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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

May Reads

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

The Lime Works by Thomas Bernhard

This 1970 third novel by Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard is a farcical, Sisyphean tragicomedy of sorts in which the suppressed ambition of a deleteriously paranoid, reclusive, and enigmatic old man foments a devolution with deadly consequences. The old man is Konrad, a self-educated, self-proclaimed natural scientist-philosopher who, with his physically handicapped wife, has moved into a decommissioned lime works facility in the fictional town of Sicking in Southern Germany. Konrad’s objective is to study the sense of hearing and write a great book about it, the isolation from society provided him by the lime works being the opportune conditions for his research. He subjects his poor wife to constant experimentation–sadistic, pseudoscientific tests which often prove fruitless and leave him dissatisfied and frustrated. And his frustration is amplified by his inability to even begin writing, always finding an excuse, or perceiving an imaginary distraction which thwarts him in his endeavor. Over the course of five years, the two are confined in the lime works, and after Konrad’s funds run dry and the realization that he has wasted his life with such an unattainable goal becomes clear to him, he murders his wife with a carbine she kept strapped to the back of her wheelchair, leaving only the townsfolk of Sicking to wonder what truly went wrong.

As with many of Bernhard’s works, the magnificence and allure of the novel are, for me, most salient in the wild structure of the narration. The Lime Works is narrated by a nameless insurance salesman reporting secondhandedly the tales of the townsfolk who had known the Konrads the years leading up to their bloody end. Reversing the action-to-climax order, the murder opens the novel, and Konrad has already been arrested, turning the bulk of the book into an amalgamated preview of the townsfolks’ testimonies which are to follow in his imminent trial. And their speculative snippets flow into one another, creating an endless stream of description–walls of words with neither chapters nor paragraphs flow across pages in long, labyrinthine sentences, punctually interrupted, in Sebaldian style, by extended dialogue tags: for example, “Konrad is supposed to have said to the works inspector, according to Weiser.” But below such perplexingly playful prose lie the philosophical allegories, imagistic metaphors, and thought-provoking dialogisms which elevate the work into a new light. Absurdism runs rampant throughout the text, blending critiques of modernity with neurotic psychoanalysis–the longer the Konrads stay in the lime works, confined to the tedium and monotony of routine, the more they become like the idle machines which surround them. It is a novel, presumably like the rest of Bernhard’s oeuvre, for which one reading is simply insufficient to scratch the surface. Absolutely captivating, demonically funny, and sublimely bizarre–this is one that I will certainly be coming back to time and time again.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías

This 1994 eighth novel by Spanish author and translator Javier Marías is at once a psychological thriller and grand meditation on fate, free will, and fatality. The novel follows Victor, a ghostwriter in his mid-thirties, whose moral bargaining resides at the heart of the story. The first scene sees him inside Marta’s apartment per her invitation; her husband away on a business trip, her son put to bed, and the night seeming amorously auspicious. But soon after the two make for the bedroom, suddenly Marta dies. “A second ago she was in the land of the living, but now gone, departed in a flash, what does he do?” Thus incites Victor’s wild, weird, and difficult investigation into Marta’s life–from attending the funeral, to tricking her family members–he falls deeper and deeper into a web of interconnections, the clues which lead back to the beginning growing more numerous as well as more incomprehensible.

Like his novel A Heart So White, which I read back in 2020, this novel has one of the strongest openings of any I’ve come across. Both books open with a death, though in very different contexts and narrations. The first section of this novel lures the reader into a dizzying scene: a freak accident/incident filtered through the mind of a man (witness, accomplice, perpetrator?) grappling with what to do. And as the reader falls down the rapids of his intellection, tumbling, submerging, at times even drowning, the psychological outline of narrator begins to take form, thrusting the events into a new light, one voyeuristically sinister and tinged with an apathy characteristic of a callous modern age. But as the novel progresses, the winding, overflowing lines of description–interior monologue à la Woolf, allusions à la Joyce, serpentine diatribes à la Bernhard–the density of the form seems to overpower the narrative, displacing the aspects which had initially allured. And while the subtle anxiousness lingers across the pages, the dark and satirical tone seems to falter, by the end, having all but diminished to naught. While Marías is undoubtedly one of the greatest contemporary novelists today, this one puzzled and estranged more than it did captivate; however, I’m inclined to believe that the onus of such an effect lies more on the reader than the text, which is why I will certainly be picking it up again in the future.

