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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

August Reads

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

The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai

This 1989 second novel by Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai is the story of a quiet Hungarian town in the cold dead of winter. Just below the calm and collected façade of the town, great insurgence and civil unrest is boiling. The catalyst for the cataclysm comes with the arrival of a mysterious traveling circus whose main attraction is a massive taxidermic whale. The townsfolk, at once bewildered, suspicious, and afraid, are quickly stirred up into a frenzy, some fearing it is a sign of the impending apocalypse, others believing it to be a full-fledged onslaught by the governmental elite. What follows is a wildly entertaining, at times poignant, glimpse into the psychology of a dismal, insignificant town, and an in-depth look into a cast of complicated characters during an unprecedented rebellion where politics, religion, and science clash in a surreal, dramatic display of sheer pandemonium.

The novel is an achievement of form, like Krasznahorkai’s first novel Satantango, which I read and reviewed back in June. This one is split into three sections, each with untitled chapters comprised of a singular paragraph, which in turn consists of complex sequences of meandering, inextricably woven stream-of-consciousness sentences that run sometimes nearly a page long–compound/complex combinations of hyper-descriptions, interior and exterior monologue and dialogue, interweaving narratives, and multiple sentences superimposed into one another. It is truly unbelievable; unlike anything I’ve ever read. And beyond the form is an extensive exploration of socioeconomic class, education, and faith that foments the action of the story with an unnerving force that extends far beyond the page. It is at once a philosophical novel linking the destitution of society with the complexities of the human condition, as well as a strikingly entertaining and bizarre tale, one that at times made me laugh. Like his debut novel, this one was an extremely difficult book to read, but certainly one of the most rewarding.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

This 1971 debut horror novel by American novelist Thomas Tryon is the story of two thirteen-year-old twins, Niles and Holland Perry. It is 1935, in the New England countryside, and in the wake of their father’s death, strange events start happening. Niles begins to notice a change in his twin brother Holland–he is acting odd, suspicious, reticent; and after an awful incident involving their cousin and pitchfork, things only gets worse. What unfolds is a treacherous nightmare filled with supernatural anomalies, suspenseful goings-on, and murderous schemes that reveal the mysterious deviation of a relationship between two unlikely twin brothers, one a saint, the other a psychopath.

It’s a tale that far supersedes any Stephen King story, one crafted in prose so vivid, so engaging, so captivatingly daunting, it rivals Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Jackson. Tryon, in his debut novel, achieves the impossibly difficult–to convey an atmosphere that combines the nostalgia of childhood, reminiscent flashes of summer afternoons, in lucid descriptions of the bucolic landscape, the childish games and imagination associated with such pleasant memories, the carefreeness of growing up–with an underlying, sinister tone of impending tragedy, an undercurrent of evil unlike any other, an anxiety that an ever-present danger lies just below the surface, a deadly accident lurks right around the corner, ready to strike and cause unfathomable pain and suffering. This was an incredible horror novel, one that, in my opinion, managed to encapsulate all the aspects that define true horror–not simply the unexpected scares and suspense, but the disturbance of sorrow, the searing terror of unpredictability, and the inscrutable psychology of depravity, all of which are bound in complicated familial ties further exasperating each effect. It was an absolutely fantastic, entertaining, and chilling read.

The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

This 2001 twenty-first novel by American author Philip Roth is the story of David Kepesh. A 62-year-old senior literature professor and frequent guest on a talk-radio show, Kepesh is a libertine, sexually-charged Casanova whose possibly greatest joy in life comes from striking up sexual affairs with his former students. He’s been doing it for years and is a professional; that is until he meets Consuela Castillo, an absolutely beautiful Cuban 24-year-old student in his “Practical Criticism” seminar. The two fall deep into an amorous affair, one wrought with passion, tension, and not a few complications. And the farther Kepesh falls, the harder, he finds, it is to get out. It is at once a heated love story and a contemplation on the role of commitment, and the subsequent jealousy and heartbreak that follows.

