Tag Archives: National Book Award winners

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.”

 

NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

31 Aug

1982: So Long, See you Tomorrow

1.

In 1982, William Maxwell won the National Book Award for his elegiac, elegant little novel of memory, heartbreak and loss, So Long, and See You Tomorrow.

Maxwell is a major force in American fiction. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years, playing a role in the development and discovery of hundreds of American authors. He also imparted his keen, laconic style.

The New Yorker is so influential in American fiction it often goes unnoticed. In terms of literary fiction, you could argue that The New Yorker is the single most important entity in American letters. This long shadow has consequences, some of them negative. Careers were made. In some cases, the American public was subjected to egoists and blowhards who had no business being published in the first place. And The New Yorker style, which is William Maxwell’s style, came to define good writing, leaving out strong stylists and important artists who didn’t write in that same style. The style is realistic, small-scale, often moody little chamber pieces with the important bits hidden under the surface of the glossy prose. The stories often end with an ambiguous, or heart-breaking, gong of future doom. The prose is crystalline and usually spare, elegant in its way but also tiresome in bulk. Little science fiction or fantasy, little in the way of mystery, and only a handful that delve into the sinister. (The most notable exception to this rule is Shirley Jackson, a psychic vampire who stormed the glittering halls of the literati with her talent and creepy verve.) If there’s a locus of the reading public’s appetite for what has come to be called literary fiction, it is The New Yorker.

(There’s a pretty nifty overview of his career here. And here’s a killer Paris Review interview.)

So William Maxwell, the fiction editor. He shepherded most of the important writers during the post-war era, including John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty among most if not all of the important novelists dur. Along with Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish, William Maxwell is probably the most important editor of 20th century American fiction. And that’s not an understatement.

 

2.

To his book.

Maxwell uses a small Illinois farming town as his locale. He tells a simple story refracted through his untrustworthy memories. He’s very, very good. He here is describing an old photo album:

“At the beginning and end of the album, pasted in what must have been blank places, since they run counter to the sequence, are a dozen pictures of my father. Except for the one where he is standing with a string of fish spread out on a rock beside him, he is always in a group of people. He has a golf stick in his hand. Or he is smoking a pipe. Or he is wearing a bathing suit and has one arm around my stepmother’s waist and the other around a woman I don’t recognize. And looking at these faded snapshots I see, the child that survives in me sees with a pang that—I am old enough to be the man’s father, and he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem) a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it.”

A beautiful, heart-breaking and near-perfect passage, encapsulating the themes and power of the book.

maxwell

The story follows a narrator re-visiting and at times re-enacting a crime from his childhood. The crime, as told to us in the first pages, is a murder-suicide. And the son of the culprit was a sometime-friend of the narrator. The narrator re-imagines the events leading up to the crime after seeing the boy, now a man, on the streets of New York, seeing him and then ignoring him. Ashamed, he goes back in his memories. He digs. He burrows.

Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?)

The novel is structured like an old Hollywood thriller[1]. Shocking event, then present-day, then flashbacks leading up to event. What makes this novel something else, literature of a time and place, is the artful way Maxwell renders the unreliability of his own memories. He isn’t certain, of himself or others. So the novel has this (immensely pleasurable) golden haze around it. Like a halo. And as he investigates his own slanted memories, he comes to startling (or not, depending on how close a reader you are) conclusions.

Through his simple, straight-forward style, Maxwell investigates the lives that populated his childhood self’s world, and the result feels Biblical in scale.

And if this sounds fussy or somehow affected, it isn’t. His style is near-invisible, the kind of writing that you fall into, forgetting that you’re reading at all.

I’m hesitant to say anything else about So Long. It’s easy and intriguing to read, slim, powerful and moving. What else needs to be said?

The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow.

[1] A dirty secret: a lot of “high-brow” novels follow this formula. Giovanni’s Room, as just one example.

NBAW, number 39: 1980’s The Book of the Dun-Cow.

12 Aug

1.

In 1980, Walter Wangerin won the National Book Award for his allegorical farmyard fantasy, The Book of the Dun-Cow.

The National Book Award people were attempting to broaden the scope of the award, as well as presumably bring in more readers and more popular attention. So they bestowed awards on science fiction and fantasy novels and a western. But they limited their scope to the single year, so in each category a strange, inferior novel won the top genre award. Wangerin beat out Norman Spinrad (an intriguing, if also minor, science fiction writer, although Science Fiction in the Real World, his overview of science fiction, is well worth a read) and Samuel Delaney (the James Joyce of science fiction, and I’m not kidding), which is just nuts.

Fantasy is, in some ways, the most conventional of genres, and drowning in an immense sea of dross. Fantasy has little self-criticism, little irony, little self-awareness and very little adaptability. Unlike science fiction—which adapts at a rate close to the speed of light—fantasy is restricted by expectations rooted in a bygone age. Worse, the great novels of fantasy seem stuck, as if the genre reached its apotheosis sometime in the 1950s.

There’s Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, which looms large on the genre, utilizing the quest motif, the varied races (dwarves, ogres, elves, etcetera), a growing source of ultimate evil, intimations of pagan superstitions, giant battles, cavernous settings. And C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, with a thousand years of history in his parallel universe of knights and kings and witches and magic ships.

Also, talking animals and trees.

Fantasy has always carried a cheesy element. Blame Tolkein. Or C.S. Lewis? Dig around in most of the established great works of fantasy and you find some silly notion portrayed with absolute seriousness.

The seriousness has its roots in the genre’s progenitors, the Viking Sagas from Iceland as well as the epic poems from the medieval ages. The values of the two instill in the genre some absurd values to today’s readers: a ridiculous exhortation to bravery and cruelty in battle; anti-intellectual thinking, preferring gut decision over intelligent deliberation; notions of racial and religious purity; and a preference for bucolic over urban settings.

The genre has a few other components that drive non-fans nuts.

  1. Good triumphs over evil in a most literal fashion. It has turned the genre predictable.
  2. There’s a tradition of weird, stupid names.
  3. Much of fantasy is either allegorical, or has intimations of allegory. Allegories are simplistic by design, a lesser art form. And yet, fans of the genre will often trumpet a novel’s allegorical aspects as if these are a substitute for good writing, interesting characters, and great dialogue. (Here’s an example: The Lord of the Rings is often regarded as an allegory for World War II—which it isn’t, it’s rooted in the values and instability of the middle ages–and this is given as a reason why people should read it.)
  4. Fantasy borrows from existing mythologies with immense freedom. It heavily cannibalizes itself.

 

So beyond the classic fantasy tales, most fantasy novels are frustrating and, if read in tandem with the great novelists of the 20th century, abysmal.

There are three exceptions.

The first is Philip Pullman’s astonishing reversal of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in the trilogy now called His Dark Materials. Pullman creates a series of worlds with their own rules and their own creatures, and he writes with economical elegance and a swiftness of story that is a delight. But he also does some philosophical heavy lifting.

The second is the great overlooked source of literature for much of the second half of the twentieth century: comic books. Most comic books hum on the edge of the fantasy spectrum, and constitutes a spectacular body of work. (Underrated by most, overrated by a few. Just like the larger world of fantasy.) The Hellboy mythos, an ever-growing body of work built around the son of the devil, is astonishing, and the Marvel and DC universes are so complex there are multi-volume compendiums explaining who everyone is.

The third—and this gets me in trouble at parties—is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. She’s cobbled together a marvelous, often witty and funny, world that begins like a literary cartoon and grows into something rich and strange. A.S. Byatt had a famous take-down of Rowling a while back, arguing that Rowling has failed in the mythological and fantastical, that she had reduced the necessary awe in fantasy. She isn’t wrong, if you begin with some of her similar assumptions about books (that seriousness is a virtue; that good fiction has certain responsibilities; and that fantasy serves a purpose beyond entertainment). I mention Byatt’s takedown because she focuses on Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner as examples of great fantasy. (She didn’t mention Angela Carter, but she should have.) There’s something true to her words. Harry Potter is, well, silly. But Byatt—a very fine writer, if prone to lengthy novels with too much exposition—overlooks Rowling’s talents as a writer. And, this is my real point: Byatt is attempting to enforce the old standards of fantasy, as opposed to letting the genre breathe a bit.

Meaning: the fans are a big part of the problem.

Fans of the genre will despise my line of thought. Clever fans of the genre will argue that all fiction is fantasy. “The Metamorphosis” is fantasy. Street of Crocodiles is fantasy. The Third Policeman is fantasy. Through the Looking Glass is fantasy.

Okay, but it isn’t fantasy in the same way. These other books don’t adhere to the often overlooked rules of the genre. I would argue that fantasy sets itself up for critical failure by being so mired in the past.

And I would argue that absurdism—filtering through dada, the Irish negating weirdoes like Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett and, yes, the Austrian ghost, Franz Kafka—is its own genre with its own forms.

 

2.

So, to Dun-Cow. Wangerin pulls from medieval epics, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Christian de Troye[1], among others, but he’s writing in a very specific sub-genre called the Beast Epic, where animals have personalities and desires, engaged in an epic plot. The original story, I read somewhere, was an old Irish fable.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

The plot is pretty insipid. A rooster, in primeval times, runs a fiefdom of farm animals. Beneath the earth is a giant snake, the epitome of evil. And the farm animals exist, in part, to keep the evil buried.

Some critics compare Dun-Cow to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Watership Down is a closer comparison.

Watership Down is a good example, where the author Adams pulls off a neat trick. Readers identify with the rabbits so closely that when the humans appear their behavior is cruel and capricious. Adams uses the internal logic of fantasy to drive home his point: humans are the cruelest species.

Wangerin is up to something similar, I think. He uses the beast epic module to show the venal weakness of humans in times of crisis, as well as the sources of human strength.

Dun-Cow is written in a fable-like tone, with short paragraphs, direct characterizations, unsubtle dialogue. Here’s a taste, when Chauntecleer, the novel’s hero, is directly confronted by the evil of the world:

“It began with a laugh.

