What I Read in November and December

January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

As with much of the year, my reading in the last two months of 2014 was distracted and broken, and in other ways didn’t do enough to distract. Other than the first two chapters of Little Women (which I intend to finish), I didn’t change any of my reading plans to match my circumstances, and I devoted the last three weeks of December to catching up on my backlog of New Yorkers. (I’m still only up to June.) I enjoyed what I read, but I can’t say I engaged with it as much as I would have liked.

The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis. Until I read this book, I knew more about Ellis’ reputation than I did about his fiction. I knew that he belonged to something called the Brat Pack, of which Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz were also members. I knew he wrote about a serial killer in American Psycho (Patrick Bateman, who has a cameo in The Rules of Attraction as Sean’s older brother). Ellis published his first book, Less Than Zero, at age 21 and was still only 23 when The Rules of Attraction was published. The latter is set at a private New Hampshire college, a source to which Ellis, unlike Tom Wolfe, was still close.

There are three main characters in The Rules of Attraction—Paul, Sean, and Lauren, and an assortment of satellite characters, roommates and exes and witnesses. We cycle in and out of their first-person accounts, most only a couple pages long, with the complicated love triangle as its nucleus: Lauren, a disengaged art major-turned-poet who sleeps with a lot of men and whose one true love, Victor, has taken off for Europe; dark-hearted drug dealer Sean, who attempts suicide and (for some reason) pines for Lauren; and thoughtful bisexual Paul, who pursues Sean. All three come from wealthy families and cannot seem to process anything more complex or protracted than what is in front of them:

SEAN The party is starting to end and I’ve had my eye on Candice the whole goddamn time. But the moment comes and she leaves with Mitch and I’m not as upset or surprised as I expected. I am also considerably loaded and that helps. The last people are hanging out, and the last people hanging out at these parties waiting to find someone to go home with always depress me. It reminds me of kids being picked last for teams in high school. It’s weak. Really improves one’s sense of self-worth. But I don’t give a fuck in the end. I walk over to the keg and Paul Denton’s standing by it and somehow the keg has run out and Tony’s selling bottled beer for two bucks apiece over in his room and I don’t want to spend the money and I’m not in any mood to snake it from the guy and I suspect that Denton’s got some bucks so I ask him if he wants to go with me and get a case of beer and the guy is so drunk he asks me if I want to have dinner with him tomorrow and I guess I’m drunk too and I say sure even though I don’t know why the fuck I’m saying that, confused as hell. I walk away and end up going to bed with Deidre again which is sort of … I don’t know what it sort of is.

I can see the style having cultural import in the Reagan eighties (early in the book, Lauren sleeps with an economics major with a Reagan wall calendar) if it is regarded with the kind of critical self-reflection that is part of the contract of satire. But anyone who wishes to take these characters seriously, in thinking that they might want to escape their vicious cycles and seek meaning and happiness, isn’t going to read The Rules of Attraction with any kind of satisfaction. The blur and numbness in which these characters operate is too tied up in its own currency to speak to anyone outside it, but that might be true for any campus novel, and it gives The Rules of Attraction a sort of native credibility that makes it far more interesting to read than a novel like I Am Charlotte Simmons, which only asks us to gawp along with its elderly, out-of-touch author.

Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, Luke B. Goebel. This book was well publicized in indie lit circles, and I had read one of the chapters (“Apache”) in Green Mountains Review. Since there are thirteen stories listed in the table of contents, one has to assume that the fourteenth story is the sum of the chapters taken as a whole, since they certainly operate as a unit.

Any road novel cannot help but get tied to Kerouac and the Beats, and Goebel is honest about the allusions, both in the narrative’s jazzy syncopation and the aching earnestness of a narrator looking to spiritual (and occasionally chemical) guidance to break away from himself:

We were with the Indians drinking beers on the rez in a tin ranch. Then them to whiskey the two fat cousin braves and a pair of kissing girls, their sisters, in thick hair, making the boys snicker. What are we doing why? Julie has picked up a case of lice and I have a young beard growing crazy all over my neck and cheeks and ears. The darkness in the shack is growing and I’m drinking cola, waiting outside for us is the sun with the blinds drawn. I am still wearing the knife but their dog is growling, and they are skunked. We are having a good time, but it’s a trap—like most things native, I speculate, from the little I’ve seen hotdogging around the planet in cutoffs and something stupid looking as a banana yellow midriff. I don’t trust the Indians when it comes to spending time together, and that’s only a feeling I have for the shade they live in is/was from our terrible white doings and our openness in the time of our time on the earth. They are covered in their secret sitting and being calmly dark featured, and their history is a thing blood kept, but in their historical minds nothing but landscapes or bloodbaths, how can I know?

Goebel gives us a nuanced and aching protagonist to follow (in both first and third person, as each story suits), and it’s not a stretch to imagine that he is essentially a stand-in for the author. His brother has died much too young, and while travelling with a pup named Jewelly he longs for a woman named Catherine with whom he once had a relationship. Goebel perfects the road voice—one of a loner with much time to gather himself and reflect and dream while contemplating the landscape, seeking some kind of existential approval. Where the book is strongest is when Goebel’s protagonist encounters characters who challenge him, like the horse-racing coach with the mangled hand “three fingers and a crust of dead stump”) in “Apache,” and allows the reader to ride along on a journey of growth. The novel works on its unity of inquiring voice, its spiritual meander across locales, and a skyward urgency for redemption.

Goebel was a guest on Brad Listi’s Other People podcast, and you can hear that interview here.

