I have probably read more books in the year thus far than I have any year previous. Partly this is the result of feeling like I have already seen every movie that I would ever love, and the changes in Netflix service that followed this thought. Partly it's seeing these long Blake Butler lists of all the books he reads in a given year, serving as a reminder for how much literature there is out there to be explored, if one does not merely wait for a critical mass to accrue around something before you feel as if you have to read it. I have also had a lot of free time on my hands, but always paired with an anxiety of thinking that this free time could at any point disappear.
I wanted to write about the books I read, to be able to remember that I read them. The reading has been so constant that to talk about these things also seems to form a type of a diary, a chronicle of a time of my life that's been largely uneventful except for this continuous consumption of prose. With the exceptions of the works I loved, my reaction is generally "It is what it is," and while that response is completely unhelpful, it is the works I had that response to that I am most likely to forget I read. I will try to explain what it is they are. Some of these responses might seem dismissive, but they're still not nearly as dismissive as it is to not read something.
I was going to post this at the end of the year, and then I was offered the chance to do a "sponsored blog post," which I accepted. It being for a grammar-check website then made me feel like I should actually write sentences in response to these books, as opposed to the sentence fragments I think I generally use when I'm chronicling my reaction to something, and not forming an argument. It's important to note this isn't in strictly chronological order. At first I was not keeping a list, and the first chunk of this list, where works are grouped together by author, was from memory, at the time I decided to write down all that I had read, after realizing it had been quite a bit.
Blaise Cendrars, Moravagine. I bought this in Philadelphia, on the way home from Christmas, and while I was very excited about it, I also sort of dreaded its supposedly horrific content. Moravagine, as a word, means "vagina death," and the talk around the book gave the impression of misogyny, that it was a book with a lot of rape in it. Reading it, it didn't come off as a transgression or a provocation, as much as sort of a more well-written pulp thing, in the tradition of the European romanticization of the villian, as seen in Fantomas, but here we have a protagonist who is mentally ill rather than brilliantly cunning. I thought it was fun, and the violence is never gruesomely detailed in a manner I found disturbing.
Alan Garner, Red Shift. Another NYRB Classic, purchased from Joseph Fox bookstore at the same time. I don't think I knew, going in, that this was a YA novel, I anticipated a science-fiction thing, but then mostly just following one of its three (?) narrative threads, the romance between two adolescents. I liked that plenty, and like the idea that there is stuff I missed because I wasn't paying attention- I read this in line at the food stamps office, so the parts that were just dialogue between two characters were obviously the easiest to follow.
Ian Svenonius, Supernatural Strategies For Forming A Rock And Roll Group. I went to the reading this the same night my friend Carson was getting ready to leave town, and I took a bunch of books from him that I didn't really try to read, that are at the moment just objects, reference books. These would be things I'd like to learn about, like the I Ching, and the Popol Vuh. Svenonius' first book, The Psychic Soviet, is one of my favorite books, and I talk about its argument, that the evolution of musical trends is a form of downsizing, fairly often. Chris Day said he liked this book more, found it more personal, and while that is maybe true, I both appreciate the theoretical quite a bit, and find certain hints at Svenonius' personality here rather frightening. There is a chapter about communication, with people outside of the group, which is a form of gang, that discusses it in terms of this sort of challenge, a game for you to win, that feels like an admission of a sort of intellectual sociopathy. I've witnessed it, its a funny insight into the world, but it's also kind of a bummer. Not included in the book is the biographical factoid that sort of explains this sort of behavior, that Svenonius' dad was a college professor. I learned of that detail through one of his former students, my friend Matt who writes for Tiny Mixtapes.
Apology, Volume One, edited by Jesse Pearson. This magazine was mostly bad, I thought, although the article of questions Frederick Exley asked Gloria Steinem article was something I obsessed over and thought a lot about. Steinem, being a public figure that Exley, has a lot of information about her readily available for Exley to research, but, in his being a novelist, what he wants from a subject is so much more, to almost obsessive detail. I thought about this in the context of being a man talking to women. Exley kinds of as kind of a creep, almost stalkerish, with these questions he rambles into a tape recorder while drunk, but his curiosity is admirable.
Jonathan Lethem, They Live. It feels good to read this sort of articulate parsing of all that is at work within a film, all the things I feel like I intuitively grasp as a viewer. My issue with most Lethem is the sort of inevitability I feel while reading it, like I am not being told anything I don't already know, since I am someone who shares many of his interests. It reads like a conversation where you are constantly being told things you agree with, and mostly nod along. The excerpt from a Stanislav Lem novel in here is awesome.
John Berryman, The Dream Songs. I mostly just read the original book, although the edition I have contains follow-ups. Sort of cool, but, like all sorts of books I own, almost more of a reference point object than a text I actively engaged in. There are some good parts here but I didn't internalize them.