“High in the invisible sky above him, Chauntecleer suddenly heard a malevolent, screaming laughter—so cold, so evil, so powerful a bellowed laugh that he gasped and forgot his crow. His feathers stood on end. All the darkness around him swelled with the hateful sound, and the Rooster stood perfectly still.

“ ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ screamed the sky laughter.”

No worse than other fantasy writing, but not really notable either.

And I take issue with Wangerin’s value system. The female characters are servile and weak. The male characters are the heroes who fight the evil. Males have been tasked with leading, and only certain males, like the old ruling dynasties. Some creatures are meant to be servants. It’s that old divine right of kings nonsense again, a motif that I absolutely despise.

I could go on, but I won’t. There are too many great novels left to be experienced, or re-experienced, to spend another minute on this one.

 

3.

What’s left to say? I didn’t like it. It isn’t for me. But, I’ll end with some very fine fantasy novels.

Elric of Melinbone, by Michael Moorcock, is excellent, lean and strange and otherworldly. Moorcock is an intriguing writer, in the process right now of being rediscovered and re-evaluated. Don’t get lost in the Eternal champion or multiverse nonsense. Just read these on their own.

The Worm Ourorboros—I’ve never read it, but lots of people with good taste love it.

The Sandman, okay it’s a long series of graphic novels, but it’s fantastic.

Empire of the East—well, I read it as a teenager and loved it, half-fantasy, half-science fiction, written by the half-hack, half-genius Fred Saberhagen.

Please, send me your own and I’ll add them.

[1] I took a number of classes on medieval literature in college, if you couldn’t already tell.

NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux.

29 Jul

(Have been writing like a banshee, but have neglected the blog a bit. More to come over the next week and a half, some movie reviews, a True Detective season 2 rant, and other miscellany.)

1.

In 1975, Thomas Williams won the National Book Award for his fabulous academic novel of the 1960s, The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams split the award with Robert Stone’s The Dog Soldiers.

Roux begins with an English professor, nearing middle age and with children of his own, suffering from writer’s block, self-doubt, and existential unease. His name is Aaron Benham. He’s facing a long weekend alone, as he’s mistakenly forgotten a family trip and his wife has left him behind. His star pupil, named George, is nearing the deadline for his dissertation, and George cannot seem to gather the strength to finish it. Another former student, named Mark, has gone missing, and Mark’s mother has asked Benham for help.

So Benham attempts to help George and save Mark, at the expense of taking care of his own family. Here’s an early interaction between George and Benham, on why George won’t finish his dissertation:

“. . . I think I may be going off my nut, and I don’t like it, Aaron.” His eyes are still unfocused. “I mean I can’t shake it. It’s like my head’s in a vice and all the assholes of the world are turning the goddamn handle. We haven’t learned lesson number one. Maybe we don’t even know what it is. But we’re killing the world, Aaron. . . . That’s psychotic, man, and I think I’ve caught it and what’s the use? How can you not think about something, Charles? Nerve gas, radioactive wastes that have to be kept refrigerated for eight generations or else, not to mention being located in earthquake zones. Television fucking outright lies, brain rot, money worship, rivers in hell that catch fire. . . . And the whole stinking race is born of rape. . .”

“So why bother finishing your dissertation?”

“Oh, that. I don’t mean that. I don’t know, maybe so. But everything is dying, so what does anything matter? . . . . We’re deliberately killing ourselves!”

“I am the asphalt; let me work.”

“Yeah.”

“Get your dissertation done and then worry about all that.”

 

And if all of this sounds like the stuff of a good novel, there’s more, for the bulk of the story follows a novel inside this one, Benham’s manuscript titled, of course, The Hair of Harold Roux.

It’s a clever, perhaps too clever, way of dealing with the knotty challenges of writing compelling stories about real people; you occlude through the distance of fiction. Benham’s manuscript details an incident from his college years—his fiction is almost entirely autobiographical—where his alter-ego, Allard Benson, seduces a Catholic school girl named Mary. Benson leads Mary to believe he’ll marry her if she sleeps with him.

This interior story is rich and complex and lovingly detailed, with a dozen or so other students moving around the edges of the plot. One of Benson’s friends is a young man named Harold Roux, a comedic, pathetic, prematurely aged student who wears a ridiculous hair piece and refuses to acknowledge he’s balding. He’s so sensitive that he even walks funny so that a strong wind won’t knock it off. Harold loves Mary, while Allard is screwing Mary’s roommate, and Allard juggles the feelings of the other characters against his own desires with astonishing self-rationalization. The saga plays out against the burgeoning student radical movements of the 1960s.

The manuscript story grows so compelling, that when the novel switches back to Benham the writer, it’s a bit boring. It’s clear, as the novel progresses, that Benham is using the novel to work out past transgressions. But his current predicament—being alone in the house with his memories and too much drink—is so much less compelling than the flashbacks.

The novel grows in power as you read it, becomes more intriguing, more arresting as the pages pass. I was elated to find, near the end, that Williams was a novelist of the first order. And here I had almost given up around page 30.

2.

Williams was a major rising talent in the 1960s, and is now largely forgotten. He is similar to Wright Morris, a feted author and winner of numerous recognitions, short stories in The New Yorker, reviews on the front page of major publications, blurbs from top authors and on firm critical footing who has, somehow, slipped into the dustbin.

Which is a shame, for on the basis of Roux[1], Williams is a major talent. He’s funny, almost unruly in his savagery, sexy, raunchy, clever, thrilling and fun to read. Here he is, describing Benham trying to make a little extra money working on a boat chartered by rednecks:

“The boat moved gently beneath them, and the smell of the cove was powerful: that salty compound of life and rot, chemical, natural, speaking of the dense life of the sea. Through the clamshells on the mud bottom, and crabs moving sideways over white strings of fish parts someone had thrown out.

“. . . When the bus finally came, it was three-quarters of an hour late, having had a flat tire, and the troops had obviously been at the booze. They filed slowly out the front door, a little too careful on the steps. Some carried spinning rods and tackle, but most carried, with many grunts and deep breaths, cases of beer, plastic coolers, and cardboard boxes of food. The logistics of the operation were complicated.

“. . . They were men from their late twenties to early fifties, but all their aces, beneath their story hats or long-bulled caps, were equally blasted, the younger haunted by the finalities of the older. Except for the starved, thin bodies of the burnt-out, gut-troubled types, most were soft-bellied. Though thin elsewhere, they carried a feminine roll over the hips, and navels or pale hairy mounds of flesh were visible between T-shirts and low-slung belts, or between the gaps of printed sport shirts. . . . Flesh colors were tones of gray; they must have all worked indoors, and in their evenings . . . the television set above the bar must have chrome-tanned them into its own metallic tones. They were shades of green, or bruised blue—all on the side of the spectrum away from blood and life, toward the dank, the enclosed.”

You can read that final descriptive paragraph half a dozen times and marvel at the economy, the concision, the humor, the dread, the worry, the anger and the skill. Marvelous stuff.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

So he writes well. There are some clunkers here and there, flush up against the brilliant writing, but he has plenty of talent.

There are reasons why Williams slid out of view, although they all rest on a number of conjecturing suppositions. But here goes.

He has no one big book. I said this before, but a magnum opus goes a long way to securing an author future readers. (Think Moby Dick or Catch-22.) It provides an entry-point for fans and ballast for college literature courses. He didn’t write any autobiographical coming of age novels, either (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green), which, when written well, gives a writer a chance at a coveted spot on high school required reading lists.

He’s similar to other writers. In this case, with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life—three of the great novels of the twentieth century. Roux fits with this company, with more than a little of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom added to the mix. Only Williams, as good as he is, and he is a very fine writer, isn’t quite up to the level of these other novelists.

There isn’t a riveting story about Thomas Williams the man. (Cheever was a bisexual drunk; Norman Mailer an ass-worshiping wife-beater; Flannery O’Connor was a death-obsessed cripple who probably never went on a real date; James Ellroy was a homeless drug addict; Katherine Anne Porter was blinded in one eye by an abusive husband; and so on.)

Williams also comes out of the college writing programs/workshop tradition. This doesn’t endear him to future readers. There’s something overly worked out in his prose.

And, I don’t know, the title? It’s a bad title. All of his titles seem forgettable—A High New House, Town Burning, The Followed Man—or just badly weird: Whipple’s Castle, Tsuga’s Children. Ugh and double ugh.

Perhaps its random fate. Faulkner was almost forgotten. Don Carpenter was forgotten. Some make it, some don’t. Not very cheery, but perhaps that’s all there is.

 

3.

The Hair of Harold Roux revolves around Benham’s moral ineptitude, and the casual treachery of his fictional alter-ego. Aaron Benham is complicit, self-loathing, lazy, cheating, rationalizing creature, a lumbering armchair philosopher who ignores his wife and forgets family gatherings. His fictional creation, Allard, is somehow worse, nearly inhuman in his callousness, devoid of even a modicum of empathy, conniving and mean-spirited. If Roux has any major flaws, it’s in the nasty disregard both of the main characters have for other people.

And, well, we’ve seen this type of character before, the womanizing intellectual. In fact, despite capturing the campus life of the sixties rather well, Williams fills the pages with themes so common in American literature they’ve become tropes: Philandering intellectuals, constantly rationalizing their choices; an undercurrent of biology to the proceedings, men aren’t meant to be monogamous, etcetera; and writing fiction as the hardest job there is[2].

Williams—and Robert Stone—beat out a number of fine novelists for the top award, including Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrsion, Vladimir Nabakov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Mark Smith, who was nominated for his underground Death of the Detective.

[1] The novel was re-issued in 2011, and there seems to be some renewed interest in Williams’s other novels.

[2] Which is patently absurd.

NBAW, number 27: 1984’s Victory over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist.

7 Apr

1.

In 1984, Ellen Gilchrist won the National Book Award for her brilliant, sexy story collection, Victory Over Japan.

Gilchrist is southern, writing in the southern tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah. There’s something jittery, even gleefully evil, in her stories. She torments her characters. She teases them. And she smashes them. She’s also raunchy—thank God, as it is exhausting to read the careful gentility of so much short American fiction—and the book has great sex scenes.

