2011, A Reader’s Year in Review

December 22, 2011

Being by nature really quite modest, I’m hesitant to spotlight The Best Blog Post of 2010. True, it’s mine, but a virtuous performance cares not one jot who the performer is. The rendition is what really matters. I don’t even have to cite Foucault to bask in the glow of this certainty. The glory of The Best Blog Post of 2010 is that it breathes life into an exhausted form, you know, the obligatory year in summary reading list. Everyone has one. James Wood’s got one and Coetzee does too. Ends up, however, that innovating on a form even as piddling as a blog post takes time. Which is why I happily follow in the steps of Wood, Coetzee and others, here, here, here, here and here. Theirs are very good lists by the way. Much better than mine so please pay them a visit.

As for my favorite reads of 2011, here they are:

Farmer by Jim Harrison, a slim novel filled with beautiful descriptions of rural life. A cowhide rug is to Farmer what liver is to Portnoy’s Complaint. Except only a wee bit different.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates explores inauthenticity without employing this jargonistic term. Thankfully.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. As I said in a comment to Karyn on her very fine blog, Whitman’s poetry is so grand I don’t care if it’s verse and not prose fiction. It can even be termed statistics for all I care.

Herzog by Saul Bellow solves the problem of existence. This can’t be shown. Only felt.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis is an American odyssey rife with humor. Portis’ storytelling voice is his great, abiding gift to anyone who cares to read him.

Embers by Sándor Márai is simply exquisite. Five, 10, 15 years from now, I will remember 2011 as the year I read Embers. Just fantastic.

Paradoxically Foe by Coetzee and Vanity Fair by Thackeray make honorable mention precisely because I only enjoyed them retrospectively and well after the fact.

Although I haven’t mentioned non-fiction on Interpolations before, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes is a very fine book. He argues that a low-fat, high-carb diet is unhealthy because it leads to insulin resistance, obesity and the diseases of civilization. For brief articles by Taubes, I direct you here and there.

Have a great holiday season!

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

April 18, 2011

Call it a simple title for a complex book. Foe is the retelling of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. So it’s a story about a story. But Foe is also a story about an Englishwoman named Susan who is cast away in the Atlantic by Portuguese mutineers on a deserted island. From the beginning of her ordeal, Susan is obsessed with having the story of the island told, an obsession that torments her long after her safe return to England, where she asks novelist Daniel Foe to convert her hastily sketched memoir — “a sad, limping affair,” in her own words — into a novel that conveys “the substance of truth” about her experience. But even in England, with the hustle and bustle of civilized life, Susan is utterly dismayed to learn that “the world is full of islands.” Because it’s a Coetzee novel, Foe is not only a story about a story nor only a story about Susan’s ordeal and lingering torment, but it’s also a story about the origin of itself as a story. See, for a thin, 157-page novel, the complexities are piling up, fast. Coetzee’s prodigious intellectual talents are everywhere on display. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of super smart people. They make excellent physicists and mathematicians and logicians. But when the purely intellectual component predominates in storytelling, the prose lacks the grace of inspiration. In Foe, there’s no sacred fire. At best it’s a meditation on the frailties of life and the vulnerabilities of storytelling that is a lot more intriguing than it is enjoyable.

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

April 4, 2011

Slow Man is a persistently self-conscious novel.

It starts with a bang.

Paul Rayment, 60, is pedaling his bike up Magill road when a reckless young driver mows him over, shattering his knee and resulting in the amputation of his leg above the joint.

Irascible and sullen, Paul is tormented by the bitter regret of childlessness. He suffers a succession of nurses and finally falls in love with one of them. Her name is Marijana. She’s married with three children. And Paul’s “unsuitable passion” wreaks havoc on her marriage and family life. 

Now, it’s very rare, indeed, for a reader to mark the precise moment when a story goes sideways.

It happens on page 79, in the fourth paragraph, when Elizabeth Costello, a famous novelist, mysteriously arrives at Paul’s dreary flat. “I want to explore for myself what kind of being you are.”

She’s intrigued by the idea of an amputee with no future and a misguided love for a young nurse. But Costello is no ordinary character. It quickly becomes evident — what with her uncanny omniscience and her mysterious comings and goings — that Costello is an ontological tweener.

She’s a character who exists in a book with other characters. But she’s also the embodiment of Coetzee’s troubled spirit, brooding over the waters of his own creation. The author has cast himself as a character in his own novel.

Problem is, Costello (and hence Coetzee) is dreadfully conspicuous.

For one, she’s so bloody sententious. In her ceaseless object lessons, she annoyingly calls Paul by name even when they’re alone. “No, Paul, that is not right.” “What will you do, Paul?” “You know, Paul, that won’t be good enough.” “Paul, dear, try to be worthy of being in a novel.”

On her tongue there is a Paul, EE-I-EE-I-O, with a Paul, Paul here and a Paul, Paul there, here a Paul, there a Paul, everywhere a Paul, Paul.