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear. A lot of people read this book, a big Scientology expose, and I was one of them. Reading the early chapters, I felt the allure of most new-age spiritualities, understood the appeal, which isn't really the point of the book, but reading about its early stages, I could see the same appeal that Burroughs saw, although he quit engaging with the Church pretty quickly. Later in the narrative, David Miscavige is a crazy madman, violent. An allegory that I think Twig Harper was telling me about The Master was that Phiiip Seymour Hoffman is the L Ron Hubbard figure and Joaquin Phoenix is like David Miscavige. There is a lot of talk about celebrities in this book, too much for me to find interesting, although the constant returning to Paul Haggis and Tom Cruise does sort of lend it its narrative thread.
Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity. I loved a lot about this, not the least of which is the law talk, the morality of being a public defender that most people do not see in their desire for a law and order that punishes the guilty. This book was originally self-published, and while I saw some people talking about it needing an editor, I'm not sure what could be cut, it's a ramble intentionally. Even though I found the talk about television the weakest part of the book, the part that felt the most 1990s, I appreciated it as filler, essentially, that it was not just about its plot, even though its crime elements were well-handled. Reading discussion of this book made me want to read Moby Dick.
Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister. It took me a bit to find the posture for this book, due to its weird opening, a drawn-out description of a puddle. I really like that the main character in this book was a bully growing up, clowning on a mediocre nerd, who goes on to run a country but remains small and petty. It feels like an inversion of so many popular tales we tell ourselves and our children. Nabokov's politics are weird, he's mostly disinterested in them, almost out of a snobbery for the common rabble, viewing the pageantry as bread and circuses. This is a novel opposed to totalitarianism for the way that totalitarianism won't let you ignore it, and the emotional core of the book remains a father's love for his son. In the end it becomes aware of its being a fiction, almost to lighten the load, a further pleasure, and another way of Nabokov averting himself from the implications of writing a political work.
I also read Nabokov's biography of Nikolai Gogol, which goes more into what he values in terms of literature's pleasures, and his disinterest in social comment. He seems to love Gogol's work but is completely dismissive of Gogol's stated goals for what he's doing. It's interesting in its crotchetyness, although not so much as to make me want to read Gogol, who I've tried to read in the past and found I couldn't get into.
Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire. I picked this up because I enjoy Oates' Twitter feed and wanted to read something by her, and this was a novel about girl gangs. I thought this was okay. It's interesting to think about someone who just writes all the time. It feels impersonal, somehow, and my mind viewed it like a movie, a narrative that I understood, intuitively, almost like it was a collection of cliches, just this general feeling that it was something I had seen before, and I could not really be surprised by it. It is worth noting that I don't really read books for plot, so much as voice, and this sort of narrative, that seems like it's a guide or insight into a particular milieu, a time and a place, I find myself reading at a remove. That's not to say it isn't well-written.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. This is the one book I took from Carson that I read. It's a quick read, that I guess most people are already familiar with. This sort of conceptual thought exercise does a lot more for me than Oates' approach, and this feels like a really pure example of what I think of Calvino as doing. There are things I like more, and things I like less, but they're all generally more impure.
Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves. I read this partly as research for an interview with Molly Colleen O'Connell, who named her comic from Domino that came out last year the same thing. When I asked her about it, the answer was that while she loves Calvino, this isn't her favorite book of his. I strained to read this, and thought it was real boring, so much about a war, so far from the area where Calvino excels. This is his early work, before he found his more experimental form.
Amos Tutuloa, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts/The Palm-Wine Drinkard. This book kept on coming up, being recommended. One dude at a party talked about it in the context of hearing about it in an interview with Jeff Mangum, which I think is what finally pushed me to read it. It is, narratively, pretty haphazard, but fascinating for how it reveals how deeply felt and real the myths and beliefs in ghosts are in Africa. This fascination for me arises, specifically, because of how bizarre and anti-narrative the stories are, the bits of cow-transformation and ju-ju. Imagine believing dreams to be real even when, as you retell them, they sound like total nonsense that contradicts itself, existing in a culture where that logic somehow supersedes that found in the waking day. Please do not interpret this in a racist way, where I am diminishing the Yoruba culture: I am not a huge fan of the rationalist worldview and find these sorts of insights into cultural subjectivity. Why not believe in dreams?
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree. A collection of scenes, chapters, without progression. I liked the way the sex scenes were told, or really the whole thing. Long and somewhat haphazard. Made me feel like I could give Blood Meridian another go, like I could read it if I tried to in an upright chair. The first time I tried to read Blood Meridian I kept on falling asleep, the opacity of its language forming a warm blanket. I was able to read this, although it certainly took some time to do so.
Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers. Reading this right after Suttree really made me want to write a western, really made me think about the form. I really liked the bit of period detail about the invention of the toothbrush. I liked the weirdness of the interludes, the voice of the narrator, everything about it. It's really easy to read. I want to watch Terri, the John C Reilly movie he wrote the screenplay for. At the time I confused it with Cyrus, and Cyrus turned out to be a winner, in a way that I then interpreted to mean it was THE winner, which I no longer am so convinced of. Once I reactivate my Netflix, it'll be top of the queue.
