Ice—the last novel Anna Kavan wrote before she was discovered dead with a syringe in her arm and her head resting on the case in which she kept her heroin—is a gem of speculative fiction. It is uncanny, hallucinatory, apocalyptic, a book crowded with glaciers and starlight. The novel’s popularity has grown steadily since its first publication in 1967 and Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of Ice, with a fine introduction by Jonathan Lethem, gives Kavan’s valedictory effort the platform it deserves. The plot is deceptively simple. In the aftermath of a major atomic event, a monomaniacal man searches for a fragile, silver-haired girl from his past as the vise of a new ice age clinches the planet. He searches for her through the chaotic territory of memories, dreams, and half-real war zones. At all costs, he must locate “the glass girl” before the world darkens and human life is over. In a game of cat and mouse, he sails to foreign shores on the last overcrowded ships, gleaning clues to her whereabouts, yet when he finds her—and he always manages to—she flees from him as from a tyrant. The warden of an unnamed northern country is the narrator’s erotic rival and has the power and savvy to preempt the narrator’s every move. Kavan makes ample suggestions that the two adversaries are in fact doubles, mirror-images, the Superego and Id of the author’s avowedly psychoanalytical nightmare (Kavan’s best friend and sometime creative collaborator, Karl Theodor Bluth, was a psychoanalyst who treated her depression and supplied her with legal heroin). In addition to being a prolific writer and inveterate drug addict, Kavan was a serious painter, producing startling artworks in a series of modernist styles, from cubism and expressionism to surrealism. Her wartime traumas (she lost her only son in WWII) and confinement in asylums (much like another oft-neglected English painter and writer, Leonora Carrington) add to Ice’s strange alchemy of glittering, visionary detail and psychological dishevelment. Considering Kavan’s earlier works, such as the story collections Asylum Piece and I Am Lazarus, one can’t help but read the glass girl in Ice as, in part, a self-portrait of the protean, charismatic, and psychologically bruised author who never recovered from a childhood of maternal neglect. The novel’s dystopian world is hermetically sealed. Geographical information is withheld and we are never quite able to get our bearings in this landscape of snow and ruins, illuminated by the ever-changing lights of the aura borealis. The glass girl slips through the pages, tantalizingly out of reach, seen through the filter of the male narrator’s objectifying, sadistic, chimerical gaze. Her hair is “bright as spun glass” and “shimmers like silver fire;” her face “cracks to pieces and tumbles into the dark;” the narrator fantasizes about “the circular marks of teeth [standing] out clearly” on her “white flesh;” he sees “the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watches from the tent of her glittering hair;” “mountainous walls of ice surround” the girl and “huge ice-battlements fill…the sky, lit from within by frigid mineral fires.” One never tires of Kavan’s poetry. She has a gift for elemental and atavistic language. [millions_ad] The science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has dubbed Kavan “Kafka’s sister” for good reason. Not only did she absorb and creatively imitate many of Franz Kafka’s short stories in the 1930s and 1940s, but she carried his enthusiasm for the frustrated quest, the skeptical fantasy, and the allegory without a key into her mature work. It’s hard not to see reflections of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in Ice. As in those novels, the mysteries of the invisible and all-powerful authorities are never penetrated or understood. Kavan even changed her name from Helen Ferguson in 1939 as a phonetic gesture to Kafka, whose own Czech surname was originally spelled “Kavka.” Some critics read the “ice” as a metaphor for Kavan’s desperate struggle with heroin and the cold, suffocating experience of addiction. Others view the novel as a veiled autobiography of Kavan’s relationships with abusive men that eventually led to romantic abstention. Given that the narrator, the glass girl, and the warden are sometimes conflated through slippages in point of view, one could see the various character dynamics as a kind of alchemical yearning for the androgyne, for the union of psychological, emotional, and sexual opposites (a major preoccupation of surrealists like Max Ernst, whose technical innovations Kavan appropriated in her own paintings). To a certain degree, it’s useful to interpret the book as a critique of totalitarianism, the ecological crimes of the Anthropocene, or a protest against the Cold War. A few have pointed out its proto-feminist verve, though the satire of patriarchal thought-control is never entirely satisfying or aboveboard, as it is, say, in the works of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Kavan’s first critic, Brian Aldiss, saw Ice as a pure science fiction novel. Faced with such a multidimensional work, the reviewer is happy to allow all these interpretative planes to coexist. Even 50 years after its publication, this is still a relevant book. It’s not perfect. The author, after all, was in and out of the hospital during the process of composition and her editor, Peter Lang, demanded dramatic revisions before agreeing to publish the novel (characterized by one manuscript reader as a “mixture of Kafka and the Avengers,” a description Kavan found delightful). The narrative repetition of chase and escape can be tiresome and the prose can occasionally slip from its usual sterling quality. Nevertheless, Ice is ambitious, unforgettable, and one of a kind. It demands to be experienced. During a time of environmental crisis, when totalitarian-inflected administrations are brazenly withdrawing from climate accords, when ice caps are melting and the world’s magnificent glaciers are disappearing, Ice provides a photographic negative of the present moment—a world overshadowed by atomic threat and nearly devoid of ice.
