Surprisingly Good Books, Part Two

2017225833The Fault In Our Stars by John Green – This year, I’ve read a fair number of YA novels with contemporary settings, but this was one of the first of them. It was also the best. The novel’s triumph is its self-aware voice. The narrator is a teenager who’s suffering from cancer. And she’s a teenager who’s also read a ton of novels about teenagers who are suffering from cancer. As such, she knows exactly where and how her story is beginning to sound like the tear-stained narrative of a “cancer girl”. But, underneath the playful metatextuality, this novel is actually about a young girl who has cancer, and one who is mostly likely going to die quite young. Its playfulness allows it to avoid sentimentality and the typical easy answers, instead, it proceeds along in a jagged but very satisfying way. If you cry when you read books, there’s a not insignificant chance that this book will make you cry, but there’s more to it than that. There aren’t very many contemporary YA novels that rise above the formulas that they embrace. This one has so many of the formulas, but it also treats each page as something interesting and important. There’s a fullness in this book that you don’t find in many novels.

10778499-largeEscape From Camp 14 by Shin Dong-Hyuk and Blaine Harden – Alright, yes, there are two trashy nonfiction books about North Korea in this list. Didn’t I tell you that I loved NK in a way that is probably beginning to seem a bit creepy and perhaps problematic? So, in North Korea there is this huge network of prison camps in the northern mountains. Hundreds of thousands of people live in these camps. People are born in these camps and they die in these camps. You can get beaten to death pretty much whenever the guards in these camps feel like it. You gotta work all day doing horrendously dangerous stuff. You don’t get nearly enough food and the only way to survive is to suck up to the guards and inform on your friends and such. And only like ten people have ever escaped from the camps. This book is the memoir of one of those people (the memoir was narrated to Blaine Harden, a journalist, and Harden does considerable work in arranging and laying out the memoir, so I am crediting him as one of the authors). Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp 14 and the camp was his whole world. When he escaped, he had only the vaguest conception of geography: he knew nothing about the United States or the Korean War. He’d never even been in the rest of North Korea. The tiny town near his camp looks, to him, like a bustling metropolis. But, nonetheless, he slowly makes his way to China, then to South Korea, then to the United States. And, meanwhile, he struggles with the things he had to do to survive. If you’re anything like me, you will feel like a terrible, exploitative person for enjoying this one. But it is soooo enjoyable.

odyssey-fitzgerald-translation-george-herbert-palmer-paperback-cover-artThe Odyssey by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald) – Yes, I know, it makes me sound like a goober to say that the Odyssey was surprisingly good. But, check it, The Iliad is gooood, but it has also has numerous very boring parts: pages and pages and pages where “Hexachimeles, son of Xardes, of the mountains of Illymaches” lashes out with his spear against “Porythribes, son of Kallybdis, of the fair island of Scythinivax”. For whole chapters! And don’t even get me started on the processions and on the lines of long, black ships. I mean, all that stuff might’ve been interesting back in the day, when perhaps Porythribes was, like, your legendary great-great-granddad. But for modern people, it gets a bit much. But, there’s none of that in The Odyssey: It’s all story. And it’s fascinating to see how the story differs from our popular conception of it. Most media depictions of The Odyssey focus on the events of the sea voyage: encountering the sirens; fighting Polyphemus; captivity at the hands of the witches, Circe and Calypso. But that’s really only about 1/4th of the book. Most of the book is concerned with what happens after he comes home (hint, he kills a ton of people). And there’s also this fascinating counter-narrative, where his son sails around Greece and faces dangers and we learn how Agammemnon was killed by Clytemnestra. The book isn’t about adventures. It’s about homecomings. It’s filled with these strange homecomings that overshadow and parallel each other. All in all, it’s pretty fun times. Shorter than The Iliad too.

Liars-poker-free-ebookLiar’s Poker by Michael Lewis – You know, a lot of books on this list are memoirs. I understand why nonfiction sells so well. Memoir is just so satisfying. It doesn’t need to have quite as much thematic resonance. It can focus on the details of how things work. And then, at the end, you don’t necessarily need any big lesson other than, “Welp, that’s how things work.” This one is the first book by Michael Lewis (who went on to write Moneyball and The Blind Side and such). It details his four years as a bonds trader for Salomon Brothers in the 80s, during that flashy cocaine and yelling era so ably depicted by movies like Wall Street. I kind of feel like the primary reason that this book is popular is that it validates the lives of those of us who decided not to attempt to get a finance job (in my case, because I’m not willing to work 100 hours a week on anything [and that includes writing]). This book makes finance jobs seem terrible. Which is exactly what I like to believe about all high-status, high-paying professions. Is there a book out there that makes doctoring look terrible? I’d read that in a second. But aside from that, the book is a lot of fun. It also contains much technical (albeit probably out of date) detail on bond trading and the structure of financial firms. And a ton of interesting characters. This book started me on a Michael Lewis kick, and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed his books a lot. Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short are all well worth checking out.

