Top Ten of the 2000s, and New Year’s Reading Resolutions

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t read a ton of hot-off-the-presses contemporary literature, but I suppose I read enough to have a top-ten list. Herewith, my top ten books of the past decade, as originally presented in our Christmas letter this year:

10. The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  A seriously entertaining mindbender, not the most original or avant-garde work I’ve ever read, but an extremely well executed piece of postmodern lit, with a ton of hidden goodies for obsessives to find online to continue the story if they so choose.  (Published in 2007, read in 2008; see four posts beginning here.)

9.  Pieces of Payne, by Albert Goldbarth.  I love Goldbarth’s poetry, and this lyrical novel of fragments, digressions, tangents, and footnotes is just awesome.  Goldbarth’s something of an alchemist, and his linking of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human to the natural, the high to the low, the tragic to the comic, are perhaps not unparalleled in American literature, but he does it better than anyone I know.  (Published in 2003, read in 2006.)

8.  Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace.  I am not one of the people who think DFW’s essays are superior to his fiction.  I think they are verifiably not as good, in fact; I just think people who are not passionate devotees of DFW set the bar of literary excellence lower for essays, and therefore think of his essays as “better” than other published essays in a way that they do not think of his fiction as “better” than other published fiction.  “Up, Simba” remains one of the great and most important pieces of creative nonfiction published in the 2000s.  It’s too bad his piece on Federer was published later; that is one of the great pieces of sports writing of the 2000s.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

7.  after the quake, by Haruki Murakami.  My favorite book by Murakami this decade, a beautiful set of stories.  “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is one of my favorite short stories, period, and is a good primer on what’s great about Murakami if you’re looking for a place to start (and don’t want to commit to a novel).  We were lucky enough to see an adaptation of stories from this book at Steppenwolf in Chicago.  (Originally published in Japanese in 2000, U.S. edition published in 2002, read in 2003.)

6.  Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link.  I am somewhat surprised to find four short-story collections on my list, because I’m always thinking that I don’t read enough short stories.  But this was a great decade for the short form, and also a great decade for playing with genre.  Link is the reigning champion of the “interstitial” or genre-defying or genre-appreciating-and-transcending story.  This is the best example of same which I’ve read yet, and I think the explosion of interstitial lit was one of the coolest trends of the decade.  Here’s hoping it keeps gaining momentum, and that Kelly Link writes a novel or ten.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

5.  The Secret Life of Puppets, by Victoria Nelson.  I’ve raved about this before; there are at least 10 great books I’ve read since reading this just because they sounded so damned fascinating in Nelson’s book.  A great, great piece of literary and cultural criticism.  Caves, mannequins, automatons, and horror films will never seem the same to you.  An impassioned defense of the irrational, the surreal, and the uncanny in art and in life.  Seriously.  Pick it up.  (Published in 2001, read in 2004.)

4.  Pastoralia, by George Saunders.  Proud to say I’ve been a fan since the beginning.  The best satirist working today, and I personally think this is his best book so far.  Another writer who could do with stretching out and trying a novel; it’s time, isn’t it?  The title novella may be the funniest thing I read all decade, and an absolutely perfect snapshot of America at the turn of the century.  (Published in 2000, read in 2002.)

3.  American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.  The most entertaining book of fiction published this decade, period.  I will accept no other answers.  (And Gaiman’s got a good claim to Writer of the Decade status, when you stack it all up.)  A book that felt as though it were written as a gift to me, by a great friend who happens to be a genius, from a blend of transcripts of my dreams, short stories I’d written, and ideas I’d tossed out at 2 a.m. in dormitory bull sessions.  Of course, it made me jealous as hell, but at least it convinced us to go to the House on the Rock.  I am sure the inevitable movie franchise will be a gigantic success in 2015 or whenever it finally gets made. (Published in 2001, read in 2003.)

