For the last two weeks, over lunch, I’ve been reading Imperial by William Vollmann. I’d actually started reading the book earlier this year, getting about 50 pages into it as part of a plan to read about 50 pages per week until I was done, before I promptly forgot the book existed after I had to move it off the coffee table and onto a high shelf, the quality of the hard cover being of a sort that my cat, it would seem, liked, at least enough to gnaw on, quite randomly, this being the sort of behavior that could not surprise me but which still took me off guard; he’d never eaten any of my other books. From time to time in the months that followed I’d notice the book, up there, near the ceiling, as I ran from one other priority to some other other priority, never thinking to actually take it back down during the slow moments to make good on the promises I’d made to myself when I’d first bought it, which is to say, to actually read enough of it before the paperback came out to warrant spending the cost of the hardcover (purchased either on sale or with a coupon or something I’m certain but still a fair dollar or two more than I’d be likely pay for a used video game, which, naturally, would provide far more immediate, gratuitous per-dollar-per-hour enjoyment than reading a chaotically long essay about immigration and irrigation in southern California) (and if there is a paperback version to come, which one would like to assume there will be, it has not shown up yet, at least, not according to my cursory glance at product listings on the Web). It was only a couple weeks ago that I finally took it back down and loaded it into my bag and took it with me to the day job, where it’s been sitting on my desk since, like some comforting dog, ready to attract the notice of neighbors, only to nip at their fingers when they go in for a pet behind the ears. Except, this book does not, in fact, despite its bulldog size, bite: it is, so far, I am willing to say, after 140 pages of semi-attentive, semi-distracted, sandwich-sauce-on-my-fingers, e-mail-buzzing-behind-my-head reading, about as compulsively readable a work by Vollmann I’ve yet to pick up and give an even semi-serious attempt at wading through—this is a book with so much love to give, can it help it if it puts its paws up on your shoulders, leans in deep, and slobbers all over your face? The sentences—that lovely fundamental unit of writing which, from book to book, paragraph to paragraph, Vollmann has (kindly) juggled with and (less-kindly) struggled with—are crisp, and have things to say, things to tell you, and never for a second lose sight of that fact; even if he goes long, even if he goes florid, it’s with intent to tell you something, to communicate facts and emotions to you, the reader, crushed under their weight of fur and bones. Yes, emotion: this may be a history, this may be a study, but it is an altogether, so far, a story, a human one, in which humans are creatures who do things that mean things to them—be it crossing a border, be it protecting a border, be it farming a land, be it sailing a river of shit, be it being in love, be it being out of love, be it writing a book. This is a book that for that reason is enjoyable to read, engaging, compelling; lunch time reading can be a trick, with everything waiting at the other end of the half-hour one might allot oneself if one is willing to feel like a bit of a slacker, and a book that does not compel can be an easy book to shove back in the bag in favor of answering a query or doing something else of value to somebody else. But Imperial, ah, Imperial—I want to remain in your embrace. Through the fatigue, despite the distraction, I will remain past the day’s goal of ten for an eleventh page. Or twelfth. Or another.
