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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

April Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

This 1939 fourth novel by English novelist Jean Rhys is an intimate and deeply affecting portrait of pain, trauma, melancholia, and one woman’s search for reprieve. Protagonist and narrator, Sasha Jansen is a reticent yet highly intelligent middle-aged woman living in Paris during the interval between the two World Wars. Plighted by a paradoxical restlessness and desire to interact with others, Sasha spends much of her time alone, either sleeping in her room at the hotel where she lives, or frequenting the pubs, alone, and drinking excessively into stupor. She is prone to frequent bouts of weeping, often fomented by scathingly self-deprecating thoughts of introspection and reverie. As the novel progresses, Sasha encounters several characters, mostly men, who strive to help her in some way, save her from herself–help which Sasha often spurns out of an incapability to trust. But as the details of her past creep into revelation, the trauma of a past marriage and brief motherhood, and the social dynamics of a time in which women are frequently disadvantaged swirl into context, the predicaments which thwart Sasha from attaining happiness fall into focus, and a philosophical and psychological exploration of an undeniably complex life comes to light.

Rhys is a name which I had been wanting to read for a while, having heard that her influence that her experimental, modernist style of writing was widespread among many other famous writers. What I had not expected was the sheer depth of emotion–particularly, despair–which would underlie the novel, touching each and every word and propelling the text as a whole into a deeply evocative experience. And yet such emotion is not overt; the structure of the book belies its effect. Essentially plotless, the narration enfolds through fragments, brief vignettes leaping from the present to the past and back again, from the external details of her daily perambulations to the ever-present internal memories which dance in her mind, all of which work to combat the order and organization which Sasha strives to attain. And yet, the non-structure is a kind of structure in itself, one which reflects the growing disillusion of the protagonist, all the while capturing the disjointed, impressionistic frames of her perception, each one connected to an introspective commentary of sorts, in turn painting a psychological outline of the narrator. In prose which calls to mind Joyce and Woolf, Rhys’s novel is a beautiful, albeit heartbreaking read which inspires innumerable interpretations. Certainly one I will read again.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This 2018 fourth novel by American author Tayari Jones is a heart-wrenching, powerful portrait of an American marriage torn apart by imponderable tragedy and injustice. The novel follows the recently married Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African-American couple, whose lives and marriage are pulled apart after Roy is wrongfully accused and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. After Roy is imprisoned with a sentence of twelve years, Celestial is left alone and, forced to fend for herself, seeks solace and support in her childhood friend Andre. Grappling with impossible decisions, wavering between the search for inner happiness and the obligations of marriage, Celestial quickly finds herself caught in a complicated web of questions with no clear answers. As emotions boil, allegiances are strained, and family relations are pushed to the limit, what unfurls is a virtuosic exploration into the unspoken ethics sewn into the invisible fabric of marriage revealing a distinctly American portrait of love, pain, and deception.

The novel won the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was even a pick for Oprah’s Book Club–Oprah has a quote on the inside cover. This novel was quite the roller coaster. I plunged through the first hundred pages, unable to put it down–the voices of the characters, each chapter leaping from one to another, were distinct and intriguing, and the events which take place were truly heartbreaking. After the first major one in the book, the narration switches to epistolary form before switching back to the fluctuating perspective-chapters, a formal structure which I truly enjoyed. But as the novel progresses and the characters change over time, the plot inevitably thickens, the nuances of morality taking the foreground through a seemingly endless series of mistakes, decisions, and deceptions–which, at times, fell short in their evocative effect. By the end of the novel, the flaws which abound in the characters overwhelm their interactions and, in my opinion, diminish the strength which had seemed to be growing through the first half. But it would have been redeemable had the epilogue been excluded–what takes place in the epilogue felt to me like a cop-out for a definitive ending and greatly diminished the novel’s denouement. However, that being said, the novel is painfully realistic, and Jones’s virtuosic talent for storytelling is undeniable. And the visceral reaction I had towards the ending, a blend of frustration and ambivalence, may simply be a testament to the novel’s emotional magnitude.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

