WRAP UP SEASON 2016: The ten books I liked best this year

The-Lover-by-Marguerite-Duras-Book-Cover

This year’s been a good one for reading. I started it out as part of the jury for an award, which consumed my reading for the first few months. Then I got kind of depressed and couldn’t really read anything: I just had no taste for books anymore. But somehow Proust was the only thing I could still enjoy, so I read all of In Search of Lost Time, and it was amazing! Even better than the first time! Whereas during my first read, I’d sometimes needed to fight my way through the books, with this one that only rarely occurred (except during the fifth and sixth volumes, where there’s a distinct sense of repetition). I’ve posted about Proust at length on this blog, so I won’t discuss it too much here. This time I had more interest in his descriptions of walks and subtle psychological states, but to me the series is still, at its core, a novel of manners. This about the complex relationships of a very tiny segment of society: the highly-fashionable people of Paris, and the social climbers who want to be part of that set. The novel starts on the edges, by showing you Swann, who’s an interloper who made his way into the center of society. Then it circles back around and nibbles its way around the edges. In the second book, Marcel lives in an apartment bloc owned by the leader of fashionable society, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. He attempts to know them and is rebuffed. But he gets in through a side door because of his grandmother’s friendship with a distant relative, the Mme de Villeparisis. Who in turn introduces him to a scion of the house: Robert de Saint Loup.

And so he spends three books circling through these characters, showing them to us in all their complicated relations with each other. Then he turns everything on its head, introducing the passage of time. Suddenly the Fauborg St. Germain we know begins to change. People who were on the outskirts are now working their way into the center. The catalyst is the Dreyfus Affair, which tore apart French society for reasons I still can’t quite understand. Somehow support for Dreyfus became identified with opposition to the nobility and the church and all things traditional, and the Fauborg, in order to shore itself up, starts admitting certain people, so long as they are very anti-Dreyfus.

Then the wheel turns again, and we’re suddenly after the Dreyfus affair, but things are different. The Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes are sadly changed. Mme de Villeparisis is dead. Robert de Saint Loup is fallen. Swann’s widow, who everyone once decried as a prostitute, is at the top of the social heap. And the terrible bourgeois, Mme Verdurin, runs her own highly fashionable salon.

The whole work is an attempt to span time. To catch it, and make us understand its passing in ways we wouldn’t otherwise: not just as the aging of individual people, but also as the destruction and construction of entire systems of relation.

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, and then I did, for five hundred words. Sigh.

This year I also read a lot of Anthony Trollope. I read all the novels in his Palliser series. Each one is easily 300-400k long, so that makes something like two million words of it. And the series is so fucking good! It’s all about people falling in and out of love in 19th century Britain (like all Trollope novels), but these people are also Members of Parliament, and Cabinet Secretaries, and, sometimes, Prime Ministers.

In this series, Trollope is at his most realistic. He shows us what can happen to people: the ways they can be twisted and destroyed. He shows us the ways that character matters, not just in national affairs, but especially when it comes to those we are closest to. And you don’t come out with easy answers. In one book, he’ll seem to say one thing is right (you should always cleave to your husband, for instance), and in another book you’ll have a situation wherein that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

The first novel in the series is fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. Three years ago, I got a hundred pages into it, and then threw it away because I was so bored. This time I was riveted throughout. The political element doesn’t get introduced until halfway through the volume, so wait for it. The best books, though, are the fifth and sixth. Here everything starts to pay off. You have these two characters, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora, and it’s such a delight to see them grow up and change. Neither is perfect. Neither is quite a hero. Plantagenet is too stern and unwavering (he becomes Prime Minister and then messes everything up). And his wife really doesn’t have very good judgement (even as a matron and mother of adult children, she’s getting into weird and poorly-thought-out schemes). But they’re both strong-willed and good-hearted. Highly recommend.