Gilchrist is a witty, careful and incisive writer. Her best stories revolve around Rhoda, a wild, amoral, intelligent but almost feral woman with a rough childhood. Gilchrist dips into different periods of Rhoda’s life. Here is the beginning to “The Lower Garden District”:

“Rhoda woke up dreaming. In the dream she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sheepdogs. Or else she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sisters. Or else she was crushing Jody’s skull. Jody was the husband she was leaving. Crunch, crunch, crunch went the skulls between her hands, beneath her heals.”

And, a paragraph later,

“She woke from the dream feeling wonderful, purged of evil. She pulled on Jody’s old velour bathrobe and sat down at the dining room table to go over lists. Getting a divorce was as easy as pie. There was nothing to it. All you needed was money. All you needed for anything was money. Well, it was true. She went back to her lists.”

Gilchrist puts Rhoda through a variety of punishing tests, moral, physical, even aesthetic. And Rhoda’s survival instincts overrule any other considerations. She’s a fabulous character, with a barely restrained sexuality pushing against conventions, so carefully invented her thoughts seem real. She’s a strange yet familiar character. Just wonderful.

Japan is one of the better collections of short stories I’ve read. Short story collections often are either a giant bite of an author’s work (and unless your John Cheever, the career is often besieged by inferior pieces), or a combination of stories that don’t hold together. Gilchrist here has a book that feels like it belongs together, with re-occurring characters, themes, locales. It’s reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (with a similar ghostly, druggy feel), and Barry Hannah’s Airships (flat-out astonishing, rule-breaking, iconoclastic, and funny as hell). Bit Gilchrist is a ribald raconteur, funnier than Johnson (who, it must be said, is humorless as hell) and more serious than Hannah (who, it must be said, often has a cartoonist’s eye for slapstick).

And the Southern thing, the hard drinking, the ennui, the racism, the storytelling, the poverty, she delves into all these themes, but stays away from that absurd glorification of manual labor that bedevils so many southern novels. She isn’t looking for redemption—there isn’t any. Her stories are tight but never tidy; there’s wildness aplenty in them, swerving plotlines, random incidents, but all of it modulated by the fantastic control of her writing.

Gilchrist’s characters are urbane and educated, even when they live in shacks outside of mining towns in Kentucky, or in run-down old plantations outside of New Orleans. She’s reminiscent of the early Fred Chappell (of The Gaudy Place and It Is Time, Lord before he fell into that love and glorify the land trap), holding to a high-wire act. On one side there’s the grotesques (look at the lesser novels of Harry Crews—who I adore—to see how miserly this trap can be; or go out and watch Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) and the simply besotted, blatto and miserable. But she’s funny, irreverent, and so goddamn good at writing that she holds it all together and pulls it off.

One of the better short story collections I've read.

One of the better short story collections I’ve read.

2.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the Southern thing. Southern literature is a vast and often wild place, holding within it such disparate luminaries as William Gay (a thousand times yes!), Cormac McCarthy (blessed be his name), Flannery O’Connor (holy yet wicked), Walker Percy, Margaret Mitchell, Tennessee Williams, James Dickey, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Fred Chappell, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, John Pritchard, Padgett Powell, Anne Tyler, Larry Brown and Eudora Welty all the way down to the menagerie of “new” southern writers, such as Tom Franklin and Karen Russell. The specter of slavery and Jim Crow hangs over most of it, the casual racism, the even more casual violence, the hard-drinking, the rural muck of it all, the fecund, or fetid, swamps and marshes and deltas. A surreal carnival of eccentric peoples. A creeping ennui of a lost (and happily so) way of life. An identity that is, well, an opposite.

All of the genres of American fiction can be found in the crowded, discomfiting ballroom of Southern fiction, including hard-boiled crime (Daniel Woodrell, for example, or James Lee Burke or Frank Bill) to the brilliant comic novels of Charles Portis and John Kennedy Toole. Bad southern novels[1] revel in stupid stereotypes—Uncle Remus, and so on—and an overemphasis on descriptions of vegetation. I worked for a Deep South publisher, I’ve read loads of it, and I feel both qualified to write on it, and also a bit repulsed by some of the tropes found therein. It’s an impressive list, held together (barely) by not just geography but by a kind of suspicion towards New York and cities in general, and a wily exploitation of the stereotype of the southern hick. There’s a rebellious streak to many of the above-writers, a resistance to non-southern culture and also a resistance to the label of southern writer. I will say that Southern writers, almost to a person, are intellectually-minded and clever, but pretend to be anti-intellectual. It’s a conundrum, but so is the modern American South—so is America, for God’s sake—and I can only say that there are thousands of doctoral students at this very moment wringing their hands at the daunting prospect of detangling the heady mix of race, violence, history, irony, oppression, storytelling, privilege, murder, disgrace and shame that constitutes the American South.

Gilchrist sits well with this esteemed and complex list. She deserves more attention, but of course she isn’t alone there. She’s written eight novels, 12 or so short story collections, poetry and essays. She’s a dynamo. She’s fierce. You must read her.

3.

1983 was an interesting year for American fiction. The big money that came with the blockbuster novels created a tiered system of writers. (And critics/serious readers—including me—are often quick to denigrate blockbuster novels. Having said that, I usually hate them when I give them a try.)

Raymond Carver published his epoch-defining collection of short stories, Cathedral. Mark Helprin released his love-it-or-hate-it fantastical epic, The Winter’s Tale[2]. William Kennedy put out his idiosyncratic, but Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed. Norman Mailer published his Ancient Egyptian epic—and fetishized sex romp—Ancient Evenings[3]. Gore Vidal took a break from his run through American history of big, but admittedly probably underrated, novels, with Duluth. Ernest J. Gaines released A Gathering of Old Men. Thomas Berger put out The Feud.

And then look at the blockbusters: Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Michener, Louis L’Amour, Jackie Collins, Isaac Asimov, Ken Follett, Nora Ephron and Danielle Steel all published novels.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard—he’s great but sour and overwhelming—J.M. Coetzee (ditto), Salmon Rushdie (not for me), Elfriede Jelinek, Roald Dahl, and Samuel Beckett, among others, all published important novels.

[1] Erskine Caldwell, despite his reputation, is a pretty terrible novelist. Great trashy sex scenes, though.

[2] I hate it.

[3] A stinker, but I have a soft spot for it.

NBAW, 36: 1985’s World’s Fair, by E.L. Doctorow.

5 Mar

1.

In 1985, E.L. Doctorow won the National Book Award for his novel of coming of age in 1930s New York, World’s Fair.

World’s Fair follows a grown man revisiting, and at times re-interpreting, his childhood memories of growing up Jewish in the Bronx. As a coming of age novel, it’s very fine, evocative and detailed, capturing the emotional instability of childhood.

The writing is solid and professional. The sentences hold together. And if there isn’t that white-hot electricity of some of his peers, there are no stinkers either. The novel feels exactly like what it is: a professional work by a professional writer.

Here we have the narrator describing the wild boys of his neighborhood:

These were the boys who hated boundaries and straight lines, who traveled as a matter of principle off the streets, as if they needed to trespass and show their scorn of property. They wore felt hats with the brims cut away and the crown folded back along the edge and trimmed in a triangle pattern. They wore undershirts for shirts and high-top sneakers without socks. They carried cigarettes behind their ears. Slingshots stuck out of their back pockets. They were the same boys who rode the backs of trolley cars by standing on the slimmest of fenders and holding on to the window frames with their fingertips. They wrestled sewer covers off their sears and climbed down in the muck to find things. They were the ones, I knew, who chalked the strange marks on our garage doors.

 

And just a bit later,

“It’s bad,” Donald told me. “Whenever you see one of these, make sure to erase it. Use your shoe sole, spit on it, rub it with dirt, do anything. It’s a swastika.”

 

Doctorow is Jewish, and his characters are Jewish, and there’s a low-level rumbling of anti-Semitism throughout the novel.

But the currents of racism, sexism, the dark shadows stalking pre-war America, they don’t result in anything in the novel, not really. The brief description of the story, man revisits memories of his childhood in the Bronx, that is an exact encapsulation of the novel.

Doctorow is very fine in capturing the demonic power—I’ve heard it called the occult superstructure—of childhood. You can see the narrator’s mythology of his childhood resting side by side the hard realities. It’s a neat trick, but once you see it, the novel sort of peters out. There isn’t much mystery. The funny bits are humorous but light. And there aren’t many stories in the book, more vignettes and little cast-away scenes. The whole novel feels light and slight and thin and airy. It feels like a YA novel, really, a la The Catcher in the Rye, only missing the jittery unreliability of Salinger’s often-misunderstood novel of the eccentric rich in New York.

The result is an odd novel, intriguing in a way but dissatisfying. Doctorow doesn’t want to invent any kind of narrative with characters growing or changing—his other novels don’t really work this way, either—but his novel is one-note, his objectives easy to digest and decipher. So it’s good writing with a slender comedic glow, but little else.

Here’s another great piece of evocative writing:

To walk out of a brisk autumn day into a Klein’s fall sale was an unimaginably perverse act even for an adult. Greeted by blasts of hot air whooshing up through the floor grates between the outer and inner doors, we passed into a harshly lit wasteland of pipe racks and dump bins hung and piled with every conceivable kind of garment for every gender, age and shape, from infants and toddlers to boys, young misses, juniors, men and women. And every single one of these garments seemed to be undergoing the imperial scrutiny of the released population of an insane asylum. Some sort of frenzied mass rite was taking place, the Flinging of the Textiles. As if in a state of hypnosis, my mother immediately joined in while I held on to her, for my life. Wriggling and elbowing her way through communicants three and four deep around a counter of sweaters, say, or scarves, she immediately began tossing them up in the air, just as everyone else was, altogether creating a kind of fountain of rising and falling colors.

Fine writing, but my beef with Doctorow in this novel is his inability to connect the very fine passages of writing to any kind of sinew or bone; the story feels like clouds, or pleasing mist. It’s all one-note—rapturous writing but dull storytelling. The characters aren’t driven, there’s no madness, the novel is trying to be realistic but comes off as not dully exactly, but quotidian. And not in a good way. It’s a thinner version of Auggie March, only Bellow has so many stories and vignettes and characters little Auggie gets a bit lost in the shuffle.

