Monday, December 11, 2017

Catching Up On Writing About My Reading

I am not reading nearly as much as I did a few years ago, when lists of all the books I read in a year would appear on this blog, with a handful of entries including links to longform reviews I wrote elsewhere. Partly this is because the main venue where those reviews would appear is now defunct, and the other sources by which I would find out about books, both new and old, seems largely to have dried up. Much of the book coverage appearing online now feels less related to criticism than it does to plain publicity, which would be an unreliable source of information even if what weren't being sold so often seemed plainly unappealing. There remains a small handful of people I respect as writers even as I suspect our tastes differ too substantially for me to put too much faith in their every recommendation. I am grateful that they are out there writing about literature regardless. Still, any coverage inclined towards new books ends up sharing the biases of our age, towards a set of literary values it's difficult to place much stock in. Largely it all comes from people wanting to encourage each other, in a climate not necessarily amenable to literature, which I understand. If you need a disclaimer that my own opinions are formed at least in part by my resentment of my own failures, there you have it.

I do find a lot of value in people simply keeping track of what they're reading, what they like and what they like dislike. Even if no one recommendation leaps out, the slow accrual of endorsements can make me notice something. Often it seems like the books being published currently now only attempt to do one thing well. Seeing that there are certain books that work for a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons, over time, points us in the direction of work that does a lot of different things. This is a record of what intrigued me enough to investigate, subtracting the things that were too dull to risk me repeating the pattern of my mistake in others. I will warn against wastes of time unless a book seems too exhausting to give any more time to than I did in my initial reading.

Let's begin with the good stuff. Jen George, The Babysitter At Rest. This was great! Weird and funny and brutally mean short stories. Ended up lauded by The Believer, and Jen George got on a Granta "Best Young Novelists" list despite not having written a novel yet, alongside Rachel Glaser, who has written a novel, but still probably seems like she earned her space on the strength of her superior short stories. I would describe the vibe as like Donald Barthelme but with the concerns of a young female art student as opposed to those of an older man. I was immediately gripped from the opening pages.

Catherine Lacey, The Answers. I reviewed the same author's earlier Nobody Is Ever Missing somewhat enthusiastically for Bookslut back when that came out, and am relieved her new book is good. It's better than her first, richer in characters and plot. A woman, short on funds due to receiving new agey medical treatments for chronic pain, becomes a subject in a paid experiment where a celebrity delegates various aspects of a relationship to a fleet of disparate women. Mary is the "emotional girlfriend," who nods along with full eye contact while he talks about his struggles, and who he falls in love with without once asking anything about herself. Lacey plays the satirical aspects from a removed distance. At times it feels like she read Tao Lin and took deliberate note of what effects she could channel in a more rewarding book.

Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy. I am a fan of Lockwood's poetry and tweets and her memoir works really well. It's about being raised as the daughter of a man who converted to be a catholic priest. Lockwood presents herself as devilish, mischievous, filthy, worldly, literate, in contrast to her politically conservative father. The story of her distance from him and the patriarchy in general, is a question of feeling unseen, unlistened to: It's then her challenge to see and capture everyone around her as accurately as she can, to demonstrate her empathy and gift of sight, even as she initially frames all characters as somewhat ridiculous. Everyone's sense of humor is presented as a way to stop from going completely crazy, even as the sense of humor presents itself as self-consciously crazy. I would recommend this one more widely than it would be appreciated.

Antoine Volodine, Minor Angels, Bardo Or Not Bardo, Radiant Terminus, and under the pseudonym Manuela Draeger, In The Time Of The Blue Ball. Volodine's is maybe the most exciting literary project I became aware of over the past year. A French writer, writing under several pseudonyms, with some of these pseudonyms appearing as characters in other books. The name Volodine itself is a pseudonym, the writer's true identity is essentially anonymous. Many, maybe all of these books take place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, after the fall of Capitalism, but also sort of are manifestations from a Bardo state. The first of these books I read was In The Time Of The Blue Ball, credited to Manuela Draeger, who in the context of other books it is revealed is a children's librarian at a prison camp. The Draeger books, published in France as children's books, with no mention of Volodine's name, are more indebted to surrealism and British nonsense literature than the other stuff. That book is totally delightful, especially initially, although as it collects three short books the way the world is established becomes a bit repetitive over time. I was infatuated enough with the voice to track down a translation of a fourth book, published in the anthology XO Orpheus, where it appears along another one of Volodine's pseudonyms, Lutz Bassmann. Minor Angels is maybe a better book to start with, a collection of fragmented short stories being told by a grandchild, sired from lint, about to be executed for accidentally reinstating Capitalism, it would seem to convey many of the author's themes in literature. The most recently translated Volodine book, Radiant Terminus, is long, bleak, Tarkovsky-esque sci-fi, that only momentarily clicks into something vivid and compelling: A scene where a character pricks himself on a phonograph needle, dooming him to thousands of years inside the dreamscape of a psychic dictator, as all characters are in a post-death state where they are essentially continually dying. Volodine's endgame is to have 47 books in total, this being the number of days one spends in the Bardo, according to Buddhist teaching.