I had a simple plan: to peruse a novella repeatedly and in different settings, an experiment in reading during which I would surrender myself to what Edgar Allen Poe called that “fullness of [the author’s] intention” best experienced in a “brief tale.” All I needed was the right book: familiar yet strange enough to offer surprises during the third, fourth, and fifth readings, all within days of each other. I had been casting about for the perfect title when I saw Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis at an airport bookstore, the beautiful cover submitting the title letters to the same transformative process as the book’s protagonist undergoes. This, I decided, would be my companion text as I semi-reclined on a plane, lay in bed, sat in a café, strolled upright in a park, and bellied up to a bar. That The Metamorphosis is manifestly about change appealed to me for a project about repetition, though I had no expectation that reading it repeatedly would effect any such dramatic metamorphoses either in me or my literary judgment. Nor did it. Rather, this is a record of the adaptation of a reader’s focus to his different environments. The Story Gregor Samsa, whose “particular zeal” allowed him to rise “almost overnight from petty clerk to salesman,” awakens after “troubled dreams” to find himself transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect.” Gregor’s more immediate concern is that he has slept through his alarm and missed his train. (What one chooses to worry about in Kafka is always telling.) Having the misfortune to work in a “firm where even the most negligible falling short was enough to arouse the greatest possible suspicion,” Gregor is visited by his incensed supervisor, whose immediate arrival is in a way no less far-fetched than Gregor’s metamorphosis. The family accustoms itself to Gregor’s transformation. His sister Grete, whether from “childish frivolity” or jealous protectiveness, takes over the caretaking duties. Each Samsa returns to work to relieve the family of the “ancient debt” incurred by their father. Meanwhile, Gregor slowly wastes away, eating and sleeping less and less, his movement hampered by an apple that his irate father had hurled at him and is now lodged in his back. Household staff quit, a charwoman and three eerie, bearded lodgers arrive -- a new, financially necessary infestation. A final confrontation convinces the family that Gregor must go, a mandate to which Gregor eventually submits when he obligingly expires. Relieved and empowered, the Samsas expel the apartment’s intruders and take the day off work to go on an outing: the first time the novella strays from the apartment. Gregor’s, sister, her parents notice, has blossomed into a young woman. Kafka at 35,000 Feet: I started my experiment on board a Boeing 767. This setting seemed particularly fitting as nothing in modern life makes one feel quite as verminous as air travel: the cramped confines, the mixture of docility and entitlement, the accrued filth of travel, and food scarcely fresher than the rotten offerings supplied to Gregor daily. I had sacrificed the aisle seat to my wife and slunk into the middle seat, then cravenly ceded the armrest to the stranger on my right, as this was certainly what Gregor, a creature of excessive considerateness (some might say servility) would have done. Thus hemmed in, I waited for the plane to reach cruising altitude before reacquainting myself with Gregor’s plight. Gregor, I noticed, gets into the most trouble when he puts himself on display. Gazing longingly at the dividing curtain in the aisle, I was tempted to imitate one of Gregor’s ill-advised, visible breakouts and display myself -- in my full, coach-stinking monstrosity -- to the first class passengers. I was moved by the same resentment Gregor felt toward the lodgers and imagined myself making a similar complaint: “Just look at how these [passengers] take their nourishment while I was wasting away.” Alas, I stayed seated, merely contenting myself with visualizing the back of my seat as its own “carapace” that would defend me from the repeated kicks from the child behind me. As I was in a good position to appreciate, The Metamorphosis dramatizes a fight for and division of a limited space: how much space one takes up, how much one cedes, how much one feels entitled to, and how quickly, and in what manner, one navigates that space -- aged bipeds and many-legged bugs alike have trouble getting around. Before the transformation, Gregor is a creature familiar with tight spaces, spending his salesman days on the road in “cramped hotel rooms” and at home in his “proper human room, if admittedly too small.” (Asides like this last one reveal the peculiar mixture of self-denial and resentment in Gregor.) Once he becomes an insect, his room affords him only a “few square meters of space” over which to crawl, and so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of