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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

November Reads

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

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

This 1934 third novel by British novelist Jean Rhys charts the escapades a young woman living in England grappling with the great highs and tragic lows that mark her first stint with love. Anna Morgan is eighteen when, after her father’s death, her callous stepmother, Hester, moves her from her home in the Caribbean to the cold and gray city of London. Financially cut off, Anna tries to support herself working as a singer in a traveling chorus, living in small, dingy rooms owned by cantankerous landladies. But when she meets Walter, a wealthy older man with a caring sensibility and quiet esteem, her hopes slowly start to brighten. Dinner dates, late nights, a blooming sense of security, happiness, prosperity gradually draw Anna out from her timidity, bringing her into the light: she starts to fall for Walter. But when he leaves for a trip and a letter returns in his place, the bearer of bad news, Anna is knocked from her cloud and plummets back into the cold callous world she had desperately tried to escape. Heartbroken, lovelorn, Anna slips into despondency, which soon gives way to recklessness, debauchery, promiscuity. Nearing dissolution, Anna learns even worse news that propels the fragments of her gloom-filled life into greater and irreparable disarray.

It had been a little more than a year since I’d first been introduced to the wondrous darkness that is the work of Jean Rhys. Good Morning, Midnight was an incredible read, a similarly semi-autobiographical novel following the fragmented life of a woman grappling with loneliness, despair, and disconnection from the world around her. Thematic similarities abound in this one, but whereas Midnight stands submerged deep in the ocean of modernism, Voyage seems closer to the surface than its successor, floating in between convention and experimentation, as if Rhys were still only wading into the waters. And this precarious in-between I found to be a great source of ingenuity and a dark, stark elegance, bolstered only by the recurring leitmotifs which seemed to gain greater meaning with each iteration. “Up and down, up and down” was one such motif–a phrase which recalled the undulating waves of the water which Anna sailed over in her voyage to England; a phrase which conveyed the inebriated dizziness and sways of one stuck in a drunken stupor; a phrase which limned Anna’s emotional mood swings, a fluctuating mania the source of her growing caprice and tempestuousness; and a phrase which harkened the rocking of a child, or even the floating motion of a baby still in the womb. Moreover, Anna’s plight, regaled in Rhys’s unique blend of the sparse and ornate, called to mind Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, the heroine of which, Maria Wyeth, could be Anna Morgan reincarnated, doomed to the same destiny decades after Voyage. It is a short and savage novel, a bleak story of love and loss and the ramifications that result from horrific heartache. And I thought it was majestic in its dark magic.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

This 2020 third book by Chilean novelist Benjamín Labatut is, per the author’s own admission, “a work of fiction based on real events,” a nonfiction novel that charts the horrors unleashed unto the world by scientific discovery. Split into five sections, the book begins by exploring in the origins of cyanide, tracing its Prussian roots into the work of chemist Fritz Haber, whose work set off a sequence of events which would at once save and destroy millions of lives. The second section leaps from chemistry into physics, tracking the tragic life of Karl Schwarzchild, a physicist whose solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity, the first in existence, would shake the very foundations of science, sending ripples, like gravitational waves, surging through the decades to come. Part three centers on Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck, two men whose mathematical investigations drove them to brink of insanity, a theme which crosses into the fourth section, sowing the intellectual battleground beneath quantum physics forerunners Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger, whose lives were every bit as abstract as their computations. The final section is a slim epilogue, seemingly outside the rest of the sections, though whose short story shifts the light from history and onto the future, propelling this masterful novel into a powerful place of prescience.

Violence, madness, and war walk hand in hand with scientific discovery in this incredible nonfiction novel, as Labatut excavates the transtemporal interconnections between human amorality and man’s unendurable urge to understand the universe. Spanning a mere 200 pages, Labatut takes the reader on a riveting roller coaster ride across distance and time, and into the wild lives of the architects of modern science, all the while unraveling secret threads which weave into an apocalyptic vision of the future. I was enthralled by this book, from beginning to end, as I had known I would be. I remember when it was first released, and the tidal waves of raving reviews that flew forth upon its publication. The book was shortlisted for the Booker in 2021, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was one of The New York Times Books Review’s10 Best Books of 2021. I read about how Labatut writes “at a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail” and saw comparisons to Sebald and Tokarczuk, which only increased my intrigue. And now, finally fixing for it, finishing it over the span of a week, my high expectations were far exceeded. I was glued to this book, not simply because the stories of these scientists and their discoveries, not to mention their strange and at times, beautiful little lives, completely floored me, but also because of the way the book is written. Labatut writes with a slight journalistic lean, with a factual focus that drives the reader into new territory, roads wending like threads in a quilt, weaving from one story-patch to the next, distinct patterns revealing a grand narrative cartography. And yet, imbued throughout are lines of elegance, subtle beauty in the stitches, resonating against the dark horror revealed in his historical exploration. There’s a terseness to Labatut’s prose, and rather than weaken the text by its unadornment, the opposite occurs. His prosaic starkness begets power, scarcity percipience, spareness profundity. Narrativizing science is no easy task, synthesizing complex mathematical analyses and computations an even greater feat; and yet, Labatut not only triumphs against the challenge, but does so with virtuosic grace and fierce clarity. I woke up early to read this book; I stayed up late to read this book; I forewent plans to read this book; and I picked it up in the brief intervals of my everyday, totally taken by the anecdotes and winding stories whose details dazzled as much as they harrowed. Highly recommend.

