As if there could be such a thing as an initial final reaction to a book I’ve been reacting to steadily for the last two straight weeks: the dust has barely settled on the cover of my copy of The Instructions by Adam Levin and I know there’s conversation set to happen at some point at Counterbalance and so I’m going to try not to blow all my best material here (the bestness of my material being, as always, intra-comparative as opposed to extra-comparative) but I don’t think any of that should halt me from at least tentatively suggesting that this thousand page McSweeney’s title is essentially a good book, a better than good book, a book that no one’s taste could be cast into doubt for considering it a “great” book (“greatness” here being a relatively internal-relative concept, the book potentially being great in itself without attempting to necessarily draw direct comparisons to other “great works of literature,” though it certainly wants that, wants to be taken seriously on that level, a modern day classic in the self-making, as it were), though, personally, I might stop shy (at least for now) of affixing (any sort of) “greatness” to it, in that the dust is still settling and I’m still reacting, still reactive, still a bit taken off guard by how much I did, in fact, like this book (being quite a bit), and, well, the time of judging is no time to cast judgment. Or I’m just a puss. I don’t know. All of which said (and there being much more yet to be said, and I hope as much of it gets said as possible) my main point for now is this: if it’s the kind of book you think you might be interested in reading, then, well, it’s a book that is largely worth reading. I couldn’t fault you for not wanting to read it, or just for falling off onto the wrong side of the fence; lacking the particular nudge I received this time, I’d really rather have likely opted not to read it any time soon, just, because, well, things, but, here I am, and I read it now rather than later, and, in the end, the beginning of the rest of the life I’ll lead after I’ve read this thousand page McSweeeney’s title (a reference I drop again so I can at least tentatively admit that this book is no The Children’s Hospital though that’s a fine thing for it not to be because The Children’s Hospital was a brutal book that broke parts of my brain and heart and I couldn’t have standed to have gone through that again just yet, but, still, yet, this book, The Instructions, it works in a similar sort of sphere as The Children’s Hospital which kind of points the way toward McSweeney’s being a focal point for interesting contemporary literature about fucked-up religious things, which is, you know, cool by me), I can say that I’m glad I read this book now, and, someday, I might read it again, which, I think, is saying something.
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.
The Winter 2011 (2011?) Quarterly Conversation is live. It includes my review of What Is All This?, the new Stephen Dixon short story collection. The review begins sort of like this, though you’ll have to go over there to see the footnotes (footnotes?):
What Is All This? is a potent, refreshing collection of previously uncollected short stories by Stephen Dixon. Though the music world might label this an “odds-and-sods” collection, this volume cannot be dismissed so lightly. This? is a book that reminds us fans why we enjoy Dixon’s writing and gives inquiring neophytes an excellent opportunity to sample the kinds of things he has gotten up to over the last five decades.
Any attempt to sum up Dixon as a writer would be a fool’s quest. So, allow me: he uses male narrators and a lot of dialogue and limited description and down-to-earth language, except when he doesn’t. His language can be transparent, translucent, opaque. His sentences can last for pages; three words alone can knock you out of your chair. He avoids grand statements and shuns the workshopped sheen of the parabolic arc, preferring instead straight lines or scribbles, action that bleeds off the edges or compresses all into boxes of black ink. Sometimes he shatters frames and builds new things from the slivers. Sometimes, his stories are simply stories. To put his work in context, the back flap author bio has it that Dixon grew up reading Joyce, Hemingway, and Kafka. Fair enough: his work reads like each filtered through the rest.
Also, timing is everything, I suppose? The December 2010 issue of Bookslut includes a lengthy, excellent interview with Stephen Dixon (not by me). The money quote comes down at the bottom and gives me the chills:
You have been working on a novel, His Wife Leaves Him, for the last four to five years. How would you best describe the scope and scale of this epic length work-in-progress?
