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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

November Reads

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

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

This 1936 ninth novel by American novelist and short story writer William Faulkner many scholars and critics proclaim to be his greatest and most challenging work. The story follows the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen and his attempt to establish his own familial dynasty. Narrated by several characters, all of whom bear some connection to the man, Sutpen’s story spans before, during, and after the Civil War, migrating from the Virginia backwoods of his impoverished childhood to the terminus of his journey, Jefferson, Mississippi, where Sutpen seizes a hundred square miles of land and begins construction of a massive plantation which comes to be known as Sutpen’s Hundred. He's a recluse for several years, regarded as strange and mysterious in the eyes of the local townsfolk, but eventually he emerges and vows to find a wife. Finding one Ellen Coldfield, soon two children are born, Henry and Judith, and so Sutpen’s lineage has begun. But as the years go by, disasters strike, the war rages on, and the ghosts of Sutpen’s past begin to creep into the present, haunting and threatening the legacy which he has striven to forge. In the end, his towering endeavor comes crashing down in a fiery blaze, a denouement not half as shocking as the countless brutal events that pave the way.

The novel, along with The Sound and the Fury, published seven years earlier, helped Faulkner to win the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 2009, Oxford American polled 134 scholars and writers for the best ten Southern novels of all time: Absalom, Absalom! took the number one spot. I had long known of its reputation: one of the most challenging novels by an American writer; supposedly the most difficult in Faulkner’s oeuvre; containing one of the longest sentences in literature; etc. But I didn’t know to what extent went the veracity of these superlatives. I read it as part of a virtual class offered with the Rosenbach Library, which is ongoing till mid-January, taught by one of the world’s leading Faulkner scholars. Reading the book not only with a group but with an expert is already entailing an experience which I would not have been able to have simply reading the novel on my own. Even after two classes, I’m already beginning to see why this novel is so profound, one of the reasons simply being the sheer depth of its intricacy. The form of the novel reflects one of its central proclamations: that history is cumulative and incremental. Sutpen’s story is relayed through the eyes, mouths, and minds of other characters, many of whom have an understanding based on others’ understandings; and each section, chipping away at a larger picture, builds upon the last. By the end of the novel, what the reader attains is not simply the mosaic structure of Sutpen’s tale, which in itself is incredibly complex and holds thematic relevance regarding the psychology, history, and perception of the American South, but also the various biases, misunderstandings, prejudices, malignments, and interpretations of the individual characters narrating Sutpen’s story. The book is not just about the history of the South; it is about the historicity and historiography of the history of the South. At the heart of the novel is the what of history and the how. It was a famously difficult novel for Faulkner to write. He spent over three years working on it, and at one point he stopped, wrote the novel Pylon, which was published in 1935, then returned and finished Absalom, Absalom! And how grateful his readers are that he persisted in his endeavor, pushing through, layer by layer, section by section, to create what has come to be one of the greatest American novels ever written and certainly one the greatest I have ever read. I plan to write more about this book as the course with the Rosenbach continues and I glean a greater understanding of it.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

This 2011 novella by American writer Denis Johnson regales a tale of tragedy, isolation, and reckoning. Set in the Northwestern region of the American frontier about the turn of the twentieth century, the story follows Robert Grainier, a lone laborer who leads a life in close proximity to trains and train tracks. Growing up an orphan, Grainier has long been used to the solitude across the great plains, earning his living with the odd menial job here and there – logging, railroad laying, construction, moving, etc. It isn’t until he is thirty-one years old that he meets Gladys Olding, a sweet and homely churchgoer with whom he falls in love. The two marry and move into a cabin, soon joined by their newborn daughter Kate. For three years, the three live contentedly, lovingly, within an air of hopeful happiness which Grainier had never known before; but then tragedy strikes when Grainier, returning from a job on the Robinson Gorge, discovers that a forest fire has destroyed his home and killed his wife and daughter. Torn by unimaginable grief, Grainier plunges back into the hermitage which had defined most his life, fated to spend the rest of his days alone, weary, and one with the wilderness.

First appearing in The Paris Review nearly a decade before its publication in finished book form, Train Dreams won the Aga Khan Prize for fiction in 2002, an O. Henry Award in 2003, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2012. It was my first Denis Johnson, a writer whose name has graced my path countless times, and this short novella was a perfect place to start. I read it entirely in one sitting, turning the pages effortlessly, lost in the waves of description and compelling plot. There’s a sort of pristine quality to Johnson’s prose, something sparse and controlled, something that invokes the American tradition of literary predecessors Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, and Raymond Carver. The world which Johnson carves encompasses both the beauty and brutality of nature, the indifference of the elements pinned against the endurance of man and his drive to survive. The novella stands with one foot in the boot of naturalism, the other in psychological realism, given the subtle complexity of the protagonist. On the surface, he appears a simple man–sticks to himself, forlorn but stalwart, a respecter of the land and stoical in his living–but as the narrative carries on, the surface begins to crack, exposing emotion and interior details of his personhood not easily explained, and by the end, these details have multiplied, the surface of the beginning having ruptured and fallen all away. It’s an interesting little book, one which I think deserves attention and interpretative scrutiny; I could definitely see it being taught in an English class, especially given its size to content ratio. Rest assured, this will not be my last Denis Johnson work; his collection of short fiction Jesus’ Son and novel Tree of Smoke, in particular, have caught my eye for the near future.