Fun to read but futile.

Fun to read, but futile.

 

2.

I was going to give an overview of coming of age novels, or New York novels, or overrated novels, or autobiographical novels, or even trends in fiction in the mid-1980s, but I’m consumed with various writing projects at the moment, so, instead, please fill in your own opinionated history of any of the above categories and run with it in your imagination. Just give me credit in your memories. That’s the ultimate goal: I should remain in your thoughts like an oily dream.

3.

Doctorow’s novel should not have won the top award; it beat out some smashing novels.

Cormac McCarthy published his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, a novel I try to re-read every other year. Larry McMurtry released his (generally believed to be) best novel, Lonesome Dove. John Irving (for me, overrated) put out his epic story of abortion[1] The Cider-House Rules. Bret Easton Ellis published his first, and by far best, novel, Less Than Zero[2]. Ann Tyler released The Accidental Tourist, which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. And Kurt Vonnegut, James Michener, and Amy Hempel all released novels. An impressive list, made richer over time. How Doctorow won for his pleasant little novel of memories is beyond me. Perhaps Doctorow’s novel of the 1930s, when the left still had teeth and bite, resonated with the judges stuck smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s America? And does anyone, thirty years on, believe that this novel will be remembered but Blood Meridian, The Accidental Tourist, and Lonesome Dove will be forgotten?

Over in science fictionland, two landmark works appeared. Orson Scott Card published his epic, and some argue horribly misguided, novel of militarized children, Ender’s Game. And Carl Sagan released his first contact story, Contact.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard and Anthony Burgess published novels, as did Carlos Fuentes, Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk.

[1] A bad joke. Sue me.

[2] This was an enormously polarizing novel in his day, and a much better novel than the rest of Ellis’s uneven–I’m being generous—work.

National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow

5 Mar

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Auggie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

 

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Auggie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Auggie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Auggie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.

 


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.

NBAW, number 35: 1981’s Plains Song, by Wright Morris.

12 Feb

(I’m still writing away, although I feel a bit like a medieval monk locked in the scriptorium. What’s the opposite of illumination?)

1.

In 1981, Wright Morris won the National Book Award for his elegiac, lyrical novel of hard-scrabble Nebraska women, Plains Song. It was his second time winning the top writing award.

Plains Song follows multiple generations of women in the same family, through a huge chunk of the 20th century. His women are hard-working, quiet, dignified. His women don’t complain; they endure. Here we meet Cora, the matriarch of this clan of tough women, as she spends her wedding night with her stranger-husband, Emerson:

In Burlington, after a heavy meal, she put herself to bed. He came back from his bath smelling of soap, his face nicked by the razor, his hair wild from his scrubbed scalp, his thick body tight in a suit of oatmeal-colored flannel. For some time, as if alone, he sat on the edge of the bed rubbing his scalp. His hair needed cutting; his head, seen from the back, was like that of a plucked chicken. Nor was he in a hurry. Her heart pounded as he stopped to trim his nails. The words of the seamstress came to her with such force that she saw him as an utter stranger. Before he puffed the lamp out and rolled toward her, the bed creaking like the body of the wagon, her dismay had given way to a dread that paralyzed her will. When he moved on her, his groping hands confusing the sheet with the nightgown, she had already put her clenched fist into her mouth and stared sightlessly as the ceiling. What did she experience? It might be likened to an operation without the anesthesia. Horror exceeded horror. The time required by her assailant to do what must be done left her in shock. In the dawn light she found that she had bitten through the flesh of her hand, exposing the bone. Emerson’s bafflement moved him to speech . . . . he seemed to doubt what it was he saw. H was able to escort her to the lobby, however, and inquire where they might find a doctor.

That is crackerjack writing, detailed, precise, disturbing, fiendish even, yet humane.

This first—and the novel implies, only—coupling leads to the birth of Beulah Madge. Emerson’s brother has daughters of his own with another woman, and the years pass in the lives of these farm women as they work, marry, bear children, and die, locked in a disillusioning struggle with the confines of their lives. Only one of the farm women, Cora’s niece, Sharon Rose, escapes. Here we see her traveling to Chicago:

. . . . what Sharon saw through the soot-smeared window was like a continent under water. There had been heavy rains; deep ruts fouled the roads, water sat in pools that reflected the sunrise. A sway-backed white horse stood like a specter in a field of corn stubble, its head drooped as if too heavy to support. The dip and rise of the telephone lines, which she had once found so distracting, seemed wearisome and monotonous to her, like the click of the rails. It might have been an abandoned country. Even the towns seemed curiously vacant. It seemed incomprehensible to Sharon that people continued to live in such places. Numbed by the cold, drugged by the heat and the chores, they were more like beasts of the field than people. Where a lamp glowed a woman like Cora would be lighting a fire, setting a table, or gripping the cold handle of a pump, the water rising with the sound of a creature gagged. Only work that could not be finished gave purpose to life.

Sharp and poetic and unnerving and wise, and part of Morris’s larger theme in his work: a reaction to the realities of the present day, and a rejection, of sorts, of modern technologies and conventions[1]. The book is also a rejection of conventional plotting, conflict and drama. Instead he offers us a poetic, often moving, interpretation of real life.

The texture of daily lives. The gravitas of toil and suffering. And the element so many novels lack, dignity!, is here in spades.

Other novels follow a similar passage of time: The Shipping News, Love Medicine, Them, Stoner. And like these others Morris mines the banal for something heartbreaking and (almost) profound.

A damn good novel, if most of the drama is passed over.

A damn good novel, if most of the drama is passed over.

He dances over tragedies with a sure, light touch. A baby dies—and holy god, as my children get older, I find incidents like this absolutely horrifying—and it happens inside a single paragraph. And then he moves on. He is more concerned with work and stoic suffering than drama or tension or uplift.

His sure, confident touch with the passage of time becomes tedious. He dances over dramatic scenes, and near the novel’s end the story seems thin. And the shifting narrative points of view are intricate and clever, but also irritating. As he leaves Cora behind—with her befuddlement and horror at the crass, mechanized and alien world she lives in—he inhabits more conventional characters. And he never gives Cora’s granddaughter, Caroline—the most intriguing character in the novel, a near-genius who has trapped herself in a conventional, provincial life, and she hates it—her own voice.

2.

Morris is one of the few writers to win the National Book Award twice, along with Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Philip Roth and William Maxwell. (Not Annie Proulx, not Thomas Pynchon, not Don DeLillo!, not Cormac McCarthy!, not Denis Johnson, and so on and so on.)

Morris wrote some twenty novels, won dozens of grants and awards, received an avalanche of praise from critics and top writers. Yet now he’s gone, dust, fingertips on broken stones, barely a trace, almost a ghost, as elusive as the characters he so hauntingly creates. He’s brilliant, his novels are artfully constructed, spare and evocative. I kept thinking, how has he not made the cut? I keep looking for reasons. He’s mercurial enough to be interesting, and weird enough to be memorable. His work holds together. So why is he being passed over, while some of his contemporaries are studied, re-published, re-contextualized, re-energized, not forgotten?

Yet this is part of it, too—this slipping into the pit of time, this forgetting, that seems so fitting in Morris, who details failure and forgetting in his fabulous novels. It’s as if, in writing about the passing, never-to-be-recovered days of his characters, he was detailing his own diminishing stature in the world of letters.

There’s something of Cormac McCarthy about his style—beautiful, rugged landscapes; a focus on work and tasks and processes; terse, often brilliant dialogue. (Only, Morris leaves out the blood-letting and rapine and murder.) There’s something of Annie Proulx, too, that struggling against the daily despair and the continual passing of time. Morris feels like a lot of other writers, yet he’s also wholly his own.

Part of his originality lies in his devotion to the lives of Nebraska settlers in various times of American history.

3.

Morris’s attachment to the Nebraska plains settles him directly in one of the major trends of post-war American fiction: regionalism. Regionalism is fiction rooted in the folklore, foibles, colloquialisms, landscape and people of a region. They are mostly realistic, focusing on small moments. Many fine writers fall into this (admittedly rather broad) category, including Welty, Kennedy, Carver, Proulx, Harrison, Watson and Haruf. They are all writers who obsessively detail their specific terrain (although each would probably be irritated with the label). They weave an inter-textual tapestry between their own novels. Morris’s novels aren’t inter-dependent, but rather provide a deeper, richer glow when taken together. In this way, Plains Songs is best read as part of a larger story.

Regionalism is partially a response to other movements in literature, as a movement away from the high-low, pyrotechnic hi-jinks of the postmodernists, for one example[2], or a rejection of the grotesque gothic horror stories often set in the American South. Many academics and critics have tried to pin down a set of rules or guidelines for regionalism, but I think the major characteristic is realism on a small scale. These small moments are narrowly focused on small, daily stuff: washing dishes, taking out the garbage, arguing with a neighbor. A good cognate is Italian neo-realism, life with all “the boring bits,” left in. It’s a rich, varied tradition, including comic novels, like The End of Vandalism, to more dramatic fare, such as Provinces of Night. Novelists in this vein often have less at stake—there are rarely murderers skulking about—in any kind of dramatic sense but strive to capture the way people actually live their lives. Morris mostly succeeds, although I wonder if in an earlier draft there weren’t a little more bickering or strife.

I haven’t yet fully formulated an opinion on regional fiction—I do think a very good argument could be made that a regional American cinema, where regions and states would develop movies situated within their localized cultures, would be a godsend to our national movie culture—as it has become intertwined with my thoughts on southern fiction over the years. I get tired of endless descriptions of the land; I want to traverse the bumps and ridges of the characters’ souls. And only very fine writers can get away with quotidian stuff and make it interesting for very long. But when a writer captures the banal in an exciting way—that’s magic.

Anyway, 1980 was a very fine year for American fiction. Shirley Hazzard published The Transit of Venus. William Maxwell released So Long, and See you Tomorrow. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was published, posthumously. Walker Percy put out The Second Coming. Powerhouse short story writer Eudora Welty released her Collected Stories. Although no one saw it at the time, one of our finest contemporary novelists, Marilynne Robinson, appeared on the scene with her first novel, Housekeeping. Pat Conroy published another autobiographical novel, The Lords of Discipline. E.L. Doctorow, Stephen King, Thomas Disch, Walter Tevis, and Woody Allen all published new fiction.