Run River by Joan Didion

This 1963 debut novel by American writer Joan Didion is a drama that begins and ends in death. On a warm night in August of 1959, thirty-six-year-old Lily McClellan hears a gunshot outside her bedroom window. Her husband, Everett, has just killed Ryder Channing, Lily’s lover, whom she had intended to meet on the dock by the river which runs along the edge of her backyard. The novel then cuts back to when Lily is seventeen – she is home from college and has just reunited with her childhood friend Everett, who is now a handsome young man with greats prospects on the horizon. After a short courtship, Lily accepts his proposal, much to the chagrin of Everett’s sister Martha, and soon the two embark on a marriage life, subsequent parenthood, and their futures appear to augur prosperity and happiness. But very soon, Lily realizes that married life is not what she had expected – acrimony and tension begin to bloom, and matters are complicated by the birth of her children and the death of her father. The passivity which has heretofore marked her existence foments an existential anxiety in Lily which grows and grows, culminating in a distinctly American portrait of a marriage, family, disillusion, love, and betrayal.

The fact that this was Didion’s debut novel–one so in-depth, beautiful, heartbreaking, and exquisitely written, published on the eve of her thirties–simply fortifies my belief that Joan Didion was one of the greatest American writers of the late 20th century. Run River varies greatly from the writing for which Didion is known. Her later works, especially her next novel Play It As It Lays which wouldn’t arrive for another seven years, contain a more terse, journalistic style – precise prose with to-the-point description, flash-cut scenes, and lots of dialogue. However, Run River is almost verbose in its prose – it’s highly descriptive with long, elegant lines of narration, detail, dialogue, and interior monologue. And one can see the changing style, the finding of voice, which occurs in the comparison of her early and late works; her use of italics, from phrases to singular words to singular syllables, remains a formal idiosyncrasy that is all Didion. This novel was fabulous; it hooked me in from the start and propelled me into a beautifully complex, heart-wrenching drama, evocative in its questions and searing in its emotionality.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

This 1998 seventh novel by British author Ian McEwan is a gripping, darkly comedic tale of love, friendship, betrayal, and death. Molly Lane has just died and at her funeral, several of her old friends, lovers, and colleagues convene. Two old friends–famous composer Clive Lindley and chief editor of The Judge Vernon Halliday–are in attendance, along with their nemesis Julian Garmony, a conversative right-wing political player slated to become the next Prime Minister, all of whom had been former lovers of Molly’s. When scandalous photos of Garmony emerge from Molly’s left items, Vernon believes he’s hit the jackpot and moves to publish them despite Clive’s hesitations. Alongside Vernon’s moral dilemma Clive falls prey to a debacle of his own–a failure to act during his witnessing of an incident results in an interpersonal conflict as well as a police interrogation. As tensions rise, the loose ends of plotlines which snake through the narrative tapestry reunite in a surprising denouement, an event which I never saw coming.

The novel won the 1998 Booker Prize, and it is easily among my top favorite McEwan titles. It was by far the funniest of his that I’ve read so far – replete with ridiculous character interactions, biting cultural commentary, and no shortage of just the greatest, or rather abusrdest, of metaphors. The novel not only kept me enthralled but actually made me laugh out loud at times, which seldom happens for me. And yet, counter to the humor are incredible moments of darkness, of callousness, of the indifference of the human condition wherein the complexities which provoke, the questions which puzzle, the decisions which blur the distinction immorality and amorality, begin to unravel in their beatifically chaotic excess. As McEwan is known for, the psychological portrait of the clash between action and inaction, dignity and obligation, drives the conflict of the novel. But what I really loved, too, is that sprinkled about the pages is a profound defense of art and music, one which was as compelling to read as it was beautiful. Masterful descriptions–of music, nature, love, life, libations, and so much more–abound in Amsterdam, a familiar testament to the craft of the one of the greatest contemporary authors.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

