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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

June Reads

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

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes

This 2010 second novel by French novelist and cultural critic Virginie Despentes is the first in her Vernon Subutex trilogy, eponymously name after her protagonist: a middle-aged, former record store proprietor who falls under hard times after his rock star friend and financial supporter Alex Bleach turns up dead from a drug overdose. Shortly after, Subutex is evicted from his apartment and with a backpack of only a few belongings, he is forced to scrounge for food, shelter, cigarettes and beer by the various contacts he still has from the record business. Thus begins the epic, or rather the opposite of epic, picaresque saga that leads Subutex to the brink of insanity, desperation, and even death, and yet throughout his wild perambulations, the trajectories of which forever remain midflight in suspense and uncertainty, he manages to find his feet again even if it is at the expense of whatever dignity he had left.

Not only is Despentes’ novel a pulp fiction achievement, a work of artistic references, musical allusions, and literary footnotes which with each page turned inspire many a chuckle of both familiarity and humor, but her novel is also a searing exemplum of the clashing ideologies, inventions, ideas, and innovations that have come to mark, influence, and, in many opinions, stain the current cultural climate catalyzing what many refer to as the advent of a second decadence. Despentes, through the innumerable interactions between a large cast of wild, quirky, problematic, and pathetic characters from a slew of different backgrounds and professions, scrutinizes and explores the very taboo subjects that fuel public contention among the masses–drugs, sex, misogyny, pornography, poverty, religion, race, capitalism, fascism, gender issues, just to name a few. And with biting, graphic, and grotesquely imaginative language–prose which file her name alongside Houellebecq and Carrère in the hall-of-fame of controversial contemporary writers–Despentes has crafted a novel which simultaneously repulses, amuses, and evokes the reader. This one was a wild ride, a strong, explosive first volume of her trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the rest.

King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes

This 2006 book by French novelist and cultural critic Virginie Despentes is a collection of seven essays spanning a litany of topics that fall under the sundry umbrella of feminist studies. In her biting, mordant, unapologetic voice, Despentes blends discourse and autobiography, drawing on both past experiences–some triumphant, positive, educational, others painful, traumatic–as well as number of influential feminists whose voices have fomented the emergence of revelation and revolution. Despentes explores the connections between misogyny and capitalism, marriage and prostitution, agency and sex work, art and pornography, and all that “inspires revulsion and fascination in equal measure,” while simultaneously shedding light on the contradictions, hypocrisies, double-standards that pervade societal perspectives and cultural milieu. She aims her unyielding eye at the conundrums that for decades have persisted in thwarting comprehensive understanding of the constitution of womanhood, manhood, and the intersection of the two, the very similitudes, links which bind one another together in the collective venture of humanity.

After reading her novel Vernon Subutex 1, being still infatuated with the style of her prose, I had to jump into the work that, I had read, contributed to the elevation of her notorious status as the unapologetic, abrasive, even aggressive pop/pulp/punk cultural critic and writer of the times. And from the onset of this collection, I was thrust into her trenchant, penetrating intellect which exudes in torrents throughout her prose. Despentes draws on many famous former feminists from whom she invariably draws influence; from Woolf to Davis to Pheterson to Sprinkle to De Beauvoir to Paglia to Wittig to Wollstonecraft, Despentes harkens her predecessors, building, crafting, and pulling their ideas into the 21st century, filtering them through a modern lens, and conjuring a new perspective, one which aptly applies to the incendiary context of the current state of affairs. Some of her ideas truly astounded me, connections and insights I would never have arrived to on my own; and further, her prose and voice, loud and unabashed, hammer home the intensity, the emphasis, the importance of her words, of the words of so many women throughout the past decades and today . It was a fascinating, enjoyable read and one I would recommend to anyone who is interested in feminism and doesn’t mind more than a few imaginatively explicit descriptions.

Sula by Toni Morrison

This 1973 second novel by American writer Toni Morrison is a coming-of-age story unlike any I’ve ever read. Spanning the years from 1918 to 1965 and set in The Bottom, a poor black neighborhood atop a hill that overlooks the town of Medallion in southern Ohio, the novel follows Nel Wright, an inquisitive, intelligent, mature young girl, cautious and caring; and Sula Peace, a mysterious girl with a pernicious spirit, assuredly the result of her traumatic family history. The two girls become friends and grow up together, making memories of summer time expeditions, eating ice cream, dodging catcalls, and playing by the river. But lurking beneath their childish innocence and lighthearted friendship is a burgeoning pain, a looming tragedy, and the many years ahead marked by complications, betrayal, and even death. For theirs is a relationship marked by shared experiences, both good and bad, and as each of their lives careen down separate tracks, the two remain bound by an inextricable and doubtlessly complex force, one which threatens to unroot and dismantle decades of history and memory.

