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After trying for hours to remember my wordpress password–I take pride in my memory and hate stooping to password resets–I’ve finally broken back in to this very dusty, book-cluttered attic corner of the internet.¹ The occasion:  the realization, after reblogging a Tournament of Books 2014 post to my tumblr, that I have things to say about books again! Granted, they are cranky and pretentious things; please be assured that I am at least self-aware, if not exactly repentant, of how obnoxious I am. Because I don’t like to clog that corner with too many words of my own, I undertook the arduous process of logging in here.²

Quite a lot has changed for me. I don’t particularly care to talk about it, but confessional writing is gravitational. In short:  I am catless, jobless, pennyless, thankfully not homeless or McGintyless, and rushing through a hasty 2nd bachelor’s degree in the hopes of attending grad school next fall. I read fewer books last year than probably any other in my lifetime, but I watched a lot of movies to compensate.³ Though I don’t miss working in bookselling (an armed robbery, among other things, stole the joy from it and though I tried for nearly a year I never could steal it back), I still love to read. December depression (see:  “catless,” above) struck me hard, but at least I remembered how much I love reading. As ever, books are always there for me, offering escape and surmountable challenges when everything else in the life of the mind goes askew. The release of the Tournament of Books 2014 lineup helped galvanize my finishing rate, though after a string of questionable titles from the list I am looking forward to the beautiful Balzac that NYRB sent me in the mail as my next fiction read.

Enough preamble. On to the Tournament breakdown! I have currently read nine and two different halves of the books.  As ever, I am exceptionally grumpy about the titles chosen. I must remind myself that every year always feels like the worst year ever in Tournament history, and every year I am thrilled by something that I might not otherwise have read… but having read nine and two halves of the books I am starting to think that my kneejerk hyperbole might be correct this time around? To begin with, I am having a hard time considering any book separate from an ever-present question:  “How does [insert ToB title] compare to Americanah?” The answer, so far, is overwhelmingly that they don’t. None of the books that I have read — so far! fingers crossed! — comes close to matching the wonderful blend of erudition, newness, and likeability that was Americanah. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s also an important book written by an author (I cynically suppose) that the ToB selection gods should adore just for how well she would boost their diversity bragging rights. The exclusion of Americanah is a terrible oversight, especially considering the titles that the gods of the Tournament selection saw fit to include. I feel so strongly about this that I decided to annoyingly bold the preceding sentence, and I feel so strongly about it that I have added a second sentence just to emphasize how shocked and upset I am that Adichie has no chance to take the Rooster. I’ve been shaking my fists at the selection committee all month. Most of my commentary can be reduced to a bitter mutter that eventually descends into profanity. I will try to say other things about the titles I’ve read but do keep in mind that, unless I say otherwise, every thought I have about this group of books is underpinned by this plaint, this unstated (oh, I will try not to state and overstate) outrage. The list — which I have divided into “books I have read” and “books I have not read,” with a never-before-seen special category of “book I have no intention of reading ever (O, Americanah!What injustice!)”

