Top Fives for 2009

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.

Stories Above, Stories Within, Stories Beside

May 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: Atmospheric Disturbances.

Just finished: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link.

Reading next: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop.

So I’m very behind, which is a shame, because Atmospheric Disturbances is a really interesting novel, and I unabashedly adore Kelly Link’s stories.  Allow me to point out just a few of the many fascinating things in these books.

First, the Galchen.  I had read before, but completely forgotten, that the author’s father is used as a character in this book; the knowledge that Tzvi Gal-Chen was a real person, a real meteorologist, and not just a clever metafictional author-reference, makes the book come alive in surprising ways.  The book would be orders of magnitude less touching, compelling, and human were it not for its metafictional tricks, its games with narration and a blend of truth and fiction: a convincing and damn near conclusive refutation of those who decry metafiction and all experimental tactics as cold, unfeeling, antagonistic to the reader.  The combination of the story of Leo — Galchen portrays his monomania brilliantly while never quite eliminating the possibility that he’s on to something in thinking his wife “disappeared” and replaced by a simulacrum — the story of our reading of Leo — is this an allegory of marriage, a new fabulist mystery, a fictional memoir of madness? — and the story of Galchen eulogizing Gal-Chen, weaving her memories of her father into this fabulous tale — is quite magical.

And the way that Leo takes these crazy leaps of faith based on cryptic readings of dry scientific papers and Rorschachian interpretations of a meteorological graph!  And the droll, sometimes clinical, sometimes mystical chapter titles!  And the trip to Patagonia, the Jungian unconscious of Argentina!

Then there’s Kelly Link, who is awesome in completely irrefutable and empirically proven ways. Pretty Monsters is a short story collection for a major publisher, Viking, and as such reprints some of the stories from her earlier small-press collections, including what might very well be my favorite short story of this decade, “Magic for Beginners.”  (Or is it a novella?  Aah, whatever it is, it’s the best of that.)  Seriously, if you don’t love this story I can’t have anything to do with you: you will not like me, I will not like you, I will argue with you constantly in unpleasant and unfriendly ways.

Link’s a master at the ambiguously nested narrative.  In “Magic for Beginners,” we’re told right off the bat about the pirate-TV show The Library, and told that the story we’re being told is itself an episode of The Library.  This episode ends up being largely concerned with a group of teenage friends obsessed with the pirate-TV show The Library.  One of the very many brilliant things about this story is how it is a story about a TV show which does things that can only be done in literature, with the written word: if one were to actually try to adapt The Library for the screen, it would be impossibly confusing, expensive, and unsuccessful.  And yet it is irresistable in its ekphrastic descriptions in this story.  It’s the best thing about literature, the most underrated thing: it is utterly unrestrained by the million restraints of performed art, by casting, effects budgets, production companies.  It can do anything, given the right combination of reader and writer.  It can create impossible works of whatsoever form of art and describe them in whatever words, at whatever level of tantalizing detail, it chooses.  (Link, by the way, is great at this variation of detail, of the “granularity,” if you will, of her descriptions: the monster in the excellent story “Monster” is a good example of a terrifyingly sparse description.)

So we care a lot about Jeremy and his friends, and his mother and eccentric Stephen-King-ish father, in ways we wouldn’t if they were framing devices in an episode of The Library.  While you often forget while you reading that it’s framed as an episode, it is fascinating to read this whole story as an episode: a strange new episode of your favorite cult show, in which the fantastic world and characters you’ve become fans of are suddenly thrust into contact with the “real” world, in which the “death” or “life” of those other characters is in agonizing doubt (in multiple ways) but you are asked to pay attention to new characters, characters like you.  A little slice of reality TV.  So, yes: a realistic, naturalistic story about our filmed world, our fictionalized reality.

Link does stories-within-stories very well, but there are also stories side by side: sibling stories, like “Pretty Monsters.”  You can argue for this as another nested narrative, but it seemed to me that as you read it, the stories are on the same plane, even when it becomes clear that a character in one of the narratives is reading the other story.  (But she’s also not: the story here is far too short to be a book; we either have a synopsis of the book, or excerpts from it, or an alternate version of it.)  I am still wrapping my mind around this story, which I loved.  And yet the ending bothered me.  Stories shift their shapes; a story is a kind of pretty monster, utterly true, utterly false, attractive and terrifying; and when the fictional girl “L” acknowledges that there is “no stupid girl named Lee” in the story she was just reading, this is a matter of irony — we affirm the reality of the fictional Lee, Clementine, L and C, just as Jeremy tried to confirm the reality of the fictional Fox in “Magic for Beginners.”  But dammit, the metanarrative here did not deepen or complicate my understanding of the work; I cared too much about the twin narratives for it to work as a frame or conclusion.

Basically, what I am saying is that I really want Kelly Link to stretch out, to restrain or at least delay her ambiguity reflex, and to write a novel.  I’d love to see what happens in a Kelly Link novel.  Things could get wild.

The Unheimlich and the Uncanny

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.)

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Galchen at The Ambiguities.