20 October, 2013

The List: Reading July Through September 2013

This may be my shortest reading list yet. If I counted unpublished manuscripts as books (for these quarterly reviews, I mean), then the list below would include two additional titles, each of which I read more than once as I combed through, searching for typos, stylistic inconsistencies, questionable particulars, and other minutiae for which one scours text while line editing. The first manuscript I pored over was a friend’s novel, about which I’m sworn to secrecy and won’t mention again until it’s been published. The second manuscript was my own, and, for obvious reasons, I’m only happy for any chance to talk up its publication, a few weeks ago, by redbat books. (Plug alert!) If you didn’t already know, The Pariah’s Syntax: Notes from an Innocent Man is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, select bookstores, and the publisher. But I digress.

When I haven’t been using my red pen to make bloody messes of neatly printed pages, I’ve been spending my mornings composing literal bloody messes for the zombie novel I continue to lumber forward with. Progress there is slow, considering how much thought goes into it when I’m not sitting here at the keyboard, but I’m immensely pleased with the relatively polished chapters/stories I’ve completed so far. When I do make time to read, catching up with weeks-old magazines is often the best I’ve managed. Often, but not always. 

* * * * *

Samuel Rosenberg, Naked Is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes
Research of a sort, but more of a curio, this deconstruction and analysis of what its author claims are the allegorical elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories is alternately enlightening and over the top. For instance, Rosenberg claims that the character of Holmes’s arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, was based on real-life philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. That allegation seems perfectly reasonable, especially after reading Rosenberg’s enumeration of the many similarities between the two brainy men. What about the likelihood of the biblical resurrection inspiring parts of several different Holmesian story lines? Also plausible. But The Red-Headed League as tortuous Sodom-and-Gomorrah allegory that reveals Sir Conan Doyle’s repressed urges to commit pederasty? Um, not so much. 

Searching mightily for the secret influences of a given work is one thing, but even Freud, all-time champion of nonexistent connection-drawing, acknowledged that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. Or, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, it’s actually a meerschaum pipe.

Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances
I struggled after reading this, Rivka Galchen’s debut novel. So tender, so funny, so sad, so lovely, so like life, with its sheen of unreality, Atmospheric Disturbances is a book by which I’m so smitten that I want to keep it to myself, possessively as a jealous lover, and hold it like a secret treasure until I’m not around anymore to hoard it, at which point the tomb doors can be unsealed and everyone peering in can wonder how this book, this strange and even awkward book, in particular, happened to be locked inside.

David Rakoff, Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Alas, David Rakoff, we hardly knew ye! Well, I didn’t, anyway. Mere months after I got such pleasure from discovering Rakoff’s acerbic wit, through his essay collection Half Empty (reviewed here last year), he shuffled off this mortal coil. Some kind of cancer — fitting, when you consider how often he invoked the Big C.

In Don’t Get Too Comfortable, which reprints essays Rakoff wrote for GQ, Harper’s, Details, and other magazines of note, he focuses on decadence, overabundance, and debauchery. The cancer is societal, he implies, and verges on inoperability: high fashion, cryonics, plastic surgery, Hooters Air, penis puppet-shows, and the ever-increasing prevalence of the phenomenon known to the French as nostalgie de la boue (literally, “fond yearning for the mud”; it’s luxury associated with artisanal cheeses, designer faux-slum furniture made from repurposed industrial waste, and similar highbrow appropriations of lowbrow stuff). My appreciation for Rakoff’s cantankerous old-mannish commentary might unduly color my impression of his overall writerly talent. Essays like “Faster,” included in this collection, show how this could be:
My fasting program warns me to stay vigilant against unhealthy ego investment and unjustified feelings of superiority. Just because I am an ethereal creature of light and air I should take care not to pass by the falafel stand, for example, and look down disdainfully from my slender, Olympian perch at the weak-willed humans who feel the need to stuff their gullets with something as earthbound and disgusting as solid nourishment. I know what it’s like to groove on avoiding food. I derive some of my deepest pleasure in life from forgoing pleasure. I get off on self-flagellation and various little acts of bourgeois pennance, like doing my laundry or skipping meals. But that’s not about feeling superior to others so much as asserting a steely personal control. It’s a white-hot fire of self-abnegating virtue which, when it overtakes me, is one of the great joys of my life.
It saddens me to know that there’s now one less kindred spirit in the world, but Rakoff’s writing, at least, will be floating around for a while yet.

