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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

June Reads

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

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

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

This 1985 fifth novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy many regard to be his magnum opus, and many, too, even consider it a runner for the Great American Novel. Set on the Texas/Mexico border during the 1850’s, the novel follows the harrowing escapades of “the Kid,” a precocious and fearless fourteen-year-old from Tennessee who falls headfirst into a world whose bloodlust is insatiable. A skilled fighter, the kid joins a small party of irregulars on a state-sponsored filibustering mission, but soon after setting out, the group is ambushed and the only remaining survivors, the kid among them, are arrested and jailed in Mexico. Persuading the authorities of his utility, the kid is released into the company of the Glanton Gang, a brigade of bloodthirsty freebooters whose sole aim is murder and scalp as many Native Americans as they can. Among the band is Judge Holden, known simply as “the judge,” a monster of a man, physically and temperamentally, deviously intelligent and as depraved as they come. The men set off into the desert terrain, into the dangerous unknown, and into their singular destinies, fates forged in savage, indiscriminate violence where betrayal, deception, and suffering pave the road into hell.

What to even say about this one? I had tried reading it years back after first discovering The Road and quickly learning that this one was most highly regarded – though at the time, it was above my comprehension. Like Faulkner, like Woolf, like any number of the greatest writers throughout history, McCarthy is a writer whose work warrants multiple readings, and such is undeniably the case with Blood Meridian. It is a masterful work both in content and form. It is a picaresque of Western, or perhaps anti-Western, ascription, rooted in the depravity of actual American history; a trek into the edges of inhumanity in, on, and under climatic extremes; a sequence of battles – man against man, man against nature, man against self; an exploration into the psychology of good and evil; and a novel whose story, with such unspeakable violence, belies the most provocative philosophical inquiries: is the will of man enough to override the invisible forces which govern him? can morality exist in an amoral world and if so, is it worth dying for? does might truly make right? are monsters real and do they walk amongst us? And its form–lines crafted with the virtuosic precision that has come to trademark McCarthy’s name, comprised of words which flow across the verbal spectrum from terse to magniloquent, common and archaic, and back again, emphasizing a syntactical experimentation which bridges upon neo-biblical, blending prose and poetry into a voice of the third-person narrator who is but a character all his own, and at whose whim readers fall prey, infrequently propelled into sublime passages of ekphrastic description, both beautiful and revolting. It is a novel of superlative imagination and intellection, a supreme work of art and an achievement whose legendary status will surely never wane.

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien

This 1990 debut novel by American writer John O’Brien is at once a painfully lucid snapshot of the City of Sin and an emotionally wrought, graphic portrait of addiction. The novel follows two characters; the first is Sera, a young, seductively beautiful, and keen woman working the strip–shrewd in the business yet subject to both the risks of her clients and whims of her abusive, miserly pimp. Straying from Sera, Ben comes into the picture–a former screenwriter turned profuse alcoholic seemingly hell-bent on drinking himself to death. When the singular paths of the two intersect, hope is suddenly found in the mutual recognition of their own counterparts in each other. But as Sera, ambitious and driven, tries to escape the binds holding her down, Ben struggles with his addiction which clashes against Sera in pining for a place in his heart, the sole object of his love. What unfolds brilliantly rendered, searingly poignant exploration into the anguish, the agony, the awfulness which arises from the throes of love, alcohol, and a search for redemption.

“An overlooked American classic” reads the last line of the blurb on the cover, a description I would indeed agree with. And it’s wild to wonder what other works he would have written had he not committed suicide at the age of 33, especially if this was his debut, a novel exquisitely crafted, beautifully written, and one so evocative, emotional, and earth-shattering I couldn’t put it down. The power of the novel, for me, comes from O’Brien’s portrayal of Ben’s alcohol addiction–the pain, the lust, the heartache, all presented in such graphic detail. Certain descriptions called to mind Nic Sheff’s Tweak, and I have to wonder if in certain ways Leaving Las Vegas was an autobiographical novel. After O’Brien’s death, his father called the novel his son’s suicide note. And that external factoid seems to deepen the darkness in the novel, yet at the same time, paradoxically brighten the beauty. It’s difficult to describe, but safe to say, this is one that I will definitely read again, and I recommend it to anyone in search of a powerfully bleak and absolutely moving story that intensely captures the clash between love and addiction.