The absolute best book I read this year was Emma Cline’s The Girls. The language in the book is fantastic. Few authors are truly able to create novel combinations of words. Cline actually manages to put things in such a way that you’re like: A) That’s beautiful; and B) I can now see this thing in a new light. Not to mention the story itself is pretty good! I mean it’s a little sensationalistic for my tastes; I didn’t love the whole Manson murders aspect. But I liked the bildungsroman hidden inside, and I think the ending is perfect. I can’t recommend this book enough. It ought to win the Pulitzer Prize. The only other writer who I can compare Cline to, on a sentence by sentence level, is Virginia Woolf. She’s that good.

Otherwise, I have the usual grab bag of books I loved. The latest on my list was added only yesterday. Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan is her earliest complete work. It wasn’t even published during her lifetime. It’s also fantastic, and, in my opinion, significantly better than a couple of her novels. You’ve never read a Jane Austen character like Lady Susan: she’s an amoral schemer who sort of gets away with her schemes! And the whole thing is told in letters too, so you can see her sly asides right alongside the confusion of the people she’s trying to fool. You can read this book in like two hours, and you should.

For the last few months my friend and fellow writer Erin Summerill has been sending me romance novel recommendations, and I have faithfully read all of them. Most are or were initially self-published, and most are mega-bestsellers. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is also the creepiest: On The Island, by Tracy Garvis-Graves, is about a thirty year old woman stranded on an island, after a plane crash, with her sixteen year old pupil. Yeah. They don’t hook up until after he turns nineteen, but that’s still pretty sketchy!

And yet despite all of that, the book is so visceral. The struggle to survive is so immediate that you forget about the age stuff. These are just two different people trying to stay alive for another day. And the age gap serves an important purpose: it keeps them apart. Without it, they would’ve hooked up on day two: the sexual tension is that deep and simmering.

Umm, what else…I read East of Eden. And it was a very good book, but also a little…perplexing. This is the kind of book that hooks you and keeps you reading, but when you look back on it six months later, you’re like, “Why?”

Oh, The Caine Mutiny! Herman Wouk is one of those writers, like Margaret Mitchell, who were hailed as literary in their own day (his book won the Pulitzer Prize) but now seem to only be real by average people who’re looking for good books (i.e. not critics). The Caine Mutiny is unbelievably complex, though. It does the interesting trick of actually showing you, within the narrative, the situation in which the titular mutiny arose, and then making you see that mutiny in a completely different way when it gets picked apart in the courthouse scenes. In the end, it makes you see how multi-faceted reality is. And in the end you’re left wondering, “Were they right to mutiny? Was Captain Queeg really incompetent?” You’re never quite sure.

I also read Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke and found them both to be extremely worthwhile.

Oh wait! The Girls was NOT the best book I read this year. As I look at my notes, I realize that the best book was actually Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. This is also a book with questionable sexual and racial politics. It’s about a fifteen year old French girl, a colonial in French Indo-China, who has an affair with a Chinese man who’s in his thirties. The book is short and amazing. The narration loops around on itself, threading forward, through World War II and into the narrator’s current life, and then going back into her girlhood. And it’s about a girl coming into her sexual power. Which sounds terrible, I know, but it’s about how double-edged that is. She’s now seen as a sexual being, and that’s enticing to her in some way, but it’s also dangerous. Agh, I explain it all better in my original blog entry about the book.

The only novel on my best-of-the-year list that I haven’t yet mentioned is Henry James’s The Bostonians. It’s really good, but it’s also Henry James, and you have to like that sort of thing. It’s early Henry James though, so it actually does kind of tell a straightforward story! It’s one of his political novels (don’t snicker, he was very political). I thought the novel, particularly the ending, was both brutal and very true.

Okay, so that’s my short-list. If I had to recommend five books you should seriously consider trying to read, they would be, in order: The LoverThe Girls, Lady SusanThe Caine Mutiny, On The Island, and the first Palliser novel Can You Forgive Her?

 

 

WRAP-UP SEASON 2016: These are all the books I blogged about this year!

