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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

April Reads

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

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This 2010 fourth novel by American author Jonathan Franzen tracks the tragicomic tale of midwestern married couple Patty and Walter Berglund; their kids, Jessica and Joey; and long-time family friend Richard Katz as they all traverse modern life and grapple with the decisions which have propelled them into the twenty-first century. Patty is a college basketball star, hardened but ambitious in her aspirations, when she meets the quiet and reserved intellectual Walter through a mutual friend Richard, the edgy, coarse, and keen future rock star. Little did she know this trifecta of friends would remain tethered together for the decades to come, seeing marriage and homeowning; kids and schools and new jobs; pesky neighbors and growing political divisiveness, especially amid an era of growing environmental concerns, deregulation of the economy, and of course, war. But of all, it is the discontent, the despair, the ennui which accompanies middle age, born of long-lost misconnections, “what if” scenarios, and forgone opportunities, which bear the largest burdens. And as each character struggles to reconcile the past, present, and future with the life that “could have been,” what unfurls is a portrait of an American family in the modern era, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.

“Mistakes were made”: that perfectly passive rhetorical expression which has been described as a “classic Washington linguistic construct” and whose meaning, by the evolution of its usage, now teems with satire and sardonicism, seems to succinctly sum up, in those three simple words, the 600-page-spanning story of the Berglunds and their myriad descents into disintegration. Not only is the phrase a recurring quip appearing as much written as it is spoken, but with the other major thematic pillar of the novel, the very title itself, unspools the very threads which tie the novel together, sewing the complex tapestry that is a searing portrait of an American family. Freedom takes many forms in this novel, yet across all disparate forms is one interlinking question: What good is freedom if one is doomed to commit mistake after mistake after mistake? Some have it worse than others, but behind each character lingers this sentiment, in turn provoking the reader to assess, analyze, and, as was the case for me, reconsider every action and decision one has ever made in their life, a true testament to the force of Franzen’s fiction. But the novel hit doubly as hard for me: in so many characters I could see people I’ve known, friends I’ve had over the course of my life, as well as events, decisions, emotions that I’ve personally experienced, making the novel all the more powerful and poignant for me. Certain sections would send me spiraling into contemplation, remembrance, confrontation, doubtless an inevitability augmented by Franzen’s enthralling prose. As I found to be the case with The Corrections which I read last year and loved so much I named it one of my top favorites, Franzen’s prose, a combination of hyperbolic detail, meandering diatribes, and acerbic wit, kept the pages turning endlessly. And like his other novel, this one, too, made me laugh out loud multiple times, which seldom happens for me. It’s difficult not to weigh the two novels against each other; as similar as they are, indeed, they’re quite different. Freedom, I thought, carried a darker tone of sorts, a something more serious, solemn, sorrowful, even amid the outrageous hilarity which punctuated the narrative. And perhaps, as I continue to read more Franzen, I’ll develop a better sense of both the singularity and commonality of his works; but for now, it’s safe to say, Freedom is up there, ascendant, seated among my all-time favorites. It took me twelve days to read, and those were twelve truly great days of reading.

Who is Going to Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

This 1994 second novel by American novelist and short story writer Lorrie Moore seems on the surface simply a coming-of-age story about two young girl friends, faced with the uncertainties and strangeness and hardships with are only inherent to growing up, but it’s so much more. Set in the present day, Berie, our narrator-protagonist, a woman in her late forties, is vacationing with her husband Daniel in Paris, France, where her days are filled with attending the art museums, cafes and patisseries with her few friends who live there. Amid the excitement of the city and her growing marital issues, Berie takes respite in recalling her youth spent in Horseheart, her hometown in upstate New York: growing up in the early seventies, working at Storyland, the local amusement park with her best friend Sils, a precocious, daring young girl whose penchant for adventurousness invigorates Berie’s own sense of thrill. Many memories are made, some good, some bad; and of the latter, one memory trounces all the others: an incident whose aftermath binds the two adolescents in a clandestine confidence, a secret strength that shakes the foundations of their idyll youth. Fluctuating between the present and past, the novel is at once a grand story capturing the essence of childhood, the loss of innocence, and the power of friendship, as well as a deep meditation on memory, nostalgia, and the mystery of fortuity which seems to drive our own lives.

