowski, only he really means it.
  9. See Conspiracy.
  10. He’s a better writer than Lovecraft, who often slides into a florid clutching style. Lovecraft was writing in the burgeoning pulp tradition, so his stories often are, well, good as stories. Put another way, Lovecraft, as often as not, keeps his audience in mind.
  11. Ligotti does not.
  12. Ligotti’s talents are in service to a vast negation, which adds to the disturbing feelings.
  13. Put another way: reading Ligotti hurts.
  14. My favorite stories were “The Frolic,” “The Last Feast of the Harlequin,” and “Nethescurial.”
  15. “The Frolic” is a conversation between a jaded psychologist and his wife. The psychologist decides to share the kind of day he’s been having. Their daughter is asleep upstairs. The wife is getting nervous. The husband is getting drunk. It’s terrifying.
  16. “The Last Feast of the Harlequin” follows an academic studying clowns. He discovers a peculiar festival in some bumpkin town and decides to investigate. It’s . . . intense.
  17. “Nethescurial” is the memoir of a man who has gone insane, and why. He’s succumbed to madness due to a tale of a land called Nethescurial, a manuscript he’s stumbled upon; by story’s end he’s not insane at all, everyone else is.
  18. Ligotti utilizes the trappings of horror—shadowy estates, zombies, the unnameable, even vampires—but in his hands they feel fresh, somehow.
  19. He has a fondness for arcane words: lucubration, carnifex, habiliments, tatterdemalion.
  20. Like Nick Cave. (And if you haven’t read And the Ass Saw the Angel, get thee to a bookstore.)
  21. Or William Faulkner.
  22. Reading Ligotti’s early work is fascinating, as he begins directly in Lovecraft’s shadow, clearly imitating him, and then surpasses him in the cosmic reach of his terror. He improves, drastically, in his horror thinking.
  23. Here’s an example. One of the stories involves a narrator discovering that the world and everything in it—objects and all living things—is actually made of a single, black slime. It is the collective delusions of humanity that keep the semblance of order, the demarcations. But every once in a while, our delusions crack, and everything begins to melt. We forget these periods as they are too horrible to remember, and thus the cycle repeats itself.
  24. Pretty bleak stuff. Everything always melting. The only thing in existence a black ooze.
  25. Re-occurring images: puppets, faceless people, dwarves, alienating landscapes, sickly green illumination.
  26. And always, always, always, the spiral of sinister alien stars.
  27. Ligotti moves from fear to disgust, from disgust into existential terror. It’s quite a trick. His characters don’t drink, smoke, eat, copulate. He has a clear disregard to physical pleasures.
  28. Like Jonathan Swift.
  29. His characters also have little to distinguish them. They don’t draw the horror on themselves through chutzpah or ambition; they instead trip over the true terror of the world.
  30. Ligotti is a bit funnier than I expected, but the jokes are few and far between. Just saying.
  31. I happened to read Richard Bausch’s Spirits at the same time. Bausch is a very fine writer, with the fine-tuned feel of a workshop behind him. But he’s writing horror, too; “Police Dreams” and “All the Way to Flagstaff” are both ghost stories, of how rage and terror are passed down from the parents to the children through misunderstanding and fear. Absolutely terrifying.
  32. Ligotti and Bausch, who knew?
  33. Grimscribe is Poe + Lovecraft + Borges. It’s more sophisticated, more intellectual and less fun.
  34. Poe’s bleak assessment of human nature; Lovecraft’s belief in human insignificance; Borges’s notion of stories and texts as self-replicating traps.
  35. Ligotti evokes Borges especially in the later stories. Books are passageways. There are labyrinths, authors collapsing into their fictions. But Borges has a strong sense of intellectual play, even joy. Ligotti proffers only blackness and abnegation.
  36. Ligotti pays homage to Borges in strange ways. There’s little plot or action. But rather dark epiphanies usually stumbled upon. Then, intimation and grim absolutes.
  37. Borges is quite the horrorist himself, although his scares are intellectual. People are always saying how funny he is. Go back and read Tlon. It’s about the destruction of the real world through the invention of a fake one.
  38. Meanwhile, Ligotti negates. Utterly.
  39. I need to be clear about this, as Ligotti has made it clear in the few interviews he’s given. He wants you to be wrecked and wretched after reading his stuff.
  40. Wrecked. And wretched.
  41. He (mostly) succeeds.
  42. I enjoyed his more straight-forward horror. I merely admired the blank rigor of his Borgesian fictions.
  43. I kept thinking, here’s this singular intelligence, driven to write these obscene stories. Why?
  44. Ideas have power. Ligotti seems to have read Schopenhauer and Cioran—he claims to be a disciple of sorts—at the wrong time. If he had stumbled onto Spinoza instead? Or Kierkegaard?

