Better late than never: a slightly under-cooked review of His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon

Author’s Note

Even by my limited to non-existent standards, this is not exactly a timely post.

To explain: once upon a time I pitched a review of Stephen Dixon’s latest novel, His Wife Leaves Him, to a certain online publication for which I have a lot of respect, to which I hoped to contribute, because, fighting the good fight, and all that. Time never worked out in the review’s favor: there was a significant delay between when I pitched the review and when review copies of the book were made available. And then there was the time spent reading the book and writing up the initial draft of the review. And then there was the time spent waiting for feedback to come in from the review’s editor; the feedback was excellent and the editor neatly called me out on what I was doing with the review and how it could stand to be improved. I can’t thank the editor enough for that feedback; but, unfortunately, between the time I submitted the original review and the time the feedback reached my inbox, I’d picked up another project that was basically the exact opposite of a writing project, a project that was sucking up every ounce of free time and energy for an exciting cause. Responding to the review feedback would have required a significant investment of time and energy because I would have needed to have dived back into the book and into the review itself to do justice to the feedback I was given. Priorities collided. I dropped the review. Next thing I knew it was Christmas. Next thing I new it was 2014. Next thing I knew it was June 2014 and I thought about the review and the fact that it was June 2014 and I started hyperventilating in my brain. Out of curiosity this last week I reached out to the review editor to apologize for dropping the ball and to confirm my suspicion that we were past all the sell-by dates on this thing. In the time that had passed she had moved on from the publication, and, well, that’s that.

Looking back, it probably makes sense that this was, I shouldn’t say a bad choice for a subject to pitch for that publication, but maybe more of a slightly misguided choice, a case of optimistic hopes getting the better of rational decision making. Something. The challenge with the piece that I turned in was that it tried to be a little bit too Internet-clever; and while there was and is enthusiasm in spades for the book and the author, there may have lacked a certain critical depth or nuance of insight into the subject to make it really shine as a review that would motivate readerships and discussions like I’d originally ideally hoped to provoke. I love the book and I love the author and I want you to love the book and the author as well and I’m not sure I found the right voice or the right insights to properly communicate that fact and that passion and the importance of the novel. For all my words, there just wasn’t enough there, really.

In short, I’d written a pretty good blog post, not a really great book review. Which, frankly, I think, be it 2005 or 2014, is perfectly fine, even a little noble.* Because passion and substance are hardly mutually exclusive, and, it might be said, might even depend on each other, a little bit, and by stumbling our way through one we can find our way to the other, and failed attempts and false starts are still superior to empty coughs and blank pages.

So with that in mind I’m sharing a lightly cleaned up version of the original review as I submitted it. I took some of the feedback and rejected other bits of the feedback, depending on how the breeze was passing through my office in that second; you’d be forgiven for not taking this as seriously as I once would have liked you to have. Selfishly, I’d like to close the book on a piece of writing I was beyond thrilled to attempt, regardless of how close to its final form I ever got it; I need to kick this weight off my mind’s back. I don’t write enough these days to completely write it off. And, let’s face it, this probably isn’t the last I’ll write about Stephen Dixon’s work, and it’s certainly not the last I’ll read of his work, but I need to find a better headspace in which to do it if what’s in my head is really going to sync up with what’s in my heart and my gut.

Optimistically, though, as well, there is the hope that the passion I hope you’ll find below might transfer, that the love I have and had for the book can still mean something, itself, even this far out of date and out of context. And, who knows, what’s next.

* – I can somewhat proudly say I’ve written both at this point in what passes for my (unpaid, limited, impassioned) writing career; in both cases I’ve probably benefited more, personally, from the act of writing than the publication of the end results of those efforts. As for you, the reader: I literally don’t know. I’d like to think I’ve made someone somewhere buy a book they went on to like or feel challenged by, I’d like to think I’ve provoked a laugh or two or a thought or three along the way, but it’s honestly a little hard to tell, especially when there isn’t a comment section attached to the piece in question. Or when it’s suddenly 2014 and what comments sections there are are either the domains of, at best, tumbleweeds, at worst, scum and villainy. Never mind that, being 2014, the odds of anything getting read anywhere are pretty much completely dismal. Which sounds misanthropic, hand-wringing, self-pitying. Sure. But ask me again tomorrow. And/or again tomorrow’s tomorrow. I may answer the same way. Or.

Or.

—-

His Wife Leaves Him
Stephen Dixon
Fantagraphics Books

I.