But okay, no, for serious: Stoner, by John Williams, is a great book, and is one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year, or even in the last several years. In part because of context: I was working on my next book review when I read this one, and I’d read that book once, the review title book, and that one did things to me that I could not entirely define for myself yet, and so I knew I’d need to read it again, but I didn’t want to read it again immediately–I needed to step away from it, for a moment, the way you might step away from a mirror only to return to it later to find yourself familiar in some surprising way, like deja vu refracted through a glass of thick water. And that review title does a whole bunch of complex things in intriguing ways, and for whatever reason, I picked up Stoner off the perpetually one-foot-tall TBR pile, and, I mean, it’s cliche to say you can’t stop reading a book, but, like love, it’s so damn real and completely not cliche when you’re actually in it, all the more so since I hadn’t been in that specific place in a while, it seemed like–I mean, I’d read some other good books earlier this year, but usually in a, well, this is great, but I can also go rack up some trophies on the PlayStation, too, and have a good time tonight as well, right? Not so, with Stoner. I spent my days at work looking forward to going home so I could read more of it. This book reminded me that I had forgotten slightly just what the fig leaf a good book is supposed to do: strip away your modesty, leave you emotionally naked before it, make you need it. It is a book that makes you become a person. And this from a book that from its opening paragraph seems like it’s got jack-all to do or go toward–I mean, it lays out the fact in the opening paragraph that the title character lives a life and then he dies and it didn’t much matter to anybody except maybe to him. Which is pretty much a huge bummer but, what, now I have to read a couple hundred more pages about this fellow? No. Please. But! The thing is, the opening paragraph is a feint, or perhaps a huge lie; because, yes, spoiler alert, you are reading about the life of a guy who will, by the end of the book, die, except, in the time you spend with him, in the time you spend reading Williams’s perfectly reasonable, perfectly paced, perfectly rhythmic, perfectly unostentatious prose, he, Stoner, comes to mean a little more to you than most strangers ever will. At least, so it seemed to go for me. And it’s sad but it’s so strong. If I was the crying sort, I probably would have, around the time I finished. But I did not cry, and I set it down, and I returned to the book about which I was due to write a review, and I felt recharged, and refreshed, and ready to take this world of literature on again, one book at a time. My craving was reborn.
And so, tell me, please, because I would like to know: what book has done that for you?
Stoner by John Williams is a great book. Please consider this a heartfelt, enthusiastic recommendation; please consider reading the book.
Books! I’ve read a few this year. So far. I’m not expecting much in the way of surprise between now and the end of the year, though–seems like it’s all sort of mapped out. Like, there’s this guy, you may have heard of him, Jonathan Franzen? Yeah, he’s got a new novel coming out in a week. I’m looking forward to reading it. I don’t care that the entire internet is already tired of hearing about Jonathan Franzen and the fact that he has a new book coming out. I’m still looking forward to reading it. Marketing: it works! Or it does not work! Either way! And there are some other things I’ve got roughly slated out, seems like; there’s a book I’m reading now, which I’m going to be writing a review of for a place other than here for later this year. (I’ve got another review slated to come out in about a month for a place other than here, which I’m really looking to seeing hit the streets, and for the book to hit the streets, because I want other people to read the book, and then I want them to read my review, and then I want them to either whole-heartedly agree with me, or violently disagree with me, such that discussion of a civil or uncivil nature may occur. It is a book that after reading it twice and writing a review of it I am still struggling with my feelings and opinions about it, and more so than many books I read, I want not to feel like I am in a cultural vacuum of my own making with this one. So.) (Also, yes, no, I do not talk about the books I am doing reviews of, while I am doing the reviews of them, or before the reviews come out; I do this in part out of a vague sense of professionalism, a vague sense that if I’ve got a word to say about the book I really ought to save it for the review, a vague sense that if I start talking a book up outside a review I will curse the existence of the review which the book is intended for me to prompt–for vague reasons, in short, but reasons none the less, all of which is unfortunate in that it makes it seem like a book’s got to be targeted for me to write about it anywhere but here for it to get any play from me, which would be fine, if I was writing reviews full time, which I am not, nor do I see myself doing so any time in the near future, or even a less near future, so. It’s a thing. A situation. A sitch.) (And yes, I do mostly realize my blog-post writing style of late (or of ever) sort of makes me look like a jerk–people don’t read, Darby, you jerk!–but that is okay because something has to remind me that there is more to life than succinct customer-focused messaging. Ahem.) (Oh, but yeah, like I was saying up there, you know that since I don’t talk about books I’m reviewing outside of the context of the review before the release of the review, that the fact that I’m even almost writing about a book before a review I’m writing about it has been released means that I am positively bursting at the seams to talk about it and see it talked about. I want more for this book from me. Whatever that more may be.) (Whatever that more ever may be.) And there’s a new Rick Moody book out? Which is a science fiction future satire or something? Whatever, sign me up. And I’ve got a stack on the coffee table which seems to perpetually remain at the same height however many books I take off of it. Which isn’t that many, lately, what with school, and school, and work, and life, and other projects, and things, but still, I know I do read books, I see the small pile of books I’ve finished, but, like, the “to be read sooner than other books that are also very much to be read” stack seems stuck, like some tower made of hands? That are playing that sandwich game? You know the one? So like, I take one medium size book off, and then Francine Prose writes a glowing review of some books by Hans Keilson, and then there’s two more smaller books back up on the pile? It’s a rough calculus. And, I mean, Summer of Dostoevsky ’06, right? Gonna wrap that one up any day now? Am I? Am I. Point being, there’s no sense in me not starting to wrap up the year now by finally getting around to talking about the books I’ve read over the course of the year. It’s future-leaning retrospective. Yes. Books. I’ve read a few of them this year. And a few of them, I’d like to talk to you about them. If I may.