his sister, he takes to squeezing himself under a settee, “where even though his back was a bit cramped and he could no longer raise his head, he at once felt right at home...” Some flashes of rebellion and resentment notwithstanding, the generally pliant Gregor accepts his straitened quarters even as his family comes to suspect him of new territorial ambitions: “But now we have this beast tormenting us; it drives away our lodgers and apparently intends to take over the entire apartment and have us sleep in the gutter.” When, late in the novella, Gregor is drawn into the “immaculate” parlor by his sister’s violin playing, it is the last violation of the domestic space he is permitted. He dies that night, and his sister finally notices how little space he actually took up: “Just look how skinny he was.” This moment of pathos quickly gives way to irony, as the Samsas, rid of their desiccated charge, look forward to relocating to a “smaller...more practical flat” over which they will have complete dominion. Outraged on Gregror’s behalf, I reclaimed the armrest in a small act of solidarity, clinging to it as zealously as the beleaguered beetle clings to his cherished picture frame when Grete and her mother attempt to remove it from his walls. Kafka after Dark: I adopted a more Proustian posture for my second reading. After all, Gregor’s metamorphosis starts in bed with his “supine imaginings.” Startled and only half awake, he examines “his curved brown belly segmented by rigid arches atop which the blanket, already slipping, was just barely managing to cling.” Clutching my own sheet, I saw in that heroic blanket the whole drama: Gregor’s own doomed quest to cling to a human past. Gregor will later drag his own sheet to cover himself -- a painstaking labor that “cost him four hours” and speaks to the all-too human shame that remains with Gregor in his beastly form. After the initial uncovering of Gregor’s monstrous body, it would take a spreadsheet to keep track of the Samsas’ various states of (un)dress. Gregor assumes that his sister is absent the first morning because “she must have just gotten out of bed and not yet begun to dress.” The first time she does visit him in his room, she is “almost completely clothed.” His father could previously be found “sitting in an armchair in his nightshirt,” but now he wears a “smart blue uniform with gold buttons” at all times, a uniform which eventually becomes as soiled as Gregor’s filthy shell. Gregor fixates on his mother’s “unfastened skirts slipping one by one from her waist” as she hurries to stop his father from killing Gregor with the apple assault. She has taken a job in a dress show, “sacrific[ing] herself for the underclothes of strangers.” As for Gregor, his most beloved possession is a framed magazine ad picturing a lady “in a fur hat and fur boa who sat erect, holding out to the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her entire forearm had vanished.” His former romantic interest is a girl who worked, naturally, in a haberdashery. And in Gregor’s charged fantasy about his sister, he pictures her visiting his room, and kissing “her throat, which, now that she went to the office every day, she wore free of ribbon or collar.” There are erotic or Oedipal explanations for the novella’s obsession with clothes, but it is also elegiac. Why wouldn’t Gregor, who can now only outfit himself with a thick layer of dust, pay particular attention to the more refined coverings of the humans around him? It was getting late, and as Gregor remarks before he ceases slumber altogether, “Human being need their sleep.” I’ll leave my bedroom attire to the reader’s imagination and simply note that after turning off the light, I swaddled myself particularly tightly in my blanket that night. Kafka at a Cafe: Given Prague’s robust café culture, reading The Metamorphosis at a coffee shop seemed de rigeur. Before my coffee had time to cool, I reached the passage in which Gregor shows himself for the first time to his mother, father, and the general manager. Frau Samsa backs up into the table and knocks over the coffeepot, prompting the first instinctual reaction Gregor experiences in his new form: “Mother, Mother,” Gregor said softly, gazing up at her. For a moment he had forgotten all about the general manager; on the other hand, he could not restrain himself, when he beheld this flowing coffee, from snapping his jaws several times. At this, the mother gave another shriek and fled from the table into the arms of Gregor’s father as he rushed to her aid. The father proceeds to “aid” Gregor by giving him a “liberating shove” through the too-narrow bedroom door, scraping his sides and mangling a few of his legs. As the narrator rationalizes: “And of course in his father’s current state it could not possibly have occurred to him to open the door’s other wing to create an adequate passage.” Of course: the father’s “current state,” in which he is “uttering hisses like a wild man,” logically prevents him from taking into account his son’s. Instinct and logic are consistently at odds in the novella. Gregor is a creature who can’t control his jaws from grotesquely snapping at the sight (or scent) of coffee, yet who in a later scene will ignore his instincts by deeming it unsportsmanlike to escape from his father’s wrath by crawling on the walls and ceiling. He is rewarded for his consideration with a debilitating injury. The Metamorphosis is full of confident logical statements that butt up against the profound illogicality