You Will Know Me Abbot, Megan
A Murky Business Balzac, Honore de
The Girls Cline, Emma
Girls In White Dresses Close, Jennifer
Dombey and Son [2] Dickens, Charles
The Lover Duras, Marguerite
On The Island Garvis-Graves, Tracy
Girl on the Train [2] Hawkins, Paula
The New York Stories James, Henry
The Bostonians James, Henry
Daisy Miller James, Henry
My Struggle Knausgaard, Karl Ove
Luckiest Girl Alive Knoll, Jessica
Superman: A Man For All Seasons Loeb, Jeph and Tim Sale
First Blood [2] Morrell, David
All-Star Superman Morrison, Grant
Water Margin [2] [3] [4] Na’ian, Shi
I’m Thinking of Ending Things Reid, Iain
The Ghost Writer Roth, Phillip
Eligible Sittenfeld, Curtis
The Moon Is Down Steinbeck, John
East of Eden [2] Steinbeck, John
Commencement Sullivan, J. Courtney
The Nest [2] Sweeney, Cynthia D’Aprix
The Palliser Novels (Can You Forgive Her?; Phineas Finn; The Eustace Diamonds; Phineas Redux; The Prime Minister; and The Duke’s Children) [2] [3] Trollope, Anthony
Girls on Fire Wasserman, Robin
Honor Harrington series [2] Weber, David
The Years Woolf, Virginia
Youngblood Hawke Wouk, Herman
The Caine Mutiny [2] Wouk, Herman
A Little Life Yanagihara, Hanya

Anthony Trollope is SOOOOOOO good

374371.jpgYears ago, after finishing Trollope’s Barsetshire series (comedic stories, written in the 19th century, about the doings of rural clergy and gentry), I was like, “I want to try his other big series!” These are his Palliser novels, which deal with shit that’s way at the other end of importance: they’re all about big lords and members of parliament and the workings of the government.

But I started reading the first of those books, Can You Forgive Her? and found it to be a total snooze. Like, I simply could not keep reading it. Later on, I read the third of the books, The Eustace Diamonds, and while I loved the main character, the amoral Lizzie Greystock, I wasn’t too sure I was down with the book as a whole. It was too long-winded and circular for me (the plot is all about some diamonds that Lizzie refuses to give back to her husband’s family, or something like that).

And this is how it stood for a few years until, a week ago, I picked up the second of these books, Phineas Finn, and found it to be absolutely fantastic! I mean I loved it! This is a book about an up-and-coming young guy who, through a stroke of luck, ends up in Parliament. Everybody predicts he’s going to be totally ruined by the move. You don’t get paid for service in Parliament, so they think he’s going to be mired in debt and will end up disgraced. But none of that happens! He moves from strength to strength! And it’s just a very human portrait. Some people really are very lucky. They take risks, and things come out well, and it’s not necessarily because they’re wonderful (though Phineas is wonderful). And although Phineas cares about the country, he mostly cares about the glory of being in Parliament. It’s indescribable. There’s rarely been a political novel that was so human: a book that treated politicians not as monsters of ambition, but as human beings, just like you or I.

My good experience with that book inspired me to pick up Can You Forgive Her? again, and I have to say, this book is fucking fantastic. I mean it’s one of my favorite Trollope novels. It starts off perfectly, with a girl, Alice, who jilts her fiance because he wants her to go live in the countryside, and she just can’t bear the thought of such a quiet life. From there, we’re introduced to her caddish cousin, George, who is desperately trying to raise the money to run for Parliament. We’re introduced to George’s aunt, Ms. Greenow, who’s a wealthy widow who’s balancing two suitors that absolutely despise each other. We see Alice’s very distant cousin, Lady Glencora, who refused a suitor she loved and allowed herself to be married off to a powerful politican, Plantagenet Palliser, and who now finds herself stifled by his lack of…his lack of…well his lack of warmth. It’s not that he’s cold, exactly, but that he treats his wife just like he’d treat anyone else whom he knew. He’s solicitous of her needs, but he doesn’t give her any special acknowledgement or affection.

