"Gibberish but high-quality gibberish."
"Gorgeous evasions," he said. "Great escapes."
My household started 2023 by sharing the head cold from hell. It’s been a very Victorian scene here: fevered brows, hectic flushes, endless bowls of sustaining broths; longing looks out of (humidifier-)misted windows.
One upside: time on the couch to read. Below, jumbled thoughts on the jumble of books I have read this month.
Don Delillo, WHITE NOISE: A few years back, I scored a nifty used copy of Don Delillo’s WHITE NOISE; it has a detail from Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew on the cover—it’s cropped so that you don’t see Matthew, falling and dying, just his upraised hand, gripped by the disembodied arm of the assassin. An angel reaches down over a wooly cloud to hand Matthew the palm of glory, and a boy, open-mouthed, twists away in apparent shock, emotion ossified. It’s all very rich and theatrical and rigidly constructed; a masterful tableau—much like this book, which is a series of show-offy set pieces that allow Delillo to dazzle the reader with a bravura demonstration of writerly craft and close observation of a specific, narrow slice of upper-middle-class white 1980s American culture worked in chiaroscuro. Themes include parenthood, marriage, and family; consumerism (and the magnificence of U.S. grocery stores); advertising; assorted scams, particularly scammy academia; the hollowness of opportunistic expertise; pollution and environmental degradation; disaster; guns; masculinity; the precociousness and wildness of children; deceptive women; and death. The glare dazzles and the shadows are inky black. It is all terrifically legible, and legible is where it is at right now—like prestige TV, it is a novel that lets a certain kind of clever person feel affirmed in their cleverness through showing them the world is the way they believe it to be in very high production values—and while it is funny, by the time Delillo was exemplifying Chekov’s rule about guns (in a nutshell: when a gun shows up, it must go off) I felt more than ready to be done with it and now feel no need to watch the movie.
Aistė Ambrazeviciute and Kristupas Sabolius, THE SECRET BOOK OF LICHENS: A whimsical and absolutely charming little collection of tales loosely riffing on the mind-bending properties of lichens; it was supposedly written in moss by a moose who, after he ate lichens, “felt so incredibly good that his eyes started glowing and his ears filled up with a majestic music never heard before.”
Rachel Ingalls, THREE OF A KIND and THE PEARLKILLERS: I love Rachel Ingalls so, so much—a couple of years ago, I read MRS. CALIBAN in a swirl of fascinated delight, proceeded to gobble down the delectable BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, then found these titles (sadly out of print, I think) online at The Second Shelf. These are two collections of shortish stories, and there is something in Ingalls’ ruthless, wry, laconically gonzo tales that reminds me a little of Paul Bowles; Ingalls is funnier by far, but there is a similarly bracing bite of cruelty. Strange and terrible things happen—there’s lots of death and the occasional miracle—and fantastic hairpin swerves that bend the story into a very different shape than you might expect, all prickled with needle-sharp insights into women’s lives. Each one could be the basis for a hit movie for A24.
Simone Schwarz-Bart, THE BRIDGE OF BEYOND: This hypnotic wonder of a book tells the story of Telumee Lougandor and the women in her family and their lives in Guadeloupe in the aftermath of slavery. Here is how Jamaica Kincaid describes it:
It is profoundly original. It is exceptionally good. That a book so radical in style, in form, and in content is not widely known in this country, and its influence is not deeply felt, is one of those unfortunate mysteries of Time and Place. Literature like this does not offer the comfort of an already digested plot. It seeks out the truth of history, which turns out to be most powerfully and effectively conveyed through fiction.
It is absolutely spell-binding; the writing is almost hallucinogenic—it lifted me right out of my own life and way of thinking, like someone opeing a hidden door and saying, see? Here is a whole other world, and whole new ways of using words. And while the depiction of how the awareness of the fact of slavery gnaws at the heart like a malignant worm through the generations is shattering, the way that Schwarz-Bart shows the depths of the resilience, community, and joy in the Lougandor women’s lives is awesome, in the sense of an encounter with something sublime.