Sprezzatura, Mike Young. I heard the author read selections from this book at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton, Mass. The poems here are as electric and sensitive as his other work, and in reading them I came to realize how true to the twenty-first century they feel, not just in terms of contemporary referents but their walkabout rhythms. Young can introduce subjects as generationally centered as phantom cell-phone pocket vibrations to Wi-Fi at McDonald’s and tie them fluidly to the deeper human experience:

Existentialism is when the store stops carrying

the cereal you buy every week because “no one

buys that kind.”

(“All You Spoon Is a Cache and Ache”)

When I rinse my hands I flip the light, hoping

for electric conduct. Google only recognizes

“help” eleven times in a row for its auto-

complete. After eleven, you’re in the territory

of individuals.

(“Stop Long Enough”)

Yo whatever happened to that girl whose ex-boyfriend was the son of a tea magnate? She gave me all these fancy strainers. What the shit do I do with that shit? We saw a production of Glengarry Glen Ross in which none of the actors were old enough. One thing she collected was Swedish vampire movies.

(“Yo Whatever Happened Yo”)

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, Nicholson Baker. The blurb on the back of this book reads, “The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word.” This statement frames an assumption that Baker expects his readers to share, and sets up the ghastly revelations to follow: that for many years libraries, in the name of economy, space saving, and utility, have been discarding whole collections of newspapers in favor of microfilmed editions, to be read on machines. I don’t think it’s insensitive to say that this is not surprising, and has been accepted as a fact of life for a long time even by those who consider themselves supporters of libraries. I would even imagine that by now most libraries are so well into reformatting themselves as digital learning centers that even microfilm technology, in the age of PDF scans, is too quaint to be worth maintaining, something most in the business would prefer to leave behind with other relics of the Cold War.

Double Fold was published in 2001, when libraries were already well into their twenty-first century transformation and rebranding as information science hubs, still needing to put out calls and beg to councils for public funding, and so in trying to persuade us that libraries have been derelict in their duties as repositories of physical objects of historical interest, it feels like Baker is trying to board a ship that has not only sailed long ago, but has since been returned to port, decommissioned, and renovated into a floating chowder house.

Baker takes us deep into the catacombs of history where the library and paper industries intersect and patiently, sometimes entertainingly, lays out painstaking research on what seems like a numbingly dry subject. We learn about the hazards of diethyl zinc and other chemicals used in paper preservation. We are told of the propaganda employed by lobbyists and special interests seeking to cut costs and streamline their access to information. We are told of the “double fold” test—an arbitrary and inconsistent method of assessing the tensile strength of aged paper—which librarians have long used to determine if a book is worth keeping or if there’s an excuse to throw it away. And we are shown myriad examples of ways in which microfilm technology ended up being useless because a page image scanned poorly or did not retain elements of the original article. Baker’s claim is that the loss of books and newspapers as artifacts is preventable and that, as stewards of the source material, librarians should be undertaking a greater role in preserving them. His expectations about the priorities of libraries, even thirteen years ago, is heartwarmingly naïve. (For a long time, Baker was an aficionado of human-stamped ephemera, publishing achey paeans to such things as card catalogs, which libraries have also thrown away. Lately, however, his interests have spread to plasma screens and other advanced digital technology). In spite of its outdatedness, Double Fold is valuable as a text that identifies a sizeable gap between the abilities and aims of curation and the unvoiced demand of those who wish, for historical interest and adoration, to see greater effort in the preservation of objects.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. Second read, though the first time was for a college class. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s the only Hemingway I’ve read. I hadn’t been aware how traveloguish the writing in Sun Also Rises is. It immerses us in café culture in Paris and bullfighting culture in San Sebastian. And while Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley and Robert Cohn figure as importantly in the cultural conversation of early 20th century literature as Tom Joad and Daisy Buchanan, they feel secondary to the setting, as though Hemingway were writing the book merely as an excuse to swim among those elements in which he felt most alive.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder. Why is a 20th-century American writer writing about the collapse of a rope bridge in Peru in the early 18th century? According to Jonathan Yardley, Thornton Wilder had never travelled to Peru, yet The Bridge of San Luis Rey ended up being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 1928. Wilder is interested in the cosmology of fate: the stories and decisions that brought five innocent individuals together at precisely the same moment the bridge they were crossing gave way and plunged them to their deaths. We are told of their stories by way of Brother Juniper, an Italian monk who witnessed the accident. “Why did this happen to those five?,” Brother Juniper asks. “If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.”

In presenting the story by way of Brother Juniper, Wilder presents a kind of twice-removed narration that allows irony to creep in and interfere with the message. Its theme of finding deeper meaning and explanation inside what is, on the surface, a random and unfair sequence of events is one that resounds with every similar tragedy; according to Wikipedia, Tony Blair quoted a passage from the book at memorial services for the victims of the September 11 attacks.

The final tally for 2014: 36 books read, though nine of them were re-reads. In an embarrassing step backward, only seven of them were written by women. Dubus and Updike took up eight of the slots, and there were a lot of classics checked off including Remarque, Hemingway, and Collodi. Best book of the year? Assuming I limit myself to books newly read, it might be Laura Van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, challenged by Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, Dubus’s Selected Stories, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, Jim Gavin’s Middle Men and Luke B. Goebel’s Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours. All of them felt greater than the sums of their parts, and took me on surprising journeys. I look forward to a new year of more peaceful, immersive and engaged reading, and being surprised some more.

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