Amelia Gray, Threats. Liked the voice in this. It's interesting to read Goodreads or Amazon reviews where people complain about it not making sense. It is true that the plot does not resolve satisfactorily, and while I feel "who cares" about that sort of thing, it's interesting to me that a lot of readers really expect resolution. It's a mystery that is not solved, where it is unclear what, even, is going on. Does it make sense that fans of mysteries are not so much a fan of the mystery so much as they are the solution? I suppose, if you view mystery as a genre and not just a fact of life.
Amelia Gray, Museum Of The Weird. Reading this I thought about the idea of it not being satisfying- I read it so quickly, owing to it being a collection of very short stories, easy enough to go through it like it's a thing of Pringles. Some of it's good, or funny, but the idea of FC2's "innovative fiction" prize felt absurd, with this stuff like Donald Barthelme but more engaged with the fantastical, and not as good. (I rate Barthelme pretty highly.) The frame of saying "weird" is off-putting as well, I suppose. Quirky rather than horrifying, whereas Threats felt dark enough to possess a threatening undertow this mostly lacked, although the story about a serial killer named God was good. For the sake of disclosure I should admit that currently I have a novel's manuscript submitted to the same contest that Amelia won a few years ago. It makes sense that a short story collection would win because of how different people can like different stories, and this is one that tries enough different things for that to be the case. I don't expect to win. The idea of calling anything "innovative" seems self-congratulatory. It's used as an alternative to "experimental," I get that. I think I just prefer the idea of "novel" as indicating some kind of novelty, by itself, and think that all the genre things people read for comfort should be the things given a separate label, like "narrative reinforcement" or something. Of course, this is not a novel, but a short story collection. And there I just think I prefer the idea of "stories" to the idea of these things being "weird." I don't think these stories are weird, I just think they are what they are, and don't like deferring to the terminology of people who would call themselves "normal."
Joy Williams, The Changeling. Oh shit I loved this one. I tried to summarize this book to Matt when I had just started to read it, but it starts off with this parade of false starts, plot movement at its most jagged. From a woman being on the run, she is immediately retrieved to be put on a plane that then crashes, and simultaneous to this action there is an occupation of this hallucinatory territory, that then takes up most of the book, as it slows down to just being about a drunk on an island surrounded by children. The critic who loved State Of Grace and then hated this book seems like someone who must have tastes completely the opposite of my own. Harold Brodkey. What were some of his other opinions, I wonder? Reading his Wikipedia page I can read people's negative reviews of his own fiction.
I also read Dimmer, by Joy Williams, which is contained in this anthology of stories originally published in the Paris Review. Many of the things in this collection were pretty terrible, including the story Joy Williams picked by someone else, about the world of literary publication, but the story she actually wrote, from 1969, I think, was good. Good sentences, not reprinted elsewhere. I wish her new book was not an e-book.
Joy Williams, Taking Care. Towards the end of this, there's a story about the characters that make up Breaking And Entering. I like Joy Williams a lot, I prefer to spend those extended jaunts in the novels than her stories, but these were good. It feels really hard to remember individual short stories when they're done in this mode, though, the "literary fiction" mold. When people talk about how literary fiction is a genre like any other, it is short stories that fit that description better, as opposed to the way a novel can have its tangents and surprises and weirdnesses. I wonder if people who read "Breakfast" in 1982 remembered it when reading Breaking And Entering in 1988. Perhaps as you read this, you are thinking "It seems like you don't find short fiction that rewarding," and maybe it is true that I tend to prefer novels in general. But if you were to then ask "then why don't you just not read short story collections?" keep in mind that would be sort of stupid and close-minded on my part to just avoid that form of expression altogether as a rule.
Nicholson Baker, A Box Of Matches. This would be an example of a novel I didn't find all that satisfying, that didn't really have the heft I want from Baker. Which is almost absurd, considering how devoted to the tiny and slight Baker is, as that's pretty much his entire agenda. It's really short, its chapters are short, and each start in the same way, with these little introductions, and it doesn't have the weird forward pull from thought to thought, or the level of obsession, that The Mezzanine has.
Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke. This book is huge, but it's about all the little things that have been written out of history. Specifically, pacifism, that ideology that people treat as being quaint, that Baker takes as his own, and takes very seriously in this work of history. It doesn't really try to make an argument, it just sets out the facts, both of pacifist objections to World War II during the buildup, while also including things about Roosevelt's anti-semitism. The latter is disappointing, a further reminder that there are no real heroes to be found in history, but overall while reading it I kept on feeling like it didn't have a thesis, or I didn't understand its argument. Although I think that marks it as an important bit of history, and certainly I have no interest in reading a book with a political agenda that can be easily understood. One person who might be a historical hero, actually, is Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress who was later the only member to vote against war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, who believed that women's participation in politics was the key to peace. Thinking about her in contrast to current political climate makes me want to weep at how far we've fallen from any sort of idealism.
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist. I read this around the same time as a friend of mine from college. Cameron was real proud of having sent Nicholson Baker a fan letter and eating a lunch with him in Maine. This book's real good, I had avoided it because it seemed boring, as it seemed to be all about rhyming poetry, sort of seeming like it would just be a non-fiction book about a subject I wouldn't read about. All that stuff ends up being interesting and smart, and the voice is consistently engaging, but it turns out to maybe be more about failure. I am surprised by how comfortable this book is, how the relentlessness of The Mezzanine turned out to be a fluke.
