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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

December Reads

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


A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

            This 2008 debut novel by Australian writer Steve Toltz is cross-generational, sweeping family saga centered around two men, Martin Dean and his son, Jasper. Our narrator, Jasper Dean, writing from the confines of an Australian jail cell in present day, recounts the events which have resulted in his imprisonment. He begins with his own unconventional childhood, before jumping farther back and regaling his father Martin’s life story: his four-year coma as a child; his upbringing with his brother Terry, who would later become a notorious criminal; to his construction of a suggestion that results in the near destruction of his hometown; his estrangement from his family; and his co-authoring a criminal handbook whose publication foments deadly consequences. Jasper grows up a quiet and reserved boy, witty beyond his years, and with a penchant for the sardonic, just like his father. But he’s inquisitive about his roots and soon discovers his parents’ backstory via his father’s scribbles in old journals, in which Jasper learns about Eddie, a longtime friend of Martin’s who still helps the Dean family, soon to be joined by Anouk, a lady whom Martin and Jasper meet at a bar. Such is the main cast of characters: Martin, Terry, and Jasper Dean, Eddie, and Anouk, and it is through their prolonged interactions, weaving schemes, and tireless relations that a modern Dickensian, transcontinental tale unfolds, from whose depths emerge an exploration of fate and free will, fame and infamy, cynicism and hope, wrought with an endless, biting hilarity.

            It was my first hand with the work by Steve Toltz, a novel that I found at Brickbat Books down off South Street. I had never heard of Toltz, nor knew anything about Fraction, but the cover caught my attention, the back cover blurb my interest, and the stamp stating it was shortlisted for the Booker my decision. Fortunately, I was not let down. It’s a 600-page saga that sits cemented in the tradition of Franzen and Markley, both descendants of Roth and Updike, themselves both descendants of Bellow, a long line of literary legends whose works explore a more provocative side of the human condition in prose trademarked by a sensual, ingenious style. But Toltz writes with an edge all his own, an acerbic wit that limns a brand of genius I’d yet to encounter before this novel. He writes with a certain journalistic shade, an accessible yet endlessly engaging form through which his characters and the relations between them twist and turn and unfold in all their outrageous excess. Moreover, there’s a subtle Céline streak that sweeps through the text, wending its way into its discursive corners, hueing Toltz’s satire with a dark sardonic cynicism stretching over both decades and great distances. Céline is even referenced at one point, impelling the reader to wonder to what degree his work was an influence on Toltz. Doubtless a great one, as the philosophical musings, immaculate rants in the form of interior monologue and dialogue alike swarm the text, treasure troves of wild ideas spanning the foreknowledge of the classics to a singular prescience reserved only for the most insightful, intuitive–those whose fingers forever remain of the pulse of the moment. The book is a wonderfully entertaining exploration of the postmodern woes, the issues of contemporary society made worse by the people such an environment produces, incubates, and then propels into adulthood and the world. And yet, through the thick veil of absurdity hides a portrait of the deeply human, which only works to elevate the novel into the realm of the greats, a lasting work whose readerly delight will surely never diminish. It was a fantastic book and a seriously fun time.



A Shining by Jon Fosse

            This 2023 latest novella by Norwegian Nobel Laureate Jon Fosse is a haunting, hypnagogic hallucination of a tale about tedium, temptation, and the threshold between life and death. This short book follows an unnamed man, our narrator/protagonist who, plagued by boredom, decides to drive aimlessly into the wintry country. Wavering between right and left turns, after a while he finds himself deep in a dense forest where his vehicle becomes entrenched in a muddy road. With night nigh, temperature plummeting, and snow beginning to fall, our nameless narrator makes the decision to leave his vehicle and venture into the woods, snow and leaves crunching underfoot. Darkness fallen, our man continues deeper and deeper into the trees, succumbing to the silence and solitude, seeing the uncertainty of his survival, until suddenly, a bright light appears in the distance. Between trees and above the earth, this burning presence looms closer and closer, hovering in thin air, radiating warmth, confounding the man in its mystifying presence. Our narrator, awe-struck, enticed, and bewildered, tries to make sense of his perception, this experience taking place in the dense dark woods, and in so doing, stumbles into an imperceptible puzzle at the edge of reason, reality, and permanent repose.  