It’s very difficult to explain what is so good about the novel. But it’s just…it feels so very real. When I read the book, I am struck by the oddest feeling that I am reading about real people, sitting in real rooms, talking honestly about the things that really matter to them. I am struck by how…how desperate and chancy it must’ve been, this whole business of choosing whom to marry.

And that realness is such a rare thing. Not just with old novels. With new ones too. Oftentimes novels feel like they’re cartoons. They give the suggestion of reality, without actually resembling anything in reality very much at all. Not Trollope though. In his psychological acuity and in the depths of the emotions and the complexity of the relationships, his characters–at least in these novels (this is much less true in the Barsetshire novels)–feel like real people.

Am reading romance novels

41nnwjz0al-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still don’t know how I’ve been enlisted in this unofficial book club, but my friend Erin Summerill has been giving me romance novels to read and then grilling me on my reactions. I’m actually not unhappy with this. I’ve always wanted to get into reading romance, because it feels a bit silly to have no familiarity with the genre that accounts for roughly half of all novel sales in the US. But because it’s such a big genre, it can be hard to find the good stuff. With Erin’s help I’ve been moving through, and I haven’t encountered a bad one yet.

However, of all the novels she’s made me read, the best was the most recent: Tracy Garvis-Graves’s On The Island.

This is a book that I guarantee will produce a wince from everybody who reads the synopsis. It’s about a thirty year old woman, a high school teacher, who gets stranded on a deserted tropical island, after a plane crash. Her only companion? The 16 year old boy she was supposed to tutor that summer.

So yes, the book does have a taboo element. They don’t get together until the kid is 18, but still, you’re like, hmmm there is something off about this. However, it’s also really compelling and really hot. Here you have two people who’re fighting for their lives. They’re threatened by sharks, by hunger, by disease, and by thirst. Everything is a struggle. They’re never safe. They never reach a comfortable Robinson Crusoe style equilibrium. They’re always in danger of dying.

And, throughout, it becomes so clear that if it wasn’t for the other person, they’d already have died long ago. Before you’ve gone too far in the book, they’re already relying on each other emotionally.

But you’re still left wondering: when are they gonna get together? How’s it gonna happen?

It’s a simple premise, but because the stakes feel so sky-high (I mean what happens if things don’t work out between two people trapped together on an island), I was just so on board for the ride.

The book is also astonishingly well written. It’s a straight-up good book. One of the best I’ve read this year. I mean I certainly don’t think I’ve read another book this year that’s pulled me through with such raw force.

 

Finished listening to THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

da9cf910-1f6c-4389-9b93-870a639f6138img100What an interesting book.

The thing I most enjoy about thrillers, usually, is their sense of control. That’s why for a week or two I was all about these locked room thriller movies. I really liked how they set up at the beginning the terms of the story: where you are, the number of characters, the resources you have to work with. Given those constraints, these movies would be fiendish about exploring their conceits to their logical endpoint.

The Girl on the Train is not controlled. It’s a book with three first-person present tense narrators. A book that jumps across time, both between and within chapters. It’s a book that is to a large extent about things that didn’t actually happen. And it’s a book where you for most of the book aren’t sure what the stakes are or why the characters are involved in it.

This is a book about an alcoholic woman, Rachel, who rides the train back and forth to hide from her flatmate that she’s been terminated from her job. She becomes obsessed with a couple she can see from her window: a couple that lives a few doors down from her ex-husband and his new wife. When the woman in the couple goes missing, Rachel forcibly interjects herself into the investigation, talking to the police and to the woman’s husband. She makes poor decision after poor decision. And large parts of the narrative are missing or muddled because of her alcoholism.

It’s not a book with an antagonist. Rachel is her own antagonist. Every other character continually offers her a way out, and she continually dives back in, making things worse and worse for herself.