First Up, the Short Version
I really liked Joshua Mohr’s first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me; I reviewed it at The Collagist last year. Since then, he has published his second novel, Termite Parade, which I also really liked. It’s a different kind of book, though certainly written by the same author with the same interests. They’re both well-written books, quick but impactful, and I don’t mind recommending either of them to you if you’re looking for a good book to read.
And Then, the More Vaguely Review-like Version
With his second novel, Termite Parade, Joshua Mohr sounds the depths of the space between human decency and indecency; he does so to striking, engaging effect. It’s a project he began in his fine first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, which offered, in part, a heart-felt, grimly quirky look at a to-some-degree victimized childhood. Termite Parade stands as World’s wicked step-brother, compressing more complexity into a leaner, meaner package. Here, Mohr focuses on the wholly present-tense process of pain and its making. That people are dumb is no surprise, and it won’t shock anybody to learn that we do terrible things to each other: we’ve pretty much made a full-time job of making life more complex for each other than, strictly speaking, it really needs to be. By wrestling with the notion that, even though we can be the biggest tools going, people can still come off as redeemable is where Mohr gives his novel its literary-quality staying power.
The story is told by a core cast of three characters. These include Mired, who describes herself as “the bastard daughter of a ménage a trois between Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eeyore;” her boyfriend Derek, an auto mechanic who is “not the sort of guy who waxes philosophical or blubbers about the way his life ends up”; and Derek’s twin brother Frank, “an aspiring filmmaker” and “mastermind behind The Unveiled Animal, which will soon be a brand name synonymous with cinema.” The plot is sparked by a stark and, frankly, at least to this reader, surprisingly shocking act of violence, with each character relating his or her self-centered, questionable, conflicting view of the story.
(And, now, here’s the kind of parenthetical aside I doubt I would have gotten away with had this actually become a review for a real publication: I say “surprisingly shocking” up there because this book, Mohr’s book, was one of my rebound books from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I tried and failed to read earlier this year. The thing here being that the Bolaño book featured this whole section about violence done against women that’s meant to be this gut-shredding walk through misery but which I found sort of dull and uninspired, which, before I even go and put a period anywhere near this sentence, let me go ahead and clarify or re-clarify that I in no way support or tolerate the idea of violence against women and that my complaints about the book 2666 are solely to do with the book 2666 and the fact that I thought it kind of did it all wrong; and endless (or at times at least it felt endless) catalog of the results of horrible activity which frequently used the same damn sentences over and over again did little to inspire me to horrific contemplation of the state of mankind, or whatever, any more so than a glance at the morning paper would do. You can tell me that there’s some nonsense out there or you can show me that there’s some nonsense or you can make me feel the existence of that nonsense in my bones and 2666 went for the former, in my opinion. Whereas–and here’s the kind of statement that’s likely to be get me in more trouble than it’s worth but what the hell–Termite Parade actually showed me an act of violence and made me feel it in my bones in a totally simple, totally straight-forward way, a way which, alone, makes me think that Termite Parade might actually be a better book? Question mark? At least it is to me. At least to me, being a guy who, in a scant page or so, saw some nonsense go down, and could not for a second deny the fact that that nonsense is the stuff of which, you know, people are actually capable of? It makes you confront something about yourself, is what I’m saying. 2666 does too but not in the same way. Not for me. It’s totally disingenuous of me to couch all this language in “for me” and it’s also disingenuous of me to be trash-talking a book I gave up reading months ago and which I gave up much caring about a few fewer months ago but hey. This is how I blog now? Question mark?)
