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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

March Reads

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

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

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

This 1939 fourth and final novel by American writer Nathanael West is a darkly satirical and searing portrait of Los Angeles during the Great Depression. The story follows Tod Hackett, a young college-trained artist who works for a film studio having moved to Hollywood in search for inspiration for a grand painting he is working on. Tod soon begins to meet several wild characters–Abe, a cantankerous yet shrewd dwarf who Tod befriends reluctantly; Harry Greener, a failed vaudeville actor with an uncontrollable compulsion to perform outrageous numbers unpredictably; and Faye Greene, Harry’s daughter, a young aspiring actress whom Tod meets and quickly becomes infatuated with. The story strays from Tod to Faye, detailing her various romantic escapades with a few different men as well as her strange relationship with her father. But soon the various loose ends of their intertwined relationships converge and come together, reaching a deadly and frightening denouement which reveals dark underbelly of a city where dreams come to die.

Like West’s Miss Lonelyhearts which I read in January, The Day of the Locust explores themes of dreams clashing with reality, violence and lust, absurdity and reason, and the idea that hope falls in the face of fraud and deceit, twin pillars of an animalism inherent in the human condition. The novel is a bit longer than the other, though painted in West’s trademark prose with cutting precision–stark, terse, yet elegantly crafted, with brief philosophical ruminations imbued through descriptions rife with provocative metaphor and imagery. And the violence which permeated Miss Lonelyhearts, while not as frequent in this one is nonetheless amplified to a shocking degree in its ending. It had me on the edge of my seat. And truth be told, so too the pages preceding it. Nothing is predictable in West’s novel; the characters behave, speak, think, and interact in ways which shatter conventional norms, exemplifying a Dionysian sense of living, portraying an at times comedic blend of hedonistic tendencies clashing with the existential angst and forlornness of the time and location. Psychological quandaries abound with emotive urgency; the search for meaning, fulfillment, and place in the world linger in the background, an always-present force; and the neurotic caprice that seeps through the text–all work to make this novel one of the most enjoyable, entertaining, and darkly funny novels I’ve read this year.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

This 1936 third novel by American artist, poet, and novelist Djuna Barnes is a complex story of tangled relationships between a cast of bohemian emigres which seem to dissolve and unravel nearly as soon as they form. Set at the turn of twentieth century in Paris, France, it begins with Felix Volkbein, a man of Italian-Jewish descent with a curious connection to his past who, at a party in Berlin, meets the peculiar and outspoken Dr. Matthew. Back in Paris, Felix, through Dr. Matthew, meets a young woman Robin Vote whom he promptly falls in love with; he courts her and eventually they marry and have a child. However, Robin is unable to settle into married life, prone to long walks in the night, and then, at a circus, she meets Nora Flood who, like Felix, promptly falls in love with her. The two enter a long relationship, living together for many years, before Robin again grows restless, discontent, and begins walking through the streets of the city at night. Nora is distraught and seeks advice and solace from Dr. Matthew, especially after she discovers that Robin has begun a relationship with another woman named Jenny with whom she has moved to America. Felix all the while has been left to raise their young son, and the novel ends with Robin’s return to Paris and the ambiguous reunion with Nora.

The novel is Barnes’s most famous novel and is frequently regarded as an important work of lesbian fiction, though such a superlative, I believe, tends to belie the novel’s significance and sheer brilliance. The beauty of the novel lies in Barnes’s writing itself more than anything else–highly metaphorical to the point of impenetrability, Barnes blends baroque ornamentation with an avantgarde twist of free indirect style and artistic allusion into a stunning albeit obscure impressionistic piece of prose comprised of long, meandering sentences with frequent parenthetical interjections (as if the form cannot contain the magnitude of the content), exquisite attention to sensory detail, and deeply philosophical musings on topics ranging from love and loss, life and death, religion and history, the psychology of desire and identity, and the metaphysics of time. At the heart of Barnes’s novel is a force of deconstruction–the compulsory acceptance of the shattering of binaries, distinctions, and perspectives, a dynamic enforced by the prose itself with its repetitive tensions between motion and stasis, future and past, subject and other. There is an unconscious anxiety underlying the text itself, a pervasive sense of withholding, repressing, forgetting, and it is the search for what is forgotten which engages the reader in a complex game of comprehension. It is a novel unlike any I have ever read, one that inflicts confusion and puzzlement as a necessary part of the experience. And it’s for that reason that I know that I’ll revisit it time and time again, confident in the knowledge that I’ll unearth something new each and every time.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