            Finally, my first Fosse, a writer whose work, prior to and certainly after his recent receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, I’ve long wanted to read. And I feel like this short novella–so fantastical, phantasmagorical it was–was a wonderful entryway into the master’s art. A Shining is like hypnosis in written word, a short work certain to draw the reader in with its premise and slowly churn their focus into fancy through repeating cycles of thoughts, phrases, and images. Fosse’s undulating prose rolls from the outset like the wending roads and hills that mark the beginning, gaining momentum with each turn of the page. Our stroller’s cerebral soliloquys cycle in circular sentential sequences like psychedelic spirals spinning ceaselessly, inspiring a state of somnolence, a certain soporific stupor that stuns the senses and shocks the system. As our narrator staggers, so does the reader, stumbling across the snow and toward inevitable demise. Disquiet permeates the text, which I think is Fosse’s crowning achievement: his ability to hew an atmosphere, an aura that blends qualities of both dream and death to limn life’s liminality between the two illumined ends. And yet, beneath the icy text resides a multitude of readings, both interpretative and intertextual. I like what author Lauren Groff wrote about this aspect: “A Shining can be read in many ways: as a realistic monologue; as a fable; as a Christian-inflected allegory; as a nightmare painstakingly recounted the next morning, the horror of the experience still pulsing under the words, though somewhat mitigated by the small daily miracle of daylight.” I couldn’t help but see shades of Dante stippled throughout the text: in the repeated “in a dark wood,” as well as the Virgil-like beacon of light leading our narrator on his circular sojourn in this spiritual realm. It is a strange little book, something that spurns easy synthesis yet burns with delight and splendor. I can see why Fosse’s been called “the Beckett of the twenty-first century,” and I’m eager to read more of his masterfully weird work.



Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

            This 1973 fifth novel by American author and professor Richard Stern is an exploration and almost scientific examination on love’s capricious nature, the fallibility of marriage, the consequences of infidelity. Set in the late 1960s, the novel follows Dr. Robert Merriwether, a Harvard professor and physician, living a middling middle-aged existence in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife Sarah and their four kids. Having long surrendered to a lackluster life defined by the trivialities of routine, the bureaucracy of academia, and the futility of his scientific research, Merriwether is discontent and drained, benumbed both by stagnancy and marital mediocrity. Merriwether seems resigned to his fate; that is until he crosses paths with Cynthia Ryder, a twenty-year-old summer student whose wit, curiosity, and intelligence match her undeniable beauty. After repeated encounters, after realizing their mutual infatuations, the two take up and enter a secret romantic and sexual affair. As weeks turn to months and summer comes to a close, the pair’s prolonged coital caprices bloom past their ability to keep clandestine, and soon their daring dalliances are revealed, fomenting a tidal wave of consequences crashing down on Merriwether and his family, consequences complicated all the more by his children trapped in the mix. What ensues is a deeply human snapshot of love, heartache, and divorce: the unraveling of an American family.

            It was my introduction to the work of Richard Stern, and I was not disappointed. From the onset of the novel, it was apparent that the author was a writer of great ability, an artist and scholar whose novelistic vision, psychological comprehension, and command of the English language were vast, varied, and fervently undeniable. Stern braids two of my favorite forms into one, the familial drama and the campus novel, marrying the literary likes of John Updike and John E. Williams to write a work that sits firmly in the tradition driven during the succeeding decades by Philip Roth, who himself championed Stern’s novel as a masterpiece and the novel’s creator as a master of the form. (Stern and Roth were friends for more than half a century). But Stern seems to possess a style all his own: his prose flows seamlessly from the elegant and beautiful, the wondrously descriptive, to the scientific, technical, and impressively magniloquent: “mesomorphic,” “stridulation,” “hebdomadarian,” “anfractuosity,” “lordotic,” and “holophotal” are a few among the many words which Stern bends to his will, in turn imbuing the text with a singular type of wit, erudition, and eclectic scope. It’s apparent, from the very first page, just how intelligent, how talented, how extensive Stern’s writerly instinct truly is; and by the halfway mark, it’s apparent that what Stern is doing is deeper than it seems on the surface.