My reading year, 2015.

1 Jan

(I had another good reading year, but don’t be overwhelmed by this list. There’s a lot of graphic novels. I was drawn to literary biographies this year, and read a number of books for research purposes. The best books of the year, for me, were probably The Orphanmaster’s Son, My Brilliant Friend, My Friend Dahmer and Station Eleven. This is almost a complete record of my reading year; I also read a handful of monthly comics; movie reviews and the book sections in The New Yorker and the New York Times; The Chicago Reader every week; and an ever-dwindling set of blogs and websites. Of all of these, the best thing I read this year was Jill Lepore’s epilogue to Joe Gould’s Secret, where she attempts to track down the oral history of Joe Gould—the great Joseph Mitchell’s last biographical subject—and instead falls into a series of interlocking, and sinister, mysteries, missteps, and mis-directions. Astonishing.)

 

Fante—Dan Fante’s memoir of his father, the great writer (whose self-loathing failure is essential to his novels) John Fante, is really a memoir about Dan’s alcoholism, recklessness and years of hard living. A good book, but offers way too little about the elder Fante.

The United States of Paranoia—Jesse Walter’s overview of American paranoiac conspiracies attempts to classify and categorize the major strands of conspiratorial belief. He makes his arguments well; when you finish, you’ll believe that the notion of conspiracies is not unique to the lunatic fringe, but rather marbled into the very center of our body politic. Lots of good anecdotes, too.

The Good Soldiers—David Finkel’s story of the Surge—of the soldiers deployed in Iraq, who fought, killed, and died for a war that none of them really understood (who does?)—is an astonishing feat of reporting, writing and empathy. Heart-breaking, thrilling, harrowing.

Beware of Pity—Stefan Zweig’s only novel, a psychological study of moral weakness and how it is pity, the attempt at decency, at generosity, at charity, that causes much of the pain and hardship in human lives.

Stones for Ibarra—Harriet Doer’s first novel, published when she was in her seventies, about two Americans attempting to run a mine in Mexico. Elegant and subtle, well-crafted.

Dreams from R’Lyeh—Lin Carter’s cycle of sonnets, based on a character in the Lovecraftian mythos. Slight and short, but a bit better than it sounds. Fun? Yes, fun.

Westerns—Richard Dankleff’s collection of poems all fit in the theme of revisionist westerns. I thought his was going to be great, but it wasn’t. And it began my shift away from browsing the poetry section of the library.

The Grand Design—John Dos Passos’s third Washington novel, and perhaps the one that gets him most in trouble. He has dozens of characters in the backdrop of the waning New Deal and the beginning of militarization before the U.S. entry into World War II, and his handling of leftists is troubling. Still, there are some dynamite scenes.

The Republic of the Imagination—A personal history of Nafisi, a very fine reader, and her journey to America. She reads America through three books, Babbitt, Huckleberry Finn, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with Go Tell It On the Mountain as an epigraph. Elegant and excellent, literary criticism as memoir as cultural critique.

Plainsong—Morris Wright’s lyrical study of Nebraska farm women and the hard lives they lead. A very fine novel, if a bit undramatic, considering the subject matter. And what are feel-good stories for? The effects don’t last. The euphoria is false. Only drudgery remains. Hard-bitten stories give us reasons to value our own, often shitty, lives.

Mad as Hell—My second Paddy Chayevsky biography in two years, and a very fine piece of inside the media reportage. Chayevsky was such a powerful, talented, self-sabotaging writer, it’s a blast to read about him.

The True History of the End of the World—Short essays about different belief systems and their view of the apocalypse. Diverting but only just.

Hellblazer—Garth Ennis’s run on the quintessential British comic was excellent, focusing on his shiftless drinking and haunted enduring, despite a myriad of magical foes after him.

Invisibles, vols. 1 and 2—Best comic book series of the 90s. I try to re-read it every few years. It holds up.

The Alienist—Nope, couldn’t do it. I made it about forty pages into this well-reviewed historical thriller, but it left me cold.

Armageddon in Retrospect—A collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s shorter pieces, as well as a speech, a letter, all revolving around his anti-war beliefs, and the experiences that shaped them. Dynamite.