This 1952 debut novel by American scholar, literary critic, and author Ralph Ellison is a monument of American letters. The novel follows a nameless narrator and protagonist, a young black man as he traverses American life shortly after the turn of the 20th century, discovering the divisions of race, class, and gender; the invisible structures of power which define a person’s place in the world; and the impositions which limit one’s agency in a country where “freedom” is supposedly woven into the fabric of its nation. The novel begins at a college in the Deep South, where our narrator, after getting caught in a bizarre debacle with the school’s founder, is expelled and relocated to Harlem whereupon he faces a whole new set of challenges–flagrant injustices, street-preaching fanatics, dangerous jobs, unthinkable hospital treatments, and poverty, to name just a few. But after joining an activist group called The Brotherhood, an underground organization pining for social reform, our narrator slowly begins to find his true calling–to be a voice for change, for justice, in the world. As he makes speeches and organizes events, becoming more ingratiated into the dynamics of the Brotherhood, he begins to learn that what lies at the heart of the order is a politics just as rife with corruption as the world which he strives to change. As he grapples with deception, power imbalances, and unspeakable tragedy, the story which unfolds is one that deconstructs the veneer of order that defines American life; unearths the imponderable complexities inherent in the divisions which separate one another; and dismantles any semblance of truth.

It is truly a rarity to find a novel this magnificent–one that simultaneously shatters and rebuilds, maims and heals, and carves deep into the invisible forces underlying humanity, unraveling the threads which bind people together and revealing the powerful structures hidden behind the veil of society and daily life. The novel won the National Book Award in 1953 and is considered today a crowning achievement of American letters, a timeless classic. Spanning nearly 600 pages, the novel took Ellison five years to complete. Picaresque in form and philosophical in its intellection, it is a novel whose arms reach into the complexities of race, class, power, capitalism, nationalism, fraternity, free will, and existentialism exposing the contradictions and dialectics which reside below the surface of American life. And that the novel achieves such a feat so beautifully and seamlessly is a testament to the magnitude of the narration and plot. Each episodic chapter entails an unpredictable series of events, with in-depth commentary and rumination captured in free indirect discourse–long lines of internal thought meandering from one detail to the next, lancing literary rivulets which connect various words and images, spanning and spreading the length of the novel and revealing a subterranean world of deeper reflection and meaning. I read this one over the course of three weeks for a class, and the discussions which arose only amplified and deepened the experience, opening an unfathomable and seemingly infinite breadth of analysis. And over the course of three weeks, it became quite clear to me that Invisible Man is one of the greatest American novels of all time, if not one then the greatest.

Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life by Heather Cass White

This 2021 book by American literary scholar and professor Heather Cass White is an in-depth exploration into the pleasures and importance of reading. Arguing in favor of a disjointed, chaotic, yet feverously dedicated reading habit, White expounds the innumerable benefits, both internal and external, which can arise from an emphasis on a reader’s submission to aesthetics over a search for moral value. Structured into three sections–Play, Transgression, and Insight–White leads the reader through an impressively insightful excavation into literature, drawing upon close readings of various famous works, prose and poetry included, analyzing textual peculiarities, and all the while illuminating in glorious detail the beauty, strength, and uniqueness which can only be found in the experience of reading great literature.

I had had this one living on my nightstand for months, its bright blue cover pleading, coaxing for my attention over the course of many nights. And the moment I read the first few pages, without determining to persist, I simply found it unable to stop. The book’s opening section, outlined in brief axiomatic vignettes that leap and bound across the history of literature, immediately captivated my attention. White’s prose is fluid and immaculately crafted, her insight and intelligence truly undeniable–immediately apparent simply by the sheer number of quotations imbued throughout the text, the index at the end of the book running several pages within itself. But beyond White’s impressive scope of literary knowledge, the delight, levity, and even humor which runs throughout makes for a completely enjoyable reading experience; her passion pours from the pages, absolutely inspiring and elevating the whole of literary history, and very act of reading into a new and beautiful light. It is a book about books for both the seasoned reader and novice alike.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