A.S. Byatt, THE DJINN IN THE NIGHTINGALE’S EYE: A handful of brainy fairytales concerned with the construction of stories: the eldest of three sisters, sent on a quest who realizes what stepping off the path will mean; a professional narratologist who encounters a djinn and is chary with her wishes, because she knows they always come to no good. The djinn story has less true fairy-tale tang than the other stories in this collection—it feels more like a novel that didn’t quite make it with many chewy, tasty, and gristly bits about being a middle-aged woman, visiting a culture not your own, and the limits of what’s possible, even with wishes.
Helen DeWitt, THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL and SOME TRICK: I read THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL first and was absolutely charmed and amused by this 60-page little puzzlebox of a tale, about a young woman whose life is not what it seems, in a story that is also not quite what it seems. Then, I picked up SOME TRICK, which is a collection of stories built around similar themes, though a little less ingeniously—specifically, artistic grievance and the absolute philistinism of the industries around creativity. She’s a brilliant writer, and they are formidably, forcibly clever stories, but I couldn’t help being struck by the hilarious absurdity and the absolute privilege in anyone getting to publish two books that seem mostly to exist to air a very elite, very personal form of grievance.
Prince Harry, SPARE: What an odd book this is, like the dull mousey child of Ford Madox Ford’s THE GOOD SOLDIER and Tara Westover’s EDUCATED. In a nutshell: It is the memoir of a seemingly not-particularly self-aware someone escaping a suffocating cult (that, granted, gives you access to a lot of terrific vacations in splendid locations) whilst having conflicted feelings about it all. I read it because Sean sussed that the DeWitt was stressing me out. After I explained that I was in the middle of a short story with characters discussing the death of Voltaire in a manner that confirmed my own intractable stupidity, he suggested I try reading something “lighter” and picked SPARE up on a Target run for Tylenol and apple juice. There has been a fair amount of ballyhoo about how “good” this book is, but it is not particularly good, other than it contains words and anecdotes very expertly arranged to try and mask the fact that it isn’t saying very much. In that light, give the circumstances, it is a very, very canny product.
Bohumil Hrabal, TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE: Hanta has worked in a basement workshop compacting wastepaper for 35 years, creating bales of trash from bloody butcher paper and libraries gutted by Communist reform, not to mention the odd mouse family that gets swept up in his machine. He has been impelled to save what he can, reading in between the relentless pressings, compacting his brain full of others’ brilliant thoughts, using the prints of beautiful art to wrap the bales, and smuggling away particularly irresistible tomes, though he cannot take any more—his house is packed with books. From his bed, he can hear the mice gnawing at his makeshift shelves and knows one day it will all collapse, and he will be crushed by the weight of literature. It’s a beautiful and fetid and hilarious and horrifying tale, told in fevered first-person narration; near kin to Beckett and Kafka. I loved it.
Dino Buzzati, THE BEARS INVASION OF SICILY: A winsome, wistful bagatelle about bears who battle their enemies and win but ultimately come to grief through the ills of civilization, with Buzzati’s own charmingly idiosyncratic pictures of chonky bears and evil ogres. Lots of guns and shooting, though.
E. Nesbit, THE RAILWAY CHILDREN: This ca. 1900 tale of three train-enraptured children whose father mysteriously disappears and the adventures that befall them in their quiet country house is as pleasing as buttered toast. (Of course, whenever you read a children’s book more than 100 years old aloud to a seven-year-old, there will usually be points worth discussion and explanation; there was one racial epithet I skipped.)
John Masefield, THE MIDNIGHT FOLK and THE BOX OF DELIGHTS: I read these, thinking they might be good to read aloud to my kid, and I think he will love them. They are beguiling books about the strange happenings that befall a young English boy named Kay Harker. Though his adventures loosely hang together in a semblance of plot, they read more like a series of fantastic dreams filled with wonder and edged with menace. In THE MIDNIGHT FOLK, Kay must find a family treasure and protect it from a gang of witches. In THE BOX OF DELIGHTS, a old man with a Punch and Judy show trusts Kay with a marvelous box sought by his witchy nemesis and a gang of crooks. There are friendly owls, cats good and bad, and prowling witches; kidnappings and ghosts and plots and mermaids. Masefield was mostly known as a poet, and the language is seductively rich, like velvet tapestry. One part, in particular, I keep thinking about: In THE BOX OF DELIGHTS, a malicious old woman explains her father’s history as a slave trader in euphemism; it’s an incredible illustration of how adroitly people lie to themselves about the awful things they do.
Images: Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, ca. 1599-1600.
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