George Saunders, Lincoln In The Bardo. This was widely acclaimed, and I am a big fan of Saunders' short stories, but I thought this novel was basically terrible. It has an incredibly simple plot, to the point where at no point in my reading did I feel like I didn't know where it was going. There's plenty of interviews with the author where he talks about how hard he worked on it, how much revision he did, but reading it feels like you're just waiting to get from the premise to the happy ending. Nothing really feels inventive, everything seems like going through the motions. Maybe the revision means that no single page that you read is untouched by the writer's knowledge of what is to come, and so nothing ever bears the spark of the writer surprising himself.

Samantha Hunt, The Dark Dark. This book carries a blurb by Kelly Link claiming that every sentence of Hunt's is "electrifying," a plainly disingenuous claim, although a closer inspection reveals it was originally written about a novel, which might inhabit a separate voice than these short stories do. Sometimes that voice feels painfully middle-class; caught between a sense of superiority to other people and a defensiveness about being thought of as less than. If you ignore this element, which reoccurs throughout, certain stories do end up intriguing, although more on a level of structure and dreamlike progression than language. The way information is parceled out in individual stories can be thrilling, and the first story of the book, written somewhat realistically, is used as raw material for a vicious dream of a story at the book's end, which makes the book seem to cohere into a more interesting thing overall than it seems reading each story individually. Also, the front cover has a rorschach blot that includes the title of the book, which I probably would've missed if someone hadn't pointed it out online, and this discovery also made me appreciate the book, as an object, more.

Samantha Schweblin, Fever Dream. This book, like The Dark Dark, was praised by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, and the author, like Hunt, had a short story published in that magazine also. Schweblin is Argentine, and this novella is a translated work. There's a good deal going on in it, a work of unease, about polluted villages, body switching, curses, and any confusion it creates in the reader is deliberate as it goes about creating its effect. The whole thing is narrated in dialogue, using flashbacks, from a sort of hospital or post-death state, although I didn't think this structural device worked as well: A further confusion that sort of pushed it too far away from immediacy for my liking. Still, not bad.

Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar's Guide To The City. This is a non-fiction book published by the same FSG Originals imprint that released The Dark Dark, which puts out straight to paperback stuff that is maybe a little weirder or quirkier than most of what is put out by mainstream publishing houses. Mostly this means they release books by people whose earlier books were put out by smaller independent presses. Anyway, I pay attention to them, maybe more than I should for how little they put out feels particularly uniquely rewarding. This book was cool enough, filled with interesting details about break-ins and heists, although its essayistic sweep was I thought lacking, with a thesis that felt more endlessly reiterated than actually supported by the material at hand. Still: Do you want to read about break-ins and heists? Of course you do. The biggest thing I took away is that it is sometimes easier to break through a wall than it is to open a locked door, which I think is probably a good rule of thumb for writers to consider before writing anything of any length.

Lindsay Hunter, Ugly Girls. Also published as a paperback under the FSG Originals aegis, although the hardcover was put out as a hardcover by FSG as well after Hunter's earlier short story collection came out straight to paperback. This is straight-up not very good, a story that develops like a crime thriller in a lower-class milieu only to not have an ending. Unsatisfying on most levels, it seems like the people who praised it largely admired the attempt at setting. Obviously, the setting seeps into the language, the metaphors the characters use to describe their surroundings, but that doesn't really make the book more beautiful or interesting to engage in. I suspect also that Hunter's pedigree means the people reading it maybe wouldn't have read many other novels of a similar ilk, of which I can only assume most would be more successful.

Denis Johnson, Already Dead and Train Dreams. I read Already Dead when Johnson was still alive. It's broken up into three sections, and I sort of felt like it lost its grip on me by the end, but it's a long book, and I was into it for a good long time. After he died, when I was thinking he wrote one of the best books I'd read recently, I read Train Dreams, a shorter novella that is pretty satisfying. Johnson was a good, maybe a great, writer, a close peer to Joy Williams in a lot of ways but more interested in the crime genre as a way of getting at a sort of desperation that gives way to an almost supernatural grace. It seems like there's a lot to learn from him that gets obscured by how invisibly he goes about a lot of what he does, particularly since his most famous book Jesus' Son seems so casual and direct.