I’m not quite sure. It’s definitely my most emotional work as well as, perhaps, being my funniest. It might also be my most adventurous structurally, and also the cleanest and clearest writing I’ve ever done. It’s also my most elegiac. I’ve never been so satisfied with a work, which is why it’s so difficult to complete. I don’t want to let it go, but it’s told me recently I have to — that I’ve come to the perfect finish — and anything beyond what I’ve planned as the ending will hurt the book.
Today’s November 15. I’d say that by December 1, the novel will be done. It won’t reach 900 pages, but it’ll be close.
Uhm. Yes. Please.
Anyway, I’m avoiding another project right now, long enough to say that I read all those books I said I was going to read, and I haven’t said much of anything because if you don’t have anything nice to say, avoid blogging about it for two months? Well, not that I have nothing nice to say, more like, I have nice things to say, but I mostly have not nice things to say, and I didn’t really think anyone would mind if I opted not to rant off like a total jerkface for a while. Because do you really need a long post by some guy with a blog talking about how he’s sort of not that crazy about Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and about how he pretty much completely disliked Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas, a book that may have single handedly killed all joy our humble narrator may have once taken in self-indulgent meta-fiction? Both of which are true things I could say about my recent reading experiences? Yeah, things got a little dark and despair-ridden there, so, you know, best to duck and cover until the nuclear wave of ugh passed by. Or something. How does this work again?
I do still have some good books I want to talk about before the year is up, like Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, which, do us both a favor and just read it and help me avoid the embarrassment of not having told you to read it sooner, yes? And other books from this year. And stuff.
And, uh, yeah. I’ve also got a review coming out sometime soon. That’s for a book I liked. Get excited.
Plus, you know. Dostoevsky.
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.
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.)
This is less a final review and more the beginning of a reading of The Orange Eats Creeps, the strange, excellent debut novel by Grace Krilanovich. This is not intended to seem like a cop-out, but rather the only rational approach to discussing this unique work. The wealth of material at hand invites frantic acts of interpretation, making the reader an active collaborator in creating the story, even as it resists giving in to easy—or hard-won—conclusions. It is a slippery novel. It will never lay still and compromising in your hands, but the harder you hold on to it, the harder it is to hold. In confounding, it rewards: to borrow a line from the book, “It’s only a problem if you make it one.”
Strange and excellent are the right words, I think, but also, I think I worry I haven’t quite yet done this book justice. So I’ll probably say more about it. But not yet! Meaning you have time to decide whether this might be a book you would like, and then to go get yourself a copy, and read it, and then share your thoughts about it via your thought-sharing means of choice! Yes?
(Also, incidentally, I’ve decided one of the really fun things about writing these reviews for real publications (which reviews are, to be fair, intrinsically “fun” to write less in the sense of “wow eating this ice cream for dinner sure is fun” and more in the sense of “wow this is an awful lot of work and my head hurts where I tore all the hair out and maybe I’ll go out for ice cream when I’m done but in the mean time, screw it, let’s go clean the bathtub”) is that you get to put all this effort into writing the damn thing, and then it’s done, and it kind of just goes away for a while, and you forget about it, until one day you show up and hey, there it is, like a magical gift you left in the corner long ago for yourself to find much later, and it’s like, hey, sweet: free content you can share with your friends and family to give your life that sheen of seeming like one that something is being done with. It’s a nice feeling. It’s entirely secondary to having the chance to tell a bunch of people whether or not they should read a book, though, of course.)