The Years by Annie Erneaux

This 2008 fifteenth novel by French writer Annie Erneaux braids fiction and memoir, personal detail and broad introspection, to paint a haunting, searing portrait of France from the years 1941 to 2006. Using photographs as her entryways into the past, Ernaux charts the trajectory of time, treating historical events and minutiae alike with the same care and devotion. From the aftermath of WWII to family gatherings around the dining table, shards of conversations filtered through a child’s innocence; to coming of age during the social (and sexual) liberation of the sixties, when the threads of convention began to unravel, yielding new norms of love, romance, and family; to the shifting landscape of intellectual discourse propelled by minds like De Beauvoir and Sartre whose quirky celebrity piqued the interests of young students; to the May 68 events which rattled Paris, threatening to uproot economic systems and establishments. But Erneaux also extends her critical gaze beyond the limits of Paris, probing into events such as the Tiananmen Massacre, the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie, fashion trends of the nineties, the birth of the internet, and the September 11th attacks. Filling the space between moments in history are passages of keen critical insight and introspection, zooming into the detail like pointillistic dots before drawing out again before the grand mosaic. The result is an exquisite, experimental, fragmented, and captivating meditation on the passage of time and the nature of memory.

Annie Erneaux, at 82 years old, won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee of judges citing “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.” Most of her work–her career spans nearly fifty years–is autobiographical, The Years no exception. But unlike some of my favorite autofiction writers like Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, Erneaux’s work transcends the formal affinity of those other writers, standing both in and outside this realm of writing in a way that reporter Alexandra Schwartz in The New York Times sums up beautifully in a recent laudatory article on the French writer: “She doesn’t write her way through life in the manner of a Karl Ove Knausgaard, detailing every inch of experience, volume by volume, into the present. She is more like a diver, glimpsing something glimmering far beneath the surface of consciousness and plunging after it. To this impulse she likes to pair forensic methods. Photographs and newspaper records can be as important as her own journal entries as tools for reconstructing the past.” In a unique style and approach which, for me, places her somewhere between WG Sebald, Jean Rhys, and Anaïs Nin, Erneaux subjects herself as much to her investigative probe as she does the events which punctuate the passage of time, all the while blending description and introspection in a fragmented, sparse prose which she refers to as “l’écriture plate,” translated: “flat writing.” But surely the word “flat” means something different to her than an American reader might think because The Years is anything but: the depth of the insight, the breadth of scope, and the brilliance of the rendering all work to elevate this novel into a space all its own. It was my first of hers that I’ve read, and I cannot wait to dive in the rest of her long, doubtlessly enthralling catalog.

Couples by John Updike

This 1968 fifth novel by American writer John Updike penetrates the quaint and quiet veneer of American upper-middle-class life to expose the seedy web of adulterous affairs, impassioned interrelations, and promiscuous ploys which writhe underneath. The novel opens in the spring of 1963 in Tarbox, Massachusetts, a fictional coastal town south of Boston, where ten young married couples have comfortably settled into the banality of New England suburbia–some with children, others without, one expecting. Piet and Angela Hanema; Frank and Janet Appleby; Harold and Marcia Smith; Freddy and Georgene Thorne; Roger and Bea Guerin; Matt and Terry Gallagher; Eddie and Carol Constantine; John and Bernadette Ong; Ben and Irene Saltz; and Ken and Foxy Whitman are the couples, each one a unique marriage between two unique individuals who lead unique lives. But as the novel progresses, and the pervasive tedium customary to the provincial everyday starts to seep in, the singularity of their individual lives begins to wane as relations become intertwined, some for the better, others for the worse. Affairs ensue; relationships are tested; secrets, surprises, and inescapable pregnancy scares swim towards the surface, their exposure threatening to uproot the picture-perfect world to which each dutiful suburbanite clings. The result is a sweeping tale of lust, love, and passion where deceit and deception course through the pages in streams of glib, smut-soaked glut.

It's no surprise that a book like Couples, its pages loaded with clandestine coituses, duplicitous dalliances, extramarital entanglements, philandering flings, licentious liaisons, perfidious pleasures, raunchy rendezvous, salacious soirées, and treacherous trysts, helped establish Updike as one of the three “Laureates of the Lewd,” a title coined by writer/biographer James Atlas in a 1993 article for GQ, the other two writers being Philip Roth and Gore Vidal. As Atlas writes, “Couples, followed by Vidal's Myra Breckinridge and Roth's Portnoy's Complaint brought the literary side of the Sexual Revolution to a new level of uncensored candor. American erotic life was out in the open, in all its complexity and variety. But these books were as much about disillusionment as sex, reflecting the turmoil of generational conflict, a revolution in birth control, a controversial war, protests, assassinations, and race riots.” At first glance, the novel appears to be a simple story about a group of swinging neighbors; but its whimsical, even comedic, facade belies the great provocative depths of its narrative, trenches which plunge into the intersection of love, lust, marriage, friendship, happiness, discontent, fulfillment, and much more, topics all cast against a backdrop of one of the most culturally incendiary decades in American history, the Sixties. Atlas nails it in the latter portion of his description: Couples deals in the disillusionment, doubt, and discontent fomented by the deconstruction of American idealism, when the traditions and values which had defined middle-class life for decades had slowly begun to crumble. And the fact that Updike broaches such topics with the entertaining, at times hilarious, all the while captivating narration and exquisite prose is a testament to his masterful craft. For me, reading Couples was almost like watching a riveting reality tv love show: with each turn of the page, with each new detail revealed, each smirk and eye squint, inflection in one’s voice, touch on the shoulder – I couldn’t help but wonder, “are they going to sleep together? No, they can’t! or can they?” and then “Oh yeah, they’re definitely having an affair; it’s way too obvious.” I had taken to keeping a list of all the characters, making a note of each new affair which sprung up and even foreshadowing ones I thought might happen. Overall, it was an incredible reading experience and one I’ll surely remember. Updike is a virtuoso, and I cannot wait to read more of his work. I already snagged used copies of Rabbit, Run and A Month of Sundays.

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