Alice Notley, Certain Magical Acts. Didn't know this was coming out until I saw copies. Alice Notley is a very good poet although admittedly I wish she wouldn't talk about being a poet in her poems quite as much. This isn't her best book. At her best, reading her makes my brain light up somewhere between a field at night where lightning is striking tree stumps and moving through a haunted house and catching ghosts in the light that comes through windows. I don't remember this doing that so much.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, The Fifth Child, The Cleft. Much as it is easy to hear lots about Infinite Jest without learning that it's partly about experimental film, I had no idea going into The Golden Notebook that it's about a woman becoming disenfranchised from her involvement in the Communist party after word of Stalin's abuses got out. Reading it during the Democratic primary, when political options felt incredibly small, and the more conservative candidate was presented as the women's candidate, being reminded of the vastness of political thought, through women who derided the Labour party as middle-of-the-road, felt refreshing. That's not to say The Golden Notebook doesn't have other stuff going on. It's a vast book, largely about the irreducibility of life to a single narrative. Lessing's whole career is interesting and inspiring, feeling committed to doing whatever she wanted. The Fifth Child is excellent, laser-focused in its movements through a story, about two people who want to have a lot of children only to have one come out monstrous and have to confront their inability to live their ideal life. Told without chapter breaks, the story just proceeds, always engaging and never really giving an indication of where it's going, slowly tapping into horror without giving any clues at the outset that's what it wants to do. It feels like the intention is purely to tell this story and not let anything interrupt. The Cleft meanwhile is couched in small framing devices, some of which are unnecessary, like an opening note from the author, explaining the roots of the concept. The text of the novel is presented from a historian's perspective, telling a creation myth, essentially, of the emergence of men on Earth after a previous all-female form of humanity. At its best, it feels like it's tapping into something very universal and filled with feeling, although as it goes on, the aspects of the form of the novel seem to not particularly aid in its effects, as certain things feel superfluous and unnecessary. I should point out that I have another Lessing book, Briefing For A Descent Into Hell, that I have technically begun but can't really make much headway into. It has a strong premise but also sort of one that allows for it to waste pages on bullshit that doesn't really do anything. The "crazy narrator" premise allows a space to exist in it conceptually for a sort of stalling that the other books don't allow.

Dennis Cooper. Try, Guide, God Jr. The books in Dennis Cooper's George Miles cycle are incredibly powerful, owing largely to their willingness to be upsetting. I haven't read all of them because I'm borrowing them from a friend who is also lending them to other people, some of which are not as fastidious about returning books as I am. I found Try, with its teenage narrator, more upsetting than the books which feature Cooper as a protagonist. God Jr., lacking sexualized violence directed towards young men, is more accessible than the one-word titled books. It's about a father, consumed by grief about his dead son, playing a video game obsessively. All of these books are pretty short, and each moves quickly, to contain multitudes of literary effect.

Anna Kavan, Sleep Has His House, Asylum Piece, Julia And The Bazooka. Anna Kavan struggled with mental health issues, and had a couple nervous breakdowns in her life. Asylum Piece chronicles a descent into madness, beginning with a series of Kafka-styled paranoid short stories, told in the first person, that then leads to a sort of "break" followed by a short novella, told in third person, in a mental institution, that isn't nearly as strong or visceral. Sleep Has His House is a essentially an ode to sleep and dream as a respite from reality. It's maybe a little closer to Clarice Lispector than her other stuff, owing to having a little bit less of a narrative arc. Julia And The Bazooka is short stories largely themed around her drug addiction. The first one includes an AMAZING passage where the narrator, mad at everyone, gets hit by a car, causing her head to fall off and her to gush blood drowning everyone, and the surprise of that part really raised my expectations an insurmountable degree for the rest of the book. Reading her final novel Ice before any of these probably did a similar thing, but she's a wild one for sure, and I can't say any of her books I've read are actually bad.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves. This book is beautifully written but really washed over me without making any impression at all. Mostly non-narrative, it had characters but I couldn't distinguish between them. It seems like maybe she wrote it closer to the end of her life, after multiple successes and was maybe being a little self-indulgent, or at least making a book that should largely be read by people who liked her other books and had specific things they would then be looking for in her writing, and not necessarily trying to communicate the full extent of her genius to the unconverted. This is why I wanted to read it, that sounds great to me, but the truth is it might have been better for me to have attempted to read Orlando again.

Otessa Moshfegh, Eileen and Homesick For Another World. I would most likely not object to anyone calling Moshfegh overrated, owing to the amount of acclaim her short stories, published in The Paris Review, have gained, but a couple of those short stories, collected in Homesick For Another World, I thought were really great. One is the title story, the other one's about a dude who's dirt poor and spending all of his money on designer clothing that looks indistinguishable from knock-off copies of the same. The latter in particular resonated as a good description of the way our world currently works, and it efficiently and casually set up an ending I didn't anticipate but loved. Her novel, Eileen,  she has sort of half-dismissed as a genre exercise done to get money, and there's several aspects to it that smell of cynicism, but I certainly didn't think it was bad. A miserable woman becomes infatuated with someone more charismatic than her, and unaware of the moral systems she lives in, becomes an accomplice to a crime. It feels like it could be a movie, certainly, although the pace is pretty slow. I wouldn't be surprised if she at some point wrote a truly great book, although I will a little distant from her personality or sensibility to know what that book would entail. There's a cynicism, a bleakness, to her work that feels a little performative. Not necessarily unearned, because the world we live in is bleak, but maybe more learned from literary forebears than emerging from anything that feels uniquely hers.