Songs of Unreason—Jim Harrison’s astonishing book of poetry, detailing in ravishing language the same obsessions that drive his fiction: sex, booze, good food, horses, rivers, aging.

The Whites—Richard Price delivers a crime novel stripped of the larger social and cultural malaise that characterizes so much of Lush Life and Samaritan, instead giving us a straight-up piece of all-pistons genre writing. He’s better than this, but it’s still riveting stuff, following a group of cops, each of whom has a “white,” a murderer that got away, and an unseen presence that seems to be stalking them.

Where the Dead Voices Gather—Nick Tosches pursues a minstrel singer born in 1873, ruminating in his inimitable style on race, music, culture, sex, and, well, black-face minstrelsy. I liked it but didn’t love it. The Tosches’ train passed me by.

Cast a Cold Eye—Mary McCarthy’s urbane stories of men and women and the spaces in-between. She’s a fine writer.

Thousands of Broadways—Robert Pinsky’s poetic rumination on small towns across various media, and a seriously undercooked piece of writing in book-length form.

White Girls—Hilton Als’s critique of tortured souls vacillating on the razor’s edge of American culture—Richard Pryor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Flannery O’Connor—is a very fine piece of writing and criticism, if a bit messy near the end. Got a ton of press, this book.

The Hannah Arendt Reader—Research, but a very fine book. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem remains an astonishing and powerful (and acerbic, good God) piece of writing.

I, Noah—Aronofksy’s screenplay turned into a comic and the artwork is beautiful. The story sounds cheesy, but somehow works, re-casting Noah as an oddball mage in a world gone mad. And there’s three-armed giants.

Marx—Corinne Maier’s witty biography of Marx filters through superb line dawings from Anne Simone; I loved this book.

The Gnostics—A work of scholarship that turns weird and prosletyzing, but it has some very fine middle sections about the early Christian church and the heretical strands of Gnostic thought.

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology—Joseph Campbell’s idiosyncratic tour of various primitive mythological isomorphs, written in his intriguing style.

A Short History of Myth—A must-read, Karen Armstrong’s overview of the first belief systems. Wonderful reading.

World’s Fair—E.L. Doctorow’s coming of age novel is professional, well written, but a bit safe.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces—The book that made Joseph Campbell, and a great primer in the hidden architecture of stories. Campbell is an idiosyncratic writer, bouncing from one culture to another.

The River Swimmer—Two novellas from Jim Harrison, a middle-aged artist returns to Michigan to watch his ailing mother, and a teenager addicted to swimming in rivers finds water babies. Not Harrison’s best, but still rich, lush, funny, insightful.

The Golden Ass—Apuleius was an ancient Roman writer and this book, a kind of proto-novel, is the only book to survive in its entirety. Funny and a bit strange, with diffident pacing.

Sugar Skulls—The final installment to Charles Burns’s superb, and supremely creepy, story of a fucked up loser wandering in a nightmarish dreamscape of blood and other human effluvia. Ties up loose ends and will blister your eyeballs. Unexpectedly, it’s also a touching story.

Brother Lono—The creative team behind the overrated 100 Bullets returns to tell the story of the single Minuteman who escapes. And it is ghastly indeed. Feuding Mexican overlords, Catholicism, extreme violence. Azarello and Risso are not great writers or storytellers, but with their heads in the gutter they know how to keep the reader’s attention.

Victory over Japan—Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories, and they are absolute dynamite. Her characters feel both lived in and real, as well as wild and absurd. Her storytelling abilities are immense.

Counter-narratives—John Keen’s short stories come wrapped in blurbs galore, but they left me flat. They felt calculated, almost cutesy with their conceits. And

Invisibles, vol. 3—The end of the Invisibles, the wildest and most moving of the series.

A Fan’s Notes—Exley’s smashing autobiographical novel about a hard-drinking loser obsessed with football. One of the best of its kind.

The Timeless Myths—Not a book at all, but more a series of clever, well-written essays, mostly on artists and how they relate to the mythosphere.

Myths To Live By—Joseph Campbell’s lectures, wise, knowing, intriguing, and perhaps the best place to enter the eccentric world of Campbell’s comparative religion.

Great Book of Horrible Things—A very fine overview of historical atrocities by a statistician.

Coronado—Short stories from crime writer Dennis Lehane. They’re fine, but they two-act play at the end of the book is terrific. (I picked this up after watching The Drop, a very fine crime film he scripted.)