But the book also doesn’t go in the usual directions. It never really suggests (the obvious twist) that Rachel killed the woman in a blacked out fit. And for most of the book there’s no sense of personal danger from the killer. There’s no sense at all that there is a killer. There are only about 6 characters in the book, and since two are viewpoint characters, you know immediately there’s only a limited number of suspects. In fact most people can work out the killer rather easily, I think.

But that’s not where the suspense comes from. It’s from this person. Are they going to pull themselves together? Or will they destroy themselves? The self-destruction is almost complete. You come in when it’s at about 75%. And as the book proceeds, she gets worse and worse. It’s hypnotic, like the movements of a dangerous animal, and there is nothing controlled about it.

Am reading books again! And writing! And feeling pretty good about it

414ZRJ35BZL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_Until recently, the last print (and by print I mean text, as opposed to audio) book I finished was Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, a month ago, on September 3rd. Since then I’ve done little reading. I finished an audio book. I read some comics. But no real “sit down and read this book” reading. What did I do instead?

Well I watched the entirety of House of Lies. Saw a season of Mr Robot and a season of Bojack Horseman. And I played a hell of a lot of Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2 on the computer (at this point I’m in the final dungeon in Icewind Dale 2). Also, I’d like to note that both of these games are a little ill-designed. At a certain point, in both of them, I ditched the party and decided to just solo the games using a fighter / mage (in IWD) and a sorcerer / paladin (in IWD2) and the games both became significantly easier! In fact they got so easy that where once getting through them was a tactical challenge, it’d now become something of a chore, and I quit.

Anyway, before I quit reading, I had put a book on hold at the library: Balzac’s A Murky Affair, which is one of his few novels to take place during the Napoleonic era. It’s about a group of nobles who get involved in a plot to kill Napoleon.

And I recently found myself reading it, for some reason, and I was actually engaged by it. I have no idea why. I’m not sure it’s a particularly good book. But there’s something so interesting about France’s political history: its abrupt changes and reversals in fortune, and the way that supporters of different regimes had to coexist uneasily. His social history is very good, even as his characters always seem a little wrong…a little far-fetched. For instance in this book there’s a peasant, Michu, who’s so devoted to these nobles and goes to such lengths to help them. In the end he even dies for him. It doesn’t quite ring true.

But I was happy to finish a book.

I’m also happy to be making some progress again with my writing. For the last month I’ve been attempting to rewrite my middle-grade novel, Everyone Hates You, and I’ve been making less than zero progress. I simply couldn’t find a way to write the book that preserved my vision while also fixing its flaws.

And then somehow something broke open for me, and I had an initial scene. The book is recognizably the same, but it’s also completely different. The relationships are different. The motivations are different. The pacing is different. It feels really good to have something flow again.

But at the same time I don’t know if it’s any good. Most of the time, on most projects, I’m simply unable to write: my mind will just kick up its heels and say, “No, there is something wrong with this, and you cannot continue.” But when I’m able to write, it doesn’t mean that what I produce is necessarily any good.

We will see. We will see…

Reading DOMBEY AND SON

6a00d83455e40a69e20168ea495528970c.jpgI’m reading Dickens. I cannot say exactly why this is. Just that about once a year I get an urge to read a Dickens novel, and since I’ve already read most of the popular ones (and some of the unpopular ones, like Little Dorrit), I’m now moving on to the truly obscure ones (in this case, Dombey and Son).

Rachel asked me what the book was about, and I genuinely had no answer for her. There is really only one Dickens plot: waif is mistreated by their relatives and then cared for by kindly strangers. (Not incidentally, that was also the story of Dickens’s own life.) Dombey and Son falls well into this category. It’s about a businessman who is a very serious and very pompous person (in the way of all of Dickens’s businessmen) who cares only that his child grow up into the “and Son” who will someday join him in their eponymous mercantile concern.

The son, I imagine, doesn’t want to do this? It’s unclear. So far I’m just along for the ride.