Life is too short to repeat yourself: for what I feel is my decent, personal take on who Stephen Dixon is and what he does, go here to read my review of his 2010 story collection, What Is All This? (If you haven’t read Dixon yet, either, you might start with that book, too; though, spoiler alert, I think the subject of the review below is excellent, one of the author’s best, This? offers a better in-the-round portrait of Dixon’s extensive writing career.) Pretend there’s a big roman numeral I. at the top of that review and then when you’re done (or when you’ve come up from This? for air) come back here to pick up with part

II.

two, in which I discuss His Wife Leaves Him, Dixon’s latest novel, a meditation in portrait form on life and death, love, anger, and contemplation, a book I might consider his masterwork if my heart weren’t already with his earlier Interstate. Of course, it’s true, that you’ll always remember your first, but also for me, in this case, with these two books, there’s a two-sides-of-one-story thing happening, Interstate being the yin to the yang of Wife, in which, in Wife, the nightmare in question is made real, inescapable and sad.

(Except, not. Of course.)

Wife is the story of Martin Samuels and his wife Gwendolyn, who passes away following a pair of strokes and lengthy periods of harrowing at-home recovery. Through an extended, musical opening paragraph—the literary equivalent of climbing an entire range of mountains in one shot—Martin cares for and rages against Gwendolyn and their circumstances, holds himself together through the funeral and the later memorial alongside their two grown daughters, while beginning to remember their life together. Following that opening paragraph (39 pages) is a second paragraph (47 pages) that maps, through a rapid succession of dreams, the emotional terrain of a man in grief. Where dreams, in novels, can sometimes feel like cheap cheats, Dixon uses them to set an elegiac tone for whole swaths of Martin’s life, a subtle counter-melody to the remainder of the specific recollections that follow, as the novel travels from memory to memory, Martin’s regrets and compulsions pursuing him throughout the story, before he finally leaves his bedroom, to face what comes next. It’s complexly emotional reading, happy and sad, oddly funny and generally apolitical and entirely sincere, with little to no irony separating the specificness of the book from the specificness of our own stories and lives: at some point, we all have to make ourselves that final, first cup of coffee.

Dixon’s language is chewy, tasty in a way I’d like to think William Gass would appreciate. (Though, Dixon’s is more big-scoop-of-vanilla, Gass’s more the-entire-sundae-toppings-bar-at-once.) That language and Dixon’s way with moments are what keep me coming back to his work, time after time. There’s a free rhythm to his dialogue and description that makes his work feel more like a steady series of inhalations and exhalations than a breathless run through thin air. He has a way with turning scenes on a dime, precisely shaking a sequence’s cadence to maximize effect and maintain interest, as with the explosion of anger that follows the unfortunate piss-related incident that precedes Gwen’s death:

Without looking at her, he says “I need a minute to myself, but don’t worry, I’ll eventually take care of you,” and goes into the kitchen and drinks a glass of water and feels like throwing the glass into the sink but puts it down and bangs the top of the washing machine with his fist and yells “God-all-fucking-mighty, what am I going to do with you? I wish you’d die, already, die, already, and leave me in fucking peace.” Then he thinks “Oh, no. I hope she didn’t hear me; it’s the worst thing I’ve ever said.”

He follows the winding trains of thought that connect passages:

Ah, why’s he speculating on something that didn’t happen? Because it’s interesting, going through all the possibilities that could have happened and then zeroing in on what actually did. And what the hell else he’s got to do now? And he likes the idea of, well…of, that he was going to meet and get to know her no matter what.

And he finds poignance and meaning in his flowing streams of dialogue:

“…And she has a wonderful disposition, which is not looks, but helps. Soft, calm, as is her voice.” “How old is she?” and he told him and Manny said “Lots of years between you two, but that’s all right. She’ll take care of you in your old age.”

That said, the subject matter is often grim. His Wife Leaves Him is preoccupied with the emotional and physical truths of caring for the sick, of dealing with one’s own advancing age. The frequent references to piss and shit reflect the recurring difficulties of difficult love, of dealing with failings, both your own and of others. It’s an uncomfortable and compelling contrast to the simpler, more joyous aspects of meeting someone and spending a life with them, of losing them and having to figure out what to do next.