This 1928 debut novel by American author Nella Larsen is the story of one woman’s search for fulfillment and place with a world riddled with racial injustice, class disparity, and rigid social structures. Helga Crane is a young mixed-race woman who, after become discontent with her job as a teacher at an Atlanta school, quits and moves to Chicago to reconnect with the family which had abandoned her. Failing to do so, Helga finds work as an assistant to an activist, eventually moving to New York City, navigating the upper echelons of Harlem with a new cast of friends. But eventually growing discontent again, she gets the opportunity to move to Denmark where other members of her extended family reside. Failing to adapt to a culture which consistently fetishizes her, Helga moves back to Harlem, again searching for meaning among the upper classes yet ultimately failing again, finds community with her church, and settles into a life of marriage, charity work, Bible instruction, and childbearing.

Inspired by her own experiences, Larsen’s novel encapsulates a number of themes–race, education, family, trauma, identity, love, class, capitalism, among others; but the theme which most stuck out for me was desire. Helga’s desire for satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness amidst a world which strives to categorize the uncategorizable is ultimately an exercise in futility. At various instances, Helga describes facing a “nameless antagonist” which precludes her attaining contentment in life, and each time she makes a drastic change and feels happy, slowly but surely that antagonist creeps up again. Helga is stuck in an endless loop of desire, one which is inextricably tied the various masks which society forces her to wear; each drastic change is an instance of unmasking only to inevitably realize that another one lies beneath and that her identity, comprised of the influences and trauma which have marked her upbringing, is but an aggregate of masks. It’s a novel with a timeless conflict, a search for identity, for happiness, for fulfillment, yet inevitably finding that such ultimate objects of desire do not exist.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy

This 2003 debut novel by Vietnamese American poet and author Lê Thi Diem Thúy is the story of survival, assimilation, and the experience of a refugee family. Set in the late 1970’s, the novel, told through the eyes of a young girl, follows six refugees–the young narrator, her parents, and her four “uncles”–who have just emigrated to the America. Living in a small apartment in San Diego, the young girl describes both the quotidian details of life–her school, her friends, her fascination with a glass menagerie–as well as the more complicated issues and challenges which plight her parents and her extended family in their adjustment to their new life. Filtered through childhood innocence, a unique imagination, and an affinity for storytelling, the young girl begins to grow an awareness of the world, one which differs from those around her, the experiences marking her childhood and burgeoning adolescence being comprised of both her old life and her new one. But as her parents begin to argue more, their family faces eviction, and the risk of unemployment looms heavily upon their lives, the narrator begins to grapple with the ghosts of her past seeping into the present and must learn to cope with a repressed, dual-edged trauma which seems to cast an all-encompassing shadow unto the brightness of her new life.