Around the same time,I started reading Finnegan's Wake, but didn't finish it. I had this idea ten years ago I would read that book when I turned 27, in June of 2012, almost in preparation for the world's ending, or in some way becoming deeply crazy and chaotic. When that didn't happen, I realized I could still start reading it and maybe finish it before I turned 28. That didn't happen, I didn't even finish the first book of it, but I like that I own the book now. I like its long sentences, its rhythms when read as if out loud, getting the occasional meaning behind a joke. I like it more than Ulysses, which I also didn't finish. I can be fine with it being an object I dip in and out of for the rest of my life, as the "plot" or whatever is completely indiscernible. I could read a guide to decoding it, but the pleasures for me are mostly in the music in it, at least at this point.
Another book I started to read but didn't finish, but that I got out of the library, rather than buy a copy of, was Clarice Lispector's Near To The Wild Heart, which takes it title and epigraph from Portrait Of The Artist as a Young Man. The thing I don't like about Lispector is how it doesn't progress, not just in terms of plots, but in terms of its arguments, or its psychology- Having a psyche is so repetitive, the thoughts you return to incessantly, that reading something like this irritates me. I should try to go back and finish it, but yeah: One of the things I was thinking about was how I don't like the psychological novel because psychology isn't novel, in fact it frustrates novelty all the time, these repetitions, how circular thought patterns are. I don't even like rewatching movies, which so many people find comforting: I crave stimuli, to not just go into the same tracks again, the comfort of depression, the depression of comfort. This wasn't inspired by the Lispector, which at least in the early going is linguistically fresh enough to avoid these sorts of thoughts, but rather an awful play.
Brian Evenson, Fugue State. This unwinds it's psychology in short bursts, the better to make potent what singular thoughts are. It's a short story collection, and some pieces I remember better than others. For something that seems like overall the effect that is being gone for is one of horror, it's interesting how the story from this I most remember is one of the more humorous. Overall I probably remember more of this than I do of most short story collections, because of how each story seemed to have a separate goal. I'd read one of these stories in McSweeney's ages ago and remembered it upon rereading, although at the time it didn't make enough of an impression on me to track down more of Evenson's work.
Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain. I didn't love this the way some people apparently do, but liked parts of it, the progression, the feeling of tension and danger in the descent into madness, the ending scene with post-it notes in the mind of someone whose brain has snapped, but sort of didn't like the actual ending, the payoff to the growing horror, the killing of the girl who felt doomed from her introduction on.
Blake Butler, Nothing: A Portrait Of Insomnia. Got this on the cheap after reading a bunch of Butler's writing about books and liking them, but feeling sort of distrustful of his view of literature. His embrace of experimentation and darkness seemed a bit too whole-hearted, where I would be more reticent. He likes a lot of stuff, which is what led to me reading a bunch of work he's vouched for. I do this thing, when reading, where I think about my own writing, wondering what I'm getting out of it, how much it aligns with my goals or whatever. I think that Blake probably does the same thing, but by viewing himself as more of an experimental writer (whereas I don't really know what I am, and am looking for something that makes sense) he's able to embrace a good deal more than I would. I think that fails him, sometimes, in this book, which I liked a lot of parts of, but I felt the dives into the more self-consciously experimental portions, or the parts heavier on philosophical quoting, fell flat. I think I would say this book is about two-thirds to three-quarters good. I sent Blake an e-mail recommending issue 4 of Ganges, which approaches some similar subject matter with a different tone. For instance, while Blake, in talking about insomnia, will quote dense philosophical writing, Huizenga talks about the appeal of such writing to the insomniac as a possible sleeping aid for the circularity of its logic.
Blake Butler, There Is No Year. I don't think I like pages with lots of negative space on them. Interesting the bleakness, or reading Blake's blog from when he was writing this and talking about how evil it felt, like he was getting out the evil by writing this. Interesting again to think about readers, people on Amazon giving negative reviews, and think to myself, "Yeah, people don't want evil" but there's good stuff in here, interesting feelings. Obviously there are words and phrases that dude returns to incessantly and that's problematic too, distracting, or stupid. I like the scene where the son looks through pictures of people who died young, and his picture is there too, and the feeling that the list is sort of all people that Butler respects in some way or thinks about. DJ Screw and Ol' Dirty Bastard and David Foster Wallace are all there. Later this year, there was a thing in Vice's fiction issue, (which only contained women writers, but people didn't know about that context) this photospread recreating the suicides of women writers, and many found it to be offensive. I thought about that scene, and how what people consider rude towards death could actually be a sign of respect, but it's a territory that people get very uncomfortable about.
Vernon Chatman, Mindsploitation. I recommended this in the same e-mail to Blake. Vernon Chatman, of PFFR, did this thing that's sort of like a prose follow-up to his film Final Flesh. That was about hiring companies that make custom pornography to act out absurdist scripts. This is about hiring companies, seemingly largely located outside the United States, that write essays for people's homework, to answer prompts that are absurdist in their formulation. It's more interesting in concept than it is funny to read, but it's occasionally fascinating how far out it gets, this reckoning of absurdity and profundity, these words so uncomprehending of the underlying joke that it feels like a computer made them but accidentally spits out truths.
