I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

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Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

Books I Read In 2012 That Were Surprisingly Good, Part One

Okay guys, I had to restrict this list to books that I haven’t already blogged about. It was the only way to reduce it to manageable size. So these are not the most “surprisingly good” books I’ve read this year. They’re simply the most “surprisingly good” books that I haven’t already written about. I chose ten books, so hopefully I’ll post about five today and five tomorrow.

 

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe — Okay, yeah, the goodness of this book should not have surprised me. It’s one of the classics of English literature. It gets taught in school and everything. But somehow, I’d categorized this Nigerian village novel alongside the Indian village novel and, let me tell you, the latter can often be a pretty mopey bunch of books: they’re just sooo full of tragedy. And I guess TFA is full of tragedy too, but the thing that no one tells you is that it’s also hilarious. At its core, this is a comedic novel. It’s more Dickens than it is Faulkner. And it’s legitimately laugh out loud funny. At times, it almost seemed like a fantasy novel, since it’s a novel that takes seriously the beliefs of its characters. They come together and enact their rituals and propitiate their gods, and there is never that little sneer that so often pervades colonialist novels–the sneer that says, “Oh, they enacted their silly little traditions”. It was one of the best novels that I read this year (also surprising was its length–you can finish this one in an afternoon!)

A Provincial Celebrity In Paris by Honore De Balzac — I really like Emile Zola, who was very influenced by Balzac, but I never gave much thought to HB. What I like in Zola is the social critique, but I felt like maybe there wasn’t so much of that in Balzac. This is the second Balzac novel I’d read, and I’d already realized that Balzac has a very antiquated style: everything is a lecture. Either the characters are lecturing you or the narrator is lecturing you. For god’s sake, he’ll go on for ten pages about how they went about making paper from wood-pulp and rags. But I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a send-up of literary society in 1830s Paris. You see newspapermen and poets and novelists and playwrights and society people all fighting against each other and using their tools in quite unsavory ways in order to make or destroy reputations. There was just something about it that was very fun.

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The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman — I read this one after a recommendation from a friend. It’s basically a collection of literary essays by a comparative literature graduate student (I think she was a PhD candidate at Stanford) where she makes fun of the silliness of academia and of her own life in particular. The first essay, by far the best, is about organizing an Isaac Babel conference where the author’s legitimate and illegitimate daughters come in and snipe at each other. Meanwhile, the essay weaves in all these facts about Babel’s life and about Batuman’s personal life. It’s a melange of awesomeness. The longest essay is an extended description of a summer studying in Samarkand (the capital of Uzbekistan), which is a destination apparently chosen by Batuman just because there was money available. I just…I don’t know…there’s really no way to describe this book. It shouldn’t work, but it does. If you love Russian literature and/or hijinks, then you will love this book.

pyongyang-guy-delisle-paperback-cover-artPyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy DeLisle — Okay, so, like everyone else with an internet connection, I’m kind of obsessed with North Korea. It’s just the weirdest place on Earth. It combines the messianism of Nazi Germany with the advanced bureacratization of the Soviet Union and leavens in some of the decadence of the late Roman Empire. Well, I mean, let’s just take this graphic novel for example. A French animation company has outsourced some of its drawing to North Korea. Because of some obscure government initiative, there’s a working animation studio in a country where like half the people are starving to death. This graphic novel was written by a French animator who was sent to help the North Korean studio get off the ground. It’s such a strange, lonely comic. The narrator walks around in a solitary bubble. He’s accompanied everywhere by political officers. He lives on an entire island that’s been set aside solely to entertain and house foreigners. He glimpses North Korean life through windows and knows that there are a million secrets he’ll never uncover (like where all the elderly and disabled people went, or whether the North Koreans really do love their leader). It was a beautiful, startling, and darkly humorous book.

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Mill On The Floss by George Eliot — I read two Eliot books this year: Mill On The Floss and Middlemarch. I loved them both, but I was surprised by how much more I liked this one than Middlemarch. I felt like Middlemarch was somehow…incomplete or unrealized. It started to hint at all these themes but it sometimes failed to get there in the end. Whereas Mill On The Floss felt perfect. It’s basically an autobiographical novel about a young girl from an impoverished home who’s trying to find some use for her abilities. Eventually, she falls into disgrace and is rejected by her family. Of course it’s a Victorian novel so roughly a zillion things are happening at once, and there’s some hella funny stuff, too, like the slow downfall of the girl’s family because her father is simply unable to keep himself from suing people, but mostly it’s this very lonely book, about a girl who’s trying to grow up and to realize her talents. It also has a completely insane ending that, weirdly, kind of works.