I dislike dismissing a toss-off B-side of a novel by a highly respected author, particularly an author with whom I have some excellent prior experience, but: come on, guys, this book blew. At least, it did, for me, when I read it as part of my post-Drowning Tucson pop-ish-lit rock block earlier this year. I suggest the context in which I read the book may have colored my attitude toward it, as this is the Johnson book that was originally written and serialized in Playboy part by part over the course of four months. Maybe it was more impressive, at the time, partaking in the feat of it, feeling a bit like you were part of something. But as a stand-alone book divorced from that context? Yikes. I understand it’s not air-quotes literary work, but as a book that failed to excite or entertain, as a book that was not much fun, it wound up being, for me, not much of anything. What really kills me looking back on it now is that I see a parallel between my situation, reading it at a time when I desperately needed something exciting and pleasurable to pick me back up, and Johnson’s situation, writing it when he was coming fresh off Tree of Smoke, his lauded Vietnam novel, which, though I have not read it, I suspect must been an intense and draining chore to write, a book I imagine an author would want to shake off a bit before moving on to the next serious project. That sort of parallel makes me think this should have been a match made in heaven, one book written with one reader in mind. No dice. Perhaps it was a release to write it but with such a highly unmemorable end product I can’t help but feel cheated out of my ten bucks. I loved Jesus’ Son and will read more of his work in the future, but for now, I wouldn’t mind reclaiming the hours I lost to this disposable, slight book.
I. In which, dragons
II. In which, gradeschool
I did not get into fantasy when I was a kid. For my sensitive, developing tastes, fantasy was for nerds nerdier than me. Specifically, the kind that had friends who shared their interests and who were enough unaware of their own impossibly high levels of awkwardness that they were able to safely congregate and discuss their shared passion for rolling dice and casting freeze. Dorks.
I’ve watched some Party Down lately (pour one out) and it is fair to say that the Little Tiny Baby Darby who struggles to this day to remain alive and vocal inside my heart and mind and soul saw a handsome, grown-up version of himself in Roman, the insular, desperate, sad writer of hard science fiction. For me, as for Roman, fantasy never felt serious, as a kid cutting my teeth on Arthur C. Clarke and David Brin and Larry Niven. Ignore the fact that I liked epic books featuring hyper-intelligent talking dolphins; the hypothetical science behind them trumped orcs any day.
My experience with fantasy remained limited for a long time. I read, airquotes, The Hobbit for a high school assignment, my Freshman year. I don’t remember it well. I didn’t know that books could matter in a way that they had up to that point not yet mattered. Plus it felt dull and singsongy and bleah, little tiny people looking for treasure. I didn’t even read The Lord of the Rings until after I saw all the movies, four years ago.
Fact is, I was probably enough of a social and emotional wreck growing up (why yes, I say out loud again in my head, to the popular blonde girl sitting in front of me in eighth grade religion class the one time I can recall her ever saying a word to me, that I am indeed using my free time to read a 700 page novel about a black hole falling into the earth’s core, and yes, in fact, I say to you again from the distance of decades, I will feel a horrifyingly squirmy, painful feeling in my gut 20 years later when, as a fully grown adult, this memory rushes back to the surface, unbidden and covered in razor blades, in the course of drafting a largely futile blog post about how books can hurt as much as memories do) that I suspect that if I’d started reading fantasy novels in grade school, high school, whatever, I’d probably still be trying to figure out what’s so good about penises and vaginas. I intend no offense to fantasy nerds. I believe it took me long enough as is to figure these things out. And how they related to alternate universe theories. It’s just, I mean, I know what kind of kid I was, and however cool we all are with basically whatever in our adulthood when we have all set aside our childish ways and can speak rationally to each other about most any topic under the sun (hint: we are basically not all cool at all with anything in our adulthood, and will cut your face if you think otherwise) I know that it’s probably by the grace of a few ellipses in my reading lists that I got past high school and into a semi-functional adulthood, one that does not involve Magic: The Gathering cards and being in jail.
But now I am an adult and I pay the rent and I spend a lot of time at a day job doing day job things and I am not in fact ruling the world and making the popular kids work for me the way everybody said would happen by now (the nerds, in fact, have not grown to inherit the earth, whatever the marketing literature might suggest) and now I know with a heightened sense of precision how literature can do more than entertain and enlighten–it can take us the hell out of here. And not just off this planet with cardboard-cutout friends on ships constructed from hard scientific theory, but out of this time completely, to fantastical places, in pain is noble and elf chicks are hot and dragons are cool, in a totally healthy, socially acceptable sort of way, so long as you pretty much keep that business to yourself when you’re in the wrong company, which is about a thousand percent of the rest of the people on this planet. With purposelessness, comes great purpose.