One thing Dickens gets insufficient credit for, I think, is being a really good prose stylist. People forget this. They’re always bagging on him for being wordy. Which he is. But he also has a tremendous sense of rhythm. Dickens writes sentences that you can say aloud. And since the human tongue tends to be less terse than most written sentences will allow, this often leads to a certain amount of wordiness. Take this passage from the beginning of the book:

“Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time— remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go— while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.”

That there is a vivid and beautiful passage. Dickens is full of them.

Finished reading that huge new book, THE GIRLS

gallery-1466012493-emma-cline-the-girlsJust finished Emma Clines’s THE GIRLS, which is one of those phenom books: the author is 27 years old and apparently got a two million dollar advance. So, obviously, I was prepared to hate it. But I did not. In fact, the book is shockingly good. I’d go so far as to call it one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The thing about this book is that it is very well-written. Now let me take a moment here to digress on the subject of calling a book “well-written.” For most people who write about books, this is a blow-off compliment. They call a book well-written in lieu of having anything else to say about it. For many of the rest, they think they mean something when they say “well-written,” but their definition of well-written is very different from mine. For me, well-written means a book has two of the following three things: a) insight (it shows me new things); b) clear seeing (it shows me new ways of looking at old things); and c) melodic. Most books, even very good books, have none of these qualities. Only a few books have two of them. Only a few writers (Virginia Woolf comes to mind) have all three.

This book is in that category. The writing is tremendous. It’s a shame that I listened to the book on audiotape, because I don’t have many passages singled out to give you. But here I went back and searched out one of my faves and retyped it for you:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes”

It’s all there. The fine use of language (I was particularly struck by the novel use of the word “slur.”) The insight that shines through in the image of these girls feeling something so deeply and expressing that feeling in tired old language. And rhythm: sentences with complex structures that are guided more by sound than rules of syntax (i.e. “how impersonal and grasping our love was” rather than “our love was impersonal and grasping”)

Fantastic. Every fifteen or twenty seconds, I’d say to myself, “Shit, that’s impressive.” I have no idea how a writer learns to do this: simply be brilliant, page after page, paragraph after paragraph.

And if you have this ability to be brilliant, how do you decide to settle down and use it upon one particular story. Because the tale here, which is of a girl who’s caught up in a Manson family cult, while it’s thrilling and interesting, is almost overshadowed by the quality of the language and of the insight. In fact, the story constantly pulls back on the more garish elements, diverting you away into the story of the girl’s family life and her relationships, because it knows how easy it would be for the plot to get too complex and distract you from the real joys of the story.

That having been said, the tale itself is also great. The characters, particularly the main characters, are portrayed with so much insight. And the story itself is heart-rending. Not because people die, but because it shows, in such detail, the tremendous need–the need to be loved–that drove this girl into this situation.

The ending is fantastic. It’s a bravura monologue. One of the best I’ve ever heard.

I would recommend this book to anybody.

 

Superman is just so effing good, and I kinda love it

All_Star_Superman_Cover.jpgIt’s a little astonishing how interesting Superman is. I recently finished reading All Star Superman, which is a twelve-issue comic in which Superman basically gets cancer (err he gets overloaded with the sun’s rays) and discovers he has a year to live. The comic was filled with the lighter-hearted ridiculousness that I am starting to discover is something of a Superman staple, and it was a bit of a revelation. Superman isn’t just a different sort of hero from Batman or the X-men or any of those guys. He also occupies a very different world. His world has so much…hope.

Like, okay, sometimes it was off-putting. At one point Superman gets sucked down into the Bizarro world, where everything is the opposite of in our world, and where people say strange shit like, “Me no am like you” and Bizarro versions of all the heroes (for instance, a Bizarro Flash “Who no am slow and go two inch per hour”), and I’m gonna say that much of that plotline was a little stupid.

But there was also a person in there: Zibarro. And he was sort of a mutation in the Bizarro world: a person who was capable of thinking and feeling for himself. And he helps Superman to build a rocket to get himself out of there, and at the last moment he begs Superman to take him with. For some bullshit reason, the gravitation stresses or some shit, Superman isn’t able to do it, but then he gives Zibarro a peptalk, saying that this is his home, and that he shouldn’t feel alone, because he, Zibarro, is proof that the Bizarro world is changing and adapting and becoming better.