Books I Have Read

  1. At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – I lie. I haven’t actually read all of this:  this is one of the abovementioned half-read titles. This book isn’t terrible or offensive (other than the fact that this is not Americanah). It is just dull. If I finish it, it will only be because I have persisted in using it as a soporific long enough to somehow creep through the whole text. The best way I can think to describe this lackluster entrant is “Bolaño Lite:”  it has similar themes and a similar po-mo feel to Bolaño but lacks the viscera, the fire, the occasional transcendent beauty, the off-putting sections, the magnetism of the best Bolaño. After pestering ToB commentariat superstar and all-around trusted reader neighbors about her opinion (which is that it never gets interesting) I feel comfortable letting this one go unfinished. When I was younger I tried to read all of the entrants but I am getting too old for that nonsense. Why bother with lesser imitations when I could just reread The Savage Detectives?  Thematic pairings:  haven’t read it yet, but maybe How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
  2. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – It’s been ages since I read this book (read: a year) and it made so little impression on me that I can barely remember it. If it makes the play-in I’ll take another look at it; I still have a copy. As for its chances of making the play-in:  I would think good, but I haven’t  yet read Woke Up Lonely.
  3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – I read this as soon as it was crowned this year’s Booker in part because it sounded like a wheelhouse novel for me but also because I knew it would thus be a ToB lock. Despite sounding like a novel I would usually love — nineteenth century historical! set in a place I know nothing about! with multiple narrators and a tricky, intricate structure! mystery! adventure! gold! opium!! — this was a struggle to get into. I chipped away a couple of pages every night for ages (read: a month) before it finally caught my attention enough to finish it up in a couple of sit down marathon reading sessions. I probably would not have finished it were it not guaranteed a spot in the ToB. I am marginally glad that I didn’t abandon it, but it’s still a book with more promise than execution. The much-admired structure is one of the largest of many problematics; it doomed the book to carry on a good 100 (or more? I shall check) pages beyond what its (rather flimsy) plot could sustain. While some of the characters were charming and/or interesting, they were unfortunately not the people at the heart of the plot:  most damningly, one of its two female characters is a whore with about the same level of personality as Bella from Twilight while the other is a one-note villain. My final summation:  there is probably a good book in here somewhere but the pretentious, gimmicky structure buried it; furthermore, I couldn’t really tell if this was trying to be an a high falutin’ Literary tome or just a good, plot-and-character-driven story and the attempt to be both makes it somewhat fuzzy as neither the quality of the writing nor the characters/plot were strong enough to make it either. A good editor and a clearer sense of the story’s identity would have elevated this book enormously. In its favor, the more I read of the other entrants the better The Luminaries looks in hindsight. I have found myself thinking back fondly to its moderately well-developed sense of place and time. Thematic pairing:  The Son — they are both massive historical fictions with multiple viewpoints and colonial themes. Of the two, I prefer The Son both personally and for the ToB.
  4. The Dinner by Herman Koch – Look, it’s not that I dislike books with unlikable protagonists. I don’t read in search of imaginary BFFs for myself — my friend-slots are well filled both by real people and by fictionals like Harriet Vane. (Harriet! Write me! Dying to hear what you and Peter have been working on. Are you still in France? Can you recommend a good translation of Dante? Please write soon — I miss you! love, your friend, Not Alice.) My problem with The Dinner is actually that the characters were not unlikable enough, or at least not in the right way. I had a glimmer that maybe Koch was trying to expose and indict underlying fascist ideals still extant in European culture. If this is the case, awesome! Great idea! More on this later. Unfortunately, this interesting notion is spoiled by the conclusion. The “and they’re all psychopaths!1!” twist at the end of a thriller is my least favourite thing in this genre. It’s so boring and expected and it has the effect of immediately leeching out any hint of moral complexity. This isn’t literature; it’s the European equivalent of a NYT bestselling mystery novel, a Michael Connelly or a Harlan Coben. I’ve read my fair share of both of these authors, but I’d never put either of them up against literary fiction. I am positive that there were better books in translation published last year and it’s a disappointment that this is what the ToB chose as the most significant. Thematic pairings: The People in the Trees since both have off-kilter narrators; of these two, I’d give it to the Yanagihara by a hair.
  5. Long Division by Kiese Laymon – This is the other half-finished book. Unlike the Alarcón, I will finish this, and soon. Holding out forming any opinions at all until I finish it. Regardless of how it turns out, this is a title whose inclusion I’m very pleased about: I hadn’t heard of it, it’s outside my usual reading path, and it is absolutely worth my time. Thematic pairing:  I really hope Laymon and McBride aren’t matched up against each other just because they both feature black teenage boys as protagonists, but I fear they might be. Even though I haven’t finished Long Division, I would still prefer it to win. My dream pairing for this book is against Eleanor & Park. I would love to see it take that flimsy YA book out early since Laymon deftly illustrates the differences between YA and adult as genres. His narrator is believable, his sentences are dynamic, he actually considers race in America instead of just pretending to, and Long Division feels rich in culture and place in a way that E&P never does. I’ll be pretty damn happy if they’re set up against each other early. It might also work well against A Tale for the Time Being because both deal with time travel or multiple universes or something.
  6. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – I know too much about this time period to enjoy this book. That’s the only explanation I can find for my rather intense dislike. Unfunny, repetitive, poorly written (in inconsistent dialect — one of my least favourite things ever!), hateful (I will never forgive McBride’s portrayal of Frederick Douglass). I cannot believe this won the National Book Award! It is one of my most disliked books of 2013 — I would take the bafflingly popular The Flamethrowers over this win. I never had an opinion about McBride before (tried to read his memoir once and put it down quickly but without judgment) but he is dead to me now. The NBA sure is getting close to being an award I have no interest in following. It has been mightily inconsistent in recent years.
  7. The Son by Philip Meyer – As a fan of historical fiction and history, I liked this book. I feel comfortable labeling it my favourite of the Tournament’s historicals this year. Most of the details were accurate, and I was very excited to see that a good portion of its plot is about the early 20th century persecution of hispanics in Texas. I don’t know what (if anything) the notorious history books of Texas have to say about this period of our country’s past, but it isn’t nearly well-known covered in states to the north and west ,where I received my educations. This book also has the best sense of place of any that I’ve read so far, though that may just be because it beautifully describes the open skies and dusty desserts that are basically a primal part of my soul. However, as a fan of books with complex (not necessarily strong — just complex) female characters, I did not like this book. As a fan of novels with multiple narrators who are all equally well written and thought-provoking, I did not like this book. As a person who would truly like to read a fictionalized account of the details and drama surrounding the rise of the oil industry in Texas, I did not like this book. Thematic pairings:  The Luminaries, as above.
  8. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – I would not have finished this book if I’d picked it up outside of Tournament reading. I viscerally despised Nao’s narration at first:  the sexualized, kitschy-cute Japanese schoolgirl is a disgusting trope. But as I went on I either became acclimated to her sections or they got better, because for a bit in the middle I quite enjoyed it and, like “Ruth,” worried about Nao’s fate. Unlike the multitude of goodreads reviewers, I didn’t mind the “Ruth” sections because I liked her Asperger-ish husband, “Oliver,” and his encyclopedic musings about nature. But “Ruth” is a terrible, weak character; she seems uniquely stupid, a trait that “Oliver” highlights by needing to explain everything to her. Because “Ruth” is both character and, of course, author-stand-in, this gives the book an unpleasant air:  everything is overexplained. It’s tied with The Goldfinch as containing most unnecessary thematic denouement. I like magical realism, but the effect is utterly spoiled the instant the author has various characters figure out the key to the magic and spend tens of pages explaining it to each other. I described this to my housemate as similar to a bad Murakami. “Ruth’s” lack of intelligence assumes that the reader is also unintelligent which I despise in a book. Authors! Stop overexplaining your ideas! Or if you must explain, don’t just provide a wikipedia-level summary of Schrodinger’s Cat — everyone has read that article on the great free encyclopedia. Elevate and complicate your ideas! Thematic pairing in the ToB:  The People in the Trees because they both use meta-textual structure in which one character footnotes another’s text? Life After Life, because they both deal with multiple worlds? If the former, I don’t know which book I’d give it to; both were problematic. In the latter, I guess I’d prefer Life After Life simply because it doesn’t talk down to the reader quite as much — though I think the Ozeki probably had better characters. Or maybe it could be Eleanor & Park since both books deal with bullied teenage girls? If that’s the case, A Tale for the Time Being wins easily; Nao was more distinctive than either Eleanor or Park, and the bullying was integrated into her overall story and character arc instead of just existing to add faux obstacles and to heighten the pathos and misery (and thus the feels, as the kids say) of the book. Or will it be The Lowland, which I haven’t read yet and don’t look forward to, because both are set in both Asia and America? Despite its flaws, this is one of the more interesting picks just from the multitude of potential pairings it allows.
  9. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – YA books are not the same as adult books. It is unfair to compare children’s literature to adult because they (usually) have very different goals. I detest the trend of including YA in the ToB. Frankie Landau Banks was exceptional; she should have been a one-off. This is one of the titles I resent the most; its position should have gone to Americanah. Or to a genre book for grownups — Jenny & Kelly had the idea of pitting Stephen King against his son Joe Hill in the play-in round, a notion that I love and am now grieving because it didn’t happen. (NOS4A2 was great fun!) I do not enjoy being that sort of reader, the one who minces about looking down her nose at books. Truly, I don’t:  my bookstore days made me egalitarian. I’m glad kids are reading, and I recognize that I might have loved this book when I was 14 and bullied. However, I am going to be extremely cruel to this slight, insufficient, vaguely racist, Twilight-ish teen romance come the Tournament. Keep an eye out; I’ll be the one frothing at the mouth in the corner while everyone who remembers my thoughts on The Fault in Our Stars last year will roll their eyes and give me a wide berth. Pairings:  as above, I hope it’s Long Division and that this goes away. It’s hard to say, though; a rather ridiculous amount of these books have teen protagonists. Whatever it is, E&P is my pick for the most likely zombie. Needless to say, it shall not get my vote.
  10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – I won’t lie:  I read this book the way that I occasionally blow through a batch of home-baked cookies:  in a gluttonous haze that lasted no longer than 24 hours. Similar to a cookie binge, it immediately left me feeling undernourished and nauseated. I may have much more to say about this one later, either in the comments or in a post of its own. Until then:  most overrated book of 2013? Most likely to do very well in the ToB? The book that brought me most fully into agreement with Francine Prose than I ever have been and may ever be? I say yes to all. Thematic pairing:  any of the ridiculous amounts of “kid protagonist”  books, yawn.
  11. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara – This one also deserves a post of its own, if I can somehow manage to recreate the rambling, incoherent, pancake-fueled raving that I subjected my gentleman friend to the night that I finished it. I appreciate that this book was at least ambitious in its themes, but I am still unsure if it was a partial success or utter failure. The fact that I cannot decide is probably a good sign. This is one of the more interesting reads so far (if only because everything else was so dreadful). There were lots of problems, though:  plot, pacing, tone, believability, and more. Here is a goodreads review that covers just some of the issues I had with the book. I will try to organize my thoughts on it, but until then, I will only say:  I appreciate that Yanagihara tried to mimic the language and structure of scientific writing, but I don’t think she succeeded at either capturing it or parodying it convincingly. This book does not do for anthropology what Possession did for English scholars. I kind of wish this book had been written by A.S. Byatt or someone who is better at miming academic styles; I would have found “magical turtles!” a lot less insipid if they’d been dressed with more stylistic flourishes. I am not ashamed to admit one of my essential weaknesses as a reader of fiction:  provocative ideas matter more when they are presented in pretty prose. Thematic pairing:  see above. Chances:  depend on how the judge it draws feels about Nabokov, I guess.