Vexing and annoying to no end. 

The other difficulty is that the dialogue is boringly repetitive and predictably double.

Boringly repetitive in the sense that the character and the author bicker too much about who’s in charge. “I’m not under your control,” says Paul. “Paul, I can read you like a book,” says Elizabeth. “I’m not here to entertain you,” or “I’m sick and tired of being nudged this way and that to further these crazy stories in your head,” complains Paul. “This is your story, not mine,” says Elizabeth.

And the dialogue is predictably double in the sense that the exchanges between Paul and Elizabeth mirror the exchanges between Coetzee and his aggrieved readers. Coetzee plays his Elizabeth to the reader’s Paul. “You don’t know what to make of me, do you?” says Elizabeth to Paul (read: Coetzee to his readers). “You do not belong here,” says Paul to Elizabeth (read: Coetzee’s spectators to him). “This is not your place, not your sphere. Your involvement merely confuses us,” says Paul to Elizabeth (read: Coetzee’s audience to him).

In a novel about loving and caring, it’s surely a bad sign to fervently wish that poor old Paul had lost his head instead of his leg.

At least that would’ve been a swift, merciful end to an amputee of a novel that needs a lot more than a prosthesis to make it whole.

what’s it like to be a corpse?

February 21, 2011

Although I’m a great admirer of J.M. Coetzee, and count Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Diary of a Bad Year among my favorite books, Elizabeth Costello is a very odd and curious affair. The novel is a series formal presentations slapped together by a thin mixture of narrative mortar. The tone is learned and erudite. I suppose you wouldn’t expect anything less from lectures, monologues, and seminars on such issues as literary realism, vegetarianism and the horrors of the “industrialization … and commodification of animal flesh,” as well as the novel and the humanities in Africa, and the problem of evil, that is, the danger of reading and writing about the prohibited, the obscene. If it’s true that the novel is a “form of writing that is formless, that has no rules, that makes up its rules as it goes along,” then Coetzee creates for himself at least one rule that I want to hold him accountable to. In a lecture at a university, a slightly befuddled Elizabeth Costello attributes to the poet and novelist the power of inhabiting other modes of being, a bat, an ape, a jaguar, and even a corpse. Unlike the philosopher, the poet-novelist evokes an individual life, say, the life of a jaguar, through words. Not the idea of a jaguar. Not an abstraction. But the concrete universal, i.e., “the jaguarness embodied in this jaguar.” These are Coetzee’s words, not mine. Alright, then, what is it like to be a sad, lonely, 66-year old novelist? We catch glimpses of her tearful face and her strained relations with her son and daughter-in-law, with journalists and professors, and with other writers, to boot. But only glimpses. We never catch the Elizabeth Costelloness embodied in this Elizabeth Costello. She doesn’t twitch with novelistic vitality. Instead, she struggles to emerge from Coetzee’s cold, hard expository marble. An unfinished torso.

In the Heart of the Country, or What’s Good for the Wood is Good for the Gander (2 of 2)

August 18, 2010

1. Today my mom brought home her new boyfriend. I hated him with a hatred that was cruel and black and unforgiving. They came clip-clop through the front door, smiling and laughing, as if returning from a dance. Those are the antagonists.

2. I’m in the family room pretending not to care about them, their entrance and the intimate adult sounds they make when they talk. I stare at a 10-year old purple cichlid hovering in a fish tank, as it makes steady patient Os with its mouth, its languid mouth, breathing. I fool nobody. Especially him. I see him through the tank. He’s a wiry small-boned man with a slow-smiling mouth. His eyes are black and shrewd like two berries, like two black berries. An inadudible sound drops from my mouth like a stone, the most detestable sound I know, worse than any swear word ever coined on a grade school playground — quack! I don’t even know what this word means. But the vicious sound of it says it all. Just as it did when my dad ranted against orthodondists and doctors on the edge of town.

3. I cannot abide his stare. He is the absence of my dad, his negative.

4. Time thickens, it coagulates, moments congeal into an ugly scab and the platelets of space and time stop altogether. We are three particles of dust suspended in a mote, halted. But I imagine, I see things, I see things happen, I make them happen. I’m a particle of dust with a lyrical mind, a poet of interiority. What have I to do with chronology? My jealousy and anger despise it and will have nothing to do with it.     

5. I rise from behind the fish tank, big and strong and menacing; I am hazardous. My mom stands in the kitchen, resting against the refrigerator. The small-boned man stands beside her, jauntily pressing his hips to the side, one arm on the wall for balance, the other arm free, a serpent arm. His fingers twist her hair, playfully. She looks over his shoulder with an oddly ambivalent expression, a flat grin, dull eyes, indecipherable. I am vengeance incarnate. The axe sweeps up over my shoulder…. Like a ball on a string it floats down at the end of my arm, sinks into the throat, the pale white throat beside my mom.

6. Time cracks and ruptures and wild tumult ensues.