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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

May Reads

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

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

This 1992 sixth novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy is the first volume in his famous Border Trilogy. The story follows 16-year-old John Grady Cole, who, after learning about his mother’s plans to sell their ranch in San Angelo, Texas, decides to run away to Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins. Carving their way through the wide southwest terrain, the two boys encounter a number of wild characters, fall head-first into a number of dangerous situations, and when they finally arrive in Mexico, they’re faced with a whole new set of problems, none the least of which is a deadly romance.

Similar to John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, the novel is an embodiment of the Western tradition, but infused with the graphic violence that has come to trademark the classic McCarthy novel. And in this specific one, it is McCarthy’s writing that separates the novel apart from the rest in the canon. In his signature prose that ranges from terse to grandiloquent, unadulterated to overelaborate, laggard to rapid, McCarthy paints a landscape teeming with authenticity, depicting vividly the harsh elements of the southwest, all the while examining the unpredictability of man’s instinctive nature and the conflict that rises in its consequence. Not to mention, he paints a Romeo-and-Juliet-like budding romance between two teenagers, the likes of which are unforeseen in any of his other novels and tantamount to any classic tale of forbidden love. McCarthy never fails to completely captivate, enthrall, and inspire.

The Collector by John Fowles

This 1963 debut novel by English writer John Fowles is the harrowing story of an abduction. Frederick “Ferdinand” Clegg, an extremely wealthy and anti-social young man who collects butterflies, is obsessed with Miranda, a beautiful 20-year-old art student living in London. Unable to contain his growing obsession any longer, Clegg abducts Miranda and keeps her captive in the underground cellar of his isolated cottage two hours outside the city. The story is split into two sections, one narrated by the captor in diary-like entries, the second by the captive in epistolary form. What unfolds is truly horrific and elaborate portrait of psychological depravity.

Seldom has a novel so disturbed and disgusted me; the visceral emotions so intensely and frequently invoked made me sick at times. And yet, I could not stop reading. Fowles, in his undeniably powerful writing, forces the reader to see through the eyes of misogynistic psychopath with all his deviant machinations, prudish sensibilities, loathsome insecurities, childish rationalities, and social ineptitude, exposing the undeniable solipsism that extinguishes any modicum of empathy. However, he also paints a searing portrait of hope, documenting through fleeting glimpses Miranda’s life, her whimsical inner musings, and romantic flashbacks. This one was a serious ride, the literal definition of psychological thriller, and yet so much more. I was curious to read it because of its notoriety with a number of famous serial killers. Needless to say, it was an unnerving, sickening, absolutely chilling but fascinating read, truly unlike anything I have ever read.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

This 2010 sixth novel by French author Michel Houellebecq follows Jed Martin, a lonely and somewhat despondent artist struggling to make it in the art world. However, after his series of bizarre yet entrancing photographs of Michelin road maps is met with wide acclaim, he is launched into the lime light, achieving celebrity status as an artist in Paris. But with this new status, this new life, come many new obstacles, one involving the investigation of a murder. The novel is an example of a künstlerroman, a coming-of-age story of an artist, and yet it is so much more than that. The book went on to win the Prix Goncourt prize, one of the most prestigious awards in French literature.

Houellebecq’s vision, creativity, and craft at writing is truly remarkable, albeit controversial at times; it’s difficult to even describe. It is similar to Javier Marías, also Philip Roth, but in my opinion, better, funnier, more complex, and all the while captivatingly entertaining. He meanders fluidly from topic to topic, scene to scene, character to character with excruciating detail, throwing glances back into past that provide depth and color, intrigue and fervor, painting a strikingly lucid visual all of his own. And besides the form, the story itself is unbelievable. He writes himself as a character in the novel, and then proceeds to kill himself. Who does that? It was honestly one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and I cannot wait to read more of his work.

Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain

This 1897 novel by French author Jean Lorrain is a tale of a search for meaning in the fleeting pleasures of life. Two unnamed French men are vacationing in Amsterdam but are not having such a good time, that is until they meet Monsieur de Bougrelon. He is a flamboyant, rambunctious, charismatic, libertine, Epicurean, energetic, and stylist middle-aged man who has always lived life to the fullest, practicing faithfully the philosophy of dandyism (much like Lorrain himself). Bougrelon leads the two gentlemen, referred to only as Messieurs, all around Amsterdam, to museums, bars, parties, the dirty underbelly of the city, all the while soaking up the culture, food, drink, women, everything. However, their indulgence is short-lived, as the more they party the more they realize how fleeting such pleasures are.