I will do “books I have not read” later. It’s fairly easy to deduce what they are. I still somewhat hope to finish more books and to post longer responses to some of these titles, but school started last week and I’m immediately subsumed in history reading. How many articles can one person read about nationalism in a year?!

¹Every place that I occupy, whether literally or imaginatively, is dusty and book-cluttered.

²Tumblr, as silly as it is, serves as an excellent commonplace book, a digital version of the small physical books, full of borrowed words and images, that I used to make with paper and glue. Mixing in my own sentences disturbs the hermetic pleasure I get from flipping (or scrolling) through the record.

³After years of liking movies and harboring intense passion for a small handful of films, I’ve begun work on transforming myself into a cineast–I just need to make enough time to watch the 115-ish best films of all time.

2014 Reading Goals

I am working on a post about this year’s Tournament of Books that really should go up ahead of this one for chronology’s sake but after looking at Jenny and Kelly read books. I determined that I need to set some reading goals for myself before the month of January is out. Last year was one of the worst reading years of my history as an omnibibliovore. I blame both the dismal publishing lineup of 2013 (I have no idea what everyone is talking about when they call it a great year for literature as I HATED almost everything I read that was published last year) and the ebbs and flows of life. Despite outside forces, a large part of the responsibility is mine:  I simply didn’t try hard enough to read as widely and voraciously as I historically do. So I have decided to follow Jenny and Kelly’s lead and make a list of 12 books that I already own, with two alternatives in case of extreme dislike and necessary abandonment, that I intend to read in 2014.

I own more books than I will probably ever read. Everyone who reads seriously or who has ever worked in a bookstore does, but in the past five years I got particularly bad about accumulating books without reading them. I am a library devotee and most of the things I read come from inter-library loan rather than my own shelves. Every year I vow that I will read largely books that I’ve already got, and every year I find myself back on Prospector randomly ordering titles instead of pulling books from my 7 (seven!!) bookcases. Hence this motivating list! I have to prove to myself that I am not a book hoarder, that I own these titles because I really will read them, before I pack them all up and carry them across the country yet again. I chose these books somewhat randomly in about ten minutes of wandering about the apartment. The lucky selections:

2014 TBR Stack

  • Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years by Richard J. Evans – This title was recommended to me by my favourite history professor last fall. While it looks like a particularly long and dense history, I have read the introduction and was charmed to find it chockablock with literary allusions. I am most excited to read this. I love history of medicine and science! I am taking a class on public health history that looks to be situated in the U.S. but this will tie in nicely and might give me fodder for papers! Also, cholera. Also, I’ve read some articles by Evans and I like his style. Downside: I can be a bit of a hypochondriac so I expect to be intensely worried about my health during the duration of this read.
  • The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 by Eric Hobsbawm – I requested Hobsbawm’s three volume history of nineteenth century Europe for Christmas because I somehow got the idea that one cannot seriously study history without having read Hobsbawm. Though the book is small, the text is very dense and tiny. This one might be tough.
  • Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss – I totally bought this book for the title and the publisher (Archipelago Books, I love you!). It is translated from German and was first published in 1931. I don’t really know what it’s about–a murdering doctor and maybe rats since there’s one on the cover?–but Archipelago wisely chose to adorn the back with a blurb from Kafka: “What an extraordinary writer he is!” I don’t think I need to say anything more to explain this selection. Don’t let me down, Franz!
  • The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead – This is one of the books in my pile that I have owned the longest without ever even trying to read. It’s been with me through two moves and three floods. I do not know why I bought it nor why I have hung on to it for so long because the description – “Sam and Henny Pollit have too many children, too little money, and too much loathing for each other. As Sam uses the children’s adoration to feed his own voracious ego, Henny watches in bleak despair, knowing the bitter reality that lies just below his mad visions.” — does nothing for me. “Dark family dramas” is a subgenre I’m mightily sick of, thanks to overrepresentation in contemporary American literature. I added this one mostly because I should make an effort to whittle down my collection and not keep traipsing around the country with boxes of the same unread books for all of my adult life. Huge downside: apparently Franzen loves this book and I worry I might love it and find myself caught in the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance of agreeing with J-Franz.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie - Americanah was hands-down the best book published in America that I read last year. It was also my first Adichie. This is the only title of hers that I own. I hope it’s as good as her latest was. Downside: has potential to be the most disappointing book if it does not match Americanah in quality.
  • Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin – Maybe this is cheating because I read the first 30-odd pages of this when I bought it. I was loving it,   but I got bogged down in busyness and let it go. I’ve been meaning to return to it for over a year; maybe if I’d done so last year 2013 wouldn’t have been so disappointing. I love the classics of Russian literature better than any other country and am always looking for contemporary Russian publications. This book tells the tale of an official who works at a Swiss immigration office; from what I recall, it has a lovely, eerie fable-like quality. Downside: the beginning was lovely and I will be shattered if the rest of the book doesn’t match up.
  • Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – I have heard nothing but praise for this book! I bought it in a fit of wanting to learn more about 20th century Polish and Eastern European history. Between the cholera, the age of revolution, and this, I’ve set myself up for quite the depressing historical reading list, I fear. Downside: while I feel a great moral imperative to master 20th century history, I’ve got a really low emotional tolerance for reading about Nazis, and my emotional armor is already pretty battered going into 2014. This may be the book most likely to go unfinished from the lot.
  • It’s Superman! by Tom Dehaven – McGinty suggested this to me about two years ago and I still haven’t read it. I feel awful — I hate to take a book from someone and leave it languishing, particularly since everyone knows that Mr. McG has the finest of taste — but I find Superman to be the most boring comic book character maybe of all time. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could continue to live with myself (or him) if I let another year go by without reading this. Paranoid-insecure downside: maybe Mr. McG will come to hate me if I do not love this book as much as he does?
  • The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani – I made a pledge to myself to read more Arabic literature that I have not followed through on. This is described as Arab-American, which isn’t exactly like reading translated fiction, but I hope that it will help ease me into more literature translated from Arabic. This is an especially happy inclusion because I’ve got a dozen titles from Melville House’s Neversink Library that I fear I use more for aesthetic decoration than for reading. Though I’m excited to read a book that “play[s] with classical Arabic literary forms,” I worry that it might be lost on me since I’m still not familiar with said forms. Also: this book was apparently the inspiration for Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet so, there’s that as a downside. Even so, I’m fond of books about immigrants, and this is about “two young men from Lebanon seeking their fortune in turn-of-the-century New York.” Also, I worked hard last fall to gain a better understanding of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, and while I’m weakest on the twentieth century, perhaps now I have enough contextual knowledge to make good on that ancient goal. I might read this one first-ish.
  • The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – This is frequently mentioned by fans of marginalized classics. I’ve been planning on reading it for years. Downside: I’m worried the translation in the copy I own might not be very good.
  • The Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – This is the easiest history title in my stack, a book that I chose to give myself a bit of a treat and a break from all of the heavy European history. Ulrich is a highly readable and fine scholar who manages to make eras and locations that I care less about (eighteenth century America) compelling. There is no downside at all to this book. It is guaranteed to be delightful and interesting.
  • All Souls and The Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias – I’ve been meaning to read more Marias ever since I liked him so much two years ago. I am counting these two as one since the latter is a sort-of sequel to the former. If I only read All Souls I will still cheat and give myself full marks for this inclusion. The different translators for these two titles displeases me; I fear one may be better than the other, which always troubles. Still, the concept is unbeatable: a withering literary novel about Oxford, followed much later by a “Borgesian” magical-realistic autobiographical novel about the aftermath of the academic novel?! Written by an author who has proven himself to be well worth my time, too! Downside:  none. These are 100% wheelhouse novels for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about it before, but I adore books set at universities; it’s my favourite sub-genre of any number of uber-genres (mystery, literary fiction).
  • I and Thou by Martin Buber – I wanted to include something other than history from my nonfiction selection and I’ve had multiple copies of this book throughout the years without ever reading it. My dearest friend sent me a nice hardcover for Christmas, which reminded me of my decades-long failure to get to it. I’m slating this one in my “bedtime devotionals” reading time slot.
  • Mr. Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner – I do a pretty good job of reading selections from my NYRB collection, but this is a book I wanted to include because it’s probably the NYRB that I have owned the longest without ever reading. Even before I started hoarding these most chromatically pleasing of books, I’ve been aware of Warner. I bought a different edition of this book based on the curious title years ago when I was in college in the Bay Area, but I gave it away before I read it. NYRB classics rarely let me down, and this one, apparently about “a London-bank-clerk-turned-minister” serving as a missionary on a volcanic island in the pacific, sounds like a nice dash of something different among my other selections. Also, it’s by a woman and I realized after I’d already made the rest of the pile that my ratios are somewhat off — not something I think about overmuch as I chose books, but I do feel like I should.

So, hastily chosen and quickly written up, these are my reading goals for 2014. May it be a better year for books–and, I pray and hope, a better year in all things–than 2013 was.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact for about a week and a half now, but it’s gotten so much attention that I don’t have anything new to add. I keep running into articles that articulate my feelings towards the book very neatly. Still, I remain disappointed, and really need to try to work some things out about this despite the redundancy of it all.  I was fairly excited to read this book when I first heard about it.  I really enjoyed The Lost Origins of the Essay precisely for the generous definition it gave to the form. It’s always struck me as a fallacy, this obsession we have in American culture with Truth and the way it manifests in our entertainment and our art. Sure, certain revelations of falsification are deplorable–any false Holocaust memoir, for instance, or the Love and Consequences kerfuffle–but for the most part I feel (or, perhaps, always thought that I felt) that we should all just recognize that Absolute Truth is an impossible expectation given the utter subjectivity of human experience and stop devoting so much anxiety to it already. I hate the term “creative nonfiction” but if we need to invent new subgenres to comfort ourselves on this matter then fine, whatever, let’s do that. Here stands my quick summary of my default opinion on the matter of veracity in nonfiction.

To his credit, D’Agata has challenged my preexisting notions, though probably not in the way he intended given that I would have been more willing to make his argument before I read his book. More on this in a moment. First, a summary–as if you don’t already know!–of the project and a bitter mulling over one of my main problems with it.

The Lifespan of a Fact originally existed as a roughly 5,000 word essay, titled “If a Boy Jumps Off a Building in Vegas Does He Make a Sound?”, originally intended for publication in Harper’s, offered next to the Atlantic, and finally reaching print in the Believer. As the title suggests, it is D’Agata’s attempt at a literary autopsy of a teenager’s death and an interrogation of the taboos, the cultural silences, that surround the issue of suicide; also as suggested by the title it is stylistically a very typical piece for Harper’s:  it’s got the goal of raising social awareness about some issue (though it isn’t as aggressive or successful as many articles in this magazine or others), attempted through a familiar stylistic mixture of apparently factual reportage–interviews, statistics (there’s a staggering lot of numbers in “Boy” for such a short piece)–and personal reflection, culminating in a dramatic finale that’s meant to end on a haunting note and stick in your head. I read the essay cold before I read Lifespan but it isn’t really necessary:  I’ve read this essay before, you’ve read this essay before. It’s fine, sometimes moving, but not particularly beautiful and too short to delve deeply into any of its issues.