It was my first Lorrie Moore, a writer whose works I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while now. I have a copy of her famous short story collection Birds of America though opted to begin with this novel, which I think was a fine introduction. It was interesting reading Moore and catching certain strands which reminded me of other writers, and it seemed to me that as Annie Ernaux is to France and Jean Rhys is to the UK, so Lorrie Moore is to the US. And yet, one can still hear echoes of Marilynne Robinson and Joan Didion drifting across the text, lingering in the content and form of her work. The two main stories–Berie and Daniel in present-day Paris; Berie and Sils in Horseheart in the seventies–seem to exist in real life, so realistic, so complex, and so fraught with emotion as they are. But the novel contains a third story, one which binds the two disparate timelines in a larger mosaic of life: a story about memory and remembrance. Memory is probably the most salient of undercurrents running through this novel, a compelling theme which seems to tinge each moment described, each subtle detail with a poignancy inspired only by the passage of time. The first page of the novel contains the line, “I’m hoping for something Proustian,” and all that follows is just that. I always love books about remembering, because, in many ways, I think the very act of reading itself is the closest thing we have to the act of remembrance, to the formation and re-experience of memories: to create an imagined series of events, replete with people and conversations and physical details, and the interiority and emotions which glues them together–is that not similar to remembering? What is remembering if not the same psychological process, of re-membering the dismembered fragments of the past, gluing them back together into a composite whole? The only difference between reading and remembering is the source of the content, one which has previously happened, the other which is new. I read that Moore was inspired to write this novel by a painting she came across an art gallery, just like Richard Powers’s debut novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which was my number one favorite book I read in 2021. And like Powers, Moore writes to enchant, to invoke that magic which seems too often to die in childhood and adolescence, that air of nostalgia blended with saudade and a tinge or twinge of the bittersweet. It was wonderful short novel I read over the course of two days, and now I can’t wait to read more Moore.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

This 1989 third novel by American writer and journalist Katherine Dunn has garnered somewhat of a cult following over the more than three decades since its publication, which is understandable, deserving, since this novel easily stands among the strangest books I’ve ever read. The novel, set toward the late-twentieth century, follows the Binewskis, a family of traveling circus performers. Father Al and mother Crystal, through a cocktail of “illicit prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes,” have genetically altered their children to have a variety of “specialties”: Arty is a boy whose hands and feet are flippers; Elly and Iphy, conjoined twin sisters; Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf; and Chick, the youngest, is a boy with telekinetic powers. The novel is split into two timelines, both narrated by Oly: the past centers on the family and their various struggles, interpersonal rivalries, hardships and challenges growing up, living in a traveling trailer home, putting on show night after night while also learning to navigating the world of “norms”; the second, set in the present, follows Miranda, Oly’s young adult daughter, who, with a small physical defect of her own, works at a fetish club in Portland while pursuing art school. Miranda meets and befriends a wealthy woman named Mary who, with seemingly good intentions, tries to convince Miranda to undergo cosmetic surgery, a scheme which Oly vows to stop from happening. Sound strange? Well, this rough plot description barely scratches the surface of this wild and wondrously weird novel.

