December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.
First, the recent/lesser-known list:
5. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski. A truly astonishing book/performance art piece. I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction. Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read. (See my four posts beginning here.)
4. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño. The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable. Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses. It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next. (See three posts beginning here.)
3. Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen. A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together. It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished. (See two posts beginning here.)
2. The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell. I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass. A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it. It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all. (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)
1. Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today. This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving. It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature. If only all realism were this well done. (See post here.)
And now for my list including classics:
5. The Interrogative Mood, see above.
4. White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville. Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books. A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages. The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close. (See three posts starting here.)
3. Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.
2. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë. Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work. Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators. (See five posts beginning here.)
1. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki. It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known. (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.) Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it. It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling. (See six posts starting here.)
So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January. In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.
April 16, 2009 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.
There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.” Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich. He provides two common understandings of the term:
(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..
(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.
He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”
Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?
This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey. (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.) The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow. Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over. (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.) Both canny and uncanny. It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.
Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger. The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich. And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self. Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.
Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double. This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.” But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.
All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them). I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told. It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena. Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama. Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage? Or all of the above? (Well, it is definitely of Borges. That’s for sure.) Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?
(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot. It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential. It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)