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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

December Reads

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

Steps by Jerzy Kosiński

This 1968 second novel by Polish American author Jerzy Kosiński is an experimental collection of anecdotal vignettes, the narrator (or perhaps narrators) of which remains ambiguous and unnamed, like all the rest of the characters, from beginning to end. The fragmented narratives, ranging in length from a single paragraph to a chapter, most commonly depict a man, young or older, and his relation to another person, place, or conflict: an archeology student stranded on an island without money finds inventive ways to get help; a ski instructor becomes enthralled with a perceived affair taking place between three tubercular patients at the adjoining resort; a soldier convinces his troopmates to escape base camp for a day; an affair between a photographer and nurse turns bestial; a guest lecturer befriends a philosopher student whose infatuation with clean bathrooms intrigues and befuddles; a journalist stumbles upon a dilapidated house in which a prisoner is kept captive in a suspended cage; a young man becomes infatuated with a circus-performing contortionist; and many more comprise the narratives, most of which are punctuated with short bits of italicized dialogue between two unknown people, lending to the ambiguous tone which fluctuates from doomful and despairing to disgusting to downright devastating, in the end entailing an evocative work of unending estrangement.

The novel won Kosiński the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1969, and renowned American author David Foster Wallace cited the novel in his 1994 essay “Overlooked” as one of his selected “five direly underappreciated US novels > 1960,” describing it as “a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka's fragments get anywhere close to where Kosiński goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.” And indeed, I’ve seen the name Kafka come up in many another review, surely a testament to the atmospheric, contradictory, and deviant aura that looms over the text, ever impending, ever nightmarish. But I face a conundrum regarding the book and Wallace’s description of it: I don’t know if Wallace’s assessment is an exaggeration of sorts or that my experience reading the book was inevitably weakened by my inability to pierce through Kosiński’s elastic prose and peer into the allegorical realms whose depths plumb far deeper that they seem. I’m inclined to lean towards the latter, especially after reading Kosiński’s debut The Painted Bird earlier this year and diving into its structural tapestry which revealed endless streams of vast interpretation and intellection. That book was a depraved treasure trove, and perhaps this one is too, though not as evidently so. One thing is for certain, it was not a reading experience as profound, provocative, and chilling as his first novel, though one I enjoyed nonetheless, given its brevity in both form and length. Perhaps, I’ll revisit it again sometime in the future.

A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East

by László Krasznahorkai

This 2003 novella by Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is a darkly contemplative, phantasmagorical tale of searching amid desertion, melancholy mired in meaninglessness, which follows fluidly in the literary tradition cemented by, as Susan Sontag described, “the master of the apocalypse.” Set in a dystopic Kyoto, Japan, a city currently deserted of all people where animals roam free, the story tracks the perambulations of the grandson of Prince Genji who, in search of a mysterious garden, wanders the grounds of an old monastery protected by “a mountain to the north, a lake to the south, paths to the west, and a river to the east.” But the monastery that provides the setting of this short novel, having withstood the passage of centuries, is an enigma of sorts, a home to eerie, somewhat depraved curiosities – an injured dog limps toward a gingko tree where it finds his final resting place; thirteen goldfish are nailed to the side of a wooden hut; a series of earthquakes occur, ending as quick as they began. The site seems the locus of an interdimensional conduit, somehow existing both in and outside of time and space, and as the grandson of Prince Genji continues in his trek, the mysteries only multiply, entailing a novella perplexing and befuddling to the very end.

The word “phantasmagoria” comes to mind: “a sequence of real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream.” Truth be told, such a term could apply to most of the work in Krasznahorkai’s dark and gloomy oeuvre, the last of which I read, a year ago this month, was Chasing Homer, the media-bending thriller novella which chronologically came sixteen years after this very one was written. However, the sense of urgency which drove Chasing Homer is lacking in A Mountain to the North; no, this one is slower-paced, pensive, drifting in a way that calls to mind fog rolling into the foreground from far off in the distance, the air which carries it an analog to Krasznahorkai’s interminable style of prose–flowing streams of words, descriptions, thoughts, which seem to have neither beginning nor end, amorphous like the content within. Liminal, boundless, nebulous, A Mountain to the North not only portrays a realm that exists outside of understanding, but the form and structure of the novella too seem to exist outside of convention, tradition, genre. The book begins with the second chapter, refusing the readerly comfort imparted by an exposition, and in turn establishing from the onset the anxiety which runs as an undercurrent throughout the novella. And though the short chapters maintain a steady rhythm to the read, that anxiety seems to ebb and flow with each page turned, pushing and pulling the reader along, in a way counteracting the tempo in a forced syncopation of sorts, which puts the reader right up against the grandson of Prince Genji, exploring the gloomy noumenal wasteland of the Krasznahorkai’s imagination alongside him. While it’s nothing close to Satantango or The Melancholy of Resistance, this novella was an incredibly entertaining and short read, one I think I would recommend for anyone new to Krasznahorkai and wanting to get a taste of his work.

Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke

This 1972 third novel by Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke is at once a romantic comedy, mystery, and travelogue rolled into one, written in a chapter-less stream of fragmented interior monologue. It follows an unnamed Austrian man in his late twenties who, in the wake of an acrimonious divorce, has traveled to the United States to recover from his relationship with now ex-wife Judith. He enjoys various cities like Boston and New York, dining and drinking alone, bathing in hotel baths and reading his books, infrequently befriending the lowly stranger. Our young protagonist/narrator happens to be reunited with a former lover, a woman named Claire, who asks him to accompany her and her two-year-old daughter Benedictine on a cross-country trip to St. Louis from Philadelphia. He accepts, and the three embark on the road trip, stopping in multiple cities along the way. But soon he learns that Judith has also traveled to the States and is tracking him down with murderous intent. Leaving Claire in St. Louis, our protagonist continues westward, hitting Denver and Tucson, Judith hot on his heels all the while, before flying over the West Coast where a Western-style showdown remains to be had.

It’s a quirky short novel, spanning 167 pages, whose outrageous antics scatter the pages in spades and belie the themes that truly reside at its core, themes of loneliness, dispossession, and absurdity. It’s a subtly adroit little novel, not unsurprising coming from one of Austria’s finest. I had first heard of Peter Handke though Karl Ove Knausgaard, who, in the sixth volume of My Struggle, expounds at length on the Austrian writer and specifically his short, powerful memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which I read at the end of 2019. Since then, Handke is a name that has frequently floated across my path. Not only did he win the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, but I also discovered that both John Updike and WG Sebald were fans of his. What’s striking about this novel is how “American” it is, despite being written by an Austrian writer. It should be no surprise given that Handke had spent considerable time in the States, and that his protagonist/narrator being Austrian–all events, places, and people filtered through his eyes and laying the landscape–that the novel doubtless reflects Handke’s own perspective. But what I’m specifically talking about, this inherent “Americanness” that many presume only American writers must know, resides in the subtleties of the novel–the description of a menu at a diner; the welcome sign at a gas station off an interstate; the bucolic landscapes which paint the changing frames through a window of a moving car. There are various moments, innocuous instances imbued in grander ones, which remind me of the paintings of Edward Hopper, whose work, along with Norman Rockwell’s, embodies the quintessentially “American” more than any other. It’s the most “American” novel that isn’t American that I’ve read in recent years, and certainly a fun time for anyone looking for something at once odd, hilarious, and compellingly readable.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

This 2007 second novel by American author Annie Dillard perfectly captures the wonder and the sublimity of love, as well as the devastation and despondency fomented by its loss. Set shortly after the Second World War in Provincetown, a small coastal town at the northernmost tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the novel follows Toby Maytree and Lou Bigelow. At thirty years old, Toby, a distinctive and eclectic poet, meets Lou, a twenty-three-year-old Ingrid Bergman lookalike with a witty disposition and penchant for classic literature. What begins as an uneasy acquaintanceship filled with banter and bon mots, soon morphs into more, a romance which blooms into love, sending engagement into imminence, soon followed by marriage and parenthood. Fourteen years pass untarnished when the untimely tides of treachery rush up from the wake to abruptly drown the love which once persisted, in its place leaving only a despondent uncertainty: “They became not constellations but corpses.” What unfolds in the bitter aftermath is a heartrending tale of resilience, reckoning, and the rediscovery of love even after its flame has been put out.