This 1970 second novel by American writer Joan Didion is the savage portrait of American life, capturing in scathing lucidity the ruthlessness, indifference, and listlessness that pervade the contemporary culture of Hollywood during the 1960’s. The novel follows Maria Wyeth, a model-turned-actress who is now a patient at a psychiatric facility in Los Angeles, as she recounts the events which transpired over the past year. Once a burgeoning talent with an optimistic outlook on what appears to be a lasting, formative career, Maria falls prey to a culture which seeks to swindle, exploit, and leave her out to dry. First scouted by the psychopathic Ivan Costello and plunging into the model industry, she eventually moves to Hollywood with Carter, the gaslighting husband-turned-ex-husband with whom Maria has a daughter Kate who is subsequently institutionalized due to aberrant behavior. After Maria becomes pregnant again, she grapples with the decision to have an abortion, a choice with devastating mental and emotional repercussions which wreak havoc on her sense of agency and autonomy. Between various acting gigs, social gatherings with her so-called friends, and a search for peace, Maria plunges further into a pervasive sense that at the heart of living there is an absurd “nothingness” and that everyone is simply playing a game the rules of which no one truly knows.

I had first read this one back in February of last year; it was my first introduction to Didion’s fiction. And in revisiting it, as it wont to happen, the countless aspects which had escaped my attention the first time were revealed in their savage abundance. And indeed, “savage” is the best descriptor I can find for this novel. My professor said something about it that really stuck with me; he said, “Didion’s work is easy to read but hard to digest,” which I think perfectly encapsulates the reading experience of his short novel. The accessibility of Didion’s prose–terse diction and syntax, episodic flash-cut chapters some of which last only a paragraph long–seems to belie the incontestable savagery which overwhelms the novel. It is as if one should not be able to read the words so easily on the page; one should not be able to absorb so readily such abject pain, confusion, and anxiety, all of which are treated with an indifference that conceals internal catastrophe. And beyond the despair and anguish which overflow through the text, there lies an existentialism subtly explored in the various ruminations and small agencies of Maria’s character. The novel packs a serious punch, especially given the brevity of its form. And reading it again only illuminated for me just how much truly resides within. It is a novel that which each subsequent read, more will be revealed–which is why I will return to this one time and time again.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

This 1956 fourth novel by Canadian-born American author Saul Bellow is among the shortest of his works. Set in mid-twentieth century New York City and spanning the course of a single day, the novel follows Wilhelm Adler, aka Tommy Wilhelm, a man in his mid-forties for whom failure touches nearly aspect of his life. He has separated from his wife and children; has an acrimonious relationship with his father who is disgruntled and disappointed at his son; and has just spent the last of his money investing in lard and rye per the advice of his friend, Dr. Tamkin, an enigmatic, eccentric psychiatrist and hypnotist whom Wilhelm’s father and others believe is conning Wilhelm. Browbeaten by life’s seemingly impossible demands yet unwilling to cope and carve a way out, Wilhelm drifts from the lobby of the hotel in which he lives to the newsstand on the corner, to breakfast with his father, to the market with Tamkin, and back again, all the while reckoning with the age-old question: is any of this really worth it?

Saul Bellow is a name that I have been wanting to read for years now, having first stumbled upon his work through the countless laudations and praise of literary critics and the incredible number of awards he’s received, the Pulitzer and Nobel being among them. Preceding greats such as Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Michel Houellebecq, Bellow’s novel is an in-depth exploration into alienation, both physical and psychological, and at the focal point is protagonist Wilhelm Adler, a man described by scholar Lee J. Richmond as “the maladroit, suffering middle-aged hero of the book.” To that I would add petulant–fatefully, fatally petulant. He is a hero seemingly suffering by his own volition, yet all the while begging for sympathy from others, a dynamic which just entices psychoanalysis. And so too does the character Dr. Tamkin, the charlatanical hypnotist with a penchant for sophistry warrant an entire analysis alone. But beyond the characters, the narration itself is another puzzle to unpack: the novel begins in an omniscient third-person perspective, leaping from the mind of one character to the next via free indirect discourse; but as the novel progresses, first-person narration gradually begins to creep in, before completely taking over in the final section. In just over a hundred pages, Seize the Day is a deeply entertaining, thought-provoking little novel; and that it contains so much in so few pages is a testament to Bellow’s craft and imagination. Safe to say I cannot wait to read more of his work.