The Notebook Trilogy: The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie by Ágota Kristóf

This trilogy, comprised of the novels The Notebook (1986), The Proof (1988), The Third Lie (1991) condensed into single issue, by Hungarian author Ágota Kristóf is a postmodern, antiwar saga that follows twin boys Lucas and Claus living in an undisclosed, but war-torn European country during the Second World War. The Notebook follows the boys in their childhood, living with their tyrannical grandmother who works them to fatigue daily. But the boys are precocious–they teach themselves various skills, writing among them, and they learn, by not always scrupulous methods, how to survive in a country ravished by war. The first part ends with the boys, as teenagers, splitting up–Claus manages to flee the country, and The Proof follows Lucas from adolescence into adulthood living on his own, navigating the working world, parenthood, and the various challenges imparted by political unrest. In the final installment, The Third Lie, everything that has come before is completely thrown into jeopardy–the truths and untruths which lie at the abyss of the tumultuous journey of two brothers float up from the depths and into the light.

This book is merciless. I read it over the course of four days, sprinting through short chapters, utterly enthralled. It was impossible to put down. The Notebook is so titled because the narrator is both twin brothers writing their daily experiences down in a notebook as a collective “we” –it’s like reading an intimate, haunting diary, but one devoid of all emotion as the boys strive for complete objectivity. The prose is terse, bare, cold, and seems uncorrupted in a manner that evokes Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams wherein he describes his mother’s life after her suicide with a distanced, unemotional perspective. And the content calls to mind Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird with the depictions of war from the perspective of a child, as well as Elem Klimov’s film Come and See. The second installment gripped me as much as the first, and the third part exploded the trilogy. In its entirety, The Twins Trilogy is a deep, multi-layered excavation–into the psychology of children, into the mechanics and detrimental effects of war, into innocence and guile and the external stimuli which shape and mold the mind, into both brotherly and romantic love, and into the mysterious nature of storytelling. Undoubtedly, these are novels unlike anything I’ve ever read–breathtaking, masterly, powerful.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This 1929 fourth novel by American author William Faulkner is at once a funereal melodrama of a tragically dysfunctional family and a searing snapshot of Southern life just after the turn of the twentieth century. Set in Jefferson, Mississippi towards the beginning of the 20th century, the novel follows the Compson family: parents Jason and Caroline; Quentin, the oldest son, is a headstrong yet unbalanced young man who goes to Harvard but struggles in his relationship with his sister Caddy; Caddy, the second oldest, is the most caring, empathic of the family though, after a sexual encounter and subsequent pregnancy, is banished from the Compson home much to the emotional and financial detriment of her brothers, particularly Jason; Jason, the third oldest, is the cynic, the pessimist, the intolerant, whose rage stems from being overburdened and overworked as a sole provider of the family; and lastly Benjy, the mentally-disable fourth child whose at once a source of comfort to his siblings, specifically Caddy who cares for him, and a source of shame to his mother. The servant family, the Gibsons–matriarch Dilsey and her three children–live and work for the Compsons, particularly acting as caretakers for Benjy. The novel revolves around a major event, the death and funeral of the children’s grandmother, but spans across the course of thirty years, detailing the slow degeneration of a family into ruin.