A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell—An epic, detailed biography of Joseph Campbell, well-researched but even-handed and a bit worshipful.

Soil—Killer southern novel a la William Gay, about a cracked up farmer attempting to turn a discovered dead body into soil. Why would he do this? Go and read it.

Signs Preceding the End of the World—Yuri Herrera, called Mexico’s greatest young novelist, writes a lean, idiosyncratic border crossing novel. Good but not great.

My Friend, Dahmer—A marvelous, unnerving gem of a comic, equal parts sad and chilling, of a man remembering his odd friendship with a bizarre loner at his school. One of my favorite books I read this year.

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities—John Ellis provides a sharp, incisive critique of the New Criticism, while embracing the grand tradition of Renaissance secular humanism. Hard-nosed criticism.

Hip Hop Family Tree, vol. 2—Ed Piskor continues his comic book history of early hip hop, and it is a wild ride. His thesis is simple: hip hop started in the Bronx, loosely affiliated with street gangs, and then grew out of these initial relationships in an observable manner. Great fun, with great art.

The Ivory Grin—Ross McDonald, baby. Solid, witty, fast and lean, another Lew Archer mystery with murder and molls.

Silver Screen Fiend—Patton Oswalt’s very fine, and inspiring, memoir of a brief period in his life when he was addicted to movies. I wish he had given more of his insights into the movies themselves; he’s a witty and refined critic.

Heidegger’s Children—Research, but a pretty intriguing exploration of the ideas of Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, and Herbert Marcuse.

Invisible Man—I’ve been trying, and failing, to read Ralph Ellison’s epic novel for twenty years. Finally made it. Excellent and prescient.

On the Craft of Poetry—An elegant distillation of so many of Borges’s major themes, this lecture in print form is marvelous. It’s a very fine primer for Borges’s stories.

“The Open Boat”—Stephen Crane’s bleak short story about shipwreck survivors facing indifferent nature and the limitations of their own survival machinery.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew—Thomas Bernhard’s slim, half-memoir novel is intriguing, if a minor effort. Two men in a hospital renew their friendship, but the form of the novel is a wide-ranging riff on Wittgenstein’s family.

Roth Unbound—Claudia Pierpont gives Roth’s biography with a focus on his novels as a way of reading his life. An intriguing book, if a bit laudatory.

The Landbreakers—John Ehle’s re-discovered novel of the frontier is a beautiful piece of writing, following three families in a valley right at the beginning of the United States.

The Big Seven—Jim Harrison’s sequel to The Great Leader has his retired detective run afoul a nasty family of rifle-toting neighbors. Plus lots of sex and fishing and butt reverie.

In Search of Small Gods—Harrison’s astonishing poetry, revolving around fishing, totems, dogs, sex, drinking and false memories is a wonderful book for non-poetry fans. For fans of poetry, it’s an even richer feast. He does it all.

Raymond Chandler: A Biography—A very fine piece of biographical writing, which manages to capture Chandler’s essence while also dealing with the many virtues, and faults, of his Marlowe detective novels.

A Game of Swallows—A graphic novel similar in tone and look to Persepolis. Pretty good.

Avengers: Infinite Avengers—Intriguing time travel take on the Avengers, with Captain America and the infinity gems, all of it better written—Hickman and Remender are good writers—than expected, but also convoluted.

Avengers Academy: Permanent Record—Better than average teenage superheroes in the marvel universe. Not sure why I read this.

Iron Man: Stark Wars—A nostalgic journey for me, following late 80s/early 90s Tony Stark and his vengeance against the supervillains who stole his technology.

Hawkeye: L.A. Woman—The comic shifts to Hawkeye’s nearly hopeless female protégé as she navigates hoodlums and crime syndicates in Los Angeles. Pretty damn good.

Light Years—James Salter’s elegiac, haunting and very beautiful novel about a marriage, crumbling, re-constituting, and its ups and downs is a very fine, if ultimately bleak and grim.

Live by Night—Denis Lehane’s epic crime novel follows an Irish hoodlum, the son of a police commissioner, as he moves his way up a criminal empire in Tampa during the 1920s. Very good stuff. (I later read the other two books in this trilogy.)

Chester Himes: A Life—Himes’s life is the stuff of great literature; he was a thief, carjacker and convicted felon who wrote literary stories from jail. Once out, he turned towards crime novels. James Sallis, himself a pretty nifty crime writer, tells the tale. Oddly, the book is just okay.