The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body by Bjørn Rasmussen

This 2011 debut novel by Danish poet and writer Bjørn Rasmussen is at once a morbid and coming-of-age tale and transgressive love story. The novel follows troubled teenager Bjørn who, discontent with his dysfunctional family and home in the rural countryside, finds solace, not simply in horsemanship, but also in self-harm and shocking sexual acts. After leaving the bucolic landscape of his home in search for a new sense of excitement and healing, Bjørn finds himself quickly entangled in a web of violence, sadomasochism, and sexploitation. In his attempts to escape, Bjørn enters into a relationship with an older man, one which promises healing and security, but which ultimately entails further pain and unthinkable acts of depravity. Only by sheer strength, will, and determination can Bjørn endure through the anguish, learning to crawl his way through the pain, while all the while holding onto the glimpse of love which like a diminishing flame begins to dwindle in the growing darkness.

This short novel, barely over a hundred pages, won both the 2011 Montana Literary Award and the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature and was translated into multiple languages. It is a surreal short novel, one which calls to mind the work of Georges Bataille and Jean Genet, though without the philosophical depth and intellection, which, for me, was a source of disappointment. I sometimes struggle with works that are “too out there,” but I especially struggle with such works when the redeemable qualities–fine prose, imagination, intellectual depth–are also lacking. And I found this to be the case. The book started off fine, interesting even, the words flowing with a strange, enigmatic style; but as the novel progressed, the muddling of form, the creation of questions devoid of answers, and the fragmentary structure seemed to me a bit disorganized and without allure. I don’t regret reading this one, but the plot summary belies the depravity which had first appealed to me. It wasn’t nearly as wild as I had hoped it to be.

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

This 1961 sixth novel by American author John Hawkes is a brilliantly imagined terror-inducing experimental thriller. Set in England shortly after WWII, the novel follows Michael and Margaret Banks, a young, lower-class couple desperate to bring excitement to their lives, who plunge downward a devious scheme involving a stolen racehorse. Their neighbor William Hencher, an oafish middle-aged man plighted by past trauma who has developed a strange obsession with young couple, lures Michael into the scheme, promising fortune and fame from the victorious racehorse Rock Castle. But when Margaret is abducted by gang members while Michael is distracted by seductresses, the two begin to realize the severity of the predicament they’ve fallen into. What unfolds is an unpredictable, fast-moving series of violent events which explodes in the final and deadly denouement.

It was my first Hawkes read, and I blitzed through this one in less than two days. Exciting, intense, and ever entertaining, this novel seized my attention from the prologue and kept it held until the final page. Hawkes’s prose is truly exquisite–a blend of terse precision, fantastic metaphors, and a meticulous eye for indirect detail. Hawkes, by ingenious craft, illuminates the shadows which surround the foregrounded events, emphasizing an outline to the narrative, granting the reader important information yet keeping them in the dark simultaneously. This paradoxical obfuscation and elucidation of detail inspires a certain anxiety which pervades the text, seeming to grow as the novel progresses, reflecting the growing anxieties which plight the characters. And regarding the characters, Hawkes explores the dark entanglements of love and terror, painting a sort of love-bred terror which entails the downfall of the protagonists, never for once shying away from the violence and brutality which shatters the commonplace veneer of relationships. It is a fascinating novel–in content and in form–and a fantastic entryway into an oeuvre which I cannot wait to explore.

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