Written in a chapter-less confession, with unapologetic honesty, it is both a campus love story and a seething critique on American society, a sociological examination of the cultural and sexual revolution of the 60s (all experienced from the eyes of a cynical, hedonistic literature professor; what more could one ask for?). However, it is also a plaintive, and at times overwhelming, dive into the very real complexities of family, aging, and even death. And yet, it was so much more: absolutely hilarious–humor ranging from outrageously raunchy to surprising turns of events; intellectually engaging–from literary allusions littering the pages to full-on analyses and critiques; and heart-wrenchingly evocative–the dynamics of a relationship between two complex individuals with complex histories, personalities, and perspectives. The novel follows Roth’s first two Kepesh-centered works: The Breast and The Professor of Desire, two books I have yet to read, though I certainly now intend to as this one was an unbelievable treat. Roth is genius when it comes to writing people, a psychologist and artist in one, and this novel is further proof of his limitless brilliance.

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

This 1962 sixth novel by Japanese author Kobo Abe is the story of an inescapable surrealist nightmare. After getting stranded in a small village on the edge of a Japanese seashore, Niki Jumpei, a young entomologist having first arrived to search for a new species of insect, ends up taking refuge with a woman who lives in a dilapidated abode at the bottom of a deep, cavernous sand pit. Encroaching walls of sand seep into the hole, shifting and moving to fill every crevice, and the two must constantly shovel out sand so as to not be buried. But soon the man realizes the futility of their work and that escape is impossible. What follows is a disturbing, harrowing account of an abduction, the odd intertwining of two unlikely characters, and an absurdist contemplation on freedom, agency, and the meaning of suffering.

The novel won Abe the prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in the year of its publication, and later it was adapted into a film which has since garnered a cult-following over the years. Written in an engaging, terse prose that shifts and flows like the sand that plays such a prominent role in it, the novel is often described as Sisyphean for the absurdist and existential themes that pervade the story wherein Abe’s commentary on meaning–in life, work, love, and existence–shines through with disturbing brilliance. And the darkness, the fear and anxiety that fills the spaces between words is undeniably stark, something that forces the reader to confront the unanswerable questions about their own life, values, morality, and existence. This novel was absolutely fantastic.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This 2015 second novel by American author Hanya Yanagihara is the story of a group of four friends. Spanning the years from their mid-twenties to late forties living in New York City, it follows: Willem, a handsome, aspiring actor with a painful past; Malcolm, a despondent and confused architect from a wealthy family; JB, an outspoken gay painter with an addictive personality; and Jude, an enigmatic, reticent, genius lawyer whose horrific childhood–growing up without parents and in the care of priests, one of whom may as well have been the devil, then foster parents–has irreparably scarred him, emotionally, mentally, and physically. And it is with Jude that the rest seem inexplicably tied throughout the many years, connected in a brotherly and otherworldly bond that transcends the boundaries of friendship and love, and which reveals the intimacy and unfathomable complexity of human relationships.

That I wept at multiple parts of this novel, which very seldom happens, is truly a testament to the sheer brilliance and magnitude of Yanagihara’s imagination, as well as the power of her emotional manipulation. Of heart-rending novels, this one takes the cake, trouncing damn near everything I have ever read. Clocking in at just above 800 pages, it is a dense, complicated, and irresistibly evocative book that seizes the reader and demands investment, dedication, and inevitably, sacrifice. I read it over the course of two weeks, unable to put it down, unable to stop thinking about it when I wasn’t reading. It is heavily character-driven, arguably plot-less (just like real life), yet packed with movement and histories that span decades. And it is written in an accessible, illuminating prose that captures the outwardly effects of each character, the dynamics between each of them, as well as the internal, their thoughts, feelings, and understandings, all of which reveal the complexities of each of their stories. And these various stories run from the good to the bad to the unbelievably horrible and then back again. Seriously, this one is not for the faint of heart; horrific scenes of abuse–emotional, physical, sexual–graphic violence, self-harm, addiction, and death–of a brother, of a parent(s), of a child, of a friend. The book was a finalist for both the Man Booker Award and the National Book Award in 2015, and it is easily one of the most profound novels I have ever read and likely will ever read. This one will forever stay with me, a truly staggering work of literature.

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