In short, me and fantasy, we’re chill, these days.
Chill enough, at least.
Depending on who’s asking.
III. In which, hurts
As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I read and reviewed this book, Drowning Tucson, by Aaron Michael Morales. I said in my review that the book hurt, and that it’s a sort of personal hurt; I compared the book to a number of books, but I think it is, still to this day a little bit to my own surprise, The Chocolate War, a wicked young adult novel by Robert Cormier, that might be the one that ultimately most well defined this type of hurt for me. And so early in life. I talk a bit about rigged, unfair systems in my review of Drowning Tucson, the notion that there are things that must be wrong for the world to work the way it does. Which is nice and all, a nice enough depiction of the source of the pain these kinds of books wreck me with, but I’m not sure I adequately communicated the intensity of the pain that comes to me from reading these kinds of books, the feeling of wanting to throw a beautiful, brilliant book across the room and cry and scream at it like a psychopath after turning the last page, like an unwilling accomplice, the anguished feeling of being dissolved into something that can’t be true, it can’t, but maybe it is, maybe, and screw you, author, you asshole, for having the skills needed to drag me through it in such a magnificent manner, for being able to make me need to turn pages even as I hate the thought of knowing what comes next. It’s the sick feeling of having lived dangerously without ever leaving a chair, the terrifying feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and knowing the monsters are real, the gut-sucking depth of lightlessness made real, the horror of being human and knowing no way out but the worst way out there is. It is unfair. It is unfair. It is unfair.
It is unfair.
IV. In which, pop
After finishing the Morales book, and having to spend some more time with it, in order to draft that review of it—which was a hard review to write, probably the hardest review I’ve done yet, in so far as it required deeper analysis of a thing I was both a fan of and largely mortified by—there came a point shortly after when I knew I was done. The weighty stuff and me, we needed to cool off, get away from each other for a bit, attend to our separate affairs. I needed to have some fun. Or at least to find some pages of stories with which I could soak up the sweat that clung to the brow of my brain. Quick reads, long reads, whatever. Just don’t make me feel anything but pretty much okay.
So I went on a pop-lit-ish bender in the middle of this year. The problem with reading pop-ish-lit for me these days is that it seems like I’ve passed some kind of point which makes it harder and harder for me to enjoy disposable books. Like, my snappy fun books need to massage the literary-addicted portion of my brain at least a little bit. Or maybe it’s just a general reading malaise that leads me to get really bored and antsy and annoyed far too fast with any book that isn’t cooking for me past page 50; I’ve quit more books (literary or otherwise) in the last two years than I did in the previous thirty. When the going isn’t going and I stop wanting to read and I start wanting to not read, it’s all bad, all around. So it’s hard to want to read something that’s just enjoyable but not, like, in a really brain-working way; I need at least the right amount of verbal window dressing on my story to make me want to stick with it. It’s probably the sort of thing that leads fancy restaurants to do fancy versions of diner grub, like some kind of olive branch held out to ideologically simpler times or ways of life, even though we all know we can all see past the French words to the fact that you’re a still a have even as you’re eating a burger and fries.
To put it simply, it is with the greatest trepidation anymore that I attempt to give myself permission to have pure fun when I read. I felt my experiment with it this year was met with mixed results. In the end, the job got done, and it got done pretty much well enough, though I suspect in more of a remission-of-symptoms way than a cure-to-the-cause way.
There’s a couple other books involved here that I might go into in another post, but I wanted to take some time in this post to discuss my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons.
V. In which, discussed
I really do not understand my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons.
VI. In which, books
I read two dragon books this year. I liked them both, well enough, and would suggest they both contributed well to a rejuvenation of the part of my brain that wants to read good books that might wind up hurting me emotionally; it is probably terribly belittling of me to suggest these books acted as a mental vacation for me, which isn’t really what I’m trying to say, even as I’m pretty much flat out saying it? Whatever, there’s Jane Austen, and then there’s Jane Austen fan fiction, and if pointing that fact out makes me sound like a snooty jerk, then at least let me buy you a burger and a beer before you tell me so to my face.
