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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

July Reads

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

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

This 1998 second novel by French author Michel Houellebecq, also entitled Atomised, is the biographical story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. The two men, both wildly different – Michel is an impotent biophysicist on the verge a major scientific discovery who leads a sad life of near-total solitude; Bruno is an overweight sex addict whose failures trounce his triumphs – have lived and grown up concurrently, both experiencing the awkwardness, pain, and at times cruelty of growing up albeit in very different ways. However, it isn’t until they are both middle-aged men, with absolutely zero passion in life, that their individual despondencies, tribulations, and protests against society are mutually recognized and no longer tolerable. What unfolds is a searing, tragic, and yet slightly hopeful story that explores what happens when the darkest part of the human condition is chanced with a glimpse of redemption.

The novel won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002, and it’s clear why. In multiple bending perspectives and frequent frame narratives, it is not simply a tale, or rather a stream of tales, borne of incredible imagination evident in the innumerable, complicated character histories and various subtexts, but also it is a relentless and seething commentary on mental health, science, and modern society. As Houellebecq is wont to do, in his trademark prose –unapologetically loud, divisive, blatant, and graphically crass – he paints interweaving narratives in a light so authentic it borders on reality. Expounding incredible literary and art critique, in-depth scientific analysis and invention, and metaphysical discourse, his writing is so limpidly fluid, tersely magniloquent, elegantly descriptive, and unimaginably hilarious that drowning in the pages is totally inevitable. Alongside Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, Michel Houellebecq sits, one the greatest contemporaries, and this novel is venerating proof of his literary and scientific brilliance.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

This 2017 nonfiction book by American writer Kurt Andersen is the in-depth historical study of belief in America and how it has played a major role in the nation’s history. Andersen posits that, since the dawning of the nation, belief and fantasy have always trounced fact and truth, and over the centuries, that notion has not dwindled but become exasperated even in the face of advances in technological, scientific, and rational understanding. The book is split into six parts each covering a span of time beginning in 1517, when America had yet to be an idea, and going through the centuries of formation up to the present and beyond. It is an achievement of literary nonfiction that blends history, religion, sociology, and the psychology of a nation to explain one of the most prevalent and so “inherently American” phenomena sweeping the nation today.

I rarely write about my nonfiction reads, but this one was too important to not write about. Andersen hooked me by the first chapter; his accessible prose, acerbic wit, and fluidity captivated and seized me from the get-go. His attention to detail, meticulous use of footnotes to further provide context, and blend of historical and scientific explanations went far beyond expectation. This is a book so unbelievably interesting and entertaining to read, so informative and eye-opening, explanatory and mind-blowing, and all the while engaging and expansive, that it easily flies into my top favorite non-fiction reads of all time. It is a truly important study of America’s history, and how a virulent, widespread mentality of “magical thinking” borne of fantastical irrationality and religious fanaticism has festered for centuries, snowballing into today’s fake-news, science-denying, postmodern, politically and socially turbulent climate with zero signs of letting up. Everyone should read this book.

How I Became a Nun by César Aira

This 1993 short novel by Argentine writer César Aira is fictional autobiography of César Aira, a shy, introverted six-year-old who is referred to throughout as a boy but considers herself a girl. After a near death experience resulting from an incident involving strawberry ice cream and homicide, Aira perceives the world a newly acute sentience, an elevated sense of awareness that seems to distance her from people and reality itself. In journal-like entries, Aira details the unfortunate circumstances of her childhood, detailing the various imaginary escapades she embarks on, and amidst the dereliction and despair of living in poverty, she captures the childish spirit of hope that trademarks childhood–that is until her reverie is cut short by a shocking ending.

It was my first experience with Aira, who is one of Argentina’s most celebrated contemporary writers, known specifically for his very short novel, bordering on novella, and for writing on topics that range from surrealism to dadaism, to the existential to fantastic. And this one encompasses all. It is a beautiful exploration of childhood, with whimsical understandings of life and identity, and yet it is also a wonderfully weird and sardonically humorous tale of family. Aira’s prose is terse, yet descriptive, encapsulating and fluid, and very accessible. The pages flew easily, and it was in general a fun, hilarious, and disturbing, afternoon read. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

All Souls by Javier Marías

This 1989 novel by Spanish author Javier Marías is the tale of a Spanish professor teaching and lecturing at Oxford University. The unnamed narrator recounts his time at the college, detailing the various strange events that occur, his many scruples involving other professors, students, and even wives and mistresses. But most often, he describes his unease associated with the many years spent at the school, and the everlasting effect that endures afterward from such an academic career. It is at once a campus novel unlike any other, a dangerous love story, and a sardonic commentary on the finest institutions of higher education.