of the novella’s conceit. My favorite is Grete’s reaction when she doesn’t immediately see Gregor in his room: “...well, goodness, he had to be somewhere, it’s not as if he might have flown away...” Why, pray tell, not? He has, after all, just turned into a giant bug. (Nabokov is convinced that Gregor does actually have wings, and thus could have flown away.) It is no wonder then that the family’s final judgment on Gregor takes the form of a logical pronouncement: “If it were Gregor, it would have realized a long time ago that it just isn’t possible for human beings to live beside such a creature, and it would have gone away on its own.” Of course. Kafka in the Park: The airplane, bed, and even the tightly packed café had replicated the cramped nature of the Samsa apartment. It was time for some open space. The sun was shining for the first time in months, and I had a bench to myself in a gorgeous park with a view much better than Gregor’s, which looked out on “a desert in which the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably conjoined.” I had read the novella three times now, so I decided this time to carry out an outdoor-friendly exegetical exercise and think up alternate titles for the novella. (In a perfect world, all English essay prompts about free will, fate, nature, and nurture should be replaced with one: Re-title the book in question and justify your response.) Good Intentions: The novella is full of good intentions that backfire and those that can’t always be expressed. Each time he escapes from his room, the agonizingly slow Gregor only survives by signaling his “good intentions” to his father that he is trying to return as quickly as he can. Each failure of empathy or understanding is recalled in the perfectly insensitive and deliciously ironic last line “...it seemed to [the Samsas] almost a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when their daughter swiftly sprang to her feet and stretched her young body." Whimsical Extravagances: A phrase used in the beginning of the novella by the general manager in reference to Gregor’s absence from work. Unlike his fellow salesmen who live “like harem girls,” Gregor leads an ascetic, dutiful existence and has the “cautious habit” of locking his bedroom door at night. He has no friends to speak of and his romantic life consists of a glossy picture of a model. And yet, perhaps in Gregor’s sporadic and orgiastic fits of crawling, in the pleasure he takes in feeling the cool glass of his beloved picture frame against his belly, the clerk sensed something whimsically extravagant about the dull salesman after all. New Entertainments: Noticing Gregor’s “peregrinations” and the “sticky trails they leave behind,” Grete takes note of her brother’s “new entertainments.” While there is plenty of abject moping in the novella, there is also a pronounced appetite for fun. Gregor diverts himself with the “novelty of crawling” and by “playfully” taking bites of the food he seldom eats. He enjoys rummaging through the mess in his room with “ever-increasing” pleasure, even if these flights are followed by a sense of shame. The charwoman is clearly intrigued by, even fond of, her charge, and upon first seeing Gregor, the lodgers find him more entertaining than Grete’s mediocre violin playing. Even Gregor’s father adopts a tone both “furious” and “glad” upon steeling himself to punish Gregor for the first time. The metamorphosis has thus provided everyone in the household with new sadistic, voyeuristic, and freakish entertainments. Pride Before the Fall: Coffee pots spill, violins drop, Gregor plummets from the bed and ceiling, man descends the evolutionary ladder, and apples rain down from on high. And several more jottings to ponder on a nice afternoon in the park: Creatures of Habit; Special Accommodations; Social Mobility; The Doors; Exaggerated Deference; Gregor and the Women; Ancient Debts; Conditional Love. Kafka at a Bar: The celebratory fifth and final reading. Thinking it too pretentious to read Kafka at the bar, I secured a seat on an outside deck and made my way through one novella and a few IPAs. Given my earlier concerns, I was surprised to find myself sitting next to two patrons debating a Slavoj Žižek essay from a collection entitled Deconstructing Zionism. Had I woken up from troubled dreams to find myself transformed once again into a graduate student? After about 40 pages, the sun and the seven percent beer took its toll. The conversations taking place around me made it even more difficult to focus. Various entertaining topics were discussed: the ethics of a 24-year-old playing on a 30-and-over softball team, Southerners’ inability to drive in the snow, and overhead bin etiquette. In the snippet that made me lose all hope of continuing my engagement with The Metamorphosis, a man referred to a reviled co-worker as an “ass barnacle,” thereby trumping Kafka’s relatively tame takedown of the general manager as a “creature devoid of backbone and wit.” Well, I reasoned, eavesdropping happens to be a central part of the novella, and indeed of Kafka’s oeuvre, so why not go with it? As a snooping peasant tells K. in The Castle, “There’s always something new to listen to.” There is a usually a sinister aspect to Kafkaesque eavesdropping, but in The Metamorphosis, it stems from Gregor’s yearning to “be drawn once more into the circle of humankind.” Instead he gets “tolerance, only tolerance.” The Samsas do permit their son to listen in on their dull domestic scenes at night through a slightly open door, but