An impressive list. I don’t see a trend. The eighties were a fertile time for American subcultures, with punk rock, metal, and rap all appearing at the beginning of Reagan’s decade. A new wave of literary outlaws surfaced, many in direct opposition to the new president. But I’m straying from my topic[3].

Around the world, J.M. Coetzee published one of his many grim, elegant novels, Waiting for the Barbarians. Umberto Eco released his very fine medieval detective story, The Name of the Rose. Salmon Rushdie put out his epic (and highly overrated) novel of the formation of India, Midnight’s Children. Anthony Burgess published what many consider to be his magnum opus, Earthly Powers. William Golding, P.D. James, John Le Carre, Haruki Murakami, Graham Greene, and Douglas Adams all released new novels.

I don’t know if Plains Song is the best novel of the year, but it is rich and deserving of re-discovery.

[1] The conundrum is that the lifestyle he is eulogizing was one of constant work, and therefore anathema to the act of writing fiction.

[2] Or an outright rejection of the high modernism of Joyce, Stein, etcetera.

[3] More on this in a later post.

NBAW, number 34: 1984’s Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr.

23 Jan

(I haven’t written any of these in a while. The reasons are manifold: one, I’ve been writing other things, and quite frantically; two, I’ve been reading a spate of new novels, including The Book of Strange New Things, Lila, and The Laughing Monsters, among others; and three, of the remaining National Book Award winners, I’ve read a number of them and are reluctant to re-read them, or they are hard to find, or they are intimidating [William Gaddis and William Vollman, in particular]. Anyway, here we go.)

1.

In 1984, Harriet Doerr won the National Book Award for her beguiling, elegant and at times horrifying little novel of stories, Stones for Ibarra. It was her first novel. She was seventy-four.

Doerr was born into a wealthy California family, and grew up in a world of rarified privilege. She went to college in the late 1920s, uncommon for women at the time. She married a wealthy businessman. They moved to a small, craggy hamlet in Mexico to run a copper mine—separated from the townspeople by a giant gulf of culture, language, money and class—and here her husband was diagnosed with cancer. They stayed in Mexico for years, he running the mine and she building some kind of life for herself, before her husband died. She then returned to the U.S., went back to school for creative writing, and when she reached an age when many people were playing golf or filling out crossword puzzles, she started writing short fiction.

This brief sketch of Doerr’s life is useful, for it is the exact plot of Stones for Ibarra. Here are the first lines:

“Here they are, two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau. The driver of the station wagon is Richard Everton, a blue-eyed, black-haired stubborn man who will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines. On the seat beside him is his wife, Sara, who imagines neither his death nor her own, imminent or remote as they may be.”

The Evertons are atheists and outsiders in a Catholic country. The novel follows five or so years in their lives and in the lives of Ibarra. The book has dozens of little stories, anecdotes, village folklore, but little in the way of a larger plot. The tone moves from the small-town gossip to the bemused outsider. And it is these two points of view—the rural, often superstitious, primitive and “backward,” and the urbane, worldly, cynical and “forward”—that collide throughout the novel, in alternating chapters.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

Doerr has a horrid view of Mexican rural life. The lives of the various peasants are filled with daily violence and crippling boredom all tempered—or held in place—by a fatalistic stoicism. There’s no ambition, no prospects. Just drudgery and a dependence on the land or the largesse of wealthier peoples. And everything rests in a culture ruined by a particularly virulent strain of superstitious Catholicism.

Doerr presents within Mexico competing notions of civilization. The peasants of Ibarra find the behavior of the Evertons, and the basic amenities of city life they expect, to be strange. They also resist organization and planning, even when it would ease the town’s suffering. When the town has a problem with rabid dogs, the state sends a veterinarian to inoculate against rabies.

“On that day eighty-four dogs were immunized against rabies. And for every animal the owner was given a metal tag to attach to the collar he did not intend to buy.”

You can sense Doerr’s frustrations with the small-town mindset throughout the novel. A provincial small-mindedness. A dogged persistence to foolish, old ways.

Doerr’s writing style is elegant, spare and, the key word here, controlled. Here’s a sample, of two miners who are stealing from the mine:

“Crouched against the dripping walls, their mouths bitter with the taste of explosives and metal, they ate their lunches of rice and chiles, drank Pepsi Cola, and into the henequen bags that held these things they stuffed all the ore they could take away without suspicion. At the end of eight hours they carried the vividly striped sacks out of the tunnel, into the hoist elevator, and off down the road as if they weighed nothing and it was only pots and bottles that made them budge.”

This is very fine writing, spare but detailed.

But, well, it’s perhaps too controlled. These are men risking their lives for precious little, and the risks are underplayed. Other writers would stretch the thievery, elongate the tensions. Even the wilder events—and the book has suicides, murder, bar fights and so on—feel detached, pre-ordained.

She’s erudite and sophisticated, but also a touch dry and de-sexualized. There’s more than a touch of Paul Bowles in this little novel, the alienation and the odd chilliness radiating somewhere from within the sentences.

2.

Twelve years ago, a friend of mine said, concerning this very novel, “Well, you know what people say. Men write about big ideas, women write about small stuff.” She was comparing Doerr to Cormac McCarthy, who covers similar terrain.

I’m not sure about the idea of men and women writing about different things—there are plenty of women who traffic in big ideas, and enough male navel gazers to fill a museum—but I think Doerr is writing about big ideas, only in a peculiar way. For Ibarra is stuffed with opposites: belief versus non-belief, city versus country, Spanish versus English, and so on. And these opposites play out in her writing in an arch, yet also melancholic way.

In fact, I would argue that the problem with this novel—I enjoyed it quite a bit, by the by—is the effect her gloomy philosophy of pre-ordainment has on the overall drama. She’s a strong writer who writes some great scenes (perhaps the best follows Sara waiting for her husband in a café) but each scene carries little drama. She’s demystified things by zooming back and forth through time, and the result is a cogent argument for accepting one’s fate, but it lacks the pleasure, almost sexual, that you get when a good novel unfolds. Put another way: none of the characters seem to be acting on events. Everyone is wallowing in the flow of time.

There’s plenty of violence, too, including a pitiless drowning, a few savage beatings, even a murder or two. It all happens. It’s all part of that sunny world.

The closest novel to Ibarra is probably Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, which also zooms in and out of time, and presents the deaths of certain characters in an offhanded way. And there’s something vaguely similar, in the novel’s structure, to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio (although I don’t think either Doerr or Anderson would appreciate the comparison). And there’s just a hint of Katherine Anne Porter here, too.

Finally, Doerr has the distinction, shared only with boxing writer F.X. Toole, of entering publishing in her seventies. The novel is short, but meandering; it takes an experienced, wise writer to do that.

3.

Of course, one of the big draws of this novel is the depiction, by an outsider, of the daily ordeals of the Mexican peasant. Doerr’s Mexico is a dry, dusty desert in a culture dominated by bullshit machismo and terrible violence.

American fiction has an on-again, off-again love affair with Mexico. (You don’t see any of the kind of fiery lust in regard to our other neighbor, Canada.)

Many of our finest novels deal with the border, not the least of which is Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel of racism and bloodletting, Blood Meridian, or his magnificent All the Pretty Horses. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.—my vote for the greatest American novel—has sections set in Mexico. Wright Morris’s The Field of Vision involves American tourists in Mexico. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—loved by many, but not me—follows a drunken day in the life of an American in Mexico. And The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—we don’t know where the author, B. Traven, was from, but the fabulous film was made in the States—follows gold miners in Mexico.

This unstable love affair is even more prevalent in films. There’s something—and this is the cartoon version of it, I know—about the spice, local color, superstitions, grinding poverty, horrible violence and rampant corruption that entices writers and filmmakers and artists.

And, well, there is something exploitative, discomfiting and cartoonish about America’s creative class and their relationship to Mexico. But this makes sense, as a larger exploitation has existed between the two countries for over almost two hundred years. Doerr, and she isn’t alone here, presents a Mexico that seems inhabited by a totally alien mind, a landscape hammered by angry gods, a people blind to their own stagnation and confused by the very revolution that created the country they live in. You can almost hear Doerr screaming through her work: modernize! Update! Get with the fucking program!

I’m not faulting Doerr for her beliefs; she lived in Mexico for close to a decade. She saw what she saw. She lived through what she lived through. But I think The Savage Detectives, as just one example, delivers a more rounded view of Mexican life (with more humor and self-awareness. Also, lots of sex.)

4.

1984 was a great year for American fiction, both high and low. Louise Erdrich won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award[1] for her magnificent Love Medicine. Tom Clancy put out his military thriller, The Hunt for Red October[2]. Thomas Pynchon released his only volume of short stories, Slow Learner. Gore Vidal published the critically lauded Lincoln. William Gibson released the early cyberpunk masterpiece, Neuromancer. Stephen King and Peter Straub put out their very fine young adult fantasy, The Talisman. Sandra Cisneros published her excellent short story collection, The House on Mango Street. Padgett Powell, William Kennedy, Philip Roth, Kent Haruf and Allison Lurie all published fiction in a very crowded, dynamite year for American letters.

Around the world, fiction was cresting. Milan Kundera published his best novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. J.G. Ballard released his epic, autobiographical novel of living in a Japanese concentration camp, Empire of the Sun. Thomas Bernhard put out his excellent, disturbing novel, Woodcutters. The always interesting Julian Barnes published Flaubert’s Parrot. And Ian Banks released his highly lauded disturbed vision of British society, The Wasp Factory.

Amongst this impressive list, Doerr stands out partially as an oddity—due to her age and the chilly polish of her prose—and partially on the strength of her haunting, elliptical writing. It’s a tough case to argue her novel is better than Love Medicine, or some of the other novels here, but Stones for Ibarra is in its way unforgettable and moving.

[1] I plan on doing entries for these, too. Maybe?