This was quite a novel–poetic and prosaic; heartfelt and painful; deeply intellectual; and overwhelmingly emotional. Narrated in the first-person, the novel reads like a series of diary entries–each section is comprised of short vignettes containing present details, events, conversations, as well as longer passages of flashbacks, stories within stories, and dreams, all of which are imbued with short rumination reflective of a child’s perception and understanding of a complicated world. And the prose itself reflects the narrator’s own physical, intellectual, and emotional development–the beginning passages are crafted in terse prose, short, concise sentences, with imaginative yet limited description; but as the novel unfurls, the prose grows more descriptive, more contemplative, more aware as the narrator too becomes more aware–a form reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. However, the structure of the narrative remains fragmented throughout, as if the perception of the narrator is an aggregate of the shards which constitute both her experience and her development, frequently blending and blurring memory and reality. And spanning within these shards are recurring images–butterflies, water, photographs, to name a few–all charged with a special yet mysterious meaning. It was quite an experience, at times powerfully emotional, deeply provocative, and yet at others, lighthearted, scintillating, and wholesome.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This 1937 second novel by American writer Zora Neale Hurston is an absolute masterpiece of American fiction, one which explores the depths of love, violence, and redemption in a world which threatens to destroy even the glimmer of hope. Set in southern Florida just after the turn of the 20th century, the novel follows Janie Crawford, a young, mixed-race woman who, shortly after being married off by her grandmother to a local farmer, meets Jody Starks, a debonair, smooth-talking man who promises to rescue her from a life of unhappiness, and the two move to the all-black community Eatonville. In their new town, Jody, ambitious and spry, quickly establishes a post office and grocery store–in which Janie is employed–and he even becomes elected as the town’s mayor. Over a span of twenty years, Janie slowly comes to realize the faults in both her marriage and her husband, coming to terms that Jody had truthfully only wanted a trophy wife and that she is constantly subjected to his whim and will. However, after Jody gets sick and dies, a new young and attractive man, Tea Cake, courts Janie, and the two begin to fall in love. Finally having found the happiness which life had seemed to all but elude her, the days grow brighter and brighter until, that is, unthinkable tragedy strikes, and Janie must confront the fate which she had strived to escape, one marked with loneliness, despair, and unanswerable questions.

It is regarded as a classic work of the Harlem Renaissance and is included in Times list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. And indeed, its significance cannot be understated. This is a novel that seized me from the first page and kept me within its grasp until its last powerful page. Hurston’s prose is of the utmost literary echelons–each line contains a life and history and intellectual depth, her diction and syntax so elegantly crafted, from the famous opening paragraph to the very last. Hurston’s command of the English language, skill at narrative transitions, fluctuating between direct, indirect, and regional speech, borders on intoxicating. And the story of Janie Crawford, with all the complexities, challenges, nuances of love, relationships, marriage, and conflict, and the world in which she lives, with a large cast of unique characters, captivates with a cinematic quality, strength of emotion, and virtuosity of imagination. Themes of gender, masculinity, femininity, freedom and agency, race, devastation, and hope run like rivers through the novel, pouring into the scenes and into the psychology of characters, society, and institutions at large, swirling into a deep and powerfully thought-provoking portrait of life. I had had this one on my to-read list for a long time, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to read and discuss it for a class, especially as it is a novel that I know with each and every reread will have so much to offer.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

This 2018 debut novel by Canadian Inuk musician Tanya Tagaq is a surreal coming-of-age story that blends memoir, poetry, and folklore to explore the psychological and spiritual toll that trauma can take on an individual. The novel follows an unnamed narrator, a young girl growing up in Nanavut, Canada during the 1970s, in a world where she is constantly surrounded by violence, sexual abuse, drug addiction, and even death. And yet despite these brutalities, ones made more vicious by the increasingly harsh climate, the narrator strives to find happiness amid a burgeoning selfhood. But soon, her journey of self-discovery becomes intricately entangled with spiritual forces greater than the world which humans know. The distinctions which define the sublunary and the spiritual begin to fall apart, and after a series of violent encounters, the narrator faces an ethical decision which threatens to dismantle the love which has guided and saved her thus far.