I think Dixon’s heart lies with the short story more than the novel; or, rather, with the idea of story, period, length be damned. In ramping up to this review, and in my steady progress toward reading everything of his I can get my hands on, I read both 30, his 1999 “novel,” and Story of a Story and Other Stories: A Novel. They both evince Dixon’s seemingly semi-intentional interest in mucking about with form. They were both enjoyable yet frustrating reads, with little narrative momentum to propel the reader from chapter to chapter or page to page. The stakes, as they are, can feel a bit low. It’s a common thread to Dixon’s novels, or, again, “novels.” They can at times feel like bundles of stories that just happen to have fallen between the same cover pages, or like stories that grew past the sizes any magazine or anthology could neatly contain. Historically, Dixon has either chosen to concern himself with this issue or to seem to ignore it completely; for example, I. and End of I. seem to choose not to, while Frog addresses it through masterful sequencing, Interstate offers its own fantastic solution. The story of Wife provides a pure sort of synthesis of these goals and interests, with its simply connected flow of memories and moments offering perhaps one ideal form of what a Dixon novel might look like, were he to choose one solution and stick with it. That said, I’m glad he hasn’t, and that he probably won’t. The restless variations he finds within what are undeniably his paragraphs and sentences serve to further make any book or story of his a new opportunity for the reader, for me, to see the form from a fresh vantage point.

His Wife Leaves Him most recalls Interstate in its ending. In the closing chapter of Interstate, Dixon pulls immense tension from the reversal of the seven-times-repeated nightmare that preceded it. In Interstate, everything is horrible, until it actually isn’t. That “happy” ending is as emotionally fraught as the rest of the novel. With Wife, the worst really does come to pass, the death of a loved one; nothing, no memory or dream, can reverse that. The final, understated pages demand sober contemplation.

And, here, I break in, some eight to ten months after I originally handed in this review, and I’ll forgive you if you choose to break away at this point; we’ll meet again. I’ll say that the rest of the review dealt with the idea of endings; the one point I’ll hold on to here (“As I said, I think asserting the idea that Dixon could have a single masterwork would be to do him a disservice,”) is, I think, a good point, but, maybe, it’s where the review broke down a bit for me, and where I couldn’t really find the words to make critical stuff of the emotional and intellectual experience of reading and processing so much of a single writer’s back catalogue. Like I said, this isn’t political writing, and while it’s deeply substantial, it’s the stuff of internal importance; Dixon isn’t here to hold a mirror to society and effect change or anything like that, he’s here to make us feel a thing or two, to participate in story, and, dammit, that’s enough. But what do I say about that? I don’t know. It’s what gives me years-erasing writer’s block, that realization that given a really great piece of work, I literally sometimes have no idea how to verbally respond to it without coming off like an attention-seeking dork. And so then. I didn’t really know how to end this review. Now, months and months later, free from what once passed for obligation, I can say that I don’t have to end this review. I think it’s enough to say that Dixon nails his endings but that endings are only ever beginnings. Or some crap like that. I’m lazy. I frustrate myself. I don’t know. We carry on. We meet again.

Please read this book.

I’ve been breaking

I finished school in May.

Since then, I’ve been on break, which mostly means I’ve been going to my day job and then trying very hard to do not a thing at night, and failing, a lot. Turns out when you’re used to going 80 miles an hour for about that many hours a week, when you suddenly have buckets of free time, and a desire to quote-unquote relax, it’s real easy to wind up staring at the walls, locked in the embrace of indecision. That is, when you’re not getting sucked into pretty much whatever you can justify as a way of breaking out of your “break” in order to not, you know, waste the entire night staring at the walls.

Reading, in particular, has been a casualty of this war against time, lately. I’ve started and stopped more books in the last few weeks than I have in probably the last ten years combined. It’s a little silly.

The last book I actually finished was a doozy, though. Heliopolis by James Scudamore is a pretty fantastic little book about economic disparity of the most extreme sort. It’s one of those books that’s pretty great throughout and then the last few pages just pick the whole book up and slam it through the hoop it’s created for itself. Killer stuff. Recommended.

So maybe it’s a case of having a hard time finding the book that’s meant to follow that. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve tried too soon to break out of my YA rock block. School got intense and it was about all I could handle this last semester. Of course, even then, I was reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, so, like, yeah. Brain, pummeled. And now I’m two-thirds through the Hunger Games trilogy, with the third book finally on the shelf across from me. I suspect I’ll have better luck with that than, say, DeLillo. I mean, Libra started fine and all, but. DeLillo and burn-out do not go well together.

The timing sucks. A bunch of large-scale group reads have started up across the Internet this week, such as #OccupyGaddis, a read of William Gaddis’s J R, and the Conversational Reading Big Read of A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, both of which sound awesome fun to the version of Darby that has the extra free time and the desire to use some of it contemplating and writing about tough literature much more often than he’s been able to the last few years, less awesome to the version of Darby that is dealing with the brain-cycle hiccup train crash that is that free time.

I’ve got things I should be doing, too, anyway, I guess. But.

In other news I’ve got a book review coming out in August that I somehow wrote during this last semester of school—I look forward to finding out what I actually wrote when the review comes out.