Stern’s playfulness shines through the characters, sentences, and quips, often in the form of Merriwether’s “merri-witticisms.” And Stern’s sternness shines through the spaces between characters, sentences, and quips, in the forbidding silence sounding an onslaught of seriousness, solemnity, sobriety. From that sternness, loudest in the latter half of the book, weaves an exploration into a major shift in American twentieth century culture: divorce, a growing phenomenon in the Sixties when a cultural overhaul of romantic assumptions arose with the burgeoning sexual liberation movement. In that regard, Stern’s is a work of shifting tides, a state of transition, a turning point wherein the beliefs of old give way to new norms. And yet, the inevitability of the issues which plight our pathetic protagonist, issues fomented by his own marital discontent and lascivious urges, carries a certain shade that seemed, to me, to propel the novel in a neo-naturalism of sorts–a social novel seeking to excavate the conflict not only of man vs instinct but also man vs tradition. Reading a book like this today, at 29, I can’t help but discern a level of naivete that shrouds the characters, keeping them trapped in a prison of their own making, a certain confinement sourced from and reinforced by the social norms and conventions which have sculpted their upbringings, adolescences, and then adulthoods. In a way, culture is a character in the novel, which only adds to the experience.

Richard Stern spent most his life as a professor of English teaching at the University of Chicago for nearly 50 years, and a novel about a professor who has an affair with an undergrad duly invites the reader to speculate how much may have been inspired by true events. There’s much to ponder in this short but substantial novel, and it is one that I’ll surely revisit in the years to come, a work that’ll entertain as much as evoke. 



Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

            This 1969 fourth novel by American author Philip Roth is widely considered, for its candid and provocative portrayal of the human experience, a masterpiece of American literature and one of Roth’s most enduring works. The novel is one long unbroken monologue recited by Alex Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel, in which Alex delves into the details of his life. He starts with his childhood growing up in New Jersey during the Forties, stuck under the oppressive palms of his watchful mother and perpetually constipated father, stifled by the mores and traditions of his Jewish family, and trapped in the role of the coddled, overprotected son. But as Portnoy expounds his lamentations, drifting from boyhood to adolescence and into adulthood, familial frustrations give way to the tribulations of puberty and burgeoning sexuality, issues cruder and more ridiculous than one can imagine. Lechery, lust, and lewdness come to punctuate Portnoy’s prognosis, forecasting a fate defined by the flesh, a future he cannot escape. As his story leaps from New Jersey to Rome to Israel and back again, what unfolds is a tale whose explicit surface belies its breadth of psychological insight, family exploration, and the impact of cultural and religious influence on an individual’s psyche.

            I first read Portnoy’s Complaint years ago, back when I was still a novice reader and had no way to know what it was that I was reading at the time. Revisiting it now, especially after having just read Richard Stern, was a wonderfully entertaining experience. This novel, this sly seriocomic, is seriously outrageous, and I couldn’t help wondering how readers must have reacted to it when it was first published. It’s a novel that firmly cemented Roth’s reputation as a “Laureate of the Lewd,” and quite honesty, that’s putting it gently. This novel is more obscene, raunchy, indecorous than damn near everything I’ve ever encountered (save Bataille), certainly much more explicit that I remembered. And yet it’s meticulously, effectively, impressively done. Roth writes with the impeccable description and wonderful wordplay of John Updike, not to mention his deep and erudite examination of the human condition; and with the masterful wit and unbridled, unapologetic salacity of Henry Miller, whose repeated use of a certain profanities the familiar reader will find echoed in Roth. And Alexander Portnoy, I think, might be Philip Roth’s finest and certainly funniest invention. Our narrator/monologist bears his soul to his unfortunate therapist who, like the reader, is not only forced to listen but experience vicariously the sad absurdity that is this man’s life, as well as the ridiculous, repulsive, revolting illogic that fractures his perspective–of his family, of his lovers, of himself–and foments the misunderstandings and conundrums he inevitably faces. There’s a truly interesting psychology behind Portnoy, an intricacy that weaves the words of his monologue with a trauma-born, self-loathing masochism in which he takes “some special pleasure, some pride, in making himself the butt of his own peculiar sense of humor.” Portnoy’s plight in life is completely self-inspired; all his problems stem from himself, and therein lies the humorous beauty in this 274-page rant. Only a writer like Philip Roth could spin an exhaustive complaint into a work of literature.




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