Split Tooth was truly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, certainly the strangest I’ve read of this year. In short vignette-like chapters which waver from prose to poetry, the novel begins within the realm of realism, a memoir of sorts. But gradually, the magical begins to seep in, the strange and eerie, blurring the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, until the novel has fallen off the deep end, down a deep abyss of sheer, graphic, at times even horrific, surrealism. The nightmarish, the phantasmagorical, the unreal–these replace the reality which the narrator, and indeed the reader, had previously known. And yet, beneath these fantastic visions and dreamlike sequences lies a deep and philosophical exploration on love, existentialism, and trauma. However, for me, such an exploration, by the end of the novel, remained completely unattainable, buried too deep under magical metaphor and obscurity. While I didn’t totally dislike the novel, it fell short of my expectations in both content and form. Whether it’s an issue of taste, or perhaps it was too cerebral for me to comprehend, or perhaps both, I discovered there is such a thing as “too strange.” It was alienating, too slippery to fully grasp and, for me, enjoy. Maybe I’ll try it again in the future, but certainly not any time soon.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This 1925 fourth novel by English novelist (and one of my favorites) Virginia Woolf is a timeless, tragic, comedic, beautiful tour-de-force of modernist literature. Set in London just after WWI and spanning the course of a single day, the novel follows Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class wife and mother with an amiable yet aloof disposition, who is planning a party. Narrated largely in interior monologue, the story flows from Clarissa’s perspective to the perspectives of other characters–her old-time friend Peter Walsh, a curious man with some unresolved insecurities, who has just arrived to London after having spent five years in India; Richard Dalloway, Clarissa’s husband, a politically active and pragmatic man who worries that his marriage is straining; and Sally Seton, a former love interest of Clarissa’s from a past life whose unexpected presence has quite an effect on Clarissa. Yet beyond the intricately woven trajectories of the Dalloways and their friends lies another narrative, that of Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia. Septimus, once a romantic young man driven by beauty and art, suffers from PTSD from having served in WWI, and is now prone to hallucinations and thoughts of suicide, which take quite a toll on his wife Lucrezia. Through a series of visits with psychiatrists, the couple grapple with Septimus’s gradual mental devolution which culminates in a frightening scene. The novel ends with the convergence of the Dalloway and Smith narratives which takes place during Clarissa’s party.

I had first read Mrs. Dalloway back in September of 2020, and now after having read both this one and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse more than once, I can confidently say that Woolf is a writer whose work demands rereading. Going through this one again, I was astounded by how much I had missed the first time. The novel’s length truly belies the depth and breadth of its content. Not only were the characters more elucidated, more real than I had experienced the first time, but Woolf’s elegantly crafted, virtuosic prose leapt from the pages in droves, with a plethora of subtle, recurring words, phrases, and images hinting at a significance not readily apparent on the surface. Flowers, hands, hats, gloves, lights, flames, trees abound in multitudes along with grand ruminations on beauty, art, war, love, marriage, perception, memory, missed opportunities, and the meaning of life. And it is how each and every idea, theme, image, word move into one another, creating both a philosophical and deeply human collage of experience–that is wherein lies the novel’s incredible profundity. And on top of all of that, the novel conveys an array of different effects–it as intellectual and thought-provoking as it is laughable, comedic; as heartfelt and lovely as it is tragic, disturbing; as criticizing as it is laudatory. There are countless experiences to be had in reading this novel, as is the case with Woolf’s other works; and reading this one again only affirmed my assertion that Woolf is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

This 1952 debut novel by American author and short story writer Flannery O’Connor is one of the wildest and most entertaining novels I’ve read this year. The novel follows Hazel Motes, a young twenty-something man recently discharged from the military who, after returning home to Tennessee and finding his house abandoned, takes a train to Taulkinham, seemingly without aim nor plan. Motes is a devout atheist, despising religion as an institution, deeming it immoral and manipulative as “the only way to truth is through blasphemy.” After encountering a blind preacher named Asa Hawkes, and his daughter Lily, in the streets of the new town, Motes vows to start the Church Without Christ. He begins preaching in the streets, advocating for an atheistic worldview, and meets Enoch Emery, an eighteen-year-old zookeeper with an abusive family history and the “wise blood,” a special kind of intuition which leads him always into the right direction. As Motes begins to pester the Hawkes family with the intent to expose their con, Lily Hawkes tries to seduce Hazel, and all the while, Enoch, searching for purpose and inclusion, steals a mummified dwarf from the zoo believing that Hazel’s new church needs a prophet. A long list of bewildering, strange, and graphically violent events ensue as Hazel, Enoch, and Lily begin to grapple with meaning of belief, fulfillment, and redemption in a world devoid of truth.