It was a finalist for the National Book Award the year of its publication, and since then has come to be loved by the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, and a large, varied range of enthusiastic readers. It’s certainly easy to see why. This novel, spanning nearly 350 pages and falling between genres like comedy, carnivalesque, and cringe-inducing body horror, feels like the fused fever dreams of David Lynch and Tim Burton–fitting, too, that Burton bought the rights to the book back during the nineties, though nothing has come of it. But as strange as the novel is, as imaginative, outrageous, and simply bizarre at times; as disgusting, revolting, and horrific at it is at others; beneath that veneer of playful shock which quickly devolves into utter depravity, hides a story of family, of society, of conformity, rebellion, and self-discovery, especially as a form of protest against systems of power that infringe upon a person’s ability to be themselves. I love the way Philadelphia Inquirer critic Ken Kalfus put it in his 1989 review: “The target of Dunn’s grotesquerie is our hypocritical culture, which claims to celebrate individualism but vigorously promotes conformity and conventional beauty.” At the heart of the novel, buried beneath theatrics, is not only a searing critique of modern culture, teeming with the contradictions and conundrums which continue to confound and confuse contemporary consciousness, but also a psychological exploration of the result of such cultural characteristics: narcissism, psychopathy, cult sociology, violence, manipulation, power, and the nature of evil. The plot is a wild ride, one all the more amplified by the very writing itself. I thought Dunn’s prose was beyond versatile–certain lines, passages, even entire sections were elegantly written, entirely vivid, captivating and impressive; others seemed scant, terse, straightforward and to the point. And that fluctuating range of style, in turn, threw the pacing of the novel into flux: some parts rushed by at the speed of light while others slowed to a snail’s pace. Such chaos I didn’t think I would like, but I soon grew to love, a testament to Dunn’s inventiveness and undeniable craft of writing. I’m still holding out for a film or TV adaptation and forever will until it happens, if only to see how truly disturbing it would be.

The Passion Artist by John Hawkes

This 1979 eleventh novel by American novelist and playwright John Hawkes paints of portrait of pain, pleasure, and phantasmagoria as I’ve never seen it before. Set in an undisclosed European city, the novel follows the exploits and escapades of one Konrad Vost, a man in his forties who finds himself at a moral and metaphysical crossroads and doomed to take the path towards the epicurean, the lustful, the violence. At the onset of the novel, Konrad is mourning the death of his wife, grappling with his mother’s imprisonment, and grieving his daughter’s loss of innocence, a trifecta of force which boils beneath the veneer of his own complacency. But after an encounter with a certain lady of the night, and upon learning that the women inside the prison where his mother is kept are in full revolt, Konrad succumbs to the emotions which he has long striven to stifle–emotions which give way to lustful urges and acts of sheer depravity. What ensues is a nightmarish journey teeming with scenes after scenes of violence, sequence which wholly capture one man’s final descent into downright deviance.

There’s a short passage that appears early in the novel which I think perfectly encapsulates not only the origin of the trajectory that forwards the plot, but also the stylistic aspects, particularly the bleak, dark, nihilistic interiority of the protagonist, which, expressed via free indirect discourse, remains running throughout the text, never slowing or dipping even for a moment: “Even then, in the drabbest and cruelest of those night hours, he had only the first and faintest intimations that his life had collapsed into chronology, that private axis had coincided with public axis, and that the disordering of his small world had in fact begun. But so it had.” Darkly hypnotic, morbidly mesmerizing, cunningly captivating, this short novel, just outspanning 180 pages, takes the reader on a literary sojourn through a dream which only Jose Saramago and, more prominently, Franz Kafka (an epigraph of a quote from Kafka even inaugurates the novel) could have borne, and yet, it could only have been postmodern master John Hawkes to realize and bring it into existence. I had read The Lime Twig last year, the novel many regard as his best; and I remember loving it, falling headfirst into the story and being carried away by his prose. I had a similar experience with The Passion Artist, though one more visceral in its provocation–many scenes, many lines, indeed even many words alone seemed to thrust me into another headspace, one which exists only in the in-between of nightmare and dystopia, but which offers myriad ideas, interpretations, and critiques. Over the course of reading this short novel I gleaned the philosophies of Nietzsche and Bataille, as well as the existentialists, and yet, still I feel like I barely broke the surface. I read that both John Barth and John Irving were fans of this one. So, too, was I. John Hawkes is a writer who, judging from the few works of his I’ve read and surely the many I have yet to discover, has already begun his ascent into my pantheon of greatest American authors.