It’s fine, a perfectly serviceable note in a typical Harper’s lineup, but for one problem:  many of its facts, both small and large, are either consciously massaged into a version of the truth more amenable to D’Agata or flat out invented. Hence its troubled publishing history, and its eventual resurrection as Lifespan:  the Believer’s acceptance of it was conditional on its close interrogation by a thorough intern/fact-checker. The Lifespan of a Fact contains the excruciatingly detailed findings of the diligent fact-checker as well as the occasional correspondence between author and intern discussing and arguing about the validity of D’Agata’s changes and the necessity, or lack thereof, of hard fact in nonfiction. It is billed and presented as a conversation, which naturally invites the reader to join in and take a stance on this very interesting topic. Obviously I was excited to read the book–who would not be?

My interest turned to disappointment when, shortly after publication I believe, D’Agata admitted readily that the conversation between the two authors was “largely invented for the sake of the book,” with personalities amplified on both sides for added drama. Even most of the fact checking was done later for the book’s publication rather than the essay’s (NPR). I suppose I’m one of the simple, shallow readers that D’Agata scorns, because this knowledge immediately raised my dander. I only picked the book up, in the end, because the library had it on shelf (such a rarity that I always take it as fate) and I was morbidly curious. Let my clarify my ire:  it’s not a childish tantrum over merely being lied to. It’s a sense of insult over not being trusted as a reader to objectively consider the facts and make my own conclusions. The entire project is specious; the book purports to be an intellectual inquiry between two opposing opinions, but in fact it is a secret tract. (And, yes, I consider it “secret” even though the true nature of the text is easy enough to find online because I do recognize that not every reader has my tendency to obsessively google every book immediately upon completion.) On one hand it is a dirty trick that suggests that D’Agata has more in common with his (unpleasant, asshattish) “persona” than he might like us to believe. But it also suggests that his argument is actually very weak, if he must employ such tactics to make it rather than let it stand on its own against participitatory reading and discussion; it seems like an attempt to shut down any opposition (“HAha, you liked that!? We made it up! My point is proven! Art trumps reality!”) before it’s given a chance to speak. I am actually a little surprised that the book has generated as much interesting commentary as it has. It probably does not deserve it.

Misgivings aplenty, I did read it. Fingal’s persona is fairly easy to sympathize with if just because D’Agata’s is so self-satisfied and condescending, but it’s pretty clear that the “gotcha” trap is located in his character:  he’s painted as myopically obsessed with even the most trivial of facts, unable to shrug off small adjustments as probably-unimportant. I think that the expected reader-response is eye-rolling because,  honestly, who cares if certain vans are pink or purple? They’re not dissimilar colors, and they both start with P, after all. (Though I don’t quite buy D’Agata’s stock response, that certain changes increase the aesthetic value of his sentences; he’s a strong enough writer but rarely blows me away on a sentence level.) This is a set-up for what D’Agata obviously hopes will be a recognition of a common bias applied towards fact in nonfiction, this idea that there’s a hierarchy of necessary truths, that some facts matter while others don’t. I found a confirmation for this in the NPR spotlight, where D’Agata says, “I don’t think it’s OK for us to say, ‘In your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it’s completely OK to alter the facts, but when you’re dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it’s not OK.’ I mean, the subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention.” That’s his party line, and it’s a big part of what the meta-manipulation of his book is setting out to prove.

This crux is the thing I’ve thought about the most. Because I completely disagree. I do not think all facts are, indeed, equal in importance; there is a hierarchy of necessary fact in both nonfiction and certain kinds of fiction, and it’s an impossibly messy and subjective issue. I, for instance, was very bothered by his fabrication of details in the boy’s suicide, particularly the artistic tampering with the time it took for the fall. This is absolutely a subjective sensitivity of mine:  my family, both sides, has been haunted by what seems to me like a higher than average tendency towards suicide for generations. It’s not for lack of trying that it is not the leading cause of death among us. It’s easy enough for me to imagine a story like this written about my cousin who died a little over a year ago and the thought is upsetting–and I have nowhere near the emotional trauma of her husband, son, or parents. D’Agata wants the emotional and social impact of the essay’s claim to truth without any of the practical considerations or interpersonally ethical ramifications. I am sure he’d consider it simpleminded of me for just feeling (but not being able to coherently explain at this point) why it seems horribly wrong to distort details of a stranger’s tragic death for the sake of a not-spectacular magazine “social problem” magazine article.

D’Agata’s faith in the higher purpose of art, in his sense of himself as a very serious artist speaking to a larger truth, justifies any changes he sees fit to make. I don’t agree, but I wonder:  would I feel differently if his essay were better, or if my particular connection to his subject matter were less personal? It’s possible, which troubles me. I’ve never been interested in learning about factual inaccuracies in David Foster Wallace–the sheer delight and intelligence, the strength of that wonderful voice, is more than enough to compensate for any massaged facts. The thought disturbs me a bit, and I can’t get it out of my head; the issue probably just is a messy, subjective, case-by-case problem, but I wish I could come up with an ethics of nonfiction for myself. Because I am convinced that there are cases, many of them, where it would be wrong to distort facts–mostly to do with the intent of the work and whether or not it involves people who may not, for whatever reason, be able to speak for themselves. For clarification, I keep thinking of some of the nonfiction books that I often sell with my personal stamp of approval and fervid recommendation. I really don’t care whether Annie Dillard is 100% true to exact objective fact–it wouldn’t change the intent or impact of the book if she recounted an incorrect number of beavers at Tinker Creek so long as she captures something beautiful and abstractly true about her personal experience and about humans and nature in a more abstract sense. That’s a situation where D’Agata’s philosophy is absolutely apt. But I would be devastated–betrayed, perhaps–were I to discover any fact massaging in Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the chronicle of a tragic cultural clash over one child’s medical treatment; part of what makes that book so powerful is the balance that it strikes between human empathy and journalistic integrity. An author like Fadiman, or perhaps Rebecca Skloot, is writing for a greater truth than aesthetics or the communication of a personal experience–as, it seemed to me, D’Agata was in his original essay–and a faithfulness to fact can only increase the importance of such works. As Hannah Goldfield, a fact checker for the New Yorker, said on their blog, “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of ‘Truth’ or a true ‘idea’—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.”

I’m glad this is a discussion that’s taking place even if this particular spur is not particularly worthwhile. I look forward to reading more essays about the issue that are less driven by agenda than D’Agata’s offering. In addition to the ones I’ve already linked, here are some of the responses to his book that I particularly enjoyed: Lucas Man at The Rumpus; Lee Gutkind, a colleague of D’Agata’s as editor of nonfiction anthologies, at the LA Review of Books and Ander Monson at the same; Max Ross at Open Letters Monthly; and Matthew Cheney, who proposes the diabolocally perfect dream of a Werner Herzog documentary on Lifespan, at Strange Horizons.