And I’m getting ready to self-publish a chapter of the graphic novel I started as a school project. Because it is 2012. And I can. So I will. (My imaginary Kickstarter campaign has already netted me an imaginary quajilliontry dollars so I ought to be able to handle the expense of posting the PDF and saying, “Fly.”)

New video

I Am In Here from Darby Dixon III on Vimeo.

Kinetic type interpretation of the opening paragraphs of the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

For the tech interested: all the stop-motion marker-y and cut-out-y stuff was shot using Dragonframe; that footage was combined, sliced, and diced with the rest of the type in After Effects. The audio was originally created in GarageBand, mucked up a bit in Audacity, and then the final bits of crunch were added in Audition (once I discovered that Audition was a thing that existed that I had, like, right there on my hard drive; awesome).

This video was originally conceived and created for an independent study project in the graphic design program at Cleveland State University, in an effort to explore the intersection of design and literature. Which is a fancy way of saying I like books and I like design and I like finding ways the two play off and interpret each other.

Half-baked thoughts at the end of a twice-baked year

It’s been a weird year, you guys.

From the long novel project to the sort of semi-ish still in process pop-novel project, which I don’t think I’ve gotten around to saying anything about anywhere, to the absurd PDF blog post, an effort that sort of cemented a lot of my thoughts and feelings about how and why we talk about books (I mean, somewhere in there, maybe in an end note or something, and maybe only slightly apparent to me) to The No Crumbs Project, an effort that underwent a massive identity crisis (the panic did, indeed, set in), one that’s still in progress but is starting to result in some stuff I’m quite proud of, to the one book review I published this year, for a pair of books I really do love and look forward to reading again and which I’d love to see more people reading and talking about, to the round table discussion I had the chance to participate in…it’s been a year of actually a lot more activity than I necessarily might have realized, which was all around focused on nothing particularly definitive. Which is fine. Nice, even.

But, you know, weird.

I mean, just from a personal perspective. I won’t even get into, like, Borders, or ebooks, or much of anything that has actually happened outside of my head.

I guess I’m left wondering in a vague non-committal way what the state of book discussion and reviewing and interpretation and actual reading is like, right now. What’s happening out there? I’ve got a better sense of what I’ve got ready to bring to the table, and I’m really excited about polishing up some of this work I’ve been engaged in the last four months; still, there’s a lot of burning questions I’d planned on asking—and getting answers to—that I never quite got fully immersed in, not the way I’d hoped to, or expected to.

At this point I guess I hope more that someone more suited to the tasks is doing that work and I get to see the results sometime. (Please.) Because now I know I’ve got some plans for 2012, which will take me in some interesting directions, with regards to design and story-telling and books and art. And, like, the panic will probably set back in, but. There might be some noise to be made, along the way.

What criticism might be

What is criticism?

At its best, a piece of criticism is something smart said about a thing that is smart. It is the type of criticism which most criticism aspires to be; it is also the most fundamentally redundant. It puts in words what was already in terms that the heart already knew and the body already felt. It is a description of a caress to the cheek, an explication of a sucker punch to the gut. It helps us mutually recognize certain qualities in the smart things we might wish to ourselves create without giving us the literal tools we need to create smart things ourselves. If it were so easy, after all, there would be no dumb things, and we would not require these answers printed at the back of the book.

On a lesser rung, a piece of criticism is something smart said about a thing that is dumb. It is, in theory, the most utilitarian form of criticism, in that it can provide insight to creators of things into what makes a thing dumb, so that more new things that are created will be smart instead of dumb. The continued existence of dumb things, however, points either to the cultural irrelevance of smart criticism about dumb things, or to the fundamental laziness of people in the business of creating. Often taking the form of “hit pieces,” this form of criticism is often the most subjectively entertaining, a fact which, in turn, reveals certain less-than-flattering aspects of those of us who participate in cultural conversations.

Far less useful or desirable is the piece of criticism that stands as a dumb thing said about something smart; this level of criticism can even be seen as dangerous in so far as it may pass itself off as smart and in turn somehow superior to the object of its attacks. In this sense, this type of criticism can validly be subjected to derision. However, dumb things can also be said about smart things not out of ill-will but quite by accident; such criticism can usefully be turned into the opening of further conversation with the purpose of correcting the original perceptions and further illuminating the original subject to the greater benefit and understanding of all involved. In this sense, it is perhaps the most useful type of criticism: the thing said not as a conclusion but as an introduction, a subjugation of one self to the process of meaning-making.

Finally, at its basest form, criticism is something dumb said about another thing that is dumb. While it may often be safely disregarded, it may not be forgotten, as it is, after all, a fundamental and essential underpinning of the system of intelligence which is veined throughout the culture of criticism.