It is a work of the fin-de-siècle, the end of the 19th century, exploring the themes that preceded the Decadent movement such as ennui, tedium, existential listlessness, and those that came to define it, mainly an emphasis on intemperance and materialism. However, this short novel spans much further, peering into the human condition and examining various meanings of life, constantly asking what defines fulfillment in life? It is a fun, hilarious, and yet inextricably evocative novel that forces the reader to question so much about life, the self, and possessions. Also, the writing is exquisite; grandiloquence that mirrors the opulent themes, long-winded diatribes with intriguing frame stories, and vivid descriptions of Amsterdam. Not to mention, the wild antics and idiosyncrasies of the characters are exciting, entertaining, and fantastically painted.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard

This 1982 eighth novel by Austrian author Thomas Bernhard is at once a memoir and a eulogy. Bernhard as himself recounts his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the final years of their lives as patients in a hospital, the narrator suffering from a pulmonary disease, and Paul suffering from a mental disorder. Expounded in vivid detail is a friendship filled with a mutual love for music, the arts, philosophy, as well as general disdain for the way society has turned. Though as Bernhard recovers, Paul’s health diminishes, and what unfolds is: a truly moving contemplation of the importance of friendship; a philosophical reflection on life, death, and aging; an examination of the separation between the healthy and sick; and an insatiable urge for intellectualism.

A few years ago, I had attempted to read Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, which is one of his more popular and renown works. I remember having a tough time with it; I ended up putting it down. But after finishing this one, I will certainly reattempt that one because wow, this one was beautiful. His writing, which takes a bit to get used to as there are no chapters and the whole book is one long paragraph, is truly remarkable–filled with eloquent descriptions, comparisons, black satirical comedy, and countless thought-provoking and philosophical musings, and yet told through one winding and seemingly never-ending stream of consciousness. It’s unlike anything I read so far. Also, that the narrator is Bernhard himself, implying the novel is an autobiographical piece, only adds to its authentic and undeniably engaging realism. I read this one cover-to-cover in a single afternoon; I could not put it down.

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

This 1884 tenth novel by French novelist Joris-Karl Huymans is one of the most famous literary works of the French Decadent movement. Young intellectual and aesthete Jean des Esseintes is fed up with society. Having sought meaning in nearly every corner of life–in religion and propriety, in the aristocratic and bourgeois, in academe and intellectual, and even in the promiscuous and hedonistic–and ultimately failing, he isolates himself in a vast museum-like estate to live out his days with only his possessions. His possessions range from priceless pieces of art to a number of teabags, and everything holds a certain meaning for him. It in these different meanings, the differing emphasis placed in such various items, and the relationships between it and the possessor, that his philosophical and existential points begin to emerge.

Appropriately named, the novel makes the case that for everything that can be found in the natural world, its effect can be artificially created, so well in fact, that its very essence is indistinguishable from its natural counterpart. And not only those things that exist in the natural world, but also art, literature, experience, people, everything can be recreated artificially and possessed, and in fact it is better that way. Des Esseintes sets out to prove this, and it is in this journey that his slow and unmistakable transformation begins to form. As the meaning of objects grows and the worlds he creates in his own reverie begin to substitute the real, the meaning of nature, life, the world, the external diminishes; as the more his love for isolation grows, the more his misanthropy. He lives in between his objects and his mind, totally content existing in his own reverie, living in his own fabricated realities. And yet, those crafted worlds seem to be more real. It is a truly beautiful philosophical novel and written in some of most elegant prose I’ve ever encountered. I am certainly not done with Huysmans.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

This 2010 memoir by American novelist Lidia Yuknavitch is a searing autobiographical account of one woman’s struggle. Lidia, from young age, was a promising swimmer, receiving scholarship offers left and right and destined for the Olympics. But just before she reaches the apex of her career, the horrors of her past finally catch up with her–the abuse from a sadistic, raging father and the residual effects of an alcoholic, suicidal mother. Lidia turns towards drugs and succumbs to long-suppressed sexual proclivities that come to dominate her life. What follows is a memoir unlike any I’ve ever read. Filled with tale after wild tale, intense and complicated relationships with both men and women (even one with Kathy Acker), and the deepest and most heart-wrenching tragedies, it is an overwhelmingly moving portrait of one woman’s journey in overcoming the harshest of obstacles and finding hope and love while also a contemplation into the meaning of memory and art.

Lauded by famous writer Chuck Palahniuk along with many others, this memoir has developed somewhat of a cult following over the years. It’s easy to see why. Yuknavitch was a pupil of Ken Kesey for a short time, and one of the authors that worked on his experimental novel Caverns. Her writing is hypnotizing. Fluctuating between free-flowing prose and intermittent stream-of-consciousness with minimal punctuation, she leaps from memory to memory nonlinearly and with an undeniable fluidity, imbuing the spaces with conversational musings and terse description. She’s unapologetically crass, and yet simultaneously stoic, and graphically honest, painting the details of her life in a hue that cuts deep to the core and charges the reader with an empathy unfound in most memoirs. And the recurring theme of water, one of the most versatile symbols in literature, adds to the incredible sentiment of her words a layer of creative genius. It was cinematic; one of the most captivating reads of this year. I couldn’t put it down.