The Modern Library ranks the novel sixth on its list of 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, and the book is widely regarded as a classic of American literature and prominent exemplum of Southern Gothic fiction. And it was truly an experience to behold. The novel is experimental in form: it is split into four sections (five including the appendix), each focusing on a different character and narrated differently. The first section, dated April 7, 1928, is narrated through Benjy’s perspective, comprised entirely in dense stream of consciousness writing with frequent temporal shifts and sensory associations. The second, dated June 2, 1910, is narrated by Quentin, detailing a day in life of a Harvard student, and is comprised, like the first section of stream of consciousness form, though slightly more coherent. The third, dated April 6, 1928, follows Jason in his various to-doings at home, getting into arguments, chasing down Caddy’s truant daughter, fretting about his failing stock investments, written in a first-person singular perspective yet in more straightforward narration. The final section, dated April 8, 1928, follows Dilsey, though narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, the only part to do so in the novel. It is a novel whose gradual clarification of the plot emphasizes the formal impressionism imparted by the consciousness of each character, which become multiple vehicles by which the truth of the situation is distorted. The clashing relation between the actual events and the interpretation of said events lies at the heart of the novel, and as the characters grapple with confusion, worry, anxiety, and a host of other challenges, so too does the reader vicariously perceiving their experiences, realizing along the way that the truth is not inelastic, that it changes in response to shifting perspectives. Not only was it one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, but certainly one of the most challenging, but I cannot wait to return to it in the future, and I look forward to discovering the countless details I overlooked on this first read.

The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq

This 2005 fifth novel by French novelist Michel Houellebecq is a mordantly satirical, hilariously bleak, eerily dystopian, imaginatively metafictional, sci-fi tale about a devious cult and a man in search for contentment amid a world fallen into decadence. Set in modern-day France, the novel follows David, a successful comedian who realizes he’s surpassed his peak years and begins to fall towards despondency and ennui, finding reprieve through sexual stimulation only. But soon, he accepts an invitation to travel to a remote island off the coast of Spain for a retreat put on by the Elohimites, a hedonistic, scientist sex cult rooted in a fringe UFO religion and headed by a charismatic leader referred to as the prophet. Weary at first, David quickly adjusts, discovering enough reprieve to extinguish his boredom. Infatuated with their freewheeling hedonism more than their fanatical beliefs, he ends up unofficially joining. But after the prophet figurehead is murdered, Daniel thinks he’s got himself a front row seat to the disaster of the decade, only to realize the resoluteness of the cult’s momentum–it doesn’t dissolve but grows. And what ensues is at once a bleak tale of seeking pleasure in life, in whatever form it may come, and a deeply intricate look into the sheer strangeness of human relations.

This was the first Houellebecq since having discovered him back in 2020, when I read five of his works, the last one being Serotonin, which I thought was a masterpiece. I had been holding off on The Possibility of an Island, having seen it labeled as his magnum opus–and though it was slow-going at first, in the end it held up to my expectations. How to describe it? It’s like an X-rated season of Black Mirror, or perhaps a pornographic parody of Blade Runner. It’s just as dark, misanthropic, anti-natalist, and bleak as his other novels but more experimental in structure–narration leaps chapter to chapter from David’s singular point of view in the present to the perspectives of two of his descendent clones, or “neohumans,” of the far distant future, products of the cutting-edge science of the cult at the crux of the novel. And the Elohimites–one of Houellebecq’s best inventions–seem an amalgam of real-world cults: they most closely resemble Raëlism (even borrowing their name from the Elohim, the biblically inspired race of extra-terrestrial creators of Raëlian beliefs) but also possess the technological prowess of Aum Shinrikyo, the alien fanaticism (and suicidal tendencies) of Heaven’s Gate, the chicanery of Scientology, the paranoia of the Branch Davidians, and the promiscuity of The Family International. Morality, fatalism, hedonism, romance, friendship, sexuality, immortality and the philosophies which lurk beneath them, Houellebecq explores in full force, and their unraveling constitute some of the finer passages of the novel, moments always punctuated with a morbid remark, a shocking joke, or a viciously vile quip, prompting a scoff, sneer, smirk, or snort in the reader without fail. He’s a writer whose work I hate to love–a writer whose ribaldry is relentless to the point of nauseating, whose prose is beyond provocative, whose mind is a dark place, yet whose craft is indisputably profound and his novels absolutely bewitching.

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