Criticism, in so far as it is deeply connected with intelligence, is also firmly ensconced in a system of privilege. Freedom of thought, the time required to pursue thought and develop works of thought, whatever financial or physical resources may be required to engage with thought and works of thought; all signs of a privileged status in contemporary society. Gender, race, religion, class–all play into a system of privilege that is inescapable. Recognizing the role of privilege in critical conversations opens one’s eyes to the ideological nature of all said discussions: it is just not a question of what a smart thing is and what a smart thing said about that thing is but who is it who says these things and makes these things and who is it that grants that these things are, in fact, smart?

Of course, it also stands to reason that, beyond the influence of ideological concerns, there is a gradation of critical intelligence and the relative smartness of our cultural artifacts: there is a smartest thing said about the smartest thing there is, and the dumbest thing said about the dumbest thing there is. What, then, are those things?

Who is the most privileged? Who, in short, is winning?

Still alive, sans cake

I’m almost–almost!–half way through War and Peace. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve, you know, said hi, here. I’m also about halfway through a semester’s worth of a drawing class. I’m at the beginning of some other cool things that are starting up that I hope to be able to share with you in the not so distant future. I’m really–really!–working my way around to the redesign of this blog I’ve been threatening for an age and that might even motivate me to stop wasting time on Twitter and start wasting my time back over here again, because, really, Twitter? Really? Of course I say all this as I am also dangerously close to complete domination of the game Lumines on the PS3; having just finally beat the Dig Down mode for the first time earlier this week, I can say that there’s only a few more things left for me to do in the game before I can claim I am the greatest Lumines player of all time. Seriously, though, I’ve logged almost as much time in this game as one might for a small-ish RPG. It was a thing for a long time and then I got off the thing and now I’m back on the thing. It’s intense. Yeah.

Yeah. But I’m also still thinking about that long list of long books I want to read this year and the road through them leads through the rest of War and Peace which yes is long and sometimes slow and certainly Russian and all that but it’s also engaging and moving and question-raising and funny and all sorts of things people want in books they want to read. I’m glad I’m taking my time with it but I’m also wishing I was taking more time with it, like, on a regular basis. But, other stuff, and such. Long and short of it being that I remain an absolutely terrible person from whom to receive book recommendations right now, if not for the foreseeable future. Like, oh yeah, well, I’m reading this little book, guy you might have heard of. Tolstoy? And again in a month or two from now?

Anyways, Twitter still happens, and I’ve been posting dribs and drabs of my drawing work over on Tumblr, if you’re inclined toward that stuff. And then this place is either going to disappear in the night in complete shame or it’s going to finally be the place where I figure out how to talk about merging all these various things I’ve been thinging lately or it’s just going to keep on going with the apologies and the silence and really whichever option is probably okay, no? Yes? Does anybody even use blogs anymore? The future is so 2007, isn’t it?

Y2K11: So It Begins

Hey! 2010. That happened. It did. And now it’s done. I forgive it for being done! It had to happen eventually. And on this last day of my winter vacation, the day devoted to drinking a strong pot of coffee before nervously spending the rest of the day crying myself to sleep in anticipation of having to wake up before 4 pm tomorrow and, like, having to actually shower and shave for the first time since 2010, I’m really officially ready to forgive myself all the posts I didn’t get to finish. Goodbye, unwritten posts! Goodbye, incomplete thoughts! May you rest in heaven with the angels now. Yet that said I’m not quite prepared to make incredible promises about the year to come. I mean, posting wise. My TBR pile for the year is already huge. I’ve made some of those promises to myself, a big stack of fat novels I want to finally get through, a couple classics I want to re-read, stuff that will stand as the backbone of the reading year. And while I’d like to say I’m going to post about them a bit more frequently, these books, yeah, maybe not. School is still happening. I’ve been through enough optimistic beginning-of-semester stretches by this point to realize my belief that I’m going to finally crack the knack of cramming two hours into one is probably an ill-founded one. I can say I’d like to keep trying, that’s something, right? Yes? No. It’s not. But.

What I can say is I do plan on doing another handful of reviews this year, so long as the fine folks out there who let me write for them continue to let me write for them. So that’s fun. I like doing reviews. I mean, in the sense that I like getting dental work done, right after I’ve had the work done, and I can go home and eat a bunch of pudding and be like, well, that was a good thing I did. (I kid. I mean, reviews are hard. But fun hard.) And I’m currently reading The Instructions by Adam Levin, because nothing says “starting the year off with a thousand page novel” like actually starting the year with a thousand page novel. There’s a planned discussion set to begin sometime later this month over at Counterbalance, which I would link to but the Internet seems to be crying itself to sleep along with me today, so, you know, maybe later. I really wasn’t planning on reading the book any time soon, there being enough other thousand page novels on my shelves to last me a lifetime, but, I guess it did seem like a good warm-up for the year? Maybe? I don’t know. We’ll see. The first chapter was pretty good. Good. Good enough. I will read more of it.