From another perspective, both of the dragon books I read this year are the first books in their respective series—because it is intrinsic to the genre of dragon literature that dragon books exist in series form, because who wants to read just one book about a dragon when you can read multiple books about a dragon?—and both respective series are series I might continue to purchase books from with the money I earn as an adult, books which I might read in the time I spend pretending I am not an adult. Though, to be fair, it will probably not be any time soon that I return to these fantasy worlds, because if one of the books I have lined up to read between now and the end of the year completely screws me up, then I’m going to quit reading forever, because I can not handle two books like that in a single year.
The first dragon book I read this year was A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin which I am certain is bringing quite a smile to the faces of all of the dragon-book fans in this blog’s audience because HA HA HA SPOILER ALERT THERE ARE NO DRAGONS IN THIS BOOK. Well, I mean, and again, spoiler alert, there is dragon birth on the closing page, which, okay, fine, maybe the rest of the books in this series (which is not complete and according to all the Internet rumors I have read will not be complete until Cleveland gets a championship sports team around the day after never) feature dragons on every single page doing totally sweet dragon things like eating people and posing for prog-rock album covers (I really do not understand my strange, growing, and largely confusing interest in dragons) but you may continue to color me doubtful until proven otherwise.
To be fair, and to touch on two points at once, while I have just acted like a total spoiler alert jerk, which is the kind of jerk I usually do my darned best to not be, preferring instead to be the kind of jerk who splits infinitives, I think it is only fair to allow those curious readers who might use my blog to gauge whether or not a book I have read is one they might want to read a quick glimpse of the sort of thing that they would be getting themselves into with this book, as, if you are like me, and you walk into it expecting mind-numbing, pleasure-center-tickling, hardcore dragon action, you are going to need to get past your (my) (highly irrational) (and largely confusing) desire to read about flying lizards that shoot fire out of their noses, because the actual book that I actually did read was, actually, sort of a little hey-not-so-bad to bordering-on-being-kind-of-bad-ass? I mean, for a politically charged fantasy novel in which there’s pretty much little to zero sparkle magic, it engaged me, once I came back to the book after I quit it, because I did actually start reading it earlier in the year only to give up after about 200 pages, when I realized it was not in fact delivering the dragon-fueled dragon-orgy for which I felt such a (desperate and alarming) desire. But then the Morales book happened and suddenly Thrones had this shiny halo of awesome glowing around it and, well, it happened, and I mostly liked it, even if I got annoyed by it, when it made me feel things, like when that one thing happened that I’m totally not going to spoil for you but which let’s just say whoa.
The other dragon book I read, His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, had dragons in it doing cool dragon things. Pure win.
It’s a book I got interested in a while ago (incidentally, it seems like every time I look up the reference for a historical-in-my-life note on the blog, it comes up 2006; what’s up with that?) and have sort of kind of somewhat meant to get around to for a while now, and then the Morales thing happened, and I was at the book store within 12 hours buying genre books because I needed them more than a whiskey-and-heroin cocktail because life is hard.
His Majesty’s Dragon (which is kind enough to state its dragonocity right there in the title) sets a dragon story in the specific historical context of the Napoleonic Wars and it did a pretty good job of being what I wanted it to be, even if Novik has an unfortunate tendency to use the word “very” a lot, which is a terrible word to use more than once in your life, ever, historical setting or not. Also, to be fair, I could deal with moderately less chatty dragons, as everybody (nearly nobody) knows dragons are far more interesting when they are tearing people in half with their fifty-foot-long claws while standing on mountains with their wings spread wide and explosions and hot naked elf girls, but I suspect that’s the sort of thing that’s more interesting in theory than practice or maybe I’m just programmed wrong.
VII. In which, monsters
Still: the monsters are real.