Heroines-Kate_Zambreno-Fanzine-330Heroines by Kate Zambreno – Several blogs started talking about this book right as I was starting to feel a bit mopey about my writing career. After seeing Nick Mamatas’ review of it, I bought the book. It’s the memoir of a woman on the fringes of academic life. She leaves New York to follow her husband, a rare books librarian, to Akron and then to Raleigh-Durham. She does a bit of adjuncting here and there (mostly in Women’s Studies), but has no chance at getting a real appointment. She’s a writer of fictions, but her works are small-press and not terribly successful. She spends her days lying around the apartment and reading and not really doing much of anything else. And, woven through the above story, she free-associates about the women of modernist literature: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Leigh, Jane Bowles, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf. She examines how their lives were shaped by their marriages and how their writing ambitions to suppressed by the cultural milieu. It’s a really fascination performance, and one that it’s difficult to describe in one paragraph. Throughout, the book reminded me most often of David Markson and the way that he can write entire books composed of one-paragraph facts about artists: the facts are carefully chosen, and they resonate in interesting subtextual ways.

I would like to read a dull plotless novel, because all the plotless novels I’ve read have been too awesome

            I don’t think that any novel is really “plotless”. As long as you’ve got a character who moves around and performs actions, then there’s a plot. Normally, the term “plotless” is used in a pejorative sense, to refer to novels or films in which the action doesn’t increase in intensity (you know, the book doesn’t start with little fights and end with big fights….they’re just little fights all the way through).

But I am not using the term in that sense. I’m using it to refer to a number of books I’ve read recently that, while they are novel length, only possess about a tiny dollop of plot (maybe a short story’s worth), with the rest of these books being given over, more or less, to some kind of treatise, or lecture, or bizarre textual performance.

The most recent of these books, for me, was Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about a middle-aged widower who really loves Gustave Flaubert and gets involved in an extremely minor and easily solved mystery. 80% of the novel is given over to the reflections of this guy–George Braithwaite–on Flaubert, and his attempts to build up some kind of composite mental image of what Flaubert was like as a man. These reflections include: a whole chapter on various animal metaphors Flaubert used (called the Flaubert Beastiary); a series of three chronology’s of Flaubert’s life, one triumphant one, one sad one, and one composed of extracts from his letters; an extended fictional monologue by one of Flaubert’s mistresses; a discussion of books that Flaubert wanted to write but didn’t get around to; and a long list of reasons to hate Flaubert (with counterarguments).

Now, all this Flaubertiana has some resonances with Braithwaite’s story (which exists in a sort of nimbus surrounding the death of his wife), but for most of the book, you don’t care about that. You just care about learning all kinds of fun shit about Flaubert.

And, for me, that seems to be the commonality between all the “plotless” novels I’ve read. In each case, there has been some resonance between the non-story material and the main plot, but the joy of the book has primarily come about due to my own engagement with the non-story material.

            A perfect example is the four David Markson books I’ve read (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, and The Last Novel). All of these books are primarily composed of various trivia about artists (as described in this blog post). Now…all of these have some kind of through-line, story-wise (particularly Wittgenstein’s Mistress). And people say that the reason they work is because Markson was incredibly skilled at choosing the right piece of trivia to put in the right place and at crafting resonances and themes that spanned across the book. And that is undoubtedly true. But that’s not what I was thinking when I read the book. What I was most often thinking was, “Wow, that is an incredibly nifty fact.”

And the same goes for the oldest plotless novel in my quiver: The Journal Of A Plague Year (which I blogged about last year). Once again, the joys of this novel are primarily the same joys as one gets from non-fiction. They’re the joys of learning something new about something really strange (in this case, plague-wracked London).

So this leaves me wondering…what would a boring plotless (or, rather, plot-sparse) novel look like? I would like to read a novel that is composed of numerous very interesting facts, but which nonetheless fails to cohere for me as a book. I think that would give me a greater appreciation for the artistry of the plot-sparse novels that I’ve read so far, because right now it feels to me like they’re mostly feeding off of the interesting nature of their nonfictional subject matter (and the freedom that the novel form gives them to present that subject matter in interesting and odd ways). And although that is probably not true, I would like to have some intuitive understanding of why it’s not true and of what Julian Barnes, David Markson, and Daniel Defoe are actually doing.