  • cecil to his friends
    • Can you recognize well-known authors on style alone? I did fairly well, though I shamefully missed the first one and there’s an inclusion near the bottom that raised my eyebrows to my hairline in incredulity at that writer’s inclusion. This is similar to the blind quiz I am dreaming of to determine if there is or is not a distinct “program fiction” style.
    • Ever wonder what Bolano read? Me too!
    • A consideration of Virginia Woolf’s criticism. And a picture of her bedroom.
    • JK Rowling’s next book sounds absolutely … like something I would never want to read. I don’t think she’s a very talented plotter and have been skeptical about the viability of any future books but this sounds remarkably uninteresting. From the synopsis, it seems more like the type of book that sells predominantly to middle aged bookclubby women, something like Alexander McCall Smith, than something that would appeal to her existing fanbase, adult or otherwise. I am much less excited on behalf of my workplace than I was at its initial announcement.
    • Fortune has a short article on the ebook knockoffs that proliferate on Amazon. Alternate title:  why we should fear the demise of publishers. Speaking of that, I’m quaking. You should be too. (Note:  Dennis of Melville House is not in any way unbiased in his Amazon coverage, and I don’t agree with everything about his stance [I think amazon has done a great deal of good, really] but he’s always got the most thorough coverage.)
    • In cheerier news:  the BTBA shortlist has been revealed. I am pleased with my clairvoyance:  all of the ones I randomly chose to read are on the list; I even bought Stone Upon Stone two days before this announcement. Can’t wait to read it to see if it ousts the fantastic In Red as my hoped-for winner.
    • While examining the L.A. Review of Books’ new website, I came across an old article on Charles Portis. I disagree with author Cline’s suggestion that Mattie Ross’s unreliability is a flaw–for me, that’s exactly what makes the book particularly interesting and especially brilliant!–and the link between Mattie’s “inaccessible” character and the mystery of Portis-as-person is a little tremulous, but nevertheless I am happy to see Portis receive more attention.
    • I have two opinions on the Pulitzer’s refusal to award a prize, and they cancel each other out to create a pleasantly unanguished state of unopinion. On one hand, I am sorry and a bit angry over loss of sales. Optimists are spinning this as an opportunity for booksellers to handsell the titles we personally thought should have won, but … we do that anyway. And, frankly, not everyone is receptive to it. There are lots of people who want to be told what to read by an unshakeable authority, and who don’t trust the word of the girl behind the counter. Most of my Pulitzer devotees are just not going to make that purchase this year. It’s a damn shame, and I’m sorry on behalf of my business.  But on the other hand, and thinking from my personal rather than professional perspective, I think this is actually rather brave and it’s a choice that raises my respect for the integrity of the award. Because, frankly, the jurors did a terrible job of creating a shortlist. Two of the books were borderline in their eligibility by some standards (one incomplete, the other a novella originally published almost ten years ago) while the other was just terrible. I would have given the award to Train Dreams, probably, but it’s problem–that it’s not, in any way of considering it, reflective of 2011 in book given that it was published in 2003–irks me so much that I would not do so on principle. In conclusion:  boo to the jurors, who fail at their job; hurrah to the Pulitzer board, for the brave and unconventional n0nchoice; and tears for my workplace, which suffers.
    • In honor of the newest addition to my household, pictured above, here’s an impressive collection of notorious typewriters (via the book bench).

Tolstoy’s people

Things are quiet round here because I am reading War and Peace and not much else this month. It is, of course, wondrous and absorbing in the best way; I will be lucky this year if I read another book as good as this one. April is the cruelest month, a month full of difficult anniversaries, but Tolstoy is a fine antidote. Bakhtin hated Tolstoy for being monolithic, and while the thinly-veiled Tolstoys-by-another-name that populate his books are a little obvious it’s never stopped me from loving them (Levin!). Actually, the monolithic surety of Tolstoy’s worldview is part of what I love about reading him. Everything feels concrete, fully-realized, nourishing. It seems a slight to describe anyone as a mere character–they feel like people. In just a few sentences Tolstoy can capture something essential about a person, as in this very early description of Prince Vassily and salon hostess Anna Pavlovna:

Prince Vassily always spoke lazily, the way an actor speaks a role in an old play. Anna Pavlovna Scherer, on the contrary, despite her forty years, was brimming with animation and impulses.

Being an enthusiast had become her social position, and she sometimes became enthusiastic even when she had no wish to, so as not to deceive the expectations of people who knew her. The restrained smile that constantly played on Anna Pavlovna’s face, though it did not suit her outworn features, expressed, as it does in spoiled children, a constant awareness of her dear shortcoming, which she did not wish, could not, and found no need to correct.

I’ve known people just like this! I just didn’t realize it, would never have thought to understand them in this way, until I met Anna Pavlovna.

He’s wonderful at the more sprawling character introductions, too. I am enamoured with Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky (with all of the Bolkonskys, really), who, the footnotes inform me, is modeled on Tolstoy’s own grandfather:

He used to say that there were only two sources of human vice:  idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues:  activity and intelligence. He occupied himself personally with his daughter’s upbringing, and to develop the two chief virtues in her, gave her lessons in algebra and geometry and portioned out her whole life among constant studies. He himself was constantly occupied, now with writing his memoirs, now with higher mathematical calculations, now with turning snuff boxes on a lathe, now with working in the garden and supervising the construction work that never ceased on his estate. As the main condition for activity was order, so the order in his way of life was brought to the utmost degree of precision. His coming to the table was performed under the same invariable conditions, and not only at the same hour, but at the same minute. With the people around him, from his daughter to the servants, the prince was brusque and invariably demanding and thus, without being cruel, inspired a fear and respect for himself such as the cruelest of men would not find it easy to obtain. Though he was retired and now had no importance in state affairs, every governor of the province in which the prince’s estate lay considered it his duty to call on him and, like the architect, the gardener, or Princess Marya, to wait at the appointed hour for the prince to come out to the high-ceilinged waiting room. And each person in the waiting room experienced the same feeling of respect and even fear at the moment when the immensely high door to the study opened and revealed the small figure of the old man, in a powdered wig, with small dry hands and gray beetling brows, which sometimes, when he frowned, hid the brightness of his intelligent and youthfully bright eyes.

Perhaps–beyond just plain delightful cadence–what makes these descriptions seem so good to me is the constant presence of social context. Prince Bolkonsky is eccentric but not unbelievable; he is the opposite of so many modern characters who are little more than a bundle of quirks vibrating neurotically in a void, disconnected from everyone. How a person interacts with and exists within their environment–physical and social–is bound up in a first description off them. Look, the book says, here is the world. And here is a person within that world. And here is the web that connects this person to all other people. Sometimes, as with poor Anna Pavlovna, the interpersonal world enacts distortions upon a personality; sometimes, as with Prince Nikolai, it’s the opposite. But it is always there, intertwined throughout everything.