Like A Heart So White which I read and reviewed back in February, this novel is among some of the best I’ve read. In his trademark prose–a virtuosic blend of hyper-description, page-long streams of consciousness, free association, and unbelievably crafted extended metaphors–Marías leaps from the: solemn, somber seriousness of love, heartache, and jealousy, expounding the great intricacies of human psychology; to collegiate calumny, infidelity, and betrayal among the wildest characters which inevitably incite hilarious, outrageous, and catastrophic events, the cringing awkwardness of which he paints in painful vividness; to the dark themes of ennui, listlessness, and a search for meaning in life. It is cerebrally entertaining, philosophically ambitious, and absolutely ridiculous, which makes it both unique and magnificent. Marías is a powerhouse of literary brilliance on a level all his own.

Victoria by Knut Hamsun

This 1898 sixth novel by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun is a quintessential tale of forbidden love. A miller’s son, Johannes Møller, from a young age has been infatuated with Victoria, a girl from a wealthy, upper-class family. As they grow up, Johannes’s feelings only increase and intensify, and eventually he falls in love with her. Victoria reciprocates his feelings, however, their differing class backgrounds preclude them from being together. And when Victoria ends up marrying another man named Otto, someone to match her own upper-class status, Johannes is forced to reconcile his feelings and confront the injustices borne of social hierarchy lest he accept them and lose the only glimmer of hope that makes life worth living.

Similar to his Pan which I read and reviewed the month before, in this novel Hamsun paints in unbelievably beautiful and vivid detail the love, the human condition, the cat-and-mouse game of infatuations and affection, along with the heartache that so often comes as a result of such dalliances. His prose is hypnotic, accessible, and strong, with terse description and an uncanny knack for dialogue. Victoria is an exemplum of realism, a portrait of love and the obstacles, hardships, and pain reminiscent of the tradition of Steinbeck and Maugham. This short novel was a fantastic escape and seething reminder that love and pain are two sides of the same page.

Americana by Don DeLillo

This 1971 debut novel by prolific American writer Don DeLillo is a unique take on the American dream under modern context. The narrator David Bell is a good-looking 28-year-old high-level executive at a television network living in New York City in the ‘70s. Somewhat of a libertine Casanova with a hedonistic, cynical outlook on life and penchant for caprice, he undertakes a film project that sends him across the country to document another side of the American experience, specifically the Navajo Native Americans. However, once he goes out west, accompanied by a few of his close friends, Bell gets wrapped up in an infatuation with a culture much different than the one in which he thrived. What unfolds is an moving, hilarious, and philosophically inducing portrait of the American dream uprooted, dismantled, and redefined under a modern context in a country founded on fantasy and belief.

Like his ground-breaking novel White Noise which I read last year, Americana is filled to the brim with images and themes of consumerism, capitalism, and fantastical ambitions that define the mindset, or rather pathology, that is the American tradition. DeLillo, in stunning, fluid, and utterly captivating prose that rivals the greats, paints a portrait of stereotypical success, the embodiment of the American dream with all its uncanniness, erraticism, and narcissism, then sets fire to his creation, obliterating the sense of the phrase while simultaneously illuminating the reality and culture that overwhelmingly tip the American economic scales, all through a blend of sardonic, gratuitous, and penetrating satire. It is a masterpiece of the postmodern realism that Roth became known for, and that this novel was his first is truly astounding, almost dishearteningly so.

Crash by J.G. Ballard

This 1973 sixth novel by English novelist J.G. Ballard is the story of James Ballard, a commercial producer who, after a near-death car accident wherein he watches a man die, finds himself sexually attracted to the adrenaline-pumping danger inspired by car crashes. He soon meets the mysterious Robert Vaughan, a cameraman who not only shares this perverse paraphilia but also is the ringleader of a cult of insatiably lascivious symphorophiliacs, and they embark on a search for the ultimate erotic high. What unfolds is at once a journey fueled by an indomitable lust, an indefatigable blend of extreme danger and deviant sexuality, and a love story that pushes the boundaries of morality, pleasure, and pain, a romance written in blood, steel, and glass.

The novel, upon publication, was extremely controversial, and rightly so, as Ballard’s descriptions–sequences of shockingly graphic violence, beyond gruesome injuries, and horrible deaths with in-depth, unrelenting illustrations of sex so pornographically vivid it rivals Georges Bataille–inspire most of the mixed reviews regarding the novel (and also a controversial film adaptation by the legendary David Cronenberg). However, beyond that, what makes the novel an undeniable masterpiece is that it is a blatant and unapologetic, dystopian and misanthropic reflection on the inexplicably complex relationship between pleasure and destruction, a dynamic that entangles biology, psychology, existentialism, and sadomasochism in a chaotic mess of mystery and intrigue. Through his captivatingly artistic prose, Ballard blends hypersexuality with the grotesque, the unthinkable. It is an achievement; a novel unlike any I’ve ever read, for its ideas and execution.

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