Superman is the fucking king of peptalks. This is not something the movies ever capture. He just has so much faith in other human beings. Even when he’s face to face with Lex Luthor (who knows that Supes is dying), he says, “You always told everybody about all the good you could’ve done if you hadn’t been obsessed with fighting me. Well now’s your chance. Go do it.”

This is the guy who’s inflicted a fatal injury on Superman, and yet Supes is not angry. He’s still searching for the good.

It’d be so easy for Supes to come off as insensitive or inhuman, but he somehow always manages to seem so normal. Throughout the series he mourns for himself and for all the things he could’ve done, but he does it in a sane way. I guess that’s what struck me the most. Superman isn’t just super in terms of his powers; he’s also super in terms of his emotional health. When he gets angry, he talks things through. When he gets afraid, he confronts his fears rather than lashing out. He honors his friends and forgives his enemies.

And you’d think it would be boring, but it’s not. I honestly could not tell you how or why it works. I think it’s because Superman is always finding new ways to be good.

Finished volume 2 of Knausgaard’s “novel”

(An old post that I apparently never got around to posting)

51uOv-GXL1L

Normally when something is called a novel, I am resistant to the urge to read it as autobiographical. A good example here is Proust’s novel. While the emotions there are certainly real, as are many of the observations and the details of the narrator’s life, there is no way in which that can be said to be a true story. (For one thing, the narrator is straight, whereas Proust himself was pretty gay.)

Knausgaard’s books feel a bit different. For one thing, he uses the names of real people, including his wife and himself. Secondly, everything seems to pretty much check out, in terms of details. Thirdly, it’s real enough to have destroyed his life, including his relationship with his wife.

The second volume is really good though! Even better than the first! It shows, at times, a lighter and happier Knausgaard. He’s still sick with shame and self-hatred, but he also falls in love! He has children! And the experience of fatherhood, while embarrassing and exhausting, is not entirely unpleasant to him. He writes movingly about his kids’ quirks: their individual foibles and personalities that’re already evident, even when they’re only two or four or six, even as he also writes about how he feels feminized and undone by the experience of fatherhood.

It’s the ambivalence that makes Knausgaard worth reading. Even when he’s falling in love, there are moments–sometimes even entire swathes of time–when he feels curiously ambivalent toward his wife. And later, once he’s made a life with her, he portrays their anger and discord. But not in a way that makes their marriage seem altogether sick. He’s already survived one bad marriage, for one thing, and seems to have no thought of leaving his second wife, Linda. It’s more of an assessment that this is what marriage is. When you join two people under conditions of immense strain (three kids, no money, and an insane upstairs neighbor), there are going to be cracks. And just when things with Linda seem at their worst, there is a cessation of hostilities and they become peaceful and loving again.

The criticism of Knausgaard, amongst many others, is that he only gets this attention because he’s a man who writes about home and family and fatherhood. Which might have an element of truth. But…he is a man who writes about those things. He’s a man who writes about changing diapers, and about how while he’s trying to change her, his daughter gets her foot into the dirty diaper and smears her foot with feces and now he must go to the bathroom and wash her off entirely.

 

There’s a lot here that’s honest and well-observed. And, honestly, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read before. In some ways the only comparison feels like the other foreign phenom, Elena Ferrante. I read her Days of Abandonment recently, and there’s a part in that book, too, where the mother–abandoned by her husband–grows indifferent to the fate of her children. Both authors have the courage to write about what the heart really holds, rather than what it ought to hold.

Which is not the same as writing about darkness, mind you. I think that’s the other way in which authors go wrong. They’ll write about cruel or indifferent characters, and their portraits will be bold but flat. Knausgaard doesn’t do that. In his work there’s always a mixture of light and dark.