The novel was a finalist for the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the second of only two novels which Annie Dillard has written–most of her work falls under the umbrella of creative nonfiction. This was my first encounter with her fiction, and it was delightful, hypnotic, engaging, bewildering. While the characters who drive the plot are fascinating creations in their own right, whose traits and personalities, actions and motivations spur an endless stream of inquiry ranging across social psychology, the philosophy of art, and creative writing; it was Dillard’s distinctively elegant prose and enigmatic form which ultimately won me over. Poetic and lyrical only partly describe her prose; another side adhering to descriptors like direct and economical; her prose resides in the in-between, the nexus linking the sharp and the soft, the brief and the bountiful. Dillard falls somewhere between poet Mary Oliver and novelist Marilynne Robinson, in a literary tradition which pulls the alluring tenets of naturalism and transcendentalism into the twentieth century and paints them anew. They are a wondrous camp of writers the descendants of Emily Dickinson, and yet reading The Maytrees, at various instances I felt a prosaic prod toward Rachel Cusk and Joan Didion. I had learned from reading Dillard’s short memoir/handbook The Writing Life last year just how voracious a reader she truly is. It’s a habit which has spanned her entire life, one which informs much of her writing, as is certainly evident in The Maytrees, where literary masters such as Kafka, Conrad, Borges, and Tolstoy are all directly referenced, and words such as “epistomeliac,” “pauciloquy,” and “lagniappe” make appearances. After reading this one and falling into it the way I did, swimming in Dillard’s incredible descriptions, amazed by her metaphors, I will absolutely read more of her work. I especially look forward to reading her famous Pulitzer-prize-winning nonfiction book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

This 2021 debut novel by Irish writer Megan Nolan charts the romantic, at times anti-romantic, affair between a precocious, insightful young woman prone to destructive habits, and an older man named Ciaran, an art writer and ‘the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.’ Set in 2012, Dublin, Ireland, the two meet at an art show where they chat briefly before agreeing to meet again and have a proper date–a series of events innocuous enough, though unwittingly the start of a tumultuous, frightening, emotional and physical relationship, the likes of which our narrator has never known. Very quickly she discovers Ciaran’s true nature: aloof, angry, capricious to the point of neurosis, and tempestuous. Their relationship ebbs and flows like waves in a storm–friendly and beautiful one day, catastrophic the next. Our narrator begins to live in a perpetual state of anxiety, fearing that at any moment Ciaran, set off by the smallest thing, will fly off the handle or, worse, fall silent, distant, detached, proclaiming all the while that there’s nothing wrong, “I’m not upset.” As weeks turn to months and months turn to years; as relations are strained, restored, and strained again; as tempers flare and tears are shed; as gaslighting and gatekeeping increase; and as desires grow and fidelity wanes, what ensues is a story of both love and loathing, of passion and turbulence, one punctuated with no shortage of heartache, abuse, and pain.

My favorite Nordic man of letters, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has called the novel “a love story like no other,” further remarking that, “the writing is intense and honest, with a rare access to real life, but it is also reflective and full of insights, and with this combination the novel manages to separate the idea of love and the experience of it, and take the reader to the place where it comes into being.” I think he nails it–Nolan’s novel exposes the paradoxes of love and pain, the unreason and illogic of such a visceral experience, one fomented and fueled by the interweaving intricacies of desire, affection, and power. In a Maughamian Philip-Mildred fashion, our narrator, driven by a love that borders on lust, becomes subject to a psychological terrorism constructed upon envy and control though masquerading as love and affection, and yet, over the course of the novel, she seems to favor such subjugation, even at the expense of her own physical, mental, and emotion well-being. That it remains ambiguous as to whether our narrator is slowly surrendering to the dwindling hope that the love which inspires the good will outlast the bad or that the sheer, unrelenting force of emotional manipulation imparted by Ciaran has in turn resulted in a sort of Stockholm syndrome, is a testament the Nolan’s impressive craft, impeccable vision, and intellectual acuity. To follow the psychoanalytical threads which comprise both the narrator’s and Ciaran’s characters is to undoubtedly delve into a web of psychological conundrums, not the least of which include the consequences of abandonment, the insidious and detrimental effects of a pervasive patriarchal environment, and the deep-seated trauma which keeps the cycle of abuse forever turning. Nolan’s novel paints the painful portrait of what is a universal issue, especially in the contemporary culture of relationships, and does so with emotionality, insight, and vulnerability. Nolan resides somewhere between Sally Rooney and Hanya Yanagihara, contemporaries whom I predict she’ll likely be lumped with and compared to as more of her work begins to emerge. But nevertheless, she is an author to watch, and she’s already got a second novel on the way.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