he is told in no uncertain terms to disappear when he attempts to actually rejoin the circle. The last thing Gregor ever hears is his sister’s exasperated “Finally!” as she impatiently watches him return to his room for the last time. Nevertheless, while dying he thinks back on his family with “nothing but tenderness and love,” the grotesque proceedings and rough handling having done little to affect his thirst for human company. I went to walk off my buzz, giving free rein to a drunken mawkishness about Gregor’s goodness, an assessment of his character challenged forcefully in Bernofsky’s afterword: ...Gregor’s new physical state appears as a representation of his long-standing spiritual abjectness. Finally Gregor has only himself to blame for the wretchedness of his situation, since he has unwillingly accepted wretchedness as it was thrust upon him…Gregor Samsa, giant bug, is a cartoon of the subaltern, a human being turned inside out. He has traded in his spine for an exoskeleton...Gregor is a salesman, but what he’s sold is himself: his own agency and dignity, making him a sellout through and through. Seduced by the seeming clarity of the allegory, Bernofsky is too hard on Gregor, who is guilty, just as Joseph K. and most of Kafka’s anti-heroes are guilty. But Kafka’s allegories are more opaque; Gregor and K. are also perfectly innocent and, crucially, the actions of those around them are manifestly more despicable. To quote the decidedly pro-Gregor Nabokov: “Here is a point to be observed with care and love. Gregor is a human being in an insect's disguise; his family are insects disguised as people.” Re-readers, I’m convinced, are more judgmental than first-time readers, but on my fifth and buzzed reading, I had never felt more fondly about Gregor -- a fussy, abject saint, but a saint nonetheless. Perhaps I would have revised this view had I gone through with a sixth reading, “Kafka with a Hangover,” but to echo one of the alternate titles, that would have seemed like a “whimsical extravagance.”
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter's translation of the year award, I'm going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I've read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I've read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It's an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady's father, and I'm sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel's path from the epic to what we would recognize today as "normal" realist fiction, it's a thoroughly engrossing tale that's plain fun to read. Fielding's flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I've already convinced roughly 20 people (that I'm aware of) to read this book. It's rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges's best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled - with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don't know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don't understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He's easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace's favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan's theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It's too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that's partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway's career. He's also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it's the best unreliable narrator novel I've ever read. Parade's End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn't count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann's saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann's book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno's thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I'm quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya's novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala's civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I'd read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya's English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier's descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome - they actually make me feel like I'm back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I'll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you've been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008
As a term of approbation, "precious" has lost its currency. These days, the p-word puts us in mind less of rare gems than of independent films about quirky white people. But as A.O. Scott's recent review of The Darjeeling Limited reminds us, we needn't choose between precious and precious. In the movies of Wes Anderson, the boxes of Joseph Cornell, and now, in Jesse Ball's unabashedly imaginative debut novel, the two senses of the word collide.The set-up is pure Hitchcock: a (seeming) bystander, James Sim by name, witnesses an act of political murder that draws him into a web of intrigue (or, as my friend Colin's dad liked to put it, "a tissue of lies.") Confined to an asylum for compulsive prevaricators, Sim must ferret out the truth. Ball has followed Murakami, however, in replacing the traditional terms of the suspense novel with his own cryptic obsessions. It soon becomes apparent that Samedi the Deafness is less an epistemological mystery than an existential one. The important question for is not whodunit, but "Why am I here?"The pursuit of an answer proves to be highly entertaining, thanks in large part to Ball's untrammeled idiosyncracies. This 