Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito

By posted at 1:56 pm on December 13, 2009 6

Looking back over 2009, there are far too many books that I loved to write them all up here, but here are some of the standouts that may not have received the attention they deserve.

coverAs a judge for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award, I read The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, originally published in the Netherlands in 1958. Plotwise, it’s as riveting a detective story as I read all year, but its purpose is far beyond that of your average noir. The book dramatizes the experience of a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II, but with a twist: eventually he, and we, become uncertain as to which side he’s actually working for, with disastrous consequences. When the book was published in 1958, Nazi collaboration and Holocaust guilt were huge factors in Dutch society (they remain so today), so the book was attempting to grapple with a major issue of the day. It remains wholly affecting as both a novel and as a dramatization of the fog of war.

coverWe continue to hear rumblings that postmodernism as a cultural and literary era is ending, and that we’re moving on to whatever comes next (post-postmodernism?). If so, I have the feeling that the literary ideas and techniques bequeathed to us by postmodernism will, like those gifted us by modernism, live on in the literature to come, whatever form it takes. One book that did a superb job of embracing and tweaking postmodernism as a literary genre was 2009’s The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller. As I wrote in my review at the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the book “is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD.” He’s not Philip K. Dick but rather Phoebus K. Dank, and the two men writing the encyclopedia about his life’s work are: 1) Dank’s sycophantic best friend, and 2) his pompous, angry arch-rival. The result is an honestly hilarious “novel” that’s part Pale Fire, part murder mystery, and part grad student Easter egg hunt. It remains one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I hope lots of people give it a shot.

coverThis year I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which was not only a wonderful reading experience but also a revealing one: those who think they know him from his post-Blood Meridian work aren’t nearly as well acquainted with McCarthy as they think. Real McCarthyites need to read the four novels that came before Blood Meridian, the longest and most amazing of which is Suttree. The book, quite simply, is McCarthy on Joyce. It’s a pastoral, quasi-epic set on the Tennessee River; it’s been called an anti-Walden, a worthy sequel to Huck Finn. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s the longest, lushest most intricate and baroquely bizarre thing McCarthy ever wrote. (Those who think Blood Meridian is baroque need to read this.)

coverA book that had long been recommended to me and that I finally got around to was Stoner by John Williams, which has me convinced that Williams was a devotee of Thomas Mann. Like Mann, Williams shows here an ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character’s function in the book with leitmotifs. He also resembles Mann in that he masterfully orchestrates the evolution and interplay of numerous ideas throughout the course of the novel while never neglecting the very human drama that forms the heart of the story. Stoner is essentially about the value of a life: the titular protagonist is a perfectly mediocre academic who lives and dies without ever making much of an impact. Yet in Williams’ hands we see all the value and struggle that goes into a life that has no historical importance. Williams won a National Book Award for Butcher’s Crossing, which I’ve heard is even better, all that more reason that I’m glad NYRB Classics has brought him back into print.

coverLastly I’d like to mention The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas as one of the more interesting critical works I’ve read this year. Striphas simply sets out to describe the publishing industry and associated apparatus in which he calls the “late age of print.” In order to do that he must recapitulate a good deal of the publishing industry as we know it, going back into the middle of hte 19th century. The resultant book is interesting both as a history of publishing and a look at this late age and where publishing might be headed tomorrow.

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6 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito”

  1. Jonathan Post
    at 7:04 pm on December 13, 2009

    Actually, if I’m not mistaken, John Williams won the NBA for Augustus. But, as always, the best year end list in The Millions. I just started Suttree based on having completed The Border Trilogy earlier this year and having read your post about it on your blog. Truly amazing.

  2. Edan Lepucki
    at 7:37 pm on December 13, 2009

    Great post. I think Jonathan is right about Williams winning the NBA for Augustus. I too picked Stoner for one of my favorites this year, as did fellow contributor Patrick Brown. I decided to read it because it was recommended last year in the series. I hope the novel gets more readers in 2010!

  3. David Bajo
    at 8:00 am on December 14, 2009

    This is a compelling list through and through, showing that the contemporary can be achieved by finding what truly resonates and thrives from the past. Thanks especially for reminding us of the Hermans. However, on a related note, postmodernism is an aesthetic, not a historical classification. Quixote, The Inferno, The Dark Lady Sonnets, Jacques the Fatalist, Jealousy, Life Before Man, and many others throughout literary history are distinctly postmodern works.

  4. nicknick
    at 3:10 pm on December 14, 2009

    Cardboard Universe, new to me, seems exactly what I need right now. Ordered! Thanks for the blip about it.

  5. Alan Kirby
    at 7:29 am on December 17, 2009

    If you’re interested in the ideas that are washing around about culture after postmodernism, you might check out my new book Digimodernism:

    http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=134279&SearchType=Basic

  6. War’s fog. « The Hieroglyphic Streets
    at 10:39 pm on February 20, 2010

    [...] about the human condition, effortlessly disguised as a thriller. Scott Esposito says it’s a riveting detective story and more.┬áJohn Baker says the narrative is both a metaphysical mystery and a straight-forward wartime [...]

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