Borges: A Life—Borges is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, yet he was a shy, withdrawn, mercurial man. (These descriptors apply to his fiction, too.) Author Woodall attempts an old-school biography with Borges, and it mostly works. Yet I kept hoping he would critically discuss Borges’s tales.

You Remind Me of Me—Dan Chaon—both a fabulous writer and storyteller, which is rare—writes of ghostly characters on the margins of society, attempting to start over through radical re-invention. A haunting, very fine novel.

Thanos Imperative—Wow, Marvel has lost control of itself here. Convoluted, poorly conceived, accidentally parodic, derivative, and ultimately pointless, this is precisely the kind of storytelling that forced me into non-superhero comics as a teenager. (Luckily I have Daredevil to balance things out.) [I later read the Hickman run on Avengers and the lead up to Secret Wars and was blown away.]

The Warren Commission Report: A graphic Investigation—A comic version of the events leading up to JFK’s assassination, and the resulting investigation, and a pretty good book. Che was better (really excellent).

Kill Everything That Moves—An excellent, if heart-breaking, book of reportage on American military policy during the war in Vietnam. One that will blister your eyeballs. Should be mandatory reading.

The Razor’s Edge—Maugham’s Moveable Feast, less artful than Of Human Bondage, but still intriguing character study of American and British expatriates. Good, but perhaps not as good as its reputation. Maugham does Fitzgerald, only not as interesting as that sounds.

One More River To Cross: The Collected Works of John Beecher—Protest poet, and descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, John Beecher’s poems hit at the core of the very issues of racism and poverty we’re dealing with today. Plus, he’s funny. Great.

Euphoria—Lily King’s spare, sharp novel of Margaret Mead and two rival lovers living among tribal peoples in New Guinea is sexy, lush and ultimately heart-breaking. A very fine novel.

Danse Macabre—Stephen King’s meditation on horror and why it works is a very fine—and weirdly important—book that came out some thirty years ago. I revisit it from time to time. King is a very cagey and careful reader/consumer, and he has exquisite theories as to why some stories succeed, while others fail. Also, he’s funny.

The Round House—Louise Erdrich’s masterful novel sits at the intersection of a thriller, a coming of age story, and a moving (and terrifying) deconstruction of a family. An American Indian woman is raped on a reservation, and her teenage son tries to solve the crime.

Colder—Oddly unsatisfying horror comic about a nightmare world where the insane go when they are having episodes, and a evil dandy who eats the sick.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—Karen Russell’s story collection is lush, well-written fiction, lacking in the storytelling department.

The Bottom of the Harbor—When in doubt, go with Joseph Mitchell. A collection of his pieces concerning the harbors and wharfs around the Hudson. “Up in the old hotel” remains one of his finest pieces of writing.

Criminal: The Sinners—Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips best entry in their Boston Criminal series.

The Hair of Harold Roux—After a weak start, a fabulous novel—and recently re-discovered—of a selfish novelist coming to terms with his own misanthropy in an in-progress novel based on the writer’s school days.

Night of the Ripper—Robert Bloch’s take on Jack the Ripper. I wanted to read some semi-literate horror novels and started with this one. It’s fine; Bloch is a professional genre writer, and there’s little fat a more than a few intriguing scenes.

The Black Beetle—Francisco Francavilla, one of the premiere comic book artists, tries his hand at writing too with this homage to 1930s pulp radio heroes. It’s a mixed bag, fun to look at but in need of some writing work. (Lobster Johnson, a similar hero over in the Mignola universe, is much better.)

Fatima: The Blood Spinners—Comic legend Gilbert Hernandez returns to ghastly science fiction in his peculiar take on the zombie apocalypse. A drug is turning people into zombies. A cure has been found, but the self-appointed police out to eradicate the drug keep killing people close to a cure. A minor work, but kind of fun in a kooky way.

The Infinite Horizon—A stunning retelling of The Odyssey—perhaps the best adaptation I’ve come across—in comic book form, following a black ops soldier in Afghanistan making his way back to upstate New York. Excellent.

“The Goldbug”—Edgar Allen Poe’s bizarre little short story about buried treasure in post-colonial Virginia. Not very good.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”—I don’t know, I always return to it, and it always leaves me cold and a bit irritated. Not great, either.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio)—Stevenson’s seminal tale of a man and his dark side. Riveting, if familiar stuff.