[2] Okay, not for me, but he isn’t horrible.

Books I read in 2014.

5 Jan

So, I wrote a play. My second. Or third. Or fourth, depending on how you count it. (I wrote a miserable screenplay, plus a play with another writer. I’ve also written some short plays, and I helped a friend write a play, uncredited of course.) I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I’m rewriting and editing now.

You can tell how much work I’m doing on fiction by the lack of entries here. Hence the lack of entries for most of December.

Anyway, here’s my reading list for last year. With a few caveats and asides.

The problem is, I never record what I’m reading in the first half of the year. So I have to reconstruct the books I read. And I always forget things. And I don’t read bad books, so if a book slips on me, I drop it. I’ve tried to record the dropped books at the end. But the nature of the books I gave up on is, well, they’re forgettable.

So this is most of the books I read this year. I discovered six great new writers (for me): Anne Carson, Richard Brautigan, Richard Flanagan, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bruce Duffy and Ted Hughes.

I read tons of comics, too—I collect five or six monthly comics titles—and tried to list the graphic novels when applicable. I also re-read Grant Morrison’s run on X-men (better than I remember), as well as Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers (pure delight). I read the NYTimes Book Review and Arts section every week, plus all the movie and book reviews in The New Yorker. Plus a few random articles here and there, although as I get older this gets less and less common.

The books I read in 2014 (mostly in order):

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History—Really a series of lectures, intriguing in their outlook but vague, lacking in the zesty anecdotes I look for a book like this. MacMillan’s thesis is that history is misused, either on purpose or through poor scholarship, to a variety of ends.

Marathon—Graphic novel about the runner, the battle, the Persians and the Greeks. I didn’t love it.

The Sour Lemon Score—A Richard Stark Parker novel following a double cross and Parker, once again, stalking his quarry for revenge.

Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger—This was for research, and I love Preminger, and the book has interesting anecdotes, but I felt like the man remained a bit cloudy.

At the Mountains of Madness—The Lovecraft novella I re-read every few years, and this comic book version is very fine.

The Underwater Welder—A bizarre little comic from Jeff Lemire. He’s a very fine writer, when he isn’t prostituting his talents for bloviating DC comics. (His superhero stuff—and I’m not snob, I love superheroes—is horrible.) The same issues of time, sadness, regret, mistakes, and cosmic re-alignment all play out here.

A film education unto itself.

A film education unto itself.

Truffaut/Hitchcock—A film education unto itself, and a must-read film book for all movie fans. Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, and his answers are enlightening and intriguing. Great full-page photos, too. Hitchcock’s mind is so visual, and film-oriented, reading his analysis of his own movies makes for a fascinating exercise.

The Time of Illusion—Schnell’s thesis—that Nixon was the first president obsessed with the projection of his image out in the world, more concerned with his image than with reality—and his book is very good.

Enemies, a Love StoryIsaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about the Holocaust and a philandering Jew in Brooklyn, as he finds himself stuck between three women. Funny and acerbic.

The Crown of Feathers—Singer’s short stories are better than his novels, though. He remains one of the masters, and he can evoke a time and place and complex feelings in a few lines. My favorite is “One Day in Coney Island,” about a Jewish man in the late 1930s about to be deported back to Nazi-occupied Poland. He knows he will be killed, but cannot seem to bring himself to try and save himself. Funny and harrowing.

The Fixer—Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite writers, fires on all cylinders in this novel about a Ukrainian Jew who is wrongfully accused of murder, and his long incarceration and torture at the hands of the Czar’s operatives in prison. This is the second time I’ve read this, and it retains all the surprise and jolt and power.

Poems of the NightJorge Luis Borges’s collection of poetry, and unsurprisingly, it’s good. He’s succinct and deft and thick with classical allusions. He’s melancholic and witty. My favorite line: “Know that in some sense you are already dead.”

Film in the Third Reich—A major study of the movie industry under Goebbels in the 1930s, is an anecdote-rich story of the Nazi propaganda machine. I was doing research, but found this book to be a good starting point for the subject.

Men of Tomorrow—An academic-ish study of the first comic book creators. A lesser book than The Ten-Cent Plague, and inferior to Supergods, too. Still, worth reading for fans of the funny pages.

The Ministry of Special Cases—Nathan Englander’s novel about the disappeared in Argentina. Heralded to the heavens, but I can’t see it. I did not love this novel.

AmericanaDon DeLillo’s first novel, and it’s as if his talent emerged fully formed. If you like him, then this novel will make you happy. If you don’t, then all the shortcomings of his other novels are present here.

Disaster Was My God—I was so excited to read this after falling in love with The World As I Found It. And I love Rimbaud. So this “non-fiction novel” arrived with high expectations. But the author is too close to Rimbaud, somehow, to really make his sections come alive. Somehow, he knows too much about Rimbaud and cannot invent anything insightful about him. Good, interesting, even memorable, yes, but a major step down from his other novel.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

The World as I Found It—Probably the best novel I’ve read in ten years. It follows Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittengenstein and G.E. Moore through four decades of life, as they collide with each other across multiple countries. A non-fiction novel, I suppose, and thrilling, heart-breaking, terrifying, moving, and perplexing. I cannot recommend it enough.

Friday at Enrico’s—Don Carpenter—Hard Rain Falling is one of my all-time favorite novels—wrote this novel about writers passing through their lives and it remained unpublished at his death. Jonathan Lethem helped bring it to publication, and he should win some award for it. Enrico’s is touching, sad, harsh, gentle, insightful and thrilling, while remaining realistic, natural. His was a rare talent.

Sailing to Alluvium—John Pritchard’s third Junior Ray book and it’s probably the funniest. Profane anecdotes, x-rated recipes, japery and tomfoolery. The second half of the book follows Leland Shaw, from the first novel, in his undulating poetic journals, obsessing over the askew in nature and time. Somehow encompasses the entire Southern literary canon in its pages.

Galveston—After True Detective, I rushed out to read Pizzolotto’s novel. I needn’t have bothered; the things that made Detective fantastic—the darkness, the narrative trickery, the high weirdness and occultic ambiguity—are all missing from this crime novel that is pretty run of the mill.

Hawthorn & Child—Stunning. A crime novel that has no crime and no detection, instead a series of finely etched scenarios where two detectives, Hawthorn and Child, perambulate in and out of this snaking narratives. I loved it.

Annihilation—Oh boy, a misfire. The first in a trilogy about nature run amok, a group of scientists push into the zone, to discover what happens to their predecessors.

Swamplandia!—Hmmm, a tough one. Russell writes good sentences—she captures the wild fecundity of swampy Florida with perfection—but her storytelling is off. The characters do odd things, the story flits from different points of view, all to the detriment of the novel. I wanted to read more female novelists this year. This was not a great place to begin.

Chess StoryGrand Budapest Hotel brought Stefan Zweig back into my life. This, his last manuscript he mailed to the publisher before committing suicide, details a chess match between two chess players, one an idiot savant, the other a refugee who mastered the game by playing games in his mind, while incarcerated.

Erasmus—One of Zweig’s many biographies, a hollering cheer for one of the most learned men in the Middle Ages, and filled with accolades. A fascinating book.

The Good Lord Bird—James McBride won the National Book Award for this fine and funny picaresque following a cross-dressing freeman who joins up with John Brown. Modeled after/inspired by Little Big Man.

Young God—A short story or novella stretched to novel length through white space. Still, a pretty good book. She details the rise of a young white trash hooligan in her father’s drug and prostitute trade. Fun to read in a brutish, nasty sort of way.

A Good Man Is Hard To FindFlannery O’Connor’s best collection of stories, and one of the greatest collections of the Twentieth Century. She’s artful, horrifying, and haunted by a dark Catholicism and a half-hidden racism.

Wittengenstein’s Mistress—David Marksen’s last woman on earth story, filled with mystery and word play and rumination on two thousand years of western civilization. A challenging but rewarding wonder.

Going After Cacciato—Tim O’Brien’s first Vietnam novel. An evocative, witty, and heart-breaking novel of American magical realism, and a very fine compendium to The Things They Carried.

Collected Short Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—It’s sacrilege to some, but these stories just aren’t as good as they should be. Wordy, a bit deflated, pales in comparison to his good novels.

Sailor & Lula—I’m not a big fan of Barry Gifford, and the Sailor and Lula stories—the basis for the great David Lynch movie, Wild At Heart—served as another confirmation of this. When reading Gifford, I always think, “There’s something missing.

Tres—Roberto Bolaño’s best book of poetry.

Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman—Ernest J. Gaines’s very fine novel of a long-lived woman, who as a child is freed from slavery and lives to see much of the 20th century. Gaines is a somber, dedicated craftsman, and an underrated writer.

Southern Cross The Dog—Not a good book. A pastiche of half a dozen Deep South tropes—the sinful preacher, the bluesman who sold his soul, etc.—held together by over the top writing. How this got a front page review on the NYTimes is a mystery.

The Collected Stories of John Cheever—What can I say? A must-own, must-read book by an American master.

Kubrick—Michael Herr’s insightful, conversational study of Kubrick through the years. Lucid and enjoyable.

Augustus—I reread this John Williams’s novel every other year. He tells the story of Julius Caesar’s death and the rise of his appointed heir through letters between various parties. It’s at once learned, thrilling, elegant and dignified. I cannot praise it highly enough.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet—A misfire from Saul Bellow, but a fascinating one. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor wandering around New York, seemingly pursued by a buff African American criminal. There’s other stuff going on, and Bellow’s prose is sometimes a bit overheated, but he never, ever bores you.

Conspiracy Against the Human Race—A summary of the pessimistic philosophers—including Schopenhauer—who argue for an anti-natalist position: the human race should stop having progeny, collectively, and die out. A bizarre book, mainly because it was kind of boring.

Them—A group of characters in a dysfunctional information system, writ against the backdrop of social unrest in Detroit. Joyce Carol Oates has written bucketloads of novels of varying quality, but this is a very fine piece of fiction.

Dog Soldiers—Robert Stone’s novel of drug dealing and Vietnam follows a handful of hippies who have stumbled into a drug deal gone sour. One of my favorite novels.