What to even say about this one. It is a masterpiece of the strangest, darkest, and most mysterious kind–a novel which consistently, from page one to the final, challenges expectations, reason, and understanding of society, belief, memory, and identity. But what makes this novel so incredible a feat of literary imagination lies, as is often the case, in the form and structure of the text itself. O’Connor’s prose–a blend of deliberate, precise diction, graspable syntax, and lots of dialogue–contains a treasure trove of recurring signs and themes which speak to a second subterranean text, a deeply philosophical exploration of truth and belief. Haze Motes is a man searching for something–a place, a home, a meaning–and from the first page, where he is traveling by train, the subliminal clues are there: his obsession with “home,” the repeated iterations of “place,” the “signs” which are all over town, and so much more. And as the novel progresses, these repeating individual signs, words, images, grow in meaning–they become more charged, more meaningful, more interconnected with other signs, words, and images–so much so, that by the end of the book, the text itself seems on the verge of exploding, unable to contain the mass which each line contains. It is truly unbelievable; one of the novels that made me think, “I didn’t know you could do this with literature, with language”; and that plus the grotesque, bewildering, absolutely unpredictable events which make this novel such a wild ride, all work to elevate this novel into the upper echelons of American letters. An absolutely masterpiece.

Native Speaker Chang-Rae Lee

This 1995 debut novel by Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee is at once a deeply emotional story about clashing culture, tragedy in marriage, and assimilation, as well as a driving political thriller. The novel follows Henry Park, a Korean-American man in his early thirties living in NYC and working as a spy of sorts, infiltrating the lives of everyday people in order to glean background information for an invisible cast of clients. When the novel opens, his wife Lelia is leaving him, unable to revive an intimacy all but extinguished by both the death of their young son and their inability to reconcile the incompatible influences of their pasts. Struggling to adapt to a life without Lelia, Henry gets a new assignment: the subject is John Kwang, a Korean American politician running for mayor of NYC. John is an exemplar of the “model minority”–he is well-spoken, amiable, gregarious, caring, and incredibly ambitious. As Henry begins working for his campaign, he starts to grow an admiration for John, seeing the incredible good in his potential success. As Henry grows closer to John, he begins to face an increasing ethical dilemma, one that not only lies between his work and his morals, but also one that tears at the tethers of his sense of identity, unearthing the complexities of a past that he had tried hard to suppress.

The novel won the 1996 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, nominated for a number of other awards, and Lee was named one of The New Yorker’s “Twenty Writers for the 21st Century.” And it’s easy to see why. Native Speaker is a novel teeming with the complexities that arise out of the intersection of clashing cultures, competing conceptions of good, and a search of identity amid a world riddle with contradictions. With a meticulous eye and undeniably insightful exploration of sociology, politics, family, and love, Lee crafts dense passage of free-flowing prose which touches every corner of the unique immigrant experience, paining in lucid detail the intricate dynamics between people whose pasts have informed the present and whose presents impose an uneasy future. Lee draws on many historical details, allusions pointing directly to events and issues inherent in the incendiary social/political climate which marked the early nineties and extends into the present, making covert critiques and posing questions which leave the reader reeling. And yet, he accomplishes such a feat by imparting such a distinct empathy, it reads as if autobiographical, and I’m sure some of it was. It’s a novel that challenges the idea of the “model minority,” deconstructs the concept of assimilation and double consciousness to paint a portrait of a deep humanity, one that drowns the differences and distinctions which separate and divide communities across society. It was a totally encompassing, moving novel, at times gut-wrenchingly tragic, at others, so exciting and thrilling I couldn’t put it down.

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