Like Death by Guy de Maupassant

This 1889 fifth novel by French writer Guy de Maupassant is a vicious tale of a complicated entanglement of love set in Paris in the late 19th century. Olivier Bertin is a painter at the height of his career who has sustained for many years a clandestine and passionate affair with Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a high-ranking politician. But when the Countess’s daughter Annette returns to Paris, the two reunite, and Annette, having grown to so resemble her mother, inspires yet another affection in Bertin’s heart. After tragedy strikes, emotions are high, jealousies are aroused, and the burgeoning complexities of the entangled relationships crescendo into frenzy that ends in a dark and devastating denouement.

Following in the footsteps of his mentor Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant crafts a tale with incredible depth teeming with the abundant intricacies of the human condition and love, while painting the world in exhaustive detail, a brilliance that rivals the realism captured in Madame Bovary. And yet, the greatest aspect of the novel is its darkness. The sorrows and tragedies that arise fortuitously, as well as those borne from insecurity and aging, and all the difficulties that love entails are hundredfold and work to create a novel ahead of its time. Love and death, pain and happiness, the connection between such extremes is lucidly explored, and in its exploration lies a fascinating social and psychological commentary. This one was a beautifully and very sad read.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

This 2015 seventh novel by French author Michel Houellebecq is the tale of a despondent man and a religious revolution. It’s 2022 in Paris, and Francois, a university professor and expert in 19th century novelist JK Huysmans, is undergoing somewhat of a mid-life crisis. Depressed and listless, his own life seems to mirror that of a novel from the Decadent era. Amidst his existential turmoil, a growing Islamic faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, wins an election and takes political control of the capital. Law, education, culture, nearly all aspects of society at large fall under Islamic Law and begin changing. And Francois is caught in the crossfire. Forced with Faustian decisions, insatiable urges, loneliness, regret, and even a series of anatomical maladies, Francois’s heretofore dismal existence is only made more complicated, but indeed there is a glimmer of hope: in submission. What unfolds is a strange but very wild journey of one man’s search for happiness during a time of unpredictable political turbulence.

It is a dark and mordant masterpiece, one that makes an eerie yet prescient socio-political commentary on the culturally incendiary times in which we live. Houellebecq, living up to his controversial reputation, does not write sensitively, and at many times, his ideas are blatantly and vividly expounded on; however, nonetheless what he accomplishes in the novel is nothing short of evocative and significant. Moreover, the writing itself again completely captivated me. I can’t speak of it highly enough; it’s seizing, vibrant, hilarious, and beautifully descriptive; his characters are complex and relatable, and the fluidity of the novel runs with an ease unique to his alone. After reading The Map and the Territory, I couldn’t get enough of Houellebecq, and Submission only fanned the fire of my obsession with his work. It was a truly remarkable, and wildly entertaining novel; one of my favorites of the year.

Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau

This 1899 fifth novel by French writer Octave Mirbeau is a brutal philosophical investigation into torture, murder, and sex. The narrator, an unnamed young diplomat sent on an mission to Sri Lanka, recounts his journey wherein on the voyage, he meets a young English woman Clara who’s headed to China. The two fall in love, and the narrator skirts his plans to join Clara in her travels. However, he soon discovers that Clara has a penchant for the macabre. She takes him to the Torture Garden, an incredible garden in the center of a prison wherein vicious acts of torture are carried out on convicts as performance art. For Clara, it is the apex of existence, even orgasmic, this beauty in death and the art in its execution. The narrator, however, does not feel the same way.

Another French fin-de-siècle novel, it is a cult classic of the decadent era, though I may also call it a work of anti-naturalism. Despite the long, detailed, beautiful descriptions of nature, their meanings and sentiments are inextricably linked to torture, murder, and sex in ways that confound definitions of morality, love, and art. And it is in these depraved connections that the dark, hideous parts of life become inescapable; as if to say: face the brutalities of life and learn from them, and avert your eyes later. This is truly an extreme philosophical novel, one that surprised, confused, and at times disgusted me to my core, and yet still absolutely captivated me from beginning to end. Also, it was written during the Dreyfus Affair and makes many social, political comments on the contradictory nature of Western culture and colonialism. This book is notorious and it’s easy to see why.

A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud

This 1873 booklet by French writer Arthur Rimbaud is one long poem written in prose that outlines one man’s descent into Hell. The poem is split into nine sections, each one detailing a different part of the narrator’s journey beginning with an exposition, “the pages from a diary of a Damned soul,” through to his death, his subsequent descent into Hell and his attempts to get out. However, each portion is written with a vague and somewhat hallucinogenic quality that changes between sections, mirroring the perception and experiences of the narrator and the suffering he faces.

Rimbaud, known for his brief but highly influential literary career, wrote and self-published A Season in Hell when he was only nineteen years old. He wrote it in the wake of an acrimonious breakup with author Paul Verlaine who he had had an insane and violent long-term relationship with; so it’s assumed that this short novel is in many ways autobiographical. And I think it’s evident in his prose; the pain, anguish, and subsequent intoxication from love, heartache, and various substances all seep from the stanzas seizing the reader with a mesmerizing, phantasmagoric effect.

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