This 1953 third novel by American journalist and novelist Elliott Chaze is a noir-esque, crime novel about two partners and their plans to pull off the ultimate heist. Narrator-protagonist Tim Sunblade, a twenty-seven-year-old ex-convict, newly released from jail, is working on a drilling rig during the day and spending his nights in a seedy motel, when he meets Virginia, a blonde-haired, lavender-eyed call girl with whom a one-night stand turns into a multi-day excursion with infatuation turning into romance and dreams tilting towards fruition. Like Tim, Virginia too has a penchant for the criminal; with a fearless disposition and a monetary obsession, it appears Tim has found his counterpart in Virginia. The two lovebirds embark on a plundering expedition, crossing state lines with only one thing on their minds: getting rich. But just as their new marriage-in-crime has kicked off so too does the suspicion, betrayal, and paranoia begin to grow, soon blooming into a denouement that would rival that of Bonnie and Clyde.

This is a perfect title for the reader searching for a fast-paced, action-based, tough-as-nails, stereotypically masculine, picaresque novel with the most bang for your buck–easy to read, not too long, and for the most part, captivating. I had never read Chaze before, yet I had had this one on my shelf for a long time, as it has, in my opinion, one of the coolest covers of the NYRB classics. And it held up to my expectations. The writing was decent–sparse and to the point with a voice and tone which lucidly characterizes the first-person narrator while at the same time capturing the details of the plot and conveying the growing tension and imminent conflict. It really did remind me of the story of Bonnie and Clyde, and I wonder if that true tale of outlaw lovers had any influence on Chaze in his writing of this book, especially since their bank-robbing rendezvous had taking place during his adolescence, Chaze having been born only five years after the two. And the fact that Bonnie and Clyde died in his hometown state when Chaze was only eighteen, I’m willing to bet it. Fun, fast, fascinating, I would love to catch a film adaptation of this one.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

This 1940 debut novel by American writer Carson McCullers is a small-town drama and a searing portrait of the pain inflicted by loneliness. Set in a nameless mill town “in the middle of the deep South” during the 1930’s, the novel follows a large cast of characters, at the heart of which is John Singer, a deaf-mute man whose benevolent acts are at once a source of sympathy and mystery in the eyes of the other major characters: Mick Kelly, a precocious young girl whose musical ambition and fearlessness are thwarted by impoverishment; Biff Brannon, the proprietor of the New York Café who, despite business fluctuating with the seasons, remains charitable to many, including Jake Blount, an alcoholic and somewhat abusive man whose eccentricity belies a keen intelligence, one which finds its match in Dr. Copeland, the Black doctor of the town who struggles to maintain a relationship with his family. Emerging from the relations between these characters and many more is an unbelievable, at times heart-wrenching, and poignant portrait of a town inhabitants unable to combat the brutal conditions of the lives they were born into yet still holding out for even the dimmest glimmer of hope.

Now regarded as a classic work of the Southern Gothic genre, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published when McCullers was only 23 years old, which completely boggles my mind. This is a novel of incredible insight, imagination, and understanding of both the internal–the psychology of the individual, all the emotions, logic, and experience which informs and influences decision-making, personality, and interactions with others; as well as the external–the cultural dynamics scaffolded by the brutal conditions the characters are forced to grapple with (poverty, racism, search for companionship, thwarted love, violence, to name a few) and the historical context that plight the interactions between the characters which, in themselves, have a social psychology all their own. It is a gripping, beautifully crafted, dense story of stories, and with her prose, a virtuosic blend of efficiently terse and elegantly precise, the novel soars into the upper echelons of American letters. If Hemingway and Faulkner sit diametrically opposed on the spectrum of prosaic style, then McCullers resides right in the center, equidistant to each of the two men, her equal and opposite counterparts. I had long had this one on my to-read list, and it’s no surprise that I absolutely loved it. I cannot wait to dive into more of her work.

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