The Consolations of Philosophy—De Botton’s wonderful introduction to six philosophers, and how their lives and works can help us through hard times. Excellent and elegant.

Nightfall—When in doubt, David Goodis. A man is wrongfully accused of murdering a bankrobber and stealing the loot. Only, he’s guilty of the crime. Sort of. A near-perfect crime novel without an inch of fat.

The Orphanmaster’s Son—So good I never wanted it to end. A North Korean soldier goes from kidnapper to something else in this epic novel of maintaining individuality in the face of oppression.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (audio)—J.K. Rowling’s detective procedural follows a war veteran and his new temp working to solve the apparent suicide of a young pop star. Very fine, if a bit schematic.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty—Understated, patient, humane but also well written stories about southerners of every stripe.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang—Pauline Kael’s best book, and for me one of the seminal works about movies. Funny, scathing, profound.

The Gospel Singer—Harry fucking Crews! A famous gospel singer returns to his hometown. One of his steady girls (a wretched sex addict) has been murdered, his family (disturbed farmers) want him to stay in town and a traveling troupe of circus freaks continue to haunt all of his revival appearances. Doomy, funny, and fucked up—Harry Crews’s first novel, and it’s a doozy.

On the Other Side of the Wind: The Making of Orson Welles’s Last Movie—A very strong introduction to Orson Welles and his methods, his legend, his self-propagating mystique, alongside his shortcomings and his bad luck.

The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien’s short, strange, surreal little novel about a murderer who sees his victim a few months later, followed by all manner of cosmic hijinks. A word to the warning: Do not read any introduction or background material if you plan to read this; the spoilers in this case really do ruin a good book. (It happened to me.)

The Book of the Dun-cow—for the National Book Award winners series, and basically a children’s book with talking animals and that fable-magic feel. Not for me, but not terrible. (But it is a terrible title.)

Vermillion—The fabulous science fiction comic, written by intriguing author Lucius Shepard, that should have been a cult hit and run for years but only made it twelve issues. The entire universe has been changed into a single, endless city. One man remembers how things used to be, and the creatures responsible for it.

The Emperor—Kapuscinski’s oral history of the decline and fall of Haile Sellassie is more for people who already know the story of the Ethopian Emperor. I didn’t know the story, and felt a bit lost. Still love Kapuscinski though.

Nosferatu—Short story author Jim Shepard’s take on Murnau, and it seemed perfect for me, and I didn’t enjoy it, not at all.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—A story we’ve seen so many times before, a self-centered writer in New York, a son of (some) privilege, grappling with relationships. Weirdly compelling, if also a bit dreary and predictable.

Life During Wartime—Lucius Shepard—author of comic series Vermillion—writes a science fiction novel of psychics traveling through huge swaths of central America, attempting to survive a forever war that no one seems to understand. Shepard is an astonishingly gifted writer when describing shanty towns, makeshift bridges, squalor as well as beauty. His storytelling powers are here still a bit shaky.

So Long, and See You Tomorrow—Laconic novel of memory and loss and heartbreak and betrayal. William Maxwell recreates a crime from his childhood, where infidelity between two married farmers leads to murder. An elegant paean to a lost time, that Maxwell artfully (and sneakily) implies might have never existed in the first place.

Voss—Australian novelist Patrick White tells a riveting story of a German explorer wandering through the newly discovered outback. Half Victorian-era comedy of manners, half Heart of Darkness adventure tale, White balances the chamber rooms and tea parties of high society with the jaw-dropping violence of the desert. An absolute stunner.

Deadly Class—Teenage assassins run amok in this new comic series by hit or miss Rick Remender. He hits it out of the park here.

Uri—Some 1970s biography of a man with supposedly psychic powers. Not sure how this got into my queue, I tried it and didn’t finish it. Nope. There’s a reason some books are forgotten.

Sinister Forces: The Nine—A terrible cover, but an intriguing—and probably dangerous—book. Levenda is a very fine writer, a very fine journalist, and a very disturbed human being. His premise is that European pagan culture is interwoven with early American societies, and that religious belief has shaped, altered, and at times dismembered American politics. The book is dangerous because Levenda’s agenda, similar to other conspiracy theorists, rests on a lot of conjecture that most writers can’t pull off. Levenda has plenty of skill and verve to spare, and thus makes his arguments alluring, to alluring.