In part, this (ahem, “this” referring here to the multiple-narrator method through which the story of Termite Parade is told) serves to develop a portrait of Derek and Mired’s toxic relationship; as Derek puts it, “there was barely trust between Mired and me, and the trust we did have was heavy and rundown, a burden we lugged behind us like concrete shadows.” What would read as too thin (by which I believe I mean, too dull, or too standard, or just too uninteresting on its own to warrant an entire book for the telling) finds itself shaken up nicely by Frank, the story’s primary unbalancing agent, its vocal note of discord. His film project, the sort of idea likely smoked up by most modern-day film students (or, really, anybody with a cell phone camera and a head full of The Real World re-runs), is a sort of back-to-basics cinema vérité:
It revolved around the notion that the cinema needs to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings. There needed to be a convergence between mainstream filmmaking and documentaries. And with the blazing popularity of reality TV that developed in the late 1990s and early millennium, it seemed I might really be on to something. The public wasn’t craving actors anymore, but people in real situations, real people who weren’t pretending to feel sadness and anger and letdown but were learning to navigate the tangles and ignominies of everyday life.
Suffice it to say that reality is never enough and, given a spoonful of the stuff, Frank contrives to turn it into a glossy jar full of the quote-unquote stuff. Here’s where Derek comes to find himself standing at the mid-point between actual reality and what passes for it in front of a camera.
The story gains momentum as the twining plot lines spiral toward their collision. Mohr keeps a light touch through the proceedings, easing up a bit on the “Push Here for Stylistic Quirks” button he pressed more than once in his debut novel (which, I should note, never bothered me, but I feel compelled to, at least once, blatantly point out, because it’s likely to bug somebody). The whole thing kind of comes to revolve around notions of blame, this quirks-versus-not-quirks thing. Where hallucinations and memories might have served as big red EXIT signs for any sense of culpability on the part of the narrator of Some Things, there’s nothing equivalent in Parade; suffering, guilt, these are things people do to other people and themselves. A brief sequence of memories involving the boys’ father serves to underscore the fact that these are people of their own making. What happens to us does happen to us, yes, but we ultimately are how we react.
Get past the terrible (to be quite honest) cover art (which, to be fair, a cursory review of the artist’s Web site shows it’s not the execution but the concept behind the art that’s to blame) and the reader–once, me, and, perhaps, someday, you–will find a bracing story of complicity, of the misery we make for others and ourselves. Mohr tells the story with a stylistic terseness that keeps the proceedings snappy, and, without ever drawing answers, at least sketches in the idea that the answers are worth looking for, somewhere in the darker values. As one character puts it, after an awful lot of awful things happen: “We could figure things out, if you gave us enough time.”
Update to note, I just noticed the book comes out in July. (It’s June, if you’re curious.) Because I read the book earlier this year. And I wrote most of this post a while ago. Consummate professional that I am, I took all this and translated it into an over-riding sense that I was late to the game on the book. Like, oh, man, nobody’s going to care anymore! Oh no! When I’m now safely ahead of the timeline. By, like, a while. Oh no! Nobody is prepared to care yet! I’d say I feel like a jerk but I don’t, because it’s still a good book and you should still look it up when you have the chance. Anyways.