Steve Erickson, Amnesiascope. So pretty much every Steve Erickson book is the same, and there is a degree of diminishing returns for sure, in these easy reads, these dreams of a brain that thinks about movies and sex all the time. Sometimes it feels corny, but in this seamless way where in retrospect, it's always corny, embarrassing, but it's continuously compelling as well.
Tamara Faith Berger, Maidenhead. This won the Believer Book Award, and I got excited to read it. It's got a good cover design, charged with this sexual energy almost like a forbidden object or something, a privacy that is in itself erotic, contained to the function of a book. But it's not very good. Partly it is distracting to me because the protagonist's object of erotic obsession is named Elijah, which is the name of a friend of mine. It is sort of like Judy Blume, only dirty, in its talk about teens, but also frustrating in its constant talk of theory, philosophizing. It's interesting to find out that the reason some people didn't like it is because they wanted it to be erotica but then were skeeved out by the abuse and the youth of the protagonist. There are some good sentences, enough to make me wonder what it would be like were the writer talking about something other than sex, or about a protagonist that wasn't young and therefore naive and therefore undergoing a coming-of-age. There's a voice it comes to that's focused, before it gets lost to either the sensation of what's happening or the over-thinking of things.
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances. I didn't really like this, but read it quickly enough and would take naps and feel its sentence rhythms in my head like I was still reading them. This was a big hit a few years back when it came out, I guess owing to its gimmickry, and reading it I kept on thinking about New Yorker fiction, or what I think a certain swath of books is like.
Kira Henehan, Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles. This I loved, kind of, although I didn't think it was funny, its voice was interesting, weird, I want to read Henehan's prose-poetry, or the other books she might one day write. Similarly sort of about brain damage or weirdness as the Galchen but more internalized, less dry, immediate, while its plot is chaos, its setting practically a dreamscape.
Got a copy of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, and like Finnegan's Wake it is an object to have on hand, to skim, to be a reference book. Like the Tutuola the stories and plot structures are insane and haphazard. It is cool to laugh at story structure, to realize that a story is just something someone made up, sometimes as they go, and not someone sitting around for weeks coming up with a three-act screenplay in their head.
Renata Adler, Speedboat. I loved this. It's beautifully written, with a really engaging voice. The journalist's eye for detail turned to transcribing ambient chatter, telling details that feel like they are just about what we are, as people.
Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays. This did nothing for me. It's pretty much the opposite of what I want to read. It felt melodramatic in its plot mechanics, but flat in its affect, as if just the motions of the plot it was describing were enough to elicit a reaction. The edition I read also had this horrible introduction, about how much blank space there was, how that was for crying. I've heard good things about Didion's journalism.
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies. I liked this pretty well, a cute and easy read that still felt like it had a lot of ideas going on in its head, planned out in advance for its themes to resound off each other, but primarily interested in being a character-focused comedy.
Lance Olsen, Calendar Of Regrets. This has the same basic structure of nested narratives as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but I'm not really sure why. It doesn't seem like form matches content so much here. It's also less interested in genre than the Mitchell book, and more historically based, with "experimental" passages that seem freely imagined where there would be something more easily pinned as science fiction. I wish I could think of ways to talk about this book without comparing it to another but I kind of can't. If I was more familiar with Olsen's other works I suppose I could discuss it in terms of his themes and preoccupations, but I don't know what those might be.
Helen Dewitt, The Last Samurai. This is a heavy hitter and, like Joy Williams' also-incredible The Quick And The Dead, shares a title with a movie it has nothing to do with, but this will need to be explained to people. This book is about a single mother raising a genius son, and not telling him who his father is, even though he desperately wants to know, because the truth would disappoint him, and by keeping his options open, the son's want leads to a pursuit for knowledge, all to impress the fathers he could theoretically have. The book ends up engaged with the question of genius, of potential, better than any other, and contains passages about languages and math and various sorts of intellect. It wears its intelligence outwardly but is really moving and relatable. I recommend it highly, but it's worth noting that it's out of print, only available second-hand, and the author has a place on her website where you can Paypal her the two dollars that a royalty would get her if the book had remained in print. It's not rare, copies of the book can be had for rather cheap, still.
Vanessa Place, The Guilt Project. I wrote about this in my most recent post, but to reiterate: This is a book written by a woman who works as an appellate attorney in California, defending convicted sex offenders. This is the book about how she rationalizes what she does, essentially, by talking about the ways in which the law's system of punishment is in some cases harsh to a point beyond sense. Like Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, it makes an argument that is going to be hard for many people to understand, difficult in this instance even to hear, over the instincts of morality's demand for punitive measures.
Dennis Cooper, My Loose Thread. A lot of people really love Dennis Cooper, although at least one such person told me he didn't really think of this as a major work. Somehow I imagined my issue with Cooper's body of work would be the violence, and transgression, but somehow what I found a harder time with, in this, was the flatness of the tone, that confused, zonked ambiguity that indicates distance between a narrator and his actions.