I would not say that every author should make Society as much a theme as Tolstoy does, but I do wish that a more acute awareness of its centrality to human existence were found in modern fiction. I wonder why it is so unusual–something about technology and the narcissism of postmodernism, perhaps? (It is only going to get worse.) I digress. Tonight, while trying half-seriously to convince a friend that she should pick up the book as medicine for her own April, I said that I need someone to gossip with about the characters. This is part a joke but also quite true in that my primary impulse at any plot point is to call someone up to tut-tut over a disastrous marriage or form pacts of vendetta against certain people. I get like this with long books sometimes, sure. But Tolstoy particularly invites this response; the careful social positioning of everyone invites it because it ensnares the reader as well. It’s easy to feel complicit in the dynamics of those St. Petersburg soirees. This is interesting, but perhaps a bit too easy–is this why Tolstoy can be a comfort read whereas Dostoevsky would never serve that purpose? It really is all so easy. One never forgets where the characters stand in relation to one another, where Tolstoy stands in relation to them, and where you, the reader, are meant to be positioned by the author’s firm hands.

for my own reference

I am travelling tomorrow, which means bookstore trawling, which means new possibilities in my neverending search for NYBR Classics. I do not as yet have problems remembering what I own (good visual memory as much as anything) but I live in morbid terror of buying a duplicate. And because I cannot bear typing on my intelligent telephone but can easily access a website through it, this is the best way to have, in pocket, a list that will be easy to update alphabetically.

  • Wish Her Safe at Home, Baxter
  • The Horse’s Mouth, Carey
  • Herself Surprised, Carey
  • To Be a Pilgrim, Carey
  • The Invention of Morel, Casares
  • Love in a Fallen City, Chang
  • The Pure and Impure, Colette
  • The Vet’s Daughter, Comyns
  • The Family Mashber, Der Nister
  • The Dud Avocado, Dundy
  • The Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, Gadda
  • Pages from the Goncourt Journals, de Goncourt
  • Life and Fate, Grossman
  • Seduction and Betrayal, Hardwick
  • The Go-Between, Hartley
  • A High Wind in Jamaica, Hughes
  • The Wooden Shepherdess, Hughes
  • A Journey Round My Skull, Karinthy
  • An African in Greenland, Kpomassie
  • The Adventures of Sinbad, Krudy
  • The Letter Killer’s Club, Krzizhanovsky
  • The Balkan Trilogy,  Manning
  • Walkabout, Marshall
  • Amsterdam Stories, Nescio
  • Unforgiving Years, Serge
  • Alfred and Guinevere, Schuyler
  • The Ice Trilogy, Sorokin
  • Angel, Taylor
  • The Slynx, Tolstaya
  • An Ermine in Czernopol, von Rezzori
  • Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Warner
  • The Thirty Years War, Wedgewood
  • To the Finland Station, Wilson
  • Chess Story, Zweig

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (Melville House’s International Crime series)

Death; or, The Story:  Viktor Zolotaryov is a failed writer approaching destitution when destiny drops in his lap a dream job:  penning obituraries, or obelisks, of still-living artists, dignitaries, politicians–anyone and everyone of distinction in Kiev. As any discerning reader will immediately guess, this is a dodgy task with dire implications:  the obelisks portend certain doom for their subjects. Viktor is slightly dumb and deeply passive; he spends most of the book in denial about the results of his work, and when he is forced to confront its grisly consequences, he is disinclined to act. A doormat, he is wont to agree with any demand asked of him. This leads to diverse plottish hijinks, some predictable and some absurd. It’s possible that this is a funny book? I could never decide. If it is funny, it is a dark humor, deadpan and understated despite the oddity of its premise. I can see the possibility of a successful film adaptation.

The Penguin; or, Characters:  Kurkov has not produced a mystery in the traditional plot-driven sense; really, the book succeeds more as an existential character study. At the outset, Viktor’s life is devoid of human contact, and though he acquires enemies, acquaintances, and dependents, he remains fundamentally disconnected from them all. I am not denouncing him as a sociopath and don’t think that Kurkov is either–most likely this delineates a sort of post-Soviet ennui and social breakdown. For Viktor is not incapable of developing emotional bonds. It just so happens that his deepest relationship is not with another human but with Misha, the penguin he adopted from a zoo too destitute to feed its denizens. Misha is ineffable; unlike a dog or a cat, whose desires and personalities are easily enough discerned, he is a tuxedo’d depository for various human interpretation. For Viktor, Misha is the ideal life companion, more perfectly suited to his lifestyle than any human could ever be: Misha is dolorous but noble, loyal but discreet with his affection, dependent upon Viktor for food and care but always distinctly himself, as apt to shuffle away to stand in corners as he is to lay his head on his master’s lap. But this is only Viktor’s perception; for others, the interpretation of Misha is different. A dying penguinologist diagnoses Misha as depressive, doomed to pine fruitlessly for the arctic vistas of the south pole until an early death. A child, deserted by her father into Viktor’s care, views Misha as her only playmate and friend. And Viktor’s disreputable business acquaintances see Misha as a perfect emblem for their activities, a distortion of Viktor’s gentle pet that leads to disastrous events. I have no direct quotes to add to this write-up because, in a flash of inspiration, I lent it to one of my favourites of the bookish curmudgeons with whom I particularly bond, an older woman who is constantly deriding the unbearable seriousness of my reading choices. I’m looking forward to discovering whether Death and the Penguin is a good fit for her; I have a hunch it will be.

Dogma, Lars Iyer

Surely you’ve heard of Lars Iyer and his projected trilogy from Melville House, of which Dogma is the second (though it could easily be read out of order as the first; a chronological progression of events, these books are not)? No? Well then. Iyer chronicles the dubious friendship between an unlikely duo of dissolute philosophers:  the narrator, Lars, whose few objectively determinable characteristics include his lineage (Dutch and Indian), his religion (Hinduism) and his dogged passivity; and W., his best friend and foremost detractor. Both Spurious and Dogma take the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue consisting largely of W.’s diatribe against his friend’s deficiencies–when he’s being kind, he refers to Lars as “Diogenes gone mad”; when he is not, everything about Lars is open to disection, from his physique to his intelligence to his lifestyle. These heaps of abuse are interspersed with philosophy and underpinned by a presentiment of apocalyptic doom. As with the first book, dire portents lurk at the edges:  the creeping damp of Spurious has been joined by a plague of rats that colonize Lars’ domicile. Is this yet another dimension of the demerits cataloged by W., proof of Lars’ disgusting slovenliness, or is it a harbinger of the world’s end?