Ted Chiang, Stories Of Your Life And Others. The title story of this one got turned into the movie Arrival, and I read it before the movie was produced, and thought "not really sure how they'll turn that into a movie," and after watching the movie learned the screenwriter adapting it spent a decade writing it on spec, probably working out ways to make what happened visually interesting and emotionally satisfying and not just intellectually interesting. The other stories are good and thoughtful things. I think Chiang is considered pretty emotionally resonant for a science-fiction writer but as someone who's not a huge science-fiction reader that wouldn't be the main takeaway. He seems pretty interested in religion. If he had more books out I would read them because as is I'm not sure I can wrap my head around where he's coming from.

William Gass, Cartesian Sonata. Wanted to read The Tunnel, which seems appropriate to our current situation, but found this one at a used book store instead. I didn't love it. It's a collection of short stories, maybe novellas, many of which are pretty boring. Well-written on a sentence level but I don't really care about that unless it's doing something else, and really the only thing the other thing these stories do is be pretty boring.

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado and The Old Man And Me. I'm a longtime open admirer of the NYRB Classics line, and The Dud Avocado seems particularly well-known or iconic as one of their books, in that it's a fun and likable book that would be difficult for contemporary audiences to know about without the imprint. Nails the balance perfectly between being light enough to be understood as a comedy and dark enough to actually be funny. That's not to say some of the comedic elements are not somewhat dated, but it essentially works. In terms of movies, if there was ever a historical moment where Elaine May was a peer of Billy Wilder, Dundy's work would function inside that time.

Iris Owens, After Claude. I think Owens' main thing was writing porn under a pseudonym, and this is her lone "actual" novel. Also from NYRB, way meaner than Dundy, dark enough to abandon jokes altogether at a certain point and just be kind of upsetting. Not a great book overall although enjoyable at first, and sounds good in summary. Probably one of the most lacerating books about its female protagonist written by a woman.

Lucy Ellman, Man Or Mango. Ellman's later novel Dot In The Universe was shortlisted for a Believer book award fifteen or so years ago which made me aware of her to pick up this book when I saw it for sale cheap. A quick flip through reveals a multitude of voices inside it, although a reading reveals a lot of these are essentially epigraphs, or bits taken directly from other books. Two narrators, one male and one female, having shared a romantic past, slowly get back to each other, after making a bunch of jokes about other things first. Once reunited, they promptly die in a flood. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." This took me a long time to read despite not being very challenging, it was amusing but not compelling. I finished it on a bus trip. It's not bad but I think I'd only read her other books if they fell into my lap again.

Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen. Another NYRB Classics book, this one ends with a "To Be Continued," essentially, into a book that's not translated? I really don't get why both books weren't just published in a single volume. This one is sort of a Dostoevsky thing, about a man's tortured psychology leading him astray, into crime, and the companionship of a terrorist who aims to radically reshape the world. Always enjoyable, but never particularly distinct, each sentence moves forward but doesn't necessarily reward rereading, and it never really gets to the exciting surprising place you're hoping for as a reader, instead choosing to move in this world of moral turpitude, where we are meant to feel concern for the protagonist's soul.

Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama. Another NYRB Classics, translated from Spanish, this got adapted into a movie this year that's supposed to be pretty good. Existentialist thing about a guy posted out far from home in a colony, with very little money, very little hope to improve his station, and he cheats on his wife. Not bad but I feel like anyone I would recommend it to would have read a lot like it already? Which I imagine to be true for the movie as well: The audience would have a degree of familiarity with the form.

Tarsei Vesaas, The Ice Palace. The same British imprint, Peter Owen Modern Classics, that handles Anna Kavan handles Vesaas, and this book also carried a blurb by Doris Lessing. It's cool, a spooky, sparse, snowlit thing, about the friendship between two girls, and the embarassment that leads one to skip school and explore a palace of ice she dies in, and the town's attempt to find her body, and the surviving friend's grief. Would recommend. One of Vesaas' other books got reissued this year, with an introduction by the popular-but-unappealing Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Blaise Cendrars, Dan Yack. I love Cendrars' Moravagine, and this, published by the Peter Owens Modern Classics line, had a good summary on the back although it turns out said summary totally gives away everything that happens in it. A rich dude, drunk after being dumped, wakes up beneath a table of poor strangers, than invites them all to be his new best friends as he charts an expedition to an island. They end up freezing to death in the arctic, although the rich guy survives. Apparently the rich guy is modeled on Cendrars himself and this is basically what his life was like? An enjoyable read.