28-year-old debut novelist is also a poet and an illustrator, and his prose, in Samedi the Deafness, leavens flights of hallucinatory vision with the arch diction and mannered dialogue of mid-twentieth-century British children's novels. (The bad guys are always saying things like, "For this reason...") At its weakest, the novel struggles to sustain its tone; the juvenile elements decay from wonder into whimsy, the poetic ones start to feel strained. At its best, the tongue-in-cheek and the earnest harmonize to produce a vivid and dreamlike whimsy, as in this flashback to James Sim's formative years:"The best hiding place of all, said James's friend Ansilon, from his perch atop James's shoulder, is inside something hollow when no one knows it's hollow. Ansilon was James's one friend. He was an invisible owl who could tell the future and also speak English, although he preferred to speak in the owl language, which James understood perfectly. -But if no one knows that it's hollow, said James, then how would I manage to know that it's hollow? Should I just go around with a little hammer, tapping things?"Ball has pronounced The Castle one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and this literary debt is obvious. Like Kafka's K., Ball's protagonist is a patient and bemused Everyman. His character emerges not in his actions, but in his reactions, and despite his unusual gifts (a near-photographic memory, for example), James Sim is a democratic figure; he could be any one of us. Ball is less successful at creating a supporting cast. Where the inhabitants of Kafka's village are both madcap and mysteriously human, the denizens of Ball's asylum often seem a mere accumulation of tics. Their setting redeems them, however. With its labyrinthine architecture and wonderfully arbitrary list of rules, the asylum itself becomes a character, and a worthy foil for our hero.In the end, the delights of Samedi the Deafness outweigh its flaws. Ball's sensibility is, despite his many influences, entirely his own, and one can expect good things to come. (Another novel, The Way Through Doors, will be published in 2008). At a speedy 280 pages, Samedi is a welcome appetizer to what one hopes will be a rich and - dare we say it? - precious career.
As anyone who keeps up with world financial markets surely knows, the People's Republic of China is booming. After the quashing of the Chinese democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping did an about-face and introduced capitalism as a panacea for the woes of his country. Echoing the call "to get rich is glorious," many old-guard communist institutions were abandoned in favor of quasi-free market ventures, and the result was a China on the make, full of hustlers and schemers, anxious to make a buck. Crooked politicians became crooked entrepreneurs, and the pursuit of wealth became not just the means to an end that Deng Xiaoping had envisioned, but an end in itself. The Chinese literary scene caught on quickly, selling out its ideological foundations for the cheap fix of fast money, and a national literature of the explicit was born, with even writers whose writing had once been pillars of the democracy movement turning their efforts to the salacious and titillating, whatever would sell. It was in this milieu that Zhu Wen, whose stories are collected in the recently released anthology I Love Dollars, made his literary debut.Modern China, as captured by Wen, is a Kafkaesque horror. The parallels to Kafka's work are uncanny: the endless bureaucracy, arbitrary nature of decision making, the crushing closeness of others, ambivalence to - almost reflexive fear of - sex, all coming together to make even the smallest task a trial of epic difficulty. Kafka's preoccupations seem a perfect fit for China, and Wen manages to capture all of the loathing, and paradoxically - and much to my great relief - all of the bleak humor of Kafka's best work.The title story, which follows the antics of a father and son as they scour a nameless factory town looking for the narrator's younger brother, is a send up/satire of the go-go China of the 1990s. Much like Kafka's The Castle, the story documents the endless circular pursuit of a goal, which, when finally attained, proves meaningless. The unnamed narrator possesses an almost Portnoy-like obsession with sex. (Philip Roth once when asked if he had been influenced by the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, replied, no, he had been influenced by a sit-down comedian, Franz Kafka.) He views every interaction from the perspective of getting laid, and his search for his brother is repeatedly waylaid by his sexual proclivities. The humor that arises from this obsession tempers Wen's insinuation that China has traded the good of the Democracy movement for something vulgar. When the narrator insists that his father abandon their search for the brother to find some girls, his father refuses, leading him to note, "In [my father's] day libido wasn't called libido, it was called idealism." Later, in a discussion of his second favorite topic, money, he declaims, "We've all got things we can learn from [Western money]... From its straight-up, honest-to-goodness, absolute value[s]."As the stories unfold, Kafka's influence becomes increasingly pronounced. The second story, "A Hospital Night," and the third story "A Boat Crossing" both transform Kafka's familiar themes into exquisite commentaries on life in modern China. They're built on an atmosphere of gloom, paranoia and general malaise, so