Lindsay Hunter, Don't Kiss Me. This made me feel weird about the state of contemporary literature. I read a bad review attacking it for feeling more like summaries of stories than stories itself, which is a complaint I can imagine applying to my own writing, and so don't hold against her. It's funny, sometimes, this book, and that's what got me to pick it up and buy a copy. Some of the stores are better than others, but overall they felt like candy bars. I thought of candy bars reading this, reading one story after another, and getting exhausted, not really happy with my decision to read it so fast, even though it was easy to do so. The incessant use of the word "momma," the limitations in the peculiarities of its vernacular, these things hit my brain like refined sugar. The idea that these are "moving" feels like such weird hype. Just let them be funny stories, comedy routines told in separate voices.
Renata Adler, Pitch Dark. I didn't like this as much as Speedboat, as it is more focused in the stories it tells, less free-associative. Its storytelling is more about the false start, repetition owing to not knowing where to begin, as opposed to Speedboat's circling of its subject. Towards the end there is talk about stories and the law, and that stuff I liked a lot, the argument finally coming together. The things about the law, the byline, all seemed really applicable to current stories about Edward Snowden and wiretaps in a way that felt very immediate and not dated at all, even as it makes the disclaimer that it is not truly interested in such subjects, that the story she is telling is about a relationship. It's iteresting to think of Adler identifying as a moderate, or a member of the radical middle, and wonder what she thinks about these modern moments. The Ireland trip that make up the majority of this book don't do much for me.
Vladimir Sorokin, Ice Trilogy. Another NYRB Classic, but this one, I didn't like. Three books in a single binding. It's interesting for its anti-humanism, how that's what maintains itself throughout its modes. The first book is all about this sort of new age awakening that leads to people being given magical powers and feeling alienated from humans. They gather themselves up, to end the world, and from the new age stuff comes sequences that are more action-oriented. This book is blurbed by Gary Shteyngart, who I know nothing about except that the fact that his most popular book is called "Super Sad True Love Story" and I am convinced he sucks off that title and his endorsement of this book. He also wrote a book called "Absurdistan," another "I will never read that book" title. I'm sort of unclear how much the anti-humanism is Sorokin's real worldview and how much the book is intended to be a satire of totalitarianism. I think I saw a movie Sorokin wrote the screenplay for, 4, years ago back when I was in college, at the Seattle Film Festival, and one person who I knew who liked it explained its argument as being basically that humans are dogs. Last year I read NYRB's The Adventures And Misadventures Of Maqroll, another compilation of books into a single volume, that I pretty much loathed.
Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods. This book is very different from The Last Samurai, an ostensible comedy that I never really thought was that funny. I suppose "satire" is the better word. Its voice is that of corporate-speak and inspirational seminars, and this is used to tell a story about workplace sexual harassment, or institutional sexism.
Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. I had a dream that I was being visited by the spirit of Carson McCullers, before I read her. Her name was a proper noun plucked from the ether to be the subject of a dream. I read this afterwards, to honor that name. It's a story taking place in a small southern town, a young girl growing up inside it, similar to To Kill A Mockingbird but without the racial elements, just about loneliness. A mute whose only real friend is another mute has everyone project their ideals onto him. This is not normally the sort of thing I read but it seemed fine.
William Vollmann, Rising Up And Rising Down (abridged version). Vanessa Place talks about how Vollmann's whole idea of a moral calculus is absurdly simplistic in the introduction to The Guilt Project. Around the same time I also started to read Vollmann's novel The Rifles but put it down pretty quickly, feeling like Vollmann basically overwrites. I also didn't finish this abridge version, feeling frustrated with it pretty much the whole way through it, and decided to skip to the "case studies." Those are interesting bits of journalism, nice to have that insight into parts of the world, although I'm not sure I felt like there was any real insight into the idea of violence, the book's ostensible theme, which is too large to really capture, let alone make sense of. I also consistently felt like it was overwritten in a way that made me not want to read it.
Carson McCullers, The Member Of The Wedding. This was in the same volume as The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, a Library Of America collection I checked out from the library. I'm not sure I would've pursued it just on the strength of the first book. This is another book about a young lonely girl's view of the world, about how youth projects its hopes onto other people. It's different from her first book in that it is not as much of an ensemble piece, not so much plotted to see the same thing in people in general, to make a grand statement like "the heart is a lonely hunter" to instead talk about a single individual, "the member of the wedding."
Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever. This book is great. I keep on returning to it, flipping through its pages, and recommending it to people. It's about a woman with ADD who keeps on gobbling speed, told in short disconnected sections, a portrait of neurosis that is frequently funny, but sadness runs through it. The way that its voice seems like it stems from its subject matter makes it feel like we are not just in the company of an interesting writer, but rather that a character is being revealed to you, that feels alive.
Vanessa Place, LA MEDUSA. This is another great one, but rather than being focused and made out of bite-sized pieces, it is huge, with different voices, long sentences, and doing so many things right that it made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing.