If you’re interested, other books I’ve got lined up to read this year include:

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s been ten years since I first read the book, which, just thinking about that fact, makes me sort of want to vomit. And not sort of but more like definitely. But I’ve been saying ever since that I ought to re-read it and a ten-year re-read seems like the relatively arbitrary but oddly motivating way to go about doing so. Plus, I would personally rather re-read Infinite Jest than begin to tackle The Pale King, the pieces-parts draft of his final novel that’s set to come out this year. I mean no offense to anybody who will be reading King this year, of course. Someday I imagine I will. Right now though, I’m not ready to confront the partial final remnant of a partial life.
  • Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. It has been a little over two years since I read this book, which in a personal lifetime sense is actually not that long, and which in an Internet timeline sense is about a billion years, and which in a Thomas Pynchon sense is a fractally long time (since he has actually published another book since Day came out), but, but, I’ve been yearning to re-read it ever since, and now, this year, I am going to. Probably. I have such a positive memory of reading the book that I think I need to see for myself if it was good in a just a one-off sense or if it could be the classic I think it was. Is. Plus I’m pretty out of touch with literary culture as a whole, I mean, in the sense that as someone who, having done the blogging thing on and off for a while and the reviewing thing for a little bit now probably “ought” to know a thing or two about the literary culture, but, that said, saying that I have little to no right to actually say this sort of thing, I will still say that I kind of get the sense that everyone sort of got “done” with this book already? Maybe? Like it came out and those who read it did and now it’s left for the nerds like me to think kind thoughts about it? Or something? Like, blah blah blah, obsessed with the new, high turnover, etc etc etc. Something. Modern culture, you fickle 140 character mistress. Point being, I’d like to read it again and try to talk about it some more because I think it probably remains an excellent book that people should keep reading and talking about.
  • The Recognitions by William Gaddis. My word. I’ve picked this book up a hundred times and read a paragraph or two and then I’ve put it down and then I’ve picked up something else that is made of candy, comparatively, because I’ve never felt ready to eat steak wrapped in steak on a plate of steak. This year: steak.
  • Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. Barth is one of those authors whose entire oeuvre I’ve been planning to work through for quite some time now. I last left off with The Sot-Weed Factor in 2007, a book which mostly consumed me for a while, and now I think I’m ready to get back into the Barth groove. I mean, it will be a different sort of groove, of course–a Cold War groove, a groove I can dig. (Though to be fair this was actually the first Barth book I ever picked up and I’d started it well before I did The Floating Opera or The End of the Road but which I dropped for whatever reason made sense at the time. Here’s to fresh starts.)
  • Warlock by Oakley Hall. This is, yes, the shortest book on the pile for the year. (So far. This is hardly an all-inclusive list of books for the year. Like, yes, there will be some review titles, and yes, there will be some very short books, and yes, there will be books by women. Pinkie swear.) It’s a book I’d picked up randomly because, hey, NYRB books equal good fun. Then I reviewed this really good debut novel by Grace Krilanovich called The Orange Eats Creeps. It’s a book that has received a really gratifying amount of buzz–it’s nice to see something so weird and fun and “uh!” get so much attention. That attention included a stop by Krilanovich at Codex in which she discussed five books she’d recently read, one of which was Warlock. I don’t normally dip into the “western” genre, but that bit of serendipitous timing, coupled with the up-front blurb on the book cover by Thomas Pynchon, equals a sold me.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I hear this book is okay. I think it made a lot of year-end blog lists in 1869?
  • Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. Speaking of really huge Russian novels. This is a recent acquisition–the kind of fat book that draws the eye then hooks into it with that little NYRB bubble on the spine before devouring it whole with its back-cover description. A WWII novel submitted for publication in 1959, summarily censored, and later smuggled out of Soviet Russia and published in the U.S. in 1980, I’m kind of imagining this is going to make for an interesting paring with War and Peace. Hunches.