Rachel B. Glaser, Hairdo. Glaser's short story collection Pee On Water is an all-time favorite, and made me interested in any other forms she might attempt. This is her second book of poems, and it feels a little bit better than her first, Moods, although it still plays a game so uniquely her own that how exactly I come to that conclusion mystifies me. The voice of these poems encompasses the adolescent and airheaded, but is able to nail perfectly both the details of that worldview and character and how it can still observe, poetically and brilliantly, the world outside it. These poems, and their relationship to character and voice, seem more closely connected to the joke-telling, or short-story-writing, impulse than they do to other examples of poetic form. It feels like a gallery show of cartoons drawn on napkins; or like Ishmael Reed in terms of coming up with a completely new literary value system in order to accomplish its myriad goals. Or if I were to make a musical comparison, maybe The Waitresses but tbh I don't know their deep cuts. I'm imagining deep cuts based on the singles. I think this is really good, and the fact that you might disagree makes me like the book more.

Mitch Sisskind, Do Not Be A Gentleman When You Say Goodnight. The publisher of Hairdo, The Song Cave, also put out this book, a collection of poems and short stories by a writer that Donald Barthelme once called the funniest living American writer. I do not think it is actually very funny. It is very Jewish and very 1970s. The Song Cave still seems worth paying attention to, I don't mind being on their mailing list. Their monochrome book design makes all their books like Night People tapes.

 Leonora Carrington, The Collected Stories. I read Carrington's novel The Hearing Trumpet close to ten years ago, as it was one of the favorite books of a friend of mine, although she said she never recommended it to men. Carrington was a surrealist painter, one Jodorowsky cites a guru. Her memoir, which I haven't read, was translated and published by NYRB Classics at the same time as this short story collection was published by Dorothy, A Publishing Project. These short stories sort of delight in their sense of wildness and transgression: It feels less dreamy than specifically pointed, and maybe a little bit corny and unmemorable, as you get a feeling for what it's going for very quickly. I wanted to like it more than I did but I think it's fine enough. I could certainly imagine selling it for money in the future although I don't mind it being on my shelves. Also, I ordered this from Amazon at the same time as I preordered the New York Review Comics collection of Nicole Claveloux comics, hoping this would influence the algorithm in some way. The science-fiction writer Jeff Vandermeer put both books on his "Year In Reading" list at The Millions but other than the two of us maybe not as much readership overlap as I'd assume.

B Catling, The Vorrh and The Erstwhile. The author's stated intentions, when writing The Vorrh, a book that begins with a man dismantling his wife to make a bow and arrow to enter a massive forest, were to make a surrealist epic. Seemingly Alan Moore's praising the book as a landmark work of fantasy then inspired the author to make it into a trilogy, of which The Erstwhile is the second part. (A third installment, The Cloven, is forthcoming in 2018.) Without being too versed in fantasy literature, I would say the vibe, its relationship to genre, seems sort of of a piece with assorted Vertigo comics, or Mike Mignola's Hellboy material. However, all that stuff generally makes a big deal of Lovecraft homage, and that material doesn't seem a part of Catling's influences whatsoever. There is violence and sex, all of it weird, although the prose sometimes gets in the way, either obscuring a bit more than it illuminates, or putting forth some clunky metaphors, but all in keeping with a poetic vibe in keeping with the world it describes. Away from the jungle, a cyclops kept in isolation has sex with robots filled with goo. I had a great time, felt very much at home, like I was indulging myself in something very close to the true heart of me.

Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus. Roussel is a character in The Vorrh, and this wild book, which is blurbed by a panopoly of important twentieth century avant-garde figures, also gave its name to a historically important poetry journal. It's about a rich scientist-inventor showing people around his palatial estate, and all the crazy inventions contained there, like a solar powered thing making a mosaic out of teeth. I don't know if it's the translation or what, but while the images are vivid and imaginative, the logic pulling the reader from one sentence to another isn't, and I frequently found this book exhausting and easy to put down, even as I admired it from afar. If my understanding is correct, this book was basically written by a proto-Oulipo method where Roussel wrote two sentences based on the most similar words he could think of and still make two completely separate unrelated sentences, and then wrote the book to get from one, with its meaning, to the other, but that would be in the original French and uhh I might be getting this wrong anyway: I didn't read the book where this method is outlined, "How I Wrote Certain Of My Books," but rather a Wikipedia page.