complete and effective it is at times literally chilling. And yet, the bleakness is so absolute, it inevitably becomes ridiculous, as in "A Hospital Night" when the narrator is dragooned into taking care of an elderly man he barely knows and whom despises him. The ensuing power struggle, waged over the elderly man's indignation at being tended to by a stranger and the narrator's need to empty his bed pan, could be taken directly from the pages of Amerika, and will surely elicit snorts and belly laughs from anyone with an appreciation for dark humor. "A Boat Crossing," while also amusing in its way draws a darker picture of life, where a man, escaping from a nameless fear, learns that sometimes the things that seem the least threatening can be the most dangerous."Wheels" and "Pounds, Ounces, Meat" follow in the same vein. The first details an endless series of confrontations between a man and the pseudo-gangsters who are determined to make him pay their grandfather's hospital bills, and the latter follows a couple as their attempts to prove they've been cheated by a butcher cascade into a series of antic misadventures. "Ah, Xiao Xie" provides an interesting twist on the Kafka story, observing a Kafkaesque protagonist, a man struggling to quit his job at a power plant, from the viewpoint of a rational observer. As with so many of Kafka's characters, Xiao Xie's motives are completely inscrutable and defy all conventional logic, boggling the mind of the narrator, much as Kafka's endless variations on himself confound his readers. Eventually, Xiao Xie's struggle with the nearly indomitable will of his employers, who refuse to let him resign, undergoes a hilarious reversal. After Xiao Xie ruins his health with one of his schemes, his employers try to fire him, while he desperately clings to his job, terrified of losing his health insurance.It's difficult to say whether Wen writes from a love of Kafka or a more organic identification with the themes of his work. Although Kafka's portrait hangs in Wen's office, many historical accounts of communist rule in China seem readymade for Kafka themselves. Many of Chairman Mao's initiatives summon forth images worthy of The Trial or The Castle, and the bizarre amalgamation of capitalist freedoms and communist tyranny seems a recipe for the confrontations between the self and the faceless bureaucracies that form the basis of so much of his work. The Chinese legalist tradition, harking back to the sixth century BC, also provides another point of similarity. The legalist's obsession with honoring the letter of the law over its spirit, reflected in the practice, if not necessarily the philosophy, of Chinese communism (not often noted, but to my mind indisputable), mirrors the unbending rules of the Talmud, with which Kafka expressed a deep fascination. Wen's work suggests that this combination of Jewish legalism and Germanic bureaucratic organization that Kafka experienced as an antagonistic force during his life in Bohemia has found itself reborn in a bizarro Chinese form. It might be hell to live through, but it makes for a fantastic read.
Let's say you're slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let's say you're also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you'll live to the fine old age of 90. Let's furthermore presuppose that you're one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you've already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder... because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I'd never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill's Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg's Twilight of the Superheroes - the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer - is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg's world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She's single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story... and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar's Children. I've already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I'll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski's overlooked first novel, The Cottagers - a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I've been trying to bone up on the classics. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it's about the most romantic damn thing I've ever encountered, and I'm a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann's The Magic Mountain - a great book for when you've got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow's Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can't say the same thing about Kafka's The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery - a rip-roaring read that's written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen's first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it's sort of a ridiculous story, but it's hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you're having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras... sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up... Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can't get away from: Susan Sontag's On Photography, Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces, David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow's astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass' A Temple of Text and James Wood's The Irresponsible Self. Wood's essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God"... which is, I guess, why I'll keep reading in 2007.