Joyelle McSweeney, Percussion Grenade. I wrote an Amazon review for this, so exciting did I find it. Poetry, that's wild with its rhythms so much it becomes a form of shrapnel. It uses violence in its aesthetics, as a weapon against the way that violence is smoothed over to a form of aesthetics in, say, video games that double as military recruitment tools. Somehow the idea of a poem against war feels naive and useless in a way that this doesn't- Its aesthetics are its politics and it succeeds in its arguments by being visceral and felt. It opens with instructions to read it aloud, and doing that, you become more aware of the rhythms you are making, and the disruptions to these rhythms, which are constant, become funny, as you say things you did not expect to say.
Vanessa Place, Dies: A Sentence. Rather than shift from voice to voice like LA Medusa, this book feels completely unmoored, like it's just running wherever, restrained only by the fact that it can't stop itself with a period. I love the long sentences in LA MEDUSA, the bits at the end where the narrative stops and Place is just talking about her life in this breathless manner, but this just didn't really make sense to me. I think I would have enjoyed it more had it stuck to its premise of being narrated by a dude who'd lost his limbs in World War I.
Barry Hannah, Long Last Happy. I hadn't read Barry Hannah before, despite having friends who adore Airships. Reading this collection, the material from Airships is not as strong as the material as that found in Bats Out Of Hell, which I think is an idea I got from an interview with Hannah I read around the same time. The conversation around Hannah posits him as a "sentences-first" writer, and what's weird is I'm not convinced that the contortions of the sentences, the odd shapes and the ways they jut, really works in service of the narratives he's telling. The stories I liked best are the longer ones, that take on odder shapes themselves. There is one involving a William S Burroughs analogue, for instance, that I found pretty fun. I checked this out from the library at the same time as I checked out Moby Dick, which I didn't really dive into because this presented easier pleasures. I liked what I read of Moby Dick and hope to at some point get my own personal copy and try again.
Joyelle McSweeney, Salamandrine. I ordered three books from the independent publisher Tarpaulin Sky and ended up liking none of them. This is a short story collection, but McSweeney's language games, without Percussion Grenade's outward focus, end up just exploding over the stories, tripping them up into this unreadable mire. I did like the first story in this, "Welcome A Revolution." One of the other stories in here also ran in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer, which I have a copy of but haven't read all of. Joy Williams' story in there is pretty good, as are the pieces by Alissa Nutting, who gives the book its title, and Kathryn Davis, whose story seems like it's expanded into her new novel, Duplex. Brian Evenson, Francine Prose, and Lydia Millett's stories are all pretty good.
William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch. I didn't read this ten years ago, surprisingly. I've read other Burroughs books, of course, and started to view them as maybe interchangeable. I generally enjoy his writing, however, and picked up a copy of this one at a yard sale. I can't imagine this being read by anyone who doesn't know what Burroughs' writing is like, or that I would have anything to say about a book as classic as this one. I'll say that last summer I was doing a reading of some of my writing and decided to include some of more explicit material and flipping through a copy of Naked Lunch in someone's bathroom pretty much convinced me it would be fine, which it turned out I was wrong about. It is crazy to think about literature in the 1950s, as it's harder to construct a narrative out of all of the disparate threads than it is to do with film, which has developments in technology to keep it all straight.
Joanna Ruocco, Man’s Companions. Another book from Tarpaulin Sky, this one a short story collection. The members of the band Humanbeast are listed in the acknowledgments section. These stories aren't bad. They move with a weird logic and I wasn't really sure what to make of them, or what all they added up to. They are flash fiction, basically, and like most flash fiction just sort of form a blur. I think my favorite story in here was the longest but I don't remember anything about it besides that it felt like the logic had a few more jags and odd movements to it than the rest, but I was never really deposited anywhere.
Kim Gek Lin Short, China Cowboy. The third Tarpaulin Sky book. Stephanie Barber has a rock band I really like, Bobby Donny, and they cover one of the songs at the end of this book, and Stephanie said she really liked this book and thought it was really dark. It did nothing for me. It's sort of a cross between a novel and poetry, moving forward to tell a narrative but shifting its form, but I didn't feel like the things you want from poetry or prose ever really found themselves here. It just felt vague and slight. The decision to order these books from Tarpaulin Sky came from trying to think about the idea of "small press literature" in not so much of a disparaging way. Generally I think of it as something that only people who are engaged in it as writers read, and that what's published there is small in scale. I think I was trying to convince myself I could be wrong but my biases ended up being confirmed after all.
Bob Levin, Most Outrageous. I talked about this in my last post as well. This is a non-fiction book about Dwaine Tinsley, cartoonist for Hustler, who got accused by his daughter of molesting her. Many things suggest she might be lying, but the district attorney uses his cartooning against him.
James Dickey, Deliverance. I didn't know that Deliverance was the first novel written by a well-respected poet, nor did I know that The English Patient was written by a guy whose poetry people liked. I still have no interest in reading The English Patient, or seeing the film, but I heard Deliverance was good, and it is. Not pulpy in its voice at all, it's simply a tale of survival, lean and resonant, men in nature.