Brian Evenson, Windeye, A Collapse Of Horses and Last Days. Brian Evenson wrote a piece for Electric Literature praising the Catling books. Evenson's work has its own relationship to intellectualized horror. His short stories, collected in A Collapse Of Horses and Windeye, are haunting, dark-humored thought experiments, essentially. More specifically, they're interrogations into the failures of thought to make sense of reality, utilizing the ways in which fiction can be stranger than reality, as it doesn't play by any rules at all. I am reminded also of how similar the Samantha Hunt book seems to be by Evenson, but really only when she's at her best. Last Days is something that could probably be a fairly fast-paced movie were it not for prohibitive amounts of gore and disfigurement. It is more concerned with the body than the mind. It's about a private detective, who lost his hand, being called on to investigate a crime at a secretive cult that cuts their own limbs off as an act of worship. His work is consistently of high quality, although his novel The Open Curtain is a cut above. He's also a great translator of French literature, having handled In The Time Of The Blue Ball and generally being one of Volodine's biggest champions, writing the introduction to Radiant Terminus as well.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks. I remember liking Cloud Atlas, but this one manages to have more complicated plot and do a lot less. While having huge threads of fantasy that essentially dictate the shape of the book, stylistically it feels very beholden to "realism," or agreed-upon notions of what constitutes "good" writing, with a lot of pages being spent on descriptions and characterizations of largely uninteresting people. It seems like the audience that would be most enthusiastic about the fantasy stuff would just skim the majority of the book. The fantasy stuff is fairly stupid. If you're emotionally involved by the end it is simply due to the sheer weight of having read so many pages about these characters. As far as integrating "literary realism" and "science-fiction excitement," this seems like basically the worst way to go about it, as opposed to the poetic surrealism where everything becomes interconnected of much of the work whose virtues I'm extolling in this post. For how long as this book is, it might be the thing on this list I resented the most.

Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn. I am not sure I have ever taken more than two days to read one of Erickson's books. They are always compelling, mysterious in their construction, and powerful in a dreamlike way. They also almost always have stuff I wish wasn't in there, usually this sort of cornball eroticism, but now he's writing about his kids, I guess, and that element is gone. This one finds him riffing on a bunch of different themes and images in a near free-associative way: The Twin Towers, stillborn twins, twins of all sorts, a-sides and b-sides, music playlists. There's a narrative but it's as close to dream logic as he can get, as he chooses as his material all of these massive images that possess their own charged meaning. Certain passages felt inspired by Blake Butler, others were more rock-critic-canon inspired. Erickson's always great, but also always a little up his own ass, but always with the implicit agreement with his audience that that they'll shares many of the same obsessions: If you're reading his books, you're likely to be as deep into movies and music as he is, although this one has less movie-talk than most of his oeuvre.

James Hannaham, Delicious Foods. I read this because of an article written at The Fanzine by Scott Creney, who mostly wrote about music for them. He was talking all sorts of shit about contemporary literature, but had a brief digression where he listed recent books that were actually addressing the modern world in interesting ways, and this was the only one he'd listed I hadn't already read and enjoyed. So I ordered it from the local library, and yeah it's good: A plot-heavy thing about the world of modern slavery, of people abducted and working in a way designed to create debt, given crack cocaine. A boy is separated from his mother and tries to track her down. Tragic turns are taken. I feel like the language employs more cliches than are advisable but I remember images the book created in my head. If you're charting literary constellations, as seen from my hemisphere, Hannaham blurbed The Dark Dark.

Jessa Crispin, The Dead Ladies Project. Jessa was the founder of Bookslut, which I wrote for, so I went to see her on her reading tour. I probably would not have tried to write for Bookslut if I didn't think she was a great writer and admirable intellect. Her essays are appearing widely now and I always agree with them, and they're always written with style and brio. This is her book about traveling around Europe, visiting the places lived in by writers and personalities she admires. As good as this book is, it's also in large part a recommended reading list. The memoir aspects are sort of kept in check by the fact that she's not the type to really disclose too much, not a confessional writer, there's an assumption that you will know what she is saying if you've been alive for long enough and lived any kind of life at all.

Ariana Reines, Mercury. A widely-acclaimed contemporary poet, some of this I thought was very good and other parts did less. I was lent this book by a friend, a young female poet, and certainly I could return it to her and say I liked it without lying, although I'm sure that the overall book meant more to her than it did it to me.

Anne Sexton, Transformations. Supposedly Sexton is mostly known for being a confessional writer and this book, her riff on fairy tales, is an outlier but also her best book. Changes in consciousness of fairy tales and their attendant darkness almost certainly make it read differently than it did when it was written.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. A lot of women probably read this when they were teens but I didn't get to it until now. It is crazy to read a book that is so much like The Catcher In The Rye. It seems necessary for this book to exist so it can be read and no one has to write it now. Like the Sexton, it seems to owe so much to the context of the time its created, and its own constancy since that time, as an influence, that it feels tricky to read now and be surprised. This makes me appreciate the mission of publishers that are reissuing out-of-print books that much more: Many of them tend to exist inside this moment better than something that's been being read all these years.

Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress. Haven't read the best-known novel by Lem, Solaris, although I've seen the Tarkovsky adaptation, which seems pretty far from the things about Lem that intrigue me: A sense of play, that his science-fiction is somehow close to Calvino. This is the first book of Lem's that I've read, and it's wild, in that while you read it it often seems completely unstructured. The narrator attends a conference of people discussing the future, his hotel gets bombed, he wakes up in the future. Things continually seem to go from bad to worse, or be worse than they initially seem. That the ending actually calls back to things at the beginning and makes the whole thing seems like it would reward both people who expect stories to make sense and people who would rather they not. Apparently liberally adapted into a movie called either The Congress or Robin Wright At The Congress where the actress plays herself, but in a semi-animated setting? I have no idea how good it is, although I'm intrigued enough to investigate. I should also probably read more books Lem wrote.

Jonathan Lethem, A Gambler's Anatomy, Girl In Landscape. A Gambler's Anatomy is an intriguing one: Early chapters posit a fantastic premise (that the narrator, a world traveling gambler, owes his success to his telepathic abilities) while late in the game another character undercuts this as the delusions of a self-important jackass. I feel like the characterization in this book is actually really well-handled, like the characters are interesting, not completely self-aware, and feel full and alive, as revealed through their decision-making process. That's Lethem's new book. Girl In Landscape is probably twenty years old at this point, immediately preceding Lethem's breakthrough work, and is much simpler in some ways, although it's still a genre-switching work, integrating dreamlike science fiction elements into a western framework. I feel like Lethem is a weirder novelist than he gets credit for being, because it's easy to characterize his interest in genre as that of a nerd rather than as a collage artist consciously aware of the richness and depth of the material he's working with. Still, it's rare to feel totally blown away by his work, maybe because he frequently wants it to succeed as genre material, because he's aware of how that stuff can be transcendent when it works.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man. This is a landmark work of 1970s feminist science-fiction. Cool and experimental and more fragmented than I expected. Feels written from an angry enough place that, although there's a framework in place, Russ feels like she can just write what she feels the need to say at any given point.

Ann Quin, Berg. Good on a sentence level, good on an existential terror level, pretty weird and experimental. The Wikipedia article is both how I remind myself of the book's basic premise, and reminds me of why I read it. It's got a great first sentence. Quin was a British avant-gardist kept in print by Dalkey Archive, and this, her first book, seems less far-out than she later got. I imagine I'll get to the later books at some point. There's also a collection of recently discovered stories and fragments coming out next year.

Oisin Curran, Mopus. Initially read about this book through Blake Butler writing for Vice and saying it was a good companion to Joy Williams' The Changeling, so my expectations were high and not really met by this thing which has less narrative than I would want it to. It's like, a dude is looking for his dog, that is a ghost, sometimes the ghost is narrating?

Eugene Marten, In The Blind, Waste. Two novels of pared-down minimalist writing by a contemporary small press guy, blurbed by Gordon Lish. Waste is about a janitor at a large office building who finds a dead body in the dumpster and brings it back to his house to have sex with. In The Blind is a longer book about a locksmith. I heard about this guy via the publisher Tyrant Books, who published Marten's book Firework, which they're soon to reissue, who was talking about how James Dickey's novel Deliverance was a masterpiece and a big influence on Marten.

Kate Zambreno, O Fallen Angel. Zambreno is a contemporary writer with somewhat avant-garde and feminist intentions to her work. She is successful enough at this point to have written the afterword for the recent Penguin reissue of Anna Kavan's Ice. Her stuff was put out by small presses, but is now getting reissued by Harper Perennial. She's connected to Semiotext(e), and this one's got a blurb by Chris Kraus. It's... basically total garbage? A satire without jokes, split between narrating three characters, all of which are sketches: There's an angsty young woman, her consumerist mother, and an unrelated dude who self-immolates, whose awareness of the larger political realities is meant to be the point of the novel. I really don't know who would be surprised or rewarded by this book, who would find themselves challenged.

Vanessa Veselka, Zazen. While not necessarily a bad book, this one certainly feels like an argument for why the generally culturally accepted length of a novel is too long. This one feels written with a place of true familiarity with underground subcultures, or the periphery to them, of people working service industry jobs. It's about one woman's cynicism leading her to make bomb threats, and then places start exploding. Feels written by someone who's legitimately punk, but also feels fairly tedious a lot of the time, its supporting cast filled with interchangeable people, being criticized for their escapism and complacency.

Mark Leyner, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack. So this dude was famously dissed by David Foster Wallace for being super-shallow and jokey. I read an interview where his stance was hey, it's cool to be compared to the antichrist, and his counter-argument is made by his work itself and he doesn't need to articulate anything beyond that. Anyway, the self-conscious metafiction elements in this are annoying as hell, super-tedious, not as funny as he thinks he is. The parts that poke through where he reveals his intelligence are good but few and far between, this is mostly head-up-its-own-ass garbage. The author is not be confused with Mark Leidner, the poet who has a short story collection called Under The Sea coming out next year, which I really anticipate. Both are "funny guys" but Leidner is no bullshit in his approach.

Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos. A book where the main character shares a name with the author, about going crazy about the universe when weird stuff, like a hanged bird, is sighted. It's supposed to be a comedy but doesn't really get there. A classic in Poland, seemingly. Adapted into the final movie Andrzej Zulawski made before he died. That movie is pretty insane, and somewhat tedious, like Zulawaksi's movies can get sometime, although I guess these adjective apply to the source material as well.

Robert Walser, Jakob Van Gunten. Walser is a early twentieth century German writer supposedly admired by Kafka. This is a slight coming-of-age book about a boy who's run away from home and is attending a school for servants. J.M. Coetzee wrote an appreciation for it back in 2000 that helped it regain some attention. Can't say I got that much out of this one.

Raymond Kennedy, Ride A Cockhorse. Another NYRB Classics reissue, this one's from the eighties, and written by an American. I wanted to read it because it has a great title. Another attempt at comedy that kind of fails. I do remember a lot about it. A woman who works at a bank has her personality completely change, becoming sexually aggressive and taking over the bank and terrorizing her opposition until, eventually, saner heads prevail. Has a lot of Goodreads reviewers arguing about whether it's sexist or anti-feminist or if it's just about petty tyranny and its completely incidental that the main character is a woman. The back of the reissue talks about how it prefigures Sarah Palin, and Palin prefigures Trump, so it can still claim to work as satire. With its supposed satire that's largely unfunny, and maybe sexist underlying worldview, it sort of gives off the vibe of coming from the same eighties space as something that would be National Lampoon affiliated, like O.C. and Stiggs or something.

Susan Daitch, The Colorist. This was a Vintage Contemporaries book, circa 1990. It's got a great cover, and it's about a woman who colors comic books. When the publisher stops putting them out, she and the letterer work out their own stories, featuring the same superheroine. The stories they tell are summarized within the book, although they are impossible to visualize being told in comics, as they're incredibly complicated and would eat up pages. The stories become hopeless. It's a weird metaphor and I don't really get for what, or what this book is doing, beyond depicting a certain urban malaise, a mass of characters bouncing off each other, each stressed out, assailed by their reality and the uncertainties of it. Blurbed by Mark Leyner, but also Lynne Tillman, Salman Rushdie, and Mary Gaitskill. Was also considered a peer of David Foster Wallace's, for a time, and he publicly praised her work later, although this came out either before then or before anyone cared about him. The Google search I made to find out when this book exactly came out finds Eugene Lim, author of 2017's acclaimed Dear Cyborgs, also liked this book. It's well-written enough but I don't think it's unfair or unreasonable to want a book to do more, and cohere in a greater way than this does.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, Albina And The Dog-Men. Was sent a review copy of this, and while I reviewed another Jodorowsky book I've read approvingly this one felt a little tired. Jodorowsky's narratives are frequently digressive and all over the place: It's interesting how The Holy Mountain works because, despite its lack of a three-act structure, it can still be broken neatly into thirds, and so feels tighter and more focused because of this.

William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man. Recommended to me by my friend Molly O'Connell, who I think read it in high school, I think maybe because a teacher really liked it. Recently reissued by Pharos Editions, whose books I haven't read too many of, although much intrigues. This one is narrated by a dirty and constantly stoned hippie who is collecting fans and other garbage, written in a voice that is constantly punctuated by the word "man." The narrator definitely commits at least one rape, which might put some people off. I was definitely thinking about the idea of the comedic novel, and trying to find examples that work these past two years, as that was what I was attempting to write. I'm not sure how well I pulled it off, and it's also unclear how well these books that feel so dated pull it off.

Charles Portis, The Dog Of The South. Another one I read because I heard it was funny, and it kind of is, if you can latch onto its tone. Real loose, about a road trip down to Mexico. The narrator is looking for his wife, who's run off with another man, and his companion is a con-man/salesman type, obsessed with a guy who wrote business self-help books, looking to get money from his mom, a missionary. When I say it's kind of funny, I mean I can imagine the characters being funny, if they were being portrayed by actors, as their situation is fairly pathetic, though the overall effect of the book is just fairly loose.

Nicholson Baker, Substitute. One of my favorite writers does what might be his longest book yet, a catalog of the days out of a year he got called in to work as a substitute teacher. He mostly loves being around the kids, and is blown away by how much tedium they are assigned as a way to keep them busy. This book definitely becomes repetitive, and sometimes feels like work to read, as it is capturing days of work, but is fairly interesting if you've been out of the school system for a while, although I think most people want their non-fiction reading to have more of a thesis and narrative structure than this.

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