This 1934 fifth novel by American writer Dashiell Hammett is, like the rest of Hammett’s body of work, an absolute exemplar of the hard-boiled detective novel. The setting is New York City, Christmas in 1932, and Nick Charles, former private investigator, is looking forward to the relaxing holiday with his wife Nora. But when a young woman by the name of Julia Wolf, the secretary for a wealthy inventor, turns up dead–murdered by gunshot and the weapon is missing–Nick Charles is thrust back into the sleuthing world he longed to escape. Wolf’s employer is Clyde Wynant, a mysterious man whose ex-wife Mimi and daughter Dorothy prove quite a handful for Charles. And even with help of Lieutenant John Guild, Nick still can’t seem to evade the onslaught of strange happenings–he’s attacked at his apartment by a man claiming innocence; he’s forced to house young Dorothy who claims her mother Mimi is abusive and her step-father Chris makes passes at her; Dorothy’s brother Gilbert, ever lurking in the shadows, raises questions with his ethically dubious scientific experiments; and suspects begin winding up as dead as Julia Wolf. What ensues is a boozy, bare-knuckled, back-alley pursuit for the truth, an investigation teeming with duplicitous dealings and backhanded agreements, secret identities and double lives, heated arguments and bloody fights, and more than a few twists and turns. The result is a final novel fitting to cap the catalog of one of America’s finest crime writers.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dashiell Hammett, more than a few years since I read Red Harvest and before that, his most famous The Maltese Falcon. But those earlier novels remain vivid in my memory–from the quirky characters, with their witty banter comprising pages on pages worth of dialogue, always imbued with the imbibing of limitless libations, to the intricate sequences of interweaving plotlines and subtle details, entailing an endlessly entertaining and suspenseful ride. And now, I have The Thin Man to add to that bunch of books, and I do so gladly because, like the others, it’s among Hammett’s best. Nick Charles is like the literary doppelganger of Hammett’s most popular invention, private eye Sam Spade, yet Charles exudes an air of indifference, insouciance, and laxity, which in Sam Spade is replaced with a debonair demeanor, impressive insight, and fierce confidence. But those small differences are few against their similarities, and the novel, in the trajectory of its suspense and structure of plot, did call to mind his previous novels; however, behind the text resides an artistic wisdom, doubtless the byproduct of both Hammett’s time working as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency for nearly a decade, as well as his renown writing career which spanned over two decades. Though he’s a heavyweight of the hard-boiled detective novel, I still wonder how much renown his name carries in other literary circles; it’s difficult to gauge how he might be ranked in, say, the genre of literary fiction. Regardless of the uncertain (though surely substantial) size of his readership, Hammett’s work remains as timeless as it is compelling, intriguing, and inventive.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

This 1955 eighth novel by English writer John Wyndham falls under the realm of science fiction, though the elements which warrant such categorization are few against the aspects which propel this short novel in the realm of twentieth-century greats often overlooked. Set thousands of years in the future, after a nuclear apocalypse has decimated the earth in an event now referred to as “The Tribulation,” from which a primitive civilization has emerged from the few survivors, the novel follows a young boy named David Strorm, who lives in a small community whose sense of ethics and “Purity Laws” all stem from rigid religious doctrine: Keep pure the stock of the Lord; Watch thou for the mutant. God-fearing defines their way of life, and David’s father is the town magistrate who, with his indomitable will and puritanical outlook, wields his authority like a tyrant. But soon David, through befriending other children and bearing witness to a series of wild events, begins not only to see the immorality and danger in his community’s prevailing beliefs, laws based on an impenetrable disdain for difference, but he also learns that he himself bears the very difference which stokes the fear of his community–he holds a certain power, and in this he is not alone. David and the others are forced to conceal their true identities, a task which, with the arrival of David’s baby sister, becomes increasingly harder to keep. Soon all hell breaks loose, and what ensues is a perilous journey which takes David and his friends far away from their home, into the treacherous lands of the Fringes in search of the safety and hope of which they’ve so long been deprived.

This was a perfect read to cap a year filled with great reads. Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, my introduction to the British author’s work, is page-turner in seventeen chapters. It’s a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel which somehow also resides in a space outside those famous novels which define the genre: it’s set generations after the nuclear war which has wiped out the world; its main characters are a cast of outsider children in conflict with the adults and the society in which they live; and the novel is narrated through the eyes of a young boy slowly coming of age. But if those three attributes don’t secure its own unique space, surely the multitude of interpretations inspired by the novel will. Discrimination and prejudice; religious dogma and bigotry; war and fascism; the origin of traditions and conventions; purity culture and its detrimental effects; race and gender; politics and power; historiography and the architecture of civilization–all of these and more weave in and out of the narrative, enabling the reader to extract a wealth of meaning, doubtless disproportionate to the breadth of the text. And that such torrents of meaning rush below an energetic, suspenseful, at times even heartbreaking, and all the while compellingly readable narrative, is a testament to who is certainly an underrated writer. There’s so much to say about this novel, and I feel a short review doesn’t do it justice; it’s a novel that I can see being taught in a college English class, probably the first sci-fi novel I’ve read where that possibility comes to mind–though I think that’s more an indicator that I should read more sci-fi, and I can say confidently, after enjoying this work of Wyndham’s as much as I did, that I absolutely plan to in the new year.

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