2.  Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.  It will never cease to piss me off how this book was dismissed as DFW stuck in a rut, or a step backward, or whatever.  Total bullshit, written by lazy, conceited, and/or envious reviewers.  I think the fact that “Mister Squishy,” probably the most challenging story in the collection, is the first, had something to do with that: probably an editorial mistake, setting the wrong tone for said lazy reviewers.  “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Good Old Neon” are masterpieces — not just of form, or execution, or craft: of feeling, of connection with the reader, the lack of which was the supposed knock on DFW.  You cannot read those stories and tell me he wasn’t progressing as a writer.  Whatever; the stories will live on in anthologies forever, if there’s any justice.  (Published and read in 2004.)

1.  House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  He’ll never top this, I’m afraid.  Hardly a week goes by that I don’t pull this off the shelf and think about rereading — but I’m a little scared.  The perfect storm of fear, paranoia, domestic turmoil, technological and textual overload: the book of the Horror Decade.

So that’s my list.  Now, looking forward: my friend Danelle is starting a project to read twelve books this year which she’s been putting off for years, and inviting others to join in.  I’m game!  So here’s my list of long-neglected hopefuls for 2010, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  1. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
  3. GraceLand, by Chris Abani
  4. Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace
  5. The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
  7. The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning
  8. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
  9. Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino
  10. The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman
  11. Poems, by Emily Dickinson
  12. Possession, by A.S. Byatt

My two alternates, should I give up on any of these, are South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami and Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl.

Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

The Great White Shark of Pain

October 20, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Remember The Raw Shark Texts, that book I told you to read a couple of months ago?  Well, here’s a strand of its source code.

Other than that, I don’t really feel like saying much about this; I’d forgotten about its existence; it is very sad and terrible and scary in a number of ways, but reading it also felt strangely therapeutic.  Some small measure of explanation, perhaps, or at least my assumption thereof.  (And it is my assumption; this section is from Kate Gompert’s point-of-view, mostly.)  But it felt like DFW telling me how it was, I guess, and horrible as it is I was glad to hear it from him.  I hope it did him good, and I think it helps us understand how maybe he hung on for longer than he thought he could.

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression.  That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain.  Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria.  Instread of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it.  It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence.  It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels.  It is a nausea of the cells and soul.  It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed….  Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.  It is a hell for one….

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square.  And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.  The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.

-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 695-6

These Coincidences Have No Meaning

September 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Fragile Things.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

I mean that, that title-sentence up there: I really don’t think there’s much to this.  But it’s weird.  I like weird things.  If nothing else, it’s another manifestation of that odd phenomenon by which great discoveries, strokes of genius, etc., are made independently and nearly simultaneously.

Three stories, in succession:

-“Diseasemaker’s Croup,” a clever made-to-order piece (they’re almost all made-to-order in this collection, which is why it comes off as kind of half-assedly thrown-together, I suppose) about a disease which “can be diagnosed by the unfortunate tendency of the diseased to interrupt otherwise normal chains of thought and description with commentaries upon diseases, real or imagined, cures nonsensical, and apparently logical.”  As you can sort of tell at the end there, it becomes a soup of fragmented language, as the disease takes over the diseased’s attempt at an entry on the disease.

-“In the End,” a rather cool short-short which puts the book of Genesis in reverse and works very well as an imaginary “very last book of the Bible,” as Gaiman has it.

-“Goliath,” a story which was originally a teaser for The Matrix on the promotional website.  Gaiman seems to especially like the idea of the malleability of time in the Matrix.

Anyway, isn’t it funny how these stories put together seem like a recipe for The Raw Shark Texts?  I mean, there’s a text taken over by a kind of language-virus, a möbius-strip return-to-paradise story, and a metaphysical sci-fi freakout on the nature of reality.  It’s all there!  This collection, by the way, came out a year before TRST.  Not that that means anything.  But weird, eh?

The Endings

August 25, 2008 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

I’m going to try not to completely give everything away here, but if you haven’t read the book yet (or even just might, somewhere down the road), you should probably stop reading now.  Read the book, come back, we’ll discuss.

It’s a fallacy that every book has an ending.  Every book has an end: the words stop somewhere.  But an ending, a conclusion, a summation, a kind of statement upon or structural capstone for the rest of the book: many books do not have that.  (The Broom of the System springs to mind.)