Steps—Jerzy Kosinski’s bizarre, cryptic, but marvelous short story collection is a study of perverse sexuality, aggressive machismo, and innate evil.

Blind Date—A wild, violent, rapey novel by Kosinski that is well-written, intriguing, and it feels artful, but it’s mostly filth. Perhaps the most evil novel I’ve read this year.

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter—One of the more heralded short story writers, and she has plenty to say. The form has rocketed along, however, and Porter’s stories feel quaint and dated.

He Slew the Dreamer—William Bradford Huie paid James Earle Ray to tell him everything he did in the years leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Huie then checked out each claim, finding some to be true and others false. But what he discovers is that Ray did indeed kill King, and kill him alone. (He might have been helped by one other man.)

Clark Gifford’s Body—Bizarro cult writer Kenneth Fearing (of Big Clock fame; and despite appearances, he’s American) wrote this pastiche novel about a pirate radio station being taken over by militants. Not as good as it sounds.

The Galton Case—Heir to the Raymond Chandler tough guy patois (and very fine writing), Ross McDonald’s most famous novel, partly the basis for the Paul Newman movie, Harper.

The Great Gatsby—I decided to re-read Fitzgerald’s slim masterpiece after suffering through twenty minutes of the Baz Lurhmann doggerel. I found the novel spare and moving, and also misunderstood; the characters aren’t facile, they’re damaged. They’ve found a way through their suffering and indignity is a derangement of the senses.

An Empire of Their Own—Jewish moguls brought Eastern European shtetl values to a new, mythic vision of America; this is Neal Gabler’s thesis anyway, in this very fine history of the first movie producers and the empire they built. Gabler makes a very convincing case that each studio reflected the values of the men who ran it.

Seriously Funny—An episodic tour of the outlaw comics of the 1950s and 60s, including Mort Sahl, Bob NewHart, Sid Caesar, and Woody Allen. Good but not great.

A Ghost on the Throne—The history of the civil wars that followed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death. Perhaps the best book on ancient history I’ve read, with detailed accounts of all the major players, lucidly written, with an eye on novelistic pacing. I couldn’t get enough.

The Time of the Assassins—Henry Miller’s astonishing manifesto on Rimbaud, which reads as equal parts autobiography, exegesis, and defense of poetry. Perhaps Miller’s best book (a claim which will strike many as sacrilege).

Slayground—Darwyn Cooke continues his superior adaptations of the Richard Stark novels on Parker. This is the weakest of the series so far, but still filled with fantastic drawings and design.

Five Ghosts, Volume 1—Intriguing graphic novel of a man who is possessed by the ghosts of literary characters. Great art, great conceit, we’ll see if the writer grows into his creation.

Ship FeverAndrea Barrett’s erudite short stories detail scientists struggling at their profession in an age of superstition and distrust. A very fine collection.

The Jugger—Another Parker novel, and as good as the rest of them, as Parker grapples with small town hoods and an unscrupulous doctor.

Travels with Herodotus—Krupskinski tells of his early travel writing days, juxtaposing his adventures with those of the great Herodotus. Charming, insightful and very, very good. A masterclass in autobiographical writing.

Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in America—Dave Itzkoff tells the backstory of Network—one of my all-time favorite movies—and although this book is diverting, it seems to sidestep something vital about the movie. Not as good as it sounds.

Going Clear—Oh my God, the book gave me nightmares. Lawrence Wright unearths the genesis, evolution and (alleged[1]) abuses of the church of Scientology through some of the most harrowing reportage I’ve read in years.

The End of Vandalism—Tom Bissell’s small-town novel of manners, following half a dozen characters through quotidian crises that resonate with a warm comic glow. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, only Bissell is a major talent all his own. One of the best novels I read this year.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Gabrielle D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War—One of my favorite books of the year, a sprawling, epic study of the Italian writer who decided to set himself up as dictator of a tiny island after World War I. Excellent, excellent, excellent.

The Poison Belt—Droll, arch, possibly it’s the end of the world science fiction comedy from Arthur Conan Doyle, who accomplishes a lot in the course of this little novella. My favorite line was from a butler to his employer, hearing the world is going to end that very night: “Very good, sir. Can I have the rest of the evening off?”

Grove Book of Hollywood–Vignettes and letters from the producers, writers, and stars that haunted Hollywood for the past forty years. A very fine book, with a thousand anecdotes. Research, but worth reading.

The Dinner—Herman Koch’s over-praised and just, well, not very good novel about manners and lurking criminality and I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. I would re-read another novel on this list before returning to it.

“The Man Who Would Be King”—I hate to say it, but I think the movie might be better. Kipling’s tale of two soldier-adventurers who journey into Afghanistan to set themselves up as kings in the tribal areas. It all goes so very, very wrong.

After Earth—I wrote this title down, and I must have read it, but I can’t remember it and I can’t find it online. Which is puzzling. The mind is a strange thing. Either the book was bad, or I have the title wrong, or I’m crazy.

The Education of Little Tree—Asa Carter—the author of George C. Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech—writes a touching, funny and wonderful autobiographical novel about being raised by his American Indian grandparents in Depression-Era America. So much better than it sounds.

Educating Esme—Written about the very school where I work! Esme keeps a diary of her first year teaching, filled with witty little asides and her observations about her students. It’s a fun, if thin and self-congratulatory little book.

The Talented Mr. Ripley—A book I should have read a long time ago. Ripley is a beguiling, sexually ambiguous schemer who is paranoid and cruel. Here he navigates murders and intrigue through a miasma of self-pity. Patricia Highsmith rules.

The Noir Years—A nonfiction account of the 40s, and I cannot remember a single word of it. (Which, for people who know me, is very, very rare.)

Shosha—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about a Jewish writer in Poland juggling his personal and professional failings as the Nazis inch closer and closer. Philosophical, funny, bitter, heart-breaking.

Dissident Gardens—Lethem’s wordy novel about leftist radicals in Brooklyn, I wanted to love it but I didn’t, every character has a dozen qualifiers, every sentence is too dense by half, everything is working too fucking hard, I didn’t finish. Another Lethem disappointment.

Have You Seen . . . ?—David Thomson’s book of 1,000 mini-essays on movies he loves, and I love it, too. I dip into it every few weeks, read one or two, and put it back on the shelf.

Moments that Made the Movies—The first David Thomson dud, a closer look at two dozen scenes from famous films that Thomson argues created cinematic language. Great photos, though.

Warlock—Jim Starlin’s fabulous—and stunningly strange—odyssey of a cloned man who sacrifices himself to save a fake world, is resurrected, worshiped as a god, and must defeat the worst evil the universe has ever seen: a future version of himself. Wonderful, silly, chatty nonsense from one of the great comic artists in his prime.

A Sentimental Novel—Alan Robbe-Grillet’s last novel, and it’s a doozy. Increasingly violent descriptions of pornographic violence towards adolescent girls, rendered in not that interesting prose. The French condemned it as the perverse ramblings of a semi-demented man. Having read most of it, I can’t disagree. One to avoid.

To Urania—I didn’t read all of Brodsky’s sad, trembling poems, but enough. He’s dense, erudite, serious and melancholic.

Beautiful Ruins—Wow, what a disappointing novel. The first fifteen pages are excellent, then Jess Walter lets his narrative slide into sludgy drivel. I won’t tell you the plot; it’s not half the novel it’s blurbs pretend it to be.

Collected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks—Brooks is a fine poet, and her cycle of poems about Bronzeville, much of it included here, is very fine indeed.

Assumption—Percivel Everett remains an overlooked writer of immense talent and ambition. Here he tells what seems to be a straight-forward tale of a shaggy dog police officer in a small town, but there’s darkness and plenty of it afoot in his sleight of hand trickery.

Girl lit only by fireflies—Jim Harrison’s three novellas, and the first one, Brown Dog, is fantastic. Brown Dog is a summation of many of Harrison’s heroes: grumpy, aging, epicurean, philosophical, ribald. He gets stuck with a corpse and—just go and read it.

Complete poems of Raymond Carver—Excellent, terse poetry from a hard-drinker, and every bit as good as his stories (if you are a fan; better, if you are not). The book that got me back into poetry.

The Great Leader—Jim Harrison—one of my favorite novelists, for he is so very, very wild—returns to the detective story, of sorts, as a retired police detective hunts for a cult leader, while taking time to get drunk, peep at his young neighbor, genuflect at the alter of the derriere, and walk through the upper peninsula of Michigan. A great novel.

Crow—Ted Hughes’s bizarre poems about a character here at the dawn of existence. Simply great.

Wodwo—Another Ted Hughes bizarro book of half-poetry, half-prose. One of the weirder poetry collections out there, written by a master.

Shirley—I was excited about this half-homage, half-creepy character study of Shirley Jackson. But the best thing I can say about it is that it sent me back to her stories. Not very good, and perplexingly so.

“Seven Types of Ambiguity”—Shirley Jackson’s simple, short, ultra-disturbing tale of a small act of viciousness.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

Trout Fishing in America—Richard Brautigan’s superb book, that appears to be nonsense, but is a profound statement on living in a country that makes less and less sense. Still relevant, and still superior, and yet also a time capsule of the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. I loved, loved, loved it.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster—Brautigan’s whip-smart collection of poems; the best follow Baudelaire through various American cities and events. Maybe my favorite poetry collection this year, although there is some truth that Brautigan is, like Maugham’s self-deprecating analysis of his own work, the king of the second-tier writers.

In Watermelon Sugar—A very fine, if thin, novel from Brautigan, nestled somewhere between The Journals of Albion Moonlight and Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope.

“Charles”—Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of kindergarten malfeasance and parental apathy. Great.

James T. Farrell Literary Essays—Pretty good little pieces on a variety of 1920s and 1930s American writers. His piece on Dos Passos—one of my favorite authors, and the writer of the last book I read this year—is probably the best of the bunch. Still, I wouldn’t run down to the bookstore looking to buy it.

Selected Non-fictions by Jorge Luis Borges—Borges’s essays fit perfectly with his short stories, which fit perfectly with his poems; all of it is a superior, magical, oblique mind at work, that loves paradoxes, labyrinths, antiquities. Borges seems to have understood his body of work as a body of work.