Infinity—Jonathan Hickman’s epic, epoch-defining, cosmic re-arranging of the Marvel Universe has an ageless group of builders, who guide the evolution of life in the universe, attempting to destroy the earth. The Avengers, along with all the space races, band together to fight them. Meanwhile, Black Panther and Prince Namor are waging a war against each other and Thanos is invading earth while the Avengers are away. Complex, convoluted, yes, but also unforgettable. At least to nerds like me.

Old Filth—Jane Gardam, having an immense rediscovery in her dotage, wrote this novel of an aged barrister in England, flashing back and forth to times in his life. Truly superior stuff, thrilling, weirdly sinister, woven with immense skill. (I kept thinking, am I the only person on earth reading Infinity and Old Filth at the same time?)

The Hollow Land—Following up on Old Filth. A collection of stories about two boys from different backgrounds spending summers together in the country. Weirdly compelling.

The Age of Selfishness—Graphic novel following Ayn Rand’s life and thinking and then detailing how her ideas, through Greenspan, played a major role in the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Excellent.

The Wars—Timothy Findley’s novel of the first World War, and it is brief, concise, horrifying, poetic and excellent. A Canadian officer ships off to the western front, where he finds a pointless existence of random violence to people and animals.

After Claude—Iris Owens very funny, raunchy little New York novel about a self-involved woman who is dumped by her French boyfriend, only she refuses to leave his apartment. At one point, it was banned.

Ghost Story—Ramsey Campbell, you’ve failed me again. A great set up: a shock jock radio host and a rising psychic star run afoul of each other. They have a past, and are interfering with each other’s present.

Fordlandia—Henry Ford attempted to build a utopian mixture of farming and industry in the middle of the Amazon. He failed. Part of Heart of Darkness, part history of industry, this intriguing book is very well written.

Soldiers of Salamis—I read this because Roberto Bolaño, one of my favorite authors, is one of the main characters. Kavier Cercas sets out to write a true novel, in the fashion of Capote and Mailer, and mostly succeeds. For Bolaño fans, it’s a major treat.

Any Given Day—Dennis Lehane returns to South Boston—as incubator of crime, cruelty, and sometimes redemption—only in the past, in the 1920s. He evokes the civil unrest and the nascent movement for workers to unionize in this very fine historical novel, only written in his signature lean style. Very fine, if a bit lengthy.

Year of Fear—Non-fiction about 1933, where gangsters and bank robbers began kidnapping wealthy scions, and J. Edgar Hoover used this crisis to beef up the F.B.I. I love this stuff, and this is a very fine introduction to the interlocking problems—the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the murder rate (close to a hundred thousand unsolved murders in 15 years!), bank robbers, organized crime, and widespread civil unrest—that beset the U.S.

Do What Thou Wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley—Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Philip K. Dick is one of the great biographies. Here he turns his immense skill and attentions to the Great Beast, the poet, occultist, novelist, mountaineer and mage. Crowley’s life is too full of events and high weirdness to believe, but Sutin delivers another very fine and entertaining biography. (The introduction, covering the alchemical tradition in Europe, is excellent.) Still, I couldn’t read it straight through. Had to break it into smaller doses.

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir—Joyce Johnson’s stunning memoir of her life with the other Beat writers is an evocative, spare and beautiful piece of writing. Johnson situates herself, and other females, inside the aesthetic movement. Why did I never read this before?

.red doc—Anne Carson’s sequel to The Autobiography of Red—my favorite book from last year, a novel in verse—picks up with Hercules and Geryon and some of the others, now in different incarnations. It’s stirring writing, just wonderful and weird, but it’s not as good as Red. Of course, few books are.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong—An intriguing bit of detective criticism, where the reader attempts to uncover the truth in a novel, by looking at the credibility of the other characters. Here the author “proves” that Holmes gets it wrong in The Hound of the Baskervilles; the real murderer goes free.

Lightning Rods—Helen DeWitt’s funny, satirical, pornographic novel of business is a very fine piece of writing, even if it peters out a bit near the end. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, in places, which is very high praise.

Regeneration—Pat Barker’s first World War I novel follows Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owens and Robert Burns as they recuperate from wounds, both physical and psychic, while the war continues to turn men into meat into mud. A very fine and serious novel.

The Eye in the Door—Barker’s second novel is a major departure, and a much weaker novel, from the first. Here she follows some of the characters from the first novel, as they engage in subterfuge, surveillance and oppression over the issue of homosexuality and the pacifist movement. There’s something missing here, and I’m not sure what. Didn’t finish.