Michel Houellebecq (Gavin Bowd, translator), The Map and the Territory
Although this novel’s epigraph — “The world is weary of me, / And I am weary of it” — by Charles d’Orleans does a fine job of prefacing the superlatively French cynicism to which the reader is about to be subjected, I think the following passage, from midway through the book, better captures the tone of Houellebecq’s 2010 misanthropic meditation:
I’ve got athlete’s foot, a bacterial infection, a generalized atopic eczema. I’m rotting on the spot and no one gives a damn, no one can do anything to help me. I’ve been shamefully abandoned by science, so what’s left for me to do? Just scratch myself endlessly, that’s what my life’s now become, one endless scratching session...
No young man could, or should, write a book like The Map and the Territory. Nor should anyone young in spirit attempt to read it. The cover declares the book’s author the “most celebrated and controversial French novelist of our time.” Many questions arose during my reading, including, What makes Houellebecq so controversial? What’s with these French people, anyway? and Will this book ever end? [Spoiler: it does, quietly and bit by bit, like succumbing at last to a lengthy illness.

Mary Ruefle, Selected Poems
In her book Madness, Rack and Honey, Ruefle writes that “the poem, once begun, is so physical that it cannot realize itself: like an actual physical event (not like a poem at all) it must die, finish, or end without completion.” And there are plenty of instances of this corporeal indeterminacy among the pieces making up Selected Poems, a volume that gathers Ruefle’s work from 1989 through 2007. Most are equally befuddling.

In her earlier work, it seems as though Ruefle is trying hard to get at some universal message, the most terminal way I know to finish a poem. Here, for example, is “From Memory” in its entirety:
The old poet riding on horseback in winter
came face-to-face with a thief who had
beaten his horse to a pulp. Once and for
all, they recognized each other without
speaking; one held a bright knife to the
other’s throat while the other offered the
bleeding velvet of his animal to show that
he, too, had smuggled his life through
every conceivable hour.
Selected Poems is ordered chronologically, and in the later work there’s a greater willingness to embrace not only ambiguous endings but ambiguous meanings, too. The results of such a mindset seem far more…let’s say realized. One of my favorites from this collection (my first experience with a body of Ruefle’s writing) happens to be one of her most recent, “Quick Note about the Think Source,” taken from her book Indeed I Was Pleased with the World:
My dreams are not worth a halfpenny:
a battery cut in two, eighty orange roses,
an old boyfriend in a new car of the kind
he would never drive. Fortunately for us,
the universe is not that complicated:
eventually, words like torpor and muddle
came into being, and then torpid, muddled
accounts of the universe took over the populace,
many of whom died while it was snowing.
There is always someone willing to tell you
who they were, though it takes a little time
to find the professional, but much less than if
you had to do the reading yourself. If you are
planning on being born, you should know there was
a primordial abundance of helium, if something remains
in the same position for nine consecutive days
it is safe to assume it has passed, and that
oleanders really do grow along the Oxus,
which is a river. After that you are free to pursue
the violent activity of happiness. But for the universe,
after the first three minutes nothing of interest
occurred for 700,000 years: it just went on cooling
and expanding, as if it were asleep on a premium mattress,
until it felt cold enough to wake up and make stars.
The rest is almost history: volcanic holes, small
French paintings, one-eyed bats, a handwritten note
wedged between the doors of a church. And oh, one
more thing: when asked, if you say “I do not dance,”
the next day an infant is born without feet.
For all its wit and wordplay, its surreal and stimulating, counterintuitive turns, I found Ruefle’s work to be the poetic equivalent of a cocktail-party joke — clever and amusing, and a hazy memory by morning.

Bennett Sims, A Questionable Shape
Memory, sight, loss, and the varieties of filial devotion are the main subjects of this debut novel by Sims, but for convenience’s sake I told everyone who asked that it was just “a zombie novel.” I hope such slanderous diminishment is a forgivable offense. In truth, A Questionable Shape is one of the most original, intellectually curious, and engrossing books I’ve read in years — in any genre, fiction or non-. The first night I picked it up, I lost interest in sleep and stayed awake, reading, for several hours past my habitual bedtime.

Books that deviate from readers’ expectations are risky ventures for their authors and publishers. Sims and the increasingly noteworthy Two Dollar Radio deserve congratulations for this one, which dispenses with horrific zombie bloodbaths and embarks on an ontological exploration of undeath (“A limit condition, irreducable to the usual dichotomies. For this reason the designation ‘living dead’ — in its oxymoronic self-negation — seems to sum up best the fundamental in-between-ness of the creatures. In any given dichotomy, they will constitute neither the positive nor the negative pole — neither living nor dead, neither psychopath nor psychopomp — but everything that circulates between them.”) and of life. Along the way, Sims’s engaging, inquisitive narrator, Mike Vermaelen, invokes Martin Heidegger, video games, Wallace Stevens, The Twilight Zone, swap meets, and Friedrich Nietzsche in his observations of a world turned upside-down by a cannibalistic plague, all amid a six-day search for a friend’s missing father — evincing that age-old truism that it’s not necessarily the destination but the journey that matters most.

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