Cesar Aira, The Miracle Cures Of Dr Aira. Cesar Aira seems interesting, an Argentinean author of a bunch of novellas, whose most known champion is Roberto Bolano, whose name is I think largely known on the basis of 2666, a book that's incredibly long. Aira writes books for people who like to read, that he writes by sort of creating corners and then writing his way out of them, without going back to revise. Also, it seems like he frequently uses his own name as the name of his first-person protagonists. The one I want to read is How I Became A Nun, but this was on sale at the Barnes And Noble where I live, near Johns Hopkins University, which is really good about getting New Directions books in stock, seemingly. This was a fun way to spend a few hours. In some ways, it's a book that doesn't make sense, which isn't to say it's incoherent, just that, at any given moment, it feels like what you are reading is being written in accordance with only one set with principles, to get across one particular idea, and many of the issues being raised are not going to be acknowledged. Trying to explain what I mean by this would take a plot summary, which, because the book is driven mostly by that plot, or the storytelling impulse, seems unfair to the book and the author's intent.
Mary Robison, Oh! This was written about twenty years before Why Did I Ever, and is Robison's first novel, after writing short stories. It's a domestic comedy, basically, about a family interacting, made into a movie that I haven't seen,1989's Twister, with Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, and the girl from Near Dark. It is probably one of the first movies I will see when I reinstate my Netflix account. I checked this out from the library at the same time as I took out a copy of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, which I started to read and realized I didn't care about, and will probably never try to read ever again.
Lily Hoang, Changing. I really did not like this. Written in hexagrams, it never develops, and this harping without progress continually reinforces the feeling of the voice as being twee. Mostly unpunctuated and reading as childish, still the voice of the book, meant to be that of the author, addresses itself to "lover," over and over, incessantly. If anyone wants my copy of this book (or Ice Trilogy or any of the Tarpaulin Sky books or Atmospheric Disturbances or Patricia Eakins' The Hungry Girls) I will send it to you for little more than the cost of shipping and handling.
Apology Volume Two. I am not sure how much I like Apology Magazine, but I have considered buying a subscription to it. This had a good Patrick DeWitt short story and some cool photos of teddy bears. Jesse Pearson, a former editor of Vice, who felt guilty about the tone of Vice, started this magazine which is more like a literary journal in some ways but also does not have any of Vice's engagement with journalism, the world outside of the U.S., and instead includes things like really long interviews with Tim and Eric or a conversation with George Will about baseball. It seems weird to me that someone's response to Vice would be to make something LESS politically engaged. It's like the decision was made to be "more intellectual," not to correct any of the self-satisfied impulse, so much as to direct it in a different way. So there's like a long piece about the semicolon. Maybe the rationale is that political engagement leads to nihilism by just making readers think "everything is fucked" and that engaging with art and literature actually gives one a reason to believe in hope. I suppose it doesn't matter, as there are other magazines. It's not like I couldn't just buy a subscription to Harper's for its journalism, and be satisfied with Apology pursuing its path of the public intellectual, as it will probably continue to publish at least a few things each issue I enjoy reading.
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I haven't read Wittgenstein. This book seems to be making the argument that memory is both all we have and is totally subject to getting thigns wrong and misremembering. It's written from the perspective of a woman who is the last creature alive on Earth. She recalls things, including bouts with insanity. Most would say this book is a classic. David Foster Wallace said it was one of the most moving works of experimental fiction ever written. It is pretty sad, and mostly moving in the sense of making you feel crazy along with it.
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. I think this is the newest thing I've read, a critically-acclaimed novel of the sort that is all about its milieu, which in this case is the world of motorcycles, the New York art world in the 1970s, and the political upheaval of Italy in the 1970s. (The latter is also the subject of one of the stories in Lance Olsen's Calendar Of Regrets, FYI.) I thought it was good, although I read it with an awareness of distance, that this is not normally the sort of thing I read, although there are maybe books published like it. It seems to have a very pure storytelling impulse, which is maybe most in evidence in a portion towards the end where one of the characters fabulates a story of their past. It's interesting to me how more experimental works, like the Markson book I read right before this, in some ways wear their point more on their sleeve, that there is a tone they are trying to reach, a place they are trying to get to, whereas something like this, more romantic in its textures, creates these characters for the sake of realizing them, and isn't necessarily trying to say something about "how people are," but maybe wants to capture things like the differences in classes and cultures.
William Gass, In The Heart Of The Heart Of The Country. This is the first William Gass I've read, although The Tunnel has been recommended as being really good in the same breath as I've been warned that it's really dark. Reading these short stories, I am reminded of the Sun City Girls, their lyrical strategies' engagement with evil and misanthropy. It's a prickly darkness that I am able to appreciate on a certain level, although it resists being loved. It seems like horror, divorced from any thriller elements. Order Of Insects is pretty much the exact same story as Lispector's The Passion According To G.H.
Next to be read is Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, and then Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes. I keep on waiting for the pattern to break, to slow down to a more reasonable reading volume. I would like to have more going on in my life than just reading incessantly, to have more things to talk to people about.