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.

Dickens and the Victorian Cinema

December 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Sweeping Assertion #27: In the entire history of literature, Dickens is the consummate scene-setter, the one to go to for a seemingly off-the-cuff evocation of a place and its people.  My favorite part of this book so far has been the beginning of chapter nine, “Town and Todgers’s.”  It’s too long for me to write out, so read the first eight paragraphs or so here.

What a piece of writing!  I love the section on the fruit-vendors, and the immediately following description of the scrubby churchyard trees.  What a brilliant metaphor, comparing these lonesome city trees to “birds in cages.”  This section reminds me an awful lot of Ambergris, the pseudo-Victorian city of City of Saints and Madmen: the grit, the soot, the commerce and mystery.  I’m going to indulge myself and write out probably my favorite sentence:

Among the narrow thoroughfares at hand, there lingered, here and there, an ancient doorway of carved oak, from which, of old, the sounds of revelry and feasting often came; but now these mansions, only used for storehouses, were dark and dull, and, being filled with wool, and cotton, and the like — such heavy merchandise as stifles sound and stops the throat of echo — had an air of palpable deadness about them which, added to their silence and desertion, made them very grim.

My god!  For those keeping score at home, that’s 14 commas, a semicolon, and one marvelous dashed aside.  Gordon Lish’s head would explode reading that thing; he’d cut it up into six to eight sentences.  But it’s sentences like this, I think, that got and still get people hooked on Dickens.  It just sounds so damn good: the commas flowing along, the punctuation so perfect that you can almost hear Dickens reading it aloud.  And the flawless word choice, the alliteration and assonance (the rich, full o‘s of wool, cotton, sound, stops, throat, echo filling up space like the “heavy merchandise” of the warehouses).

Somehow in those eight paragraphs, Dickens conjures up a world, taking you from the city to the neighborhood to the specificity of a grubby boarding house.  You’re there, lost in the labyrinth, viewing these grotesque bruised oranges and soot-covered windows and the scene from the scary roof of the Todgers’s.  And he segues effortlessly from this into the domestic comedy of the rooms in the boarding house.  Amazing.  (Some writers I love because I feel like they’re kindred spirits, and they write in ways I feel I have written or could write; with Dickens, I can’t imagine writing this way.  I’ve never lost my self-consciousness enough, my sense that I’m writing.  I literally don’t know how he does it — on tight deadlines, no less, the serial numbers coming out month after month.  He seems to feel his way into the page, into a kind of state where the words are effortless extensions of his thought.  And it comes out brilliant: something close to prose poetry.)

This section reminds me of the opening of Bleak House, another of my favorite Dickens scenes and, I have to believe, the best description and metaphoric use ever of a London fog.  That was the first Dickens scene I ever read that made me sit up and realize what strange, nearly avant-garde, modern, cinematic things Dickens was doing with words.  To say that Dickens writes cinematically is misleading, in a way, because the words were important to him, obviously, and they work so well together, and are integrally important.  (The metaphor of churchyard-tree to caged-bird, for instance, is perfectly suited to literature, not cinema, and Dickens is always pulling brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase out of thin air.)

And yet it’s there, somehow, isn’t it?  Doesn’t it seem like a camera, roving over this seedy warehouse district in London, in the opening of “Town and Todgers’s”?  The dollies and cuts, the effects of sound and his placement of objects and figures (his mise en scene, if you want) like what you would expect in the opening of a (really good) movie?  And the way he cuts to the interior from the exterior?

As it happens, there are books about this.  (And I have this nagging half-memory of a quote about Dickens being proto-cinematic by a famous director — maybe Godard — but I can’t find it right now.  Arrgh.)  Here’s one I hope to take a peek at.  Intriguing synopsis, right?

City of Historians and Liars

November 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.  (Really, this time.)