Stoner by John Williams

This 1965 third novel by American author John Edward Williams is one of my favorite novels of all time and one which, upon this rereading, I’ve had the pleasure (and heartache) of experiencing no fewer than three times, each an escapade singular unto itself. It seems with each reread this novel offers more and more, as only the greatest novels are wont to do. Set in Missouri around the turn of the twentieth century, the novel follows the life of William Stoner, a humble, reserved, quiet man whose love for literature is an unwavering force throughout his life. Born on a small farm and fated to continue in his father’s farming footsteps, young William heads to the University of Missouri to study agriculture but there discovers a passion for literary studies and decides to change his track to pursue English. Stoner completes his BA, and then his MA, which allows him to begin teaching as he continues to pursue in PhD. During his doctoral studies, Stoner crosses paths with Edith Bostwick, a beautiful yet whimsical young lady with whom Stoner is immediately taken. Infatuation turns to limerence turns to love, and Stoner eventually proposes to Edith, who reluctantly agrees, unwittingly igniting a new chapter of their lives which, unbeknownst to them, will be wrought with heartache, animosity, financial instability, and prolonged distress. But despite the setbacks in the years to come, Stoner finds fulfillment in his work at the University, while Edith, staving off slipping into a melancholic state, is momentarily alleviated by the birth of their first child, Grace. Yet, the pangs of discontent soon resurface, not just at home this time but at the University too, threatening to undermine and even extinguish all Stoner’s achievements made throughout the course of his life. And as Stoner remains caught in the throes of marital acrimony, academic politics, and his own inward indecisions, what unfolds is, as I wrote in my last review, “a beautifully tragic portrait of the complexities of human relationships, at the heart which lie unspoken words, instances of inaction, and an existential submission to the capricious whims of life.”

The last time I read Stoner was in November of 2021, and in my review, I mentioned how “rereading it was at once invigorating and heartbreaking; an experience that makes me grateful that books like this exist and that I have the chance to read them in my lifetime.” Well, I can easily say that that sentiment still holds, possibly even more so now than then. Reading a novel for a third time inspires certain effects that are unattainable in the first two reads: the reader’s familiarity with plot, the details of events, the characters themselves, even certain bits of dialogue, allows for a new focus to emerge, one which sheds light unto the more minimal aspects of the novel, the subtleties hiding in the shadows of the prose, the quiet moments and details outweighed by the more salient and loud parts of the book. And with a novel like Stoner, these lesser-realized elements are vast and varied and never fail to intrigue. Stoner is a novel that consistently coaxes two contrasting interpretations: that the novel is a work of hope, of joy, of a life fulfilled despite certain setbacks; or that the novel is a work of tragedy, of depression, of a life stifled by inescapable setbacks. Both these interpretations exist concurrently as the reader reads, slowly awaiting certain inclination which, by the end of the novel, will have led the reader into one of these two camps. Reading the novel multiple times entails different readings, and as I have read the novel as a joyous novel, a celebration of love, literature, and passion in life, I have also read it, like this last time, as a work of heartache and pain inflicted by inaction and an inability to discern the right decision. But as I read the book this third time, I wondered what exactly determines which kind of reading one will inevitably have by the end; is there something specific in the novel that pushes one reader into a joyous reading and another into a tragic reading? I’ve come to think there is, and it has to do with a certain perceptual emphasis on interiority and exteriority with respect to William Stoner.

Focusing on Stoner’s perspective, seeing the world through his eyes and filtering his experiences through his mind, entails a joyous reading, whereas focusing on the perspectives of all those around Stoner–Edith, his family, his colleagues, etc.–and seeing Stoner from outside himself, doubtless entails a tragic reading. To occupy Stoner’s mind and see himself as he sees himself, detached from the perspectives of others, is to inevitably discover a love and passion for literature which outweighs all else, and it is enthralled in this love and passion that Stoner exists, endures, and eventually dies. However, no one knows this but Stoner himself. No one looking upon from the outside Stoner can attain an inkling of the power that his love and passion for literature has on the inside. And so, from the outside looking in, it appears to others that Stoner leads a tragic life, an unfulfilled life, a life thwarted by numerous facets of both his marriage and his academic appointment. From the outside, Stoner appears like a man trapped in a game of which he knows not the rules, lest how to win. From the outside, Stoner is a tragic figure, fated to be thwarted in all aspects of his life, despite whatever defenses he enacts to try to decide, or rather discern, his own destiny.

It is the interplay between these two dynamics–interiority vs exteriority–that determines the emotion at the novel’s end. And this inventive, powerful dualistic literary dynamic is a testament to John Williams’s inimitable writerly craft: this emotional ambiguity finds its achievement in the narration of the novel, the third-person perspective. Had Williams written the novel from Stoner’s first-person point of view, what effects would that have entailed? What kind of readings and interpretations? Had Williams written the novel from Edith’s point of view, or another character for that matter, what other kinds of readings would have been inspired? The perfect balance founded in the third-person perspective allows for these two contrasting readings, as well as the countless more vast and varied elements which stir in the shadows of his prose, the details which doubtless push the reader into contemplation and reverie, into consideration of their own life, past, present, and future. Stoner is a novel that, as I wrote in my last review, “I will continue to read over and over again throughout my lifetime, certain to expect new revelations, new questions, and new understandings,” and as this last reading has proved the accuracy in that statement, so too has it reaffirmed the fact that this novel is one of my favorites of all time.

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