All of which seems like a bloody lot of book to read in a year, and it is, especially when I plan on taking a drawing class in the spring because I have a strange desire to feel humiliated to pieces on a twice-weekly basis and an independent study in the fall because I have a strange desire to do an absolute shit-ton of crazy-work for four months, and what with the day job and all, but, at least, when physically measured with hands and fingers, this pile only measures up to half the stack of the 2010 pile, which, admittedly, was smaller than it probably ought to have been, since I got lazy on occasion in 2010. (And The Instructions is way bloody fattier than it needs to be. I think the thing is bound with a used-up Slinky.) So, you know, plenty of time for the other things I plan to read and then fail to talk about as much as I should, except for those books which I will very much talk about almost as much as they deserve, including books slated to come out this year, some of which you fill find in a list at The Millions and in a list at Reading is Breathing and in a list at Conversational Reading. (So, yes, publisher-type people: I still want to know about books you think I might want to review that might be up my alley. Drop me a line. I’ve had the most fun with reviews when I’ve picked up a book, started it, and then felt compelled to find a place to make me write about it.) Plus I might actually catch up on books from 2010 that I never got around to. (I’m looking at you, The Passage and Skippy Dies, you also not-skinny novels.)

Also I am vaguely planning other things that may begin to fold in my interest in design and visual communication work. Here’s to seeing.

Immortality; or, 2006 is my Independence Day

Editor’s note: the following post is kind of jumping the gun, a bit, but it’s also kind of becoming quickly out of date, as well; it’s a little paradoxical. There’s more books from earlier this year yet to be discussed and a book from right now that is in the process of being discussed but since time marches on (time is no man’s Elizabeth!) this post is going out now, whatever warts may remain upon its fair skin. This post will also require a sort of explanatory follow-up post, which will follow in either timely or untimely fashion. Or not at all. Professionalism.

There are a lot of books out there. Think about it too much, you’ll drive yourself bananas. Limited resources and all. One pair of eyes. The preciousness of each spare moment. Having a lifespan.

Me, I try not to think about it too much.

By which I mean I think about it constantly.

It’s sick.

This is one reason I resist setting myself up with reading lists. Strict lists fill time and have ends and remind me of my own mortality.

I do not enjoy contemplating the immediacy of my mortality.

So, instead, immortal, I bounce. I pick up whatever looks good, next. Sometimes I know a book or two out what’s coming next. Sometimes not. I have ideas, I have moods, I have goals. I have huge piles of books to read, but they’re more quantum mechanical than classical, less propositional logic, more chaos theory.

This usually serves me well. The good books coalesce and I get dizzy because everything is awesome. Other times, the system crashes. Everything sucks. I quit reading. I wash dishes. I update my iPod. I contemplate my career. As scary as that can get (maybe tonight I will update my resume? that sounds like fun?) I always bounce back and my brain fizzes and the plates pile back up in the sink, where they belong.

The iPod still gets updated. But that’s another story.

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I could see a path filling the rest of this year, constructing itself out of the books that I need to read like whoa. This would typically bother me the way hitting the seventh hour of a nine hour road trip bothers me. When the odometer becomes more interesting than the sights. Checkboxes, checked.

The problem is, right now? This Summer of Dostoevsky ’06 project isn’t going to finish itself.

Since I started this project, a couple weeks ago, I have had one goal: to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s five big novels, beginning with rereads of Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, before moving on to reading Demons and The Adolescent each for the first time, after which I would finish with a reread of The Brothers Karamazov.

Karamazov is a book I was assigned at the end of high school. I read most of it, those final weeks of youth. I loved it. Reading it probably helped get me on the path to being wherever I am today. Thanks for nothing, Dostoevsky!

Honestly though, sincerely: I’m terrified of it. Rereading it. What if it sucks? What if my tastes changed? Maybe the new translation blows. I might wind up questioning every decision I’ve ever made. I might have to quit.

I might have to become an economic theorist.

And yet, though this book could be the frozen donkey wheel at the bottom of the unexplainable pit that spews golden light out from underneath my life, the turning of which will send me spiraling through space and time on paths that could literally break my brain, I know, in my gut, as a true hero must, that we have to go back.

Well: I do. You keep doing your own thing. Unless you want to go back with me. That’s cool, too.

I’ve put going back off for a good long while now. (Sort of like growing up.) For the last fifty or sixty or two hundred books or so (ask my girlfriend how many times I’ve brought it up by now) (actually, don’t) Karamazov has been the book I have been just about to get to one or two more books from now. Each book or two had a habit of turning into another book or two, though. It’s been the perpetual priority number one at the top of the metaphorical office white board alongside all the other priority number ones of the moment. The hour. The month. The month after that.

The Kindle did not exist, when I began this project.

Now, today, here, with the coffee table stack sitting at the same height for months now, books filling gaps faster than the stack can shrink, a never-ending list of old fat books I need to read next wrapping around the apartment like a noose, books by authors who I will buy in hardcover coming out left and right, books by authors I would not buy in hardcover that I got interested in when they were first out in hardcover finally starting to come out in paperback, the weight of unavoidable mortality becoming itself more unavoidable each passing day, and Dostoevsky, all the while, sitting, patiently, waiting his turn, something has to give.