Drifts by Kate Zambreno

This 2020 seventh book by American novelist and literary critic Kate Zambreno is, to use her words, the “fantasy of a memoir about nothing.” Considered a work of autofiction, the novel is comprised of short vignettes detailing, in diaristic fashion, the life of our narrator–an established writer, married with her husband John and dog Genet, living in Brooklyn during the late 2010’s, and grappling with the challenges of writing a new novel. Vignettes range from descriptions of her New York City neighborhood, interactions with her quirky neighborhoods, and caring for the many stray cats and dogs; to her daily writing habits, deep interests and frequent musings on literature, art, and film; to her relationships with her friends and family, as well as her fellow colleagues at the university where she teaches writing courses. But halfway through the book, our narrator receives some surprising, sudden news, which spurs quite a tonal shift across her short passages hereafter, news that impacts the micro as well as the macro of her world. The subtle details of the passing days are painted in new and different shades; tiny occurrences hold an enormity of new meaning; and the banal, the mundane, the quotidian carry a weight which before they never did. The result is an intimate portrait of an artist, a woman, an intellectual, who, by bridging the gap between interiority and exteriority, manages “to fold time into a book.”

Like the many auto-novels which I’ve read in the past – writers like Sebald, Knausgaard, Cusk, Ernaux all spring to mind – Kate Zambreno’s Drifts seized me from the start and held me in a state of enraptured enthrallment as I turned the pages effortlessly, the passing passages soaring before my eyes. “Compulsive” is a word that comes to mind when thinking how to describe this one. The book is split into two sections: “Sketches of Animals and Landscapes” and “Vertigo,” titles inspired by artworks of Albrecht Dürer and Alfred Hitchcock respectively, both of whom are the subjects of many meandering musings and intermittent contemplations and connections sprinkled throughout the text. Other frequent figures include writers like Franz Kafka, Rainier Maria Rilke, Robert Walser, WG Sebald, Susan Sontag, Elfriede Jelinek, Chris Kraus, Clarice Lispector, Gustave Flaubert, Walter Benjamin, and Kathy Acker; and artists including Joseph Cornell, Diane Arbus, Johannes Vermeer, Agnes Martin, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Moyra Davey, Pipilotti Rist, and of course, filmmakers Chris Marker and Chantal Akerman. In this simple regard, the book is a treasure trove of art, film, and literary adventures, so many names to discover and explore. And Zambreno’s own dwellings deeply inspire a reader’s own. Moreover, imbued throughout are numerous black-and-white photographs which contextualize subjects and settings–artwork and artists included–expanding the limits of focalized narration into a greater picture that, like the work of WG Sebald, transcends the boundaries dividing fact and fiction. And if this wasn’t enough to invoke that eerie, specific cosmic atmosphere that results from such a blurring, I encountered my own kind of intertextual, small-world synchronicity. Zambreno’s dedicates Drifts to her close friend Sofia Samatar, with whom her correspondence plays a prominent part in the book. Sofia is another established writer and teacher, who is also working on a book at the same time, though details about her book are never fully revealed. Sofia Samatar’s first foray into nonfiction, a 2022 memoir titled The White Mosque, happened to be my first review assignment when I started writing for Publisher’s Weekly Magazine. How’s that for a coincidence! Furthermore, if the book which Sofia is writing in Drifts is what eventually became The White Mosque, then in reading Drifts, I was reading, and am now describing in this review, a book describing a book which became the book that I described in my first review for a review of books. That brings me joy to think about. All in all, I agree with the New Yorker when they called Drifts “mesmerizing,” though even that seems too tame a description. This book was compulsive, and I can’t wait to explore more of Zambreno’s work.

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