It’s oddly fitting that I should read Melville after finishing City of Saints and Madmen.  The book is influenced by Moby-Dick — I mean, the name of the fictional city is Ambergris — but, then, so are a lot of books.  What’s different here is how this book gave me some sense of how contemporary readers of Moby-Dick must have felt.  In a very different way than Melville’s masterpiece, VanderMeer’s book is  overstuffed, messy, encyclopedic, cryptic, digressive, formally and typographically adventurous, ambiguously narrated, obsessive about strange central metaphors and images.  In MD the central mystery and metaphor is the whale; here, it’s fungus (and also, perhaps, squid).  What you end up thinking is, Where the hell did that come from? It’s out of left field in the best way.

Labels and genres are beside the point here; this is interstitial/new fabulist/new weird/insert-buzzword-here fiction.  It is closest to fantasy in that it creates a world and populates it with a history, a mythology, a cast of characters; it’s also part of the charming subgenre of steampunk, for which I’ll admit I’m kind of a nerdlinger sucker.  What I was most impressed with, though, was the way that the book becomes about the subject of writing history; this is historiographical fiction of the highest order.

VanderMeer makes some obvious nods toward Nabokov, as well, and the unreliable narrator is the order of the day.  However, that’s not exactly groundbreaking.  What’s really interesting here is how the book is structured: there are four novellas followed by an “AppendiX” as long as the novellas put together, made up of bits and pieces shedding light on the writing of the novellas and the book as a whole.  Bibliography, genealogy, glossary, periodical, souvenir, bureaucratic memo: all are put to the service of literature.

Through it all, there’s an emphasis on the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting history right: of telling the story properly.  For instance, the second novella is “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek.”  There we learn that the primary source on Ambergris’s founding is the journal of one Samuel Tonsure, whose identity is more or less unknown.  Tonsure kept an apparently secret and frank journal, but also wrote a hagiographic history of the town’s founder, Cappan John Manzikert.  And we also learn that there are rumors that the secret journal is a forgery.  And Shriek is disgruntled about writing this guidebook/history for the general public anyway, and subverts the form by filling his text with digressive footnotes that overwhelm the body of the text with detail and equivocation and axe-grinding against rival historians whom he considers crackpots (and vice versa).  Alternate readings of events and the evidence they leave behind are everywhere in this book, and presentation is key, as we find out that works written in the third person are supposed to be autobiography, and even (maybe especially) bureaucrats, doctors, and bibliographers tell their “narratives” with hidden agendas, from the skewed perspective of the present.

As someone who deals with manuscripts and contemporary printed accounts, the creation of a fictional universe with an intentionally imprecise and unknowable history — one with the wires of its own creation exposed — is really interesting to me.  We in the world of archives and special collections libraries are always extolling the importance of students (and faculty, for that matter) learning the importance of “primary sources”: those original documents that can shed light on history from contemporary perspectives.  We often don’t get into the complexity of this importance: along with the assumed value of  primary sources as verifications of secondary accounts presented as “facts,” those sources also serve as important muddiers of waters that were presumed clear.  They’re messy, they almost always contain incomplete or inaccurate or irrelevant information, and they are dependent on the interpretation of flawed human beings who are prone to jumping to the conclusions they want to find based on the evidence they happen to see.

What’s coolest about this book, I think — and a lot of it’s cool: indigenous fungus-beings bent on revenge, squid-worship, ekphrastic descriptions of scary paintings, a legendary Wagnerian composer-politician, encoded stories within stories — what’s coolest, though, is the way that VanderMeer represents the messiness and deep, deep complexity of history, and the way it’s entangled with the creation of narrative.  Behind everything in this book there’s the uneasiness of the city-dwellers at the history within their midst: these “mushroom dwellers,” these “gray caps,” whose city was destroyed by colonizers.  Who live on their streets, who collect their trash, who seem to infiltrate people’s houses and snatch citizens away into their underground world.  History is all around the people of Ambergris, layer upon layer of it; it seems impossible to ever reach the heart of the truth of how things happened.

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