Business time demands it be gotten down to.

So: a set list.

The gates are now closed, for a while, and 2006 and 2010 are mashing like ham and eggs in an antimatter omelette, and things are going to run something like this: a seven book rock-block of gotta-dos, curious-enough-to-dos, have-meant-to-dos, and why-not-dos, in no particular order.

  • Two books by Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key. See, this is the problem: I don’t read as much as I once might have and I don’t read that fast and now I’m trying to do reviews a little more often so when I look at the book shelves and I see all the books I should be reading and might read and could read next that’s really where my focus should remain, with these decisions I’ve already decided I’ve made. But then Francine Prose comes along, whose novels I have been meh on but whose criticism I enjoy, and she praises something, and the next think I know, I own it. I’m pretty sure I ordered these two books in a fugue state of consumerist-driven suggestion. To be fair, Prose could have praised dirt and blood and I would have woken up with a bunch of it on my hands. At least they are slim numbers, this time out. And they do sound good.
  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. There’s the hype. There’s the hoopla. There’s the complaining and there’s the gushing. And yet, there remains pure cause and effect: still, the simple fact that Franzen wrote a novel I have not read and another novel that I liked and another novel that I liked a lot, really liked a lot, and then he spent a long time writing his next novel, and now it is out, and I want to read it. And I’m going to read it. And I’m not going to feel bad about it. Even if it makes me a misogynist. Keyword Franzenfreude!
  • Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas. I drove to the bookstore the day Freedom came out to buy a copy because I believe sometimes some things should happen when physical bodies manipulate physical objects with actual plastic debit cards. Perhaps someday I will end my resistance and I will stop fighting the future and have an e-reader surgically implanted into my metacortex and replace release day symbolism with drooling data downloadism and that will be fine because by then I intend to be dead of old age. Until then, I have my car and highway and bookstores and the deluded thrill of feeling like things matter for no other reason than because they might, like a book’s publication can match the opening day histrionics of movies made of explosions and fart jokes. When I picked up Freedom, the new Scarlett Thomas book was near it. I could not miss its garishly shiny cover, the design of which seems more appropriate to a young adult fantasy novel than whatever it is Thomas does, smartypants hipster lit or whatever. I don’t mind shiny, I guess, though, because despite having believed I’d have to wait for this one in paperback, I bought it on the spot.
  • The Dalkey Archive, by Flann O’Brien. I like Flann O’Brien. The Third Policeman freaked me out a little and At Swim-Two-Birds, well, I need to reread that one someday. But not this day, because The Dalkey Archive is up, largely because I really liked Omega Minor, by Paul Verhaegen, which was published by Dalkey Archive, and I’ve felt I’ve owed it to them ever since to read the book from which they took their name. This is what passes for logic in my world.
  • The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford E. Landers. I don’t know a thing about this book other than it’s a quite thin short story collection and it’s endorsed by Thomas Pynchon. I’m sold, you know? Plus it was actually chucked up by an online recommendation engine, which, for once, actually suggested something I knew nothing about, something other than Jane Austen and Philip Roth, so I figured it’s worth a whirl. Plus, cool cover colors.
  • And then, The Brothers Karamazov. At last. At long, long last.

So, if you are a stalker who likes to play along at home (the bushes outside the apartment building), here’s a chance for you to grab a title or two from my stack—I mean that metaphorically, get your own copies, taking mine would defeat the purpose—so you can share your comments with me and I can share my comments with you and through such means as are available to us the dialogue will occur and the world will be a better place, my fellow immortal.

Also note that this means…well, I’ll tell you later, what to note that this means. (It’s mostly about 2011, which might as well just not even bother showing up to work, because it is fired though it has already quit? Question mark? Something.)

Apologies, and a weird picture of a girl with a gun to her head

No, the apologies are not for dissing Nobody Move, but for any recent issues you may have experienced reaching this blog. Something’s been failing, though it’s unclear what. Let me know via your favorite form of Internet magic if your quality of life is affected by these spotty outages.

Also, I apologize to anybody who has come to this blog recently, and failed to find a convenient archive of past posts. Creating an actual design for this place has been on the agenda since Day One. I am not good with agendas. In the meantime, at least the archive is up in the sidebar now, pinned to the loose drywall, covered in dust. You will find the first 5.25 years worth of posts over here; someday this, too, will be included in the sidebar. (Professionalism.)

Also, apropos of nothing, Haruki Murakami fans may want to look at this. Don’t expect to understand it. But, you knew that already.

In other news, there is more to come. (That I can say that with a straight face is not what is to come, though it is, itself, news.)