Regarding plot-sparse novels, I’m surprised that I can’t think of any SF novels which fit the bill. Considering how fond science fiction is of explication, I’d think there would be many. Certainly, the old-tyme utopia form (as in Thomas More’s Utopia or B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) is chocked-full of plot-sparse novels. Maybe the closest I can come, for science fiction, is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which is a book whose (somewhat nonsense) plot seems like an excuse to string together some fascinating digressions. However, I am sure there are better examples of plot-sparse SF novels.

In addition to the novels I’ve mentioned above, other novels I’d like to propose for “plot-sparse” status are: the second half of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is just a long philosophical dialogue; Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, which is just a description of the eponymous character; and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, whose first half is a lecture on political and personal philosophy. I suppose Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler also fits, a little bit, but in that case the interpolations are also stories, at least kind of. And Calvino’s Invisible Cities might count too, although it feels more like a story collection with a framing device. Oh, and there’s also Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which is (at least partly) a series of lectures by a fictional professor. I haven’t read it, but I am planning to.

What other ones can you think of?

One of the few times I’ve read about Africa without being made to feel sorry for anyone

So, a week ago, I was reading David Markson’s Last Novel (which was predictably fascinating, in a very annoying and highly pleasurable way) and I came across the little factoid:

I think A Bend in the River is much, much better than Conrad

Pronounced the humility-drenched author of A Bend in the River

And somehow, out of all the unfamiliar vaguely literary anecdotes in that novel, it was this one which caught my eye and prompted me to look it up. Well, upon reading the opening lines of A Bend In The River (which is by Indo-Trinidian author V.S. Naipaul) I was totally hooked and had to read the rest. Those lines are:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn’t think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

I have no idea why I found this to be so gripping and resonant. I mean, I’ve always been fascinated by the Indian Diaspora, and I know so little about it (particularly the part that did not end up in the U.S.), but this novel is not really about that (the protagonist is a Muslim shopkeeper of South Asian descent, but one whose family has been in Africa for centuries). It’s just about life in this small town, in a fictional country, that is deep in the interior of the continent.

Any long-time blog reader will know that I love socially-conscious writers: Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Aravind Adiga, Emile Zola, etc. But these writers often paint in very broad strokes, and end up creating works that are powerful and ring true, but which lack subtlety and thoughtfulness. And they’re the kind of writers who are often derided by those who just look for dense, mellifluous writing and well-observed characters. This kind of reader prefers fairly apolitical, often domestic novels, like those of Nabokov or Virginia Woolf.

This novel feels like a domestic novel. It feels like it’s about an adulterous affair, and about feeling alienated from society. It feels like it’s about dirty kitchen sinks and coming to terms with the death of one’s dreams. But it’s also about analyzing and categorizing entire societies.

It feels, sometimes, like a satire, but if so, it’s one without the broad portraits and the melodrama that I often associate with satire. Oh, and best of all, you know how I keep talking about how terrible I feel for enjoying poverty porn type novels (in my posts on The White Tiger and on The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance)…well, this has none of that. I didn’t feel sorry for anyone. You know how rare it is to hear about Africa and not be made to feel sorry for someone? It felt great not to feel even a slightest call to action emanating from the book. That alone is enough to make me love this novel.

This Is Not A Novel

One of the bestest book blogs ever is Mumpsimus, where Matt Cheney does the kind of posting that I have rarely been able to find, the kind of posting that allows me to hold out some hope that I can sometimes manage to glean something interesting from this here internet (well, other than who my friends are dating, and where they’re working…which is more interesting than any book blog ever can be).

About a year ago, he used the occasion of David Markson’s death to write this blog post. I had never read (or even heard of) Markson, and I mentally noted him down, and thought, “There is no way this guy’s works can actually be interesting. It sounds like  conceptually-exciting but in reality kinda boring stuff (like Norman Spinrad’s Iron Dream, for instance).”

But I finally got around to reading David Markson’s This Is Not A Novel, which is composed of sentences…well, let me just quote the first five sentences:

Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.

Lord Byron died of either rheumatic fever, or typhus, or uremia, or malaria.

Or was inadvertently murdered by his doctors, who had bled him incessantly.

Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis in 1900. Granted an ordinary modern life span, he would have lived well into World Warn.

They’re basically short facts (mostly true, or at least true-apocrypha) about writers, artists, and scientists (sometimes interspersed with little statements about the writer of the work, like the first two quoted above). That continues for many fifty-sixty thousand words. Well, what can you say bout that? Its appeal is totally mysterious to me. But it kept me up until 3 AM, reading. It is entirely gripping. I really don’t know why it works.

But the fact that it works is kind of indisputable. It’s a weird kind of work. It’s a work that proves itself by being entertaining. You don’t need to learn to read it. You don’t need to understand it. But I kind of wish I did.