This book has an ending.  With a vengeance.  As a matter of fact, there’s an ending, and then a kind of epilogue, explanatory, documentary ending that changes everything in the book.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into the chapter titles here: for instance, the titles to chapters 30 and 32 tie together Jaws and Moby-Dick in a fairly ingenious way.  Your understanding of the first ending hinges on what you make of Hall referencing a Cure song in that chapter’s title.  And the final “chapter’s” title is “Goodbye Mr Tegmark.”  This is, from all sources I’ve seen, a reference to Max Tegmark, a cosmologist who’s done a lot of work on parallel universes, theories of everything, the potential mathematical underpinnings of an afterlife and immortality, and other such mind-fuckery.  (Why “Goodbye”?  Why drop the previously unreferenced name?  Why this chapter at all?)

On the one hand, this book was intended as an exercise in ambiguity, apparently, and is awash with hints of unreliable narration, unknown or hidden character identities, unstable textuality (like the Ludovician imagery and First Eric Sanderson letters and Light Bulb Fragments), and multivalent paratexts (like the chapter titles, “story” titles, and dust jacket).  (There’s some high-level jargon for ya!)  And I love this stuff, and I love canoodling around with Tegmarkian thoughts even though I can hardly claim to understand them at anything more than a blown-stoner’s-mind level.  Hell, I wrote a whole book’s worth of stories with a similar setup.

But on the other hand, something about these endings seems off to me.  I guess I have no other hand, really, without taking more time and space than I can right now (and revealing more than I care to) to justify this feeling.  Let’s just say it feels a little too wrapped-up, to me, even with all the possible interpretations you could bring to it.  I guess I wanted more of an anti-ending, here; an end, no ending.  Maybe I just need to read a little more about Tegmark to find if there’s some theory I’m overlooking that could ease these qualms.

PS-There is, apparently, a whole bunch of stuff about this book that one can look into, including “negatives” or “un-chapters” for each chapter in the book that are embedded in the various editions, online, etc., etc.  (See the forums at rawsharktexts.com if you’re interested.)  Dangerously tempting for the librarian in me.

The MS Word Paperclip-Helper: Pure Evil?

August 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

Reading next: Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard.

Part three’s probably my favorite section of the book. It’s rad. We enter un-space through a hole in the back of a bookshelf in a closed bookstore (the entrance is behind the “H”s in the literature section, presumably including this book by Mr. Hall, a nice Nabokovian touch), and the journey ends at a giant labyrinth made of tunnels and rooms made entirely of paper and books inside which it “smelled like the pages of a second-hand Charles Dickens novel.” The tunnel forms the letters “ThERa.” (It’s the first letters of the book; there are also tunnels called Milos and Ios. All three are names of Greek islands, too, some Googling reveals.)

This whole complex is behind the walls of a “huge library,” presumably of a university (maybe Oxford or Cambridge?). Cool images, these: the wild, uncontrolled mass of words, fragments of printed matter and jotted notes and forgotten books, like the protective and protected subconscious of the published world.

But the most interesting and surprising section of part three is “The Story of Mycroft Ward.” Now, whatever Hall himself might say about this (and from what I’ve seen online, he’s coy about it, which seems to me a fairly absurd and, again, self-consciously Nabokovian thing to do — “What, me know anything about what my text is doing?”), this is obviously a continuation of the word-play initiated in the book’s title (Rorschach tests=Raw Shark Texts). Mycroft Ward is, in part, a knock on Microsoft (Mycroft Ward=Microsoft Word). It’s also a kick-ass story.

The story reminded me of Yates’s The Art of Memory. I love these gropings, both real and imagined, after the concept of computation, the possibilities of external and internal memory. Hall brilliantly ties his art of memory (“The Arrangement”) to the desires for immortality and “self-preservation,” its true root, and updates Yates by pushing his narrative into the computer age. It’s the scale of things that has made this age scary; the ease with which millions — billions? — of people have been led, and have acquiesced, to using the same “programs” for recording their thoughts, for searching for information, for saving their findings, for running their worlds.