It is at once a novel completely “overflowing with life” and an absolutely searing, intellectual, psychological exploration of friendship, family, and memory, how it functions to influence, impact, and change an individual. Trauma and memory–two themes also explored in Morrison’s Beloved which I reread recently and was absolutely floored by, even more upon a second read–are among the subjects at the heart of this novel, along with tragedy, betrayal, and acceptance. And beyond these seizing motifs that reside in the foreground of the stage are the overwhelming, all-powerful, indomitable forces of racism, white supremacy, and misogyny which pervade all aspects of the period in which the story is set. Morrison, with unrelenting, ambitious imagination and her critical eye, tackles complications and complexities, universal and personal, social and intimate, with elegant yet forceful precision, leaving no stone unturned, and thrusting the reader into a world riddled with hardship, unanswerable questions, and impending consequences. And as I’ve said about her style, Morrison’s prose is unparalleled; absolutely brilliant, beautiful and poetic. I found this one to be much more accessible than Beloved but no less incredible. I couldn’t put it down, and safe to say, I can’t wait to read more of her work, or rather, the rest of all her work.

Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This 2016 book by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard is the fourth and final installment in his autobiographical tetralogy Seasons Quartet. Whereas the first two volumes of the series were collections of essays only and the third volume was comprised solely of autobiographical musings, this final volume combines the two making it the longest out of the four books. It is a collection of 54 essays, split into three sections of 18, each section corresponding to the summer months and separated by long diary entries. Like the previous volumes essay topics span an array of subjects; from the natural world: chestnut and cherry trees, grass, plums, rain; to the animal world: cats, dogs, mackerel, slugs, earthworms, bats, wasps, flies, and seagulls; to the household: lawn sprinklers, electric hand mixers, ice cream, bicycles, and barbecues; to the intangible: intelligence, cynicism, repetition; and many more. Knausgaard’s long diary entries interspersing the essays cover everything from various literary events which take him and his family across the globe to his various intellectual musings on historical figures such as Emmanuel Swedenborg and of course to the very banal, quotidian details of his everyday life which he writes with such stunning color and depth it is inevitable that one falls into the pages, existing in the world which he crafts with his undeniably masterful prose.

Of the four volumes in the quartet, this one was surely my favorite. Not only was each and every essay absolutely engrossing–each topic approached with childlike curiosity and explored with expert percipience, each written with unwavering acuity, insight, and tinged with autobiographical detail which would endlessly inspire an uncanny sense of relatability–but his diary entries were unbelievably fascinating and truly intoxicating in many ways. It’s difficult to describe. The excruciatingly meticulous attention to detail which marks Knausgaard’s signature style and harkens his My Struggle series draws the reader in and quickly sweeps them into a beautiful world, both unique yet somehow familiar, both distant yet eerily close, both unpredictable and yet weirdly prescient; each contradiction containing what is most lifelike of his writing, what makes his prose so easy yet bewildering at the same time: an indescribable realness, authenticity, and emotion. Interesting, too, he includes a fictional reimagining of his grandmother when she was much younger, when she helped nurse a wounded soldier back to health during the Second World War, which he regales leaping from his own voice to hers and back to his own. It was a story that kept me in near constant enthrall, each suspenseful moment ending on a cliffhanger, only to be picked up again surprisingly maybe a hundred pages later. This fourth and final installment of his Seasons Quartet embodies all the attributes that reinforce and solidify Knausgaard’s legendary status as one of the greatest contemporary writers in the world.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

This 1999 third novel by American writer Kent Haruf is a community drama set in Holt, a small fictional town set across the plains of eastern Colorado during the early seventies. The novel weaves together the narratives of a few key individuals: Tom Guthrie, a high school history teacher whose wife, after growing discontent and despondent, abandons him and their two young boys, Ike and Bobby, who, in turn, grapple with her desertion while coming of age and inevitably falling prey to mischief, curiosity, and endangerment; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant sixteen-year-old who, after being exiled from her home by her abusive mother, finds refuge first with her teacher, Maggie Jones, and then with brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron, two rugged farmers whose anti-social tendencies have kept them bachelors well into middle age. As each individual confronts their own complex set of challenges–fear, hardship, trauma, temptation, violence, and survival–their singular trajectories unfurl and entwine with the others to form a pointillistic tapestry of a beautiful, tragic, and painfully realistic portrait of the human condition.

That this one made me cry not just once but twice, and for entirely different reasons, speaks volumes, as that seldom happens for me; this one was truly something else. It absolutely swept me up; each character so well-rounded, interesting, emotive, unpredictable, and utterly human. Haruf has accomplished a heartbreaking, social, psychological, intimate exploration of a group of wildly different and desperate individuals, painting with incredible detail the glimmer of hope that binds them together against the cruel forces that threaten to tear them apart. And he does so with meticulous attention to form: his prose is minimalist–a blend of terse description, directly-broached detail, short un-numbered chapters, long-running sentences, polysyndeton, and indirect speech devoid of quotation marks, a style reminiscent of McCarthy, Hemingway, and Carver. And like Carver, dialogue plays a large role in this novel which is entirely character-driven, arguably plotless; the conflict that carries the plot is spurred and propelled by the characters and their dialogue alone. Plainsong is the first in a trilogy, Eventide and Benediction following it–two novels that I cannot wait to read. This one blew me away; truly masterful.

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