What’s the deal with this relationship, anyway? Is Lars as despicable as W. makes him out to be? If so, why does W. deign to be friends with him? (A question posed constantly by W. himself.) If not, why does Lars endure the abuse? And what about the distinct structure, the one-sided dialogue, with Lars doggedly reporting every last diatribe of W.’s, only occasionally recording his own responses, only sometimes giving context? I doubt that these questions matter in the least, though there was a glimmer of a key provided at the end of this book, but they are a consideration portion of the book’s draw.

Some reviewers have deprecated Dogma for being insufficiently different from Spurious; for the record, I disagree. The first book was largely concerned with the pair’s obsession with immortality and their power struggle over which of them is Kafka and which is Brod (an argument haunted by the dread that both may be Brods); Dogma sees them in action, striving to achieve the longed-for assurance of a legacy. At its start we find the duo on a lecture tour of America; its intent is to disseminate their enlightened philosophy to the wilds of America, but it quickly devolves into drinking, bickering, and drawing cartoons of America, represented by Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick cavorting in the Mississippi. The transatlantic adventure is discontinued soon enough, but back in England our heroes embark on another project:  the invention of Dogma, half discourse style, half religion. Chapters are devoted to the defining of Dogma. Dogma is, among other things, spartan, full of pathos, sincere, collaborative, and world-historical. It is, to say the least, very few things that W. and Lars appear to be in their day-to-day dialogue with one another. They wrangle through the dictums of their intellectual movement, stating and rescinding them; W. despairs and emits diatribes against Lars; and all the while the damp and the rats continue their ominous take-over of Lars’ flat…

The end comes as a disappointment. I would happily have continued on in the company of W. and Lars, and I am most desirous to read the last book. Will my questions be given closure? I do not know, and I do not particularly care; these books are delightful in their solipsism regardless of how the trilogy closes.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

It is a great temptation to diagnose the various characters in The Dog of the South, my second read from Charles Portis. They are outlandish, Characters-with-a-capital-C, and though they are never dull their outlandish distinction was a deterrent against emotional attachment. It is difficult for me to discuss this book without the dominating context of True Grit, a novel that I love very much. I dislike comparative reviews, so I will say simply this before moving on:  Ray Midge is no Mattie Ross; Dog did not depose True Grit from its place in my heart. Where Mattie and her disciples are wholly real to me, Ray and the people he meets are too pointedly odd to bridge the distance created by determined quirk. This is a minor quibble–I was happy with every minute I spent with Dog and will not disagree with anyone who calls Portis a writer of neglected American classics.

Like Mattie, Ray is on a quest; unlike that most dauntless girl, his has considerably lower stakes:  he is driving through Mexico, following a trail of credit card receipts, in search of his car, which has been stolen by his runaway wife, Norma, and her aspiring-revolutionary of a first husband, Dupree. It is the vehicle that is Ray’s dominant concern; to the return of his wife he is strikingly diffident. Her desertion is warranted, one suspects, and in a striking moment of awareness, Ray expresses awareness of his shortcomings and sympathy to her dissatisfaction:  “I should have paid more attention to Norma. I should have talked to her and listened to her but I didn’t do it. A timely word here and there might have worked wonders. I knew she was restless, and anxious to play a more active part in life. She spoke in just those terms, and there were other signals as well” (5). Despite some regret, it is the car Ray desires, for the replacement they have left him is a disheartening wreck in comparison to his beloved Ford Torino:

It was a compact car, a rusty little piece of basic transportation with a V-6 engine. The thing ran well enough and it seemed eager to please but I couldn’t believe the Buick engineers ever had their hearts in a people’s car. Dupree had shamefully neglected it. There was about a quarter-turn of slack in the steering wheel and I had to swing it wildly back and forth in a childlike burlesque of motoring. After a day or two I got the hang of it but the violent arm movements made me look like a lunatic. I had to stay alert every second, every instant, to make small corrections. That car had 74,000 miles on it and the speedometer was broken. There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.

No noble steed, that one! Despite its decrepitude, Ray develops a fondness for the machine; it is soon clear that he is more capable of forming attachment to objects than to people. He’s too self-centered for relationships; everyone, from his absconded wife to the friend he makes on the road–Reo Symes, a disbarred doctor determined to enact a devious fraud against his missionary mother in order to attain his fortune–is incidental to his own consciousness. This kind of narrative total immersion is typical of Portis, from my diminutive sample, but the disjuncture between this particular narrator’s view and how things may actually be is especially distinct. Ray is a failure, a dilettante who has never been able to settle on anything, but he views himself as distinguished from the rest of the populace, an unrecognized genius. His delusions of grandeur are often hilarious, as when he compares himself to America’s founding father: “I had enormous respect for General Washington, as who doesn’t, but I also liked the man, believing as I did that we shared many of the same qualities. Perhaps I should say ‘some of the same qualities’ because in many ways we are not at all alike. He, after all, had only read two books on warfare, Bland’s Exercises and Sim’s Military Guide, and I had a read a thousand. And of course he was a big man while I am compact of build” (141).

Ray’s denseness about his own deficiencies find a mirror in Dr. Leo Symes, owner of the brokendown bus called the Dog of the South, who becomes his traveling companion. Symes is a distorted future version of Ray, full of stories of how he has been wronged, obsessed with elaborate schemes to attain the potential he never manifested. Also, Symes is obsessed with one John Selmer Dix, the author of self-help books for salesmen, and is convinced that Dix’s texts hold the keys to understanding, well, everything. I mention this because it highlights one of several shared trait between the two drifters:  both are convinced that everything can be distilled to an essential right and wrong way of doing things. They are underdogs, dreamers incapable of joining reality long enough to demand results from their goals. Everyone loves an underdog, but these two are so very delusional that it’s uncomfortable to observe their mishaps. It is possible that they are modern versions of Don Quixote, but unlike in the tale of that venerable forebearer, there’s never a sense of a defined reality from which the characters are departing. Everything and everyone is deranged, events are disjointed from a traditional sense of cause and effect. The picaresque chaos of it all is made even more distinct by its characters belief that, beneath the seeming meaninglessness, there is a correct way to live. It’s a book that’s supposed to be funny, I know, and, as I hope my meager quoting displays, it was marvelously deadpan, but I found its overall effect to be disquieting and nihilistic. It could just be me.

In fact, supposedly funny books often have the side effect of making me very sad. I have fiddled with days on this post trying to say something about the why of this with no coherent result, so I shall give it up for now. Of these three, only Dogma didn’t depress me–probably because so much anxiety and absurd intellectual distress is built into the book itself.

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