I’m looking at the small stack of books I’ve read this year, and I’m realizing, I’ve really done a piss poor job of it, this year, of talking about these things–and I apologize for that; not sure where the time went, not sure what I’ve been doing with it. Well, okay, work and school and life, yes, all that, and, a general antipathy toward writing? Something. Not an antipathy. A sense of distraction, a mood of displacement. I’m shaking myself out of it. A little bit here, a little bit there. (What’s it like, to simply like a thing, and then do it a lot?)
What bugs me most is that even as I spend a significant amount of time working with a few specific books (such as Drowning Tucson, just to toss an example out there), other books, like A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, really get the short shrift. Here’s an author I really like who has written a book that I really like and by the time I get around to talking about it, what’s there for me to remember to say? I don’t know. I don’t remember. Articulating the source of my enjoyment now is sort of a challenge. I remember as much that I liked this book a good deal, more than I liked The Keep, which I liked, less than I liked Look at Me, which, of course, I enjoyed whole-heartedly, though, what? My girlfriend finally read Look at Me this year; she liked it but was not clear on why I loved it. I really must add that book to the stack of books I need to re-read sooner rather than later, so I can better say today why I liked it yesterday, or however many years ago yesterday was. Which is of course what I said when I read The Keep, so…fuck.
What I can say is that I feel like this is sort of Egan’s freak-out novel, a novel that really isn’t a novel, a formal exploration that itches at the constraints of what it is to be a novel today. It’s the frames of The Keep, cracked over the knee, and scattered at the feet. It’s a book that questions the point where novels and stories intersect, without looking to make any bold claims, or really even any claims at all. It just is what it is and it doesn’t look to excuse itself. My ARC, I don’t see it classifying itself anywhere in print as either a novel or as a story collection which is about as it should be, this unclassifiedness–though, to be fair, I’d call it more of a novel than Drowning Tucson, which, well, really simply was not a novel at all. But this book, Goon Squad, isn’t a novel, either, per se, itself. It’s something else. It’s a bit ragged, cast on fine strands that think of themselves as ropes. It’s really more fun for it.
(Also, speaking of the differences between ARCs and official copies–this whole getting-books-before-they-are-books thing being still kind of new and fascinating to me and being something that really doesn’t even happen that much, not a billionth as much as it happens for others, I mean–I’d like to ask if maybe someone with an official copy of Goon Squad and an eye for kerning can tell me if the word “From” on the cover is, uhm, doing it wrong? Anyone? I mean, I know I haven’t been put through quite enough design bootcamp yet to get to be a real dillhole about it, or maybe it’s just some inherent latter-day humility or something, the feeling like I’ve crumbed up enough of the stuff I’m supposed to be good at that to speak with any sense of emphasis about things I’m not supposed to be good at would be really like begging for a slap to the face, but, whatever, either way, yow; where’s that O going? Up, up, and oway, you big fat black hole I can’t help but stare at now, now that I’ve noticed how awkwardly you want not to join the party, R over there making out with F, M pretty much trying to go as far from you as it can. Ahem. Or maybe I’m way wrong. Anyway.)
Anyway. The reactions I’ve tracked on the book have been mixed, from all out “boo” to “ehhh” to “cautious yeh,” which I pretty much understand. If I rave about the book and talk about it being the novel in which Egan sort of freaks out for a while, and if you hear that yes there is in fact an entire chapter set as a PowerPoint presentation (which really is pretty well done and sort of awesome in its way), I can totally understand if you expect the book to be absolutely transformative, a work of art for all eras. Expectations boosted, and all. And truth is it’s not that good. I can get that someone might find it fluffy, disposable–there’s portions I recall dragging for me a bit, here and there, though not enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth, not enough for me to say I less than really liked the book. Again, of course, if this was a couple months ago, I might be able to offer a better defense or deconstruction of my defense, but I’ll leave it for now as, yeah, not for everybody.