All of which leads me to the question: is that paperclip with googly-eyes that is supposed to “help” you in Word an agent of Mycroft Ward? If you actually click on this thing (does anyone ever actually need this thing’s help, or do anything but disable it as quickly as possible?), do you wake up minutes later, confused and missing parts of your brain? Is the googly-eyed paperclip, in fact, pure evil?

A Monster of a Concept

August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

It’s something of a commonplace that we look to find ourselves in art, and value the feeling of recognition when we do: the idea that there’s a kindred spirit, that we’re not so weird after all. We tend to think things that we understand — things that are close to our own experiences, thoughts, beings — are “good,” and those that aren’t are “bad” (if we bother with them at all).

I’m no exception here, although I wouldn’t consciously say that this kind of feeling is anywhere near the top of the list of reasons why I love to read. But there are a handful of books where I’ve experienced such an overwhelming rush of recognition that the feeling was almost appalling. Although it does involve recognition of self in deeper ways, as well, mostly it’s been such a similarity to something I’ve actually written, or at least an idea I’ve been playing around with, that there are mingled sensations of pride, envy, horror, and yes, kinship. (The short list, off the top of my head, for the curious: American Gods, House of Leaves, White Noise, a number of Bradbury stories.)

And now there’s The Raw Shark Texts. Lordy, what a first act; what a first 90 pages. I’m going to try to be even more cryptic than usual, because, frankly, you (yes, you, three people who read this blog, you, dammit) need to read this book. It’s awesome and brilliant. I mean, do conceptual sharks cruising communicative waterways for the chum of human memory and identity strike you as interesting? Come on. It’s irresistible.

(Actually, now that I think about this, you shouldn’t be reading this.

I shouldn’t be writing this.

Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.

Forget I said anything. No one reads this. Nice sharky.)

So I’ll just babble a little about four things I loved in Part One:

-Chapter 4, “The Light Bulb Fragment (Part One),” is almost unbearably poignant and touching and eerily familiar (not in the writerly ways, in the personal ones). Scary good. A DFW-level observation of a relationship, only it’s a great relationship, and we know he’s not into those.

-On p. 57-58, there are these two cool representations of a TV screen with something like (but then, very unlike) concrete poetry on their “screens.” A kind of creature made of typography, barely perceptible in the static (so the text tells us; the representation of the screen is just a blank rectangle with this typography-creature). The book has been fairly cinematic, so far — I mean, it’s extremely lucid writing, very visual, and intentionally so. But there has also been a lot of wrangling with “concept” versus “reality,” or the tangible, at any rate — the physical, the solid. (Brilliantly handled wrangling, I might add.) It made me wonder how this would be handled in (the inevitable, if there’s any justice) film adaptation, because it would be easy enough to just picture this creature as a creature, and it’s certainly a powerful enough image just as a creature, rather than a creature made of these words, this jumble of different-sized type. This is cool, after my late experiences with the “TV fiction” of Bear v. Shark and Vineland: finally, the screen makes it onto the page, only to be filled by words, letters, concepts.

-Letter #4 is awesome. This whole sequence of letters is like if Memento and The Matrix had a baby and The Crying of Lot 49 and “The Library of Babel” had a baby and those babies… well, you get the idea. (Yes, I loved Pineapple Express, too.) At any rate, I love the breakdown of the protective powers of “Books of Fact/Books of Fiction,” and this little doozy: “I have an old note written by me before I got so vague which says that some of the great and most complicated stories like The Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets…” If I were more ambitious, I’d found a whole school of satirical criticism based on this passage.

-On p. 86 we get a small passage which set bells a-ringin’ in my head: “I learned… how to attach the bracken and lichen of foreign ideas to my scalp and work the mud and grass of another self into and over my skin and clothes until I could become invisible at will, until anyone or anything could be looking straight at me and never see the real me at all.”

You may or may not know that I’ve been working on a piece of writing related to King Lear for a very long time. This passage sounds like Edgar transforming into Tom o’ Bedlam, the madman on the heath. And he’s doing something very similar: while his mud and grass are real, it is the other self he really is working into his skin, the mannerisms and the rantings of a being completely foreign to him, and that is mainly why he is not recognized.

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