She-hulk: Law and Disorder—Beautiful art from Javier Pulido drives this funky, multicultural take on the cousin of Bruce Banner. Similar to Mark Waid’s Daredevil, this clever relaunch is excellent, until the artist changes.

Notable American Women—After being floored by Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Birds,” I picked up this early novel. It’s . . . hard to describe, and a bit full of itself. Didn’t like it, didn’t finish it. Will try him again with The Flame Alphabet.

A Lesson Before Dying—Ernest Gaines’s very fine novel follows an African American teacher who has been guilt-tripped into tutoring a death row inmate, who is also a former pupil. Subtle and Superb.

Joyland—Stephen King’s coming of age novel is a very fine piece of fiction, if read the right way. (The ghost and the crime are the least important aspects of this novel.) A young man gets his heart broken and takes refuge in a summer job at a low-grade amusement park. The park is haunted.

My Brilliant Friend—Elena Ferrante’s magnificent novel of two friends coming of age in Naples struck me as gothic and even cosmic horror with a light smattering of social commentary. I loved it.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed—Patricia Cornwell excavates the medical and police files around the White Chapel murders and solves, or so she claims, one of the mysteries of history. A good book, but I couldn’t stick with it.

The Rim of Morning—Two novels, actually, re-released by NRYB. Subtle, extremely disorienting horror from William Sloane, who wrote these two and then stopped writing. The first follows two men as they attempt to piece together why a third committed suicide. They bump against a menagerie of terrifying, cosmic implications.

Trumbo—A fantastic biography of Dalton Trumbo, an intriguing, funny, and acerbic man.

Station Eleven—Hot book of last year, and a very fine novel. A plague has eradicated most of mankind, and a traveling group of actors and musicians eke out a living in a traveling caravan. The flashbacks connect the characters from before the plague, in an intriguing, often exhilarating plots.

The Year of Reading Dangerously—A bullshit artist forgets the joy, pain, love and fear of reading great literature, so he sets out to read 50 great books for a year. Funny and wise and very, very good; author Andy Miller is a very fine companion.

Lookout, Cartridge—Eccentric novelist Joseph McElroy’s crime novel of Vietnam, at least that’s how the jacket copy situates it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, as the narrator is reliving various strands of memories that are happening simultaneously in his mind and on the page. I quit at the third chapter.

We Need To Talk About Kevin—Made it one-third of the way through, but will probably finish it. A mother writes her ex-husband letters about their psychopathic (and homicidal) son. Chilly, pitiless and very difficult to put down. (And, weirdly, very unsettling to read.)

Wolf in White Van—John Darnielle, lyricist extraordinaire of The Mountain Goats, writes his first novel, and it’s pretty fucking good. A disfigured young man makes a living with a mail-in Dungeons and Dragons type game. He narrates the ins and outs of his life through simple, direct and heartbreaking prose. Marked by a complete lack of irony.

Pale Fire—Nabokov’s opaque novel is beguiling, bewitching and difficult to describe. An academic has delivered an annotated version of his dead neighbor’s lengthy poem. Or has he? The novel requires concentration, but offers plenty in return. I loved it, but like many readers, was confounded by it.

Black Sun—Novelist of solitary men in nature extraordinaire, Edward Abbey, here with his first novel (yet published in the middle of his career), and it’s a doozie. A man tasked with watching fires in an immense forest has a brief love affair with a young woman. Simple, but profound, with gorgeous writing and superior dialogue.

Henry Miller by Brassai—A personal account of Henry Miller’s Paris years, by the famous photographer. Miller becomes more intriguing to me as I get older, and here he emerges as kinder, yet wilder. A good book for fans.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning—Most likely the last book I’ll read in 2015. And it’s a good one. The author revisits 1977 in New York, with the Yankees struggling, the Son of Sam murders in full swing, terrifying gangs running amok, and all of it leading up to the blackout and crime spree.

Spirits—Bought this for a quarter. Richard Bausch’s short stories are haunting and masterful. Great stuff, if a strange and downer ending to my reading year.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe—Thomas Ligotti, yowzers, is he bleak. Combining Lovecraft and Poe and Borges, Ligotti writes short horror that is astonishing when it works, and simply alienating and unsettling when it doesn’t. Unforgettable in its way.

Mystery Train—Greil Marcus, a fabulous critic, uses a number of artists (Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, The Band, Robert Johnson) to express his belief that American art must grapple with the terror of America’s failures and the promise of America’s virtues at the same time. A great book. I was reading it on New Year’s Eve.