That said, what I’ll say is this: I think Egan’s got a White Noise in her, or go ahead and pick a big novel of your choice that isn’t actually big. Maybe Goon Squad is actually it, and I’m just secretly hoping it isn’t so I can still have yet the best to wait for. Maybe not. Either way, I’m having fun coming along for the ride and I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes next.
But, in the meantime, if you’ve read Goon Squad, and you think I’m a jerk for liking it, let me know in the comments. If enough people call me a jerk, I’ll have to do something about something else I’m going to talk about in a bit (or in more than a bit) so I can get myself on firmer ground from which to call you jerks right back. Or you could tell me I’m right for liking it. I’m not going to judge.
So, having finally shared my thoughts about The Invisible Bridge last week (no? not last week? not even close? time? what?) I can now offer some previously promised (somewhere, sometime) comparison-thoughts to another book that I believe takes a more successfully luxuriant, indulgent bath in a tub of warm overwriting, The American Girl, by Monika Fagerholm, as translated into English from the original Swedish by Katarina E. Tucker, and published by Other Press. First, I admit I read this book before I read Bridge, and I read it to read it, not to report on it, so with a lack of notes and underlining, I’m a bit rusty with regards to the particulars, but the now long-held impression I’ve been left with is of a book that is hardly afraid to shout, to stand up on the table and wave its hands over its head and kick your plate aside and spill the wine, a book that will remind you that it is a book full of words that are active and full of life and energy and desire and passion for the story they are creating; this book, in other words, foregrounds its writing-as-writing-to-be-read-as-writing in (to me) a more satisfying fashion than Bridge, the metaphorical brushstrokes, in Girl, being more playful, energetic, dreamy-eyed, sparkly, multidirectional–or, what the hell, rather pleasantly fucking excited to make your acquaintance–than Bridge, which, to my mind, were far more plentiful, detailed, precise, or perhaps studied, classical somehow, finely sculpted in the service of creating a denser, heavier whole, a thicker product, a sturdy thing designed to stand strong against the winds of the ages, while yet still in the current moment offering an ultimately more dull final image than Fagerholm’s what-exactly-was-that-anyway Finland murder mystery (-ish), chock full of holes and alleys and edges and folds and frays. (Different goals, different means, of course.) To be fair, Girl starts beautiful but also a bit rough, can feel sort of ridiculously disorienting at first. It took me several attempts to get into it, to find the rhythms and the paths I could stick with, I think I read the first fifty pages or so about three times before I broke through and into the rest of the book. And even when I did go with it, I wasn’t always with it, but I wanted it enough, there was enough going on so that even when it felt like it was dragging or going off in some weird purposeless or incomprehensible direction, the whole way through I still wanted to see where it was going, to be taken somewhere, to take a little part in taking apart this book’s little world. When I speak of over-writing I think I speak specifically in part of a certain quantity of repetition, the sort that, being as of now about 188 pages into Imperial, reminds me of certain tics of William Vollmann’s, key lines that come back like an idée fixe in a piece of music. This isn’t a particularly post-modern thing, whatever that means anymore, though I would hazard a feeling that the narrative is itself a bit aware of itself, from time to time, or at least that it is a little more cognizant of the fact that there is a foreground to be foregrounded; the artifice of the work is as much the work as the thoughts, ideas, stories it communicates, and I took greater (if not perfectly great) pleasure in it, for it.
I don’t want to draw much more comparison between the two books than I’ve already done, and I hope this serves less as a anti-Bridge commentary and more as a pro-Girl essay; it is an exciting book, and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to saying more about it. (And there’s plenty more to be said, particularly in light of recent Franzenfreudeania, and all the accompanying baggage that comes along with that, which I won’t go deeply into, but will suggest that yes, this is a book about (in part) young girls by a female author that deserves wider readership by both dudes and chicks.) This book, enjoyable entirely as a stand-alone tale, is the first book of a two-part story; should I learn that the second book were being translated into English, I would likely take the time to re-read this first book with the goal of enhancing my enjoyment and understanding of both books. Which, well, high praise.