Best American Comics, 2013—Meh.

Flex Mentallo—Perhaps the key comic to all lf Grant Morrison’s varied obsessions, themes, motifs, and multi-linear narrative brio, the comic to unlock the Morrisonian conundrum at the center of his vast oeuvre. A junkie is dying in the rain. The last superhero in the world is looking for one of his former colleagues. A little boy sees the future in comic books. Circular, self-perpetuating, comics as mimetic virus—brilliant. And who will choose to save the world?

Confederate General at Big Sur—A step down for Mr. Brautigan, from Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar, this novel feels the most like a Beat novel. In some ways, it’s a comic equivalent to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Still worth reading.

Captain America: Winter Soldier—I re-read most of Ed Brubakers run on Captain America, and it’s a historic run. He heightens the various side characters, including Sharon Carter and Sam Wilson and Arnim Zola, but he also brings in the Winter Soldier, one of the best resurrects Marvel has pulled off. Michael Lark and Jackson Guice and Steve Epting are three of the finest pencilers in the business, so the art is great, too.

Downstream from Trout Fishing in America—A writer and friend of Richard Brautigan, Keith Abbott, writes a very insightful, and heart-breaking, account of his friendship with Brautigan. A very good book.

The DreamerCharles Johnson’s novel of Martin Luther King and the vexing swirl of philosophy, Christianity, and non-violent ethics that surrounded him. Being Johnson, he creates a doppelganger—a rough and tumble rogue who happens to be a dead ringer for MLK—as the entry point to this very fine novel of ideas. Johnson is underrated.

Fibonacci Batman—Poems by Maureen Seaton, and pretty good ones at that.

Agostino—A short novel about a young boy and his burgeoning sexuality, as filtered through his falling in with a band of young hooligans. And yet, all of Italy’s racial and political problems seem to be contained in the boy’s peregrinations. One of the best short novels I’ve ever read.

Dreaming of Babylon—Richard Brautigan’s wry, oddball take on the detective story is amusing, but thin. Not his best book.

A novel in verse you won't soon forget.

A novel in verse you won’t soon forget.

Autobiography of Red—Anne Carson’s brilliant, astonishing, hard to describe novel in verse is one of the best books I read this year. It follows Geryon and Herakles, both the myths and as two teenage boys.

The 47 Ronin—Comic book version of the classic Japanese tale. The story explains a lot about the extreme nature of Japanese honor and the Bushido Code.

The Henry Miller Reader—Dense, intricate, full of verve and brio, with highs and lows, a very fine book. Miller remains one of the great outlaws of American letters.

The Lifetime Reading Plan–Clifton Fadiman’s outline of the western canon—it’s all the reading you’ll need for a lifetime, as he suggests—is a very fine overview of the great writers of the past. This is the third time I’ve read it. The only caveat: books like this can supplant the reading of the books they’re about. Put another way: it’s a very simple trap, to read summaries, introductions and overviews, as opposed to the real thing.

Nixonland—One of the best books I read this year, 800 pages following the rise, fall and rise of Nixon, while also encapsulating the student movements, the Vietnam War, the Black Power movements, the urban riots, the various commissions and the despicable black bag tactics of the increasingly paranoid Nixon. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Seventies—Historian Bruce ‘s survey of the American cultural and political landscape in during the 1970s. I read this for background research, but it’s very good.

Plainwater—Essays and poems from Anne Carson, one of the best writers I “discovered” in 2014. Her pieces on the Camino de Santiago are superb.

The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story—The author’s father was the lead detective on the Green River Killer case for two decades, and this graphic novel follows the ups and downs of the case. A white-knuckle comic and a touching monument to a father.

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews—Interesting bit of ephemera that is more hagiography and self-love than anything else. Still, Bradbury was a warm, generous person and it shows. There are some worthwhile little nuggets in here, too.

The Penultimate Truth—One of Philip K. Dick’s lesser novels, following the bulk of humanity working underground, believing the surface is unlivable; on the surface, wealthy ad men keep the subterranean slaves working, through false news feeds and a fake leader. Dick being Dick, he focuses on mid-level office workers being bounced back and forth between near-omnipotent powers. (And there’s a time traveling American Indian.)

A Girl and a Gun—An overview of the best crime films from the 40s and 50s. A reference book I return to every few years.

Drown—I finally made it around to Junot Diaz, and he is a very fine short story writer.

Lila—Masterful return to Marlynne Robinson’s Gilead, delving further into the complicated theology of Calvinism, sin and redemption.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

The Laughing Monsters—Denis Johnson’s slender novel of international intrigue follows an American agent in a convoluted triple cross. The novel starts poorly but the last fifty pages are dynamite: bizarre, thrilling, and unsettling.

Tales of Ovid—Ted Hughes translates Ovid in a very fine and oddly disturbing version of the Greek shape-shifting opus.

The Company—Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s main confidantes, wrote a couple of mediocre novels in the early 1980s. This is one of them. I read it because I stumbled across this doing some research. It follows a story similar to Nixon’s, and it isn’t very good at all.

The Book of Strange New Things—Michel Faber’s science fiction first contact novel, and it’s a heartbreak. A Christian minister travels to a distant planet to witness to an alien race that is excited—perhaps too excited—about the Bible. Meanwhile, his wife faces crisis after crisis here on earth. A very good novel, but saturated with melancholy and loss and sadness.

The Ladies’ Man—A lesser known Richard Price novel, following a confused protagonist through a week of hard-living in New York. Funny, harrowing, sexy.

Gaudette—Still working my way through this novel in verse, by the inimitable Ted Hughes, and it’s a doozy. A pastor slips into the underworld and is replaced by a manqué, who tries to live as the pastor does. Disaster follows.

The Sportswriter—Always wanted to read this, and now I have. Frank Bascombe was once a promising fiction writer but he’s turned his back on all of it to write about sports. He’s a dreamy, disassociated fellow, and the novel follows a chunk of his life. The writing is clean. The characters are interesting. And the novel is significant. But it’s also infuriating, with a poisonous undercurrent of malaise and ennui. (It isn’t clear how much of this is actually Ford’s point of view.)

Andre The Giant—Box Brown’s comic autobiography of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time is touching, taut and thrilling

The Dead Circus—Bouncy crime novel of Hollywood in the 1960s and the 1980s, as imagined by a screenwriter, the author Kaye, who is interested in neatly constructed scenes and ultimate redemption. He’s picked the Manson family as part of his saga, and looking for redemption there is a futile endeavor. Kaye isn’t a bad writer, but he isn’t a great one, either.

The Words—Jean Paul Sartre’s autobiography focuses on his childhood in the French countryside. His evocation of the falling-in-love feeling of learning how to read is a superbly moving experience. I forget, and so does much of the culture, that Sartre was a writer of fiction, first.

“No Exit”—Sartre’s one-act play about three characters in hell. His argument—and he grinds the reader’s face into it—is that it’s other people, with their petty desires and jealousies, that make us miserable and insane.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North—A novel of Australian POWs in World War II, being worked to death by their Japanese overlords, who are simultaneously starving them. Elegant, sophisticated, grim, violent, funny, jarring, sexy, ingeniously plotted and told out of sequence, this intricate novel follows a handful of characters, and their wives, through fifty years of their lives. Winner of this past year’s Man Booker Award, and I loved every page of it. A story that stays with you.

Books—Larry McMurtry’s comforting and solid book about his love of reading and his related passion for antiquarian bookselling, as well as the eccentric lessons he’s learned from being a book-dealer for the last 50 years. Feels like chatting with a well-read friend, while sitting in a comfortable chair.

The Corpse Exhibition—Short stories, a la Bolaño, from the first major Iraqi writer to emerge from the war-battered country. The stories deal with horror, terror, murder, alienation, confusion, but what should we expect from a title like this? I liked these stories, but I didn’t love them.

Sixty Stories—Barthelme is an important writer, a serious writer, a comic writer, and an acquired taste. His stories follow no set pattern; they belong to no genre; they veer from the sarcastic to the ironic to the violent to the silly to the slaptstick; they offer no resolution; and yet, they stand as a major achievement. A love it or hate it kind of book. I like it just fine.

Number One—John Dos Passos is one of my favorite writers, and I try to read one of his novels a year. Number One is the story of a political consultant falling to pieces as his candidate rises in stature. A propulsive and shattering experience, leaner and less verbally pyrotechnic than his great U.S.A. trilogy, but still one of the better political novels I’ve read.

Books I failed to read much of:

The Enormous Room—I’ve wanted to read e.e. cummings’s World War I autobiographical novel for almost 15 years. I got the chance and . . . I hated it. Cummings emerges as a pompous, bloviating, self-loving ass.

The Annals of Chile—More poetry, only this collection, which is pretty good, didn’t blow my hair back.

Leapfrog—Just . . . nonsense.

Hard to be a God—the best argument for good writing being a priority. This very fine idea—future humans have found an earth-planet with humans on it, going through a period of the middle ages, and one of them decides to descend from his perch and declare himself a god—is ruined by really bad writing. A friend of mine says he thinks it’s a bad translation; I think he’s being generous.

Redeployment—I made it through three of Phil Klay’s stories before the library asked for the book back. He can write. He deserves praise. I will make it back to his collection in the new year. I hope.

Renoir, My Father—Lovingly rendered, textured and highly readable account of Renoir, the painter, and his life and times, by his son, the filmmaker. I will read the rest of it, but I wanted to savor its evocation of a lost time in small allotments.

A Death in Belmont—Well, I was reading this in a pinch, as I had read all the books I brought with me on vacation and this was only a quarter. It’s by Sebastian Junger, and follows a man wrongly accused of a murder done by the Boston Strangler. Not bad—I have a guilty pleasure kind of relationship to lurid true crime books—but once I returned home I cast it aside.

The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie—God, I tried to make it through Muriel Spark’s novel of a teacher and her students, where the teacher oversteps her mission and begins to manipulate her students. I tried and failed.

There were others, but I cannot recall them. And that’s it. Here’s to the books of 2015.

[1] Must be careful.