The 1002nd Book to Read Before You Die by M. J. Nicholls

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I could say that Nicholls’ novel is the brand new level of postmodern, self-reflexive metafiction, but I think I’ve written similar things about other books before (even though there’s always an even more brand new level, and my vocabulary is limited), and anyway, the words postmodern, self-reflexive, and metafiction sometimes make me want to puke, and I don’t feel like using them yet again.

Isn’t it possible to just write a story sometimes – a story which is not about itself, but about something that exists out there in the world or even inside our minds?

According to Nicholls, no, this isn’t possible – so we have everything necessary here for a wonderful meta-masturbating novel, in which a smart-ass master of literary studies whines about the difficulties of writing and reading, and about the fact that literature is dead.

However, there’s one thing which saves this novel (and even makes it really entertaining): it’s clear that the words postmodern, self-reflexive, and metafiction also make Nicholls puke – therefore he manages to approach the topics above in a delightfully cynical way.

The novel consists of two distinct storylines. The first one is the story itself, in which a guy called Marcus decides to move to a small island at the end of world to devote his next three years to reading all 1001 books a person must read before he dies. According to Marcus’ theory, after reading all 1001 books, he’ll finally be rid of the compulsion to read all the time and will be ready to live a normal life. However, he soon meets the decidedly quirky inhabitants of the island (for example, Isobel, the eccentric librarian, who speaks in a fancifully Baroque way, and who’s looking for a guy who’s constantly reading; or Raine Upright, the self-appointed critic and devoted enemy of the literary canon, who produced such masterpieces of literary interpretation as, for example, 100 Novels That Should Be Fisted to Death); and thanks to his new acquaintances and other arising troubles, Marcus’ reading project doesn’t go as planned.

The other storyline is about a writer who applies to a literary contest which will reward the work of a young writer who would become the new voice of the Scottish Highlands. Based on the inspiring, heartwarming, and widely accessible synopsis and first chapter he submits, the young writer wins the prize – but he has no desire whatsoever to complete the novel. Instead, he goes on to write the novel from the first storyline – a novel with no discernible plot, with no real characters, with no inspiring or heartwarming qualities – a novel unable to address a single person in the world.

Both storylines are rich in literary asides and snide remarks (some of them I understand, some I don’t; and sometimes I agree with the overt or implied criticism, and sometimes I don’t) – so for the proper enjoyment of the novel, it might be best if you’d already completed your list of 1001 books.

And I enjoyed all this for a long while, but at one point, I completely lost interest. It happened when one day I slipped on a bunch of wet leaves during rollerblading and made a bloody mess of my knees. Consequently, I spent the whole evening wondering whether I have tiny little pebbles in my knees now, and whether I’ll need to have my legs amputated if I don’t go to the doctor, just use regular home remedies – and I couldn’t care about this book anymore.

I only mention this because to me it illustrates that literature (and especially: mental masturbation about literature) can be interesting but it often ceases to be interesting the moment something real happens – for example, if there’s a chance that there are real tiny little pebbles in a real knee.

Anyway, it’s not a bad book at all, but I realized by the end that I most probably won’t ever get to the end of the 1001 novels I must read before I die. I mark the ones I had read in a special list, though – just in case.

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One Who Walked Alone – Robert E. Howard: The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis

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My very first impression of this book wasn’t too favorable: Novalyne Price starts off in a school-girlishly gushy manner (for example, she uses way more exclamation marks – seriously, and not humorously – than I can stomach without sarcastic remarks and irritated eye-rolls – “I met Bob Howard today! I’m so excited! Bob Howard is a real writer, and I met him, today!”), which made me wonder whether this was going to be 300 pages of fan-girling (which would have surprised me, knowing the friend who gifted me the book), but then the actual book started, Price cut down a bit on her exclamation mark usage, and even though I could never come to fully appreciate her style, the content more than made up for any possible stylistic deficiency or incompatibility, and soon I started to find this book thoroughly enjoyable, exhilarating, admirable, delightfully unruly and also heart-breaking.

And as I came to realize that there’s no way for me to write a coherent review, I decided to write one based on my random thoughts and feelings, separated by headings.

The blurb

I’d recommend skipping the sensationalist, trashy blurb altogether, because based on that, you might just think that this is a – well, a sensationalist and trashy memoir/biography, when in fact it’s anything but.

What is this made of?

The book mostly consists of the text of Price’s journals and diaries, from that roughly two-year period when she knew and dated Howard. I don’t know how heavily Price edited or revised her text, and how much she deleted from it when – more than 40 years later – she took her journals and turned them into this book, but in any case, the book still retains a lot of journal-like characteristics, which in itself is neither good nor bad. Price’s book is as intimate and vivid as any journal that is faithfully maintained by its author, but it’s also full of tiresome repetitions, flights of fancy and a certain monomania – it’s full of details which are probably very interesting for the author of the journal, but perhaps not so interesting for anyone else.

The “story”

In 1934, Novalyne Price gets a job as a teacher in Cross Plains, a small Texas town, where she soon manages to pick up Robert Howard. Price and Howard already knew each other briefly from earlier, and I’m not even sure what I mean here by “picking up”, because even though they go on to spend a lot of time together in the next several months, and even though Price sometimes thinks about Howard as a possible romantic interest, they just remains friends throughout their relationship – friends who spend their time driving up and down through the Texas countryside, reading books together, discussing writing, literature and the downfall of civilization, and also arguing a lot.

And even though in the beginning I briefly thought that perhaps Price is just a fan-girl, hanging on the words of Howard-the-Barbarian with fascination, I soon realized that she’s in fact a smart, determined, hard-willed, ambitious and self-confident young woman with a quirky sense of humor, who doesn’t give a damn about many of her environment’s conventions and expectations, while at the same time she’s an often clumsy, irritating, not-very-imaginative country girl who sometimes displays a frightful lack of empathy. In short – I realized that Novalyne Prize is a real human, a person with random moods, with good and bad moments and traits, with prejudices, biases, deeply held beliefs, with a lot of enthusiasm and lust for life, with all kinds of joys and sorrows. And though it’s possible to dislike her as a person, the real-ness of her own personal reality is indisputable.

What’s this about?

Theoretically, it’s about the last two years of Robert E. Howard, as witnessed by a close friend, but in reality, it’s much more about the friend herself. Yes, Novalyne Price wasn’t afraid to look closer and go closer to Howard, whom almost the whole town considered a lunatic, so it’s probable that she really got to know Howard better than anyone else. Still – Price’s main concern and interest was always her own life: she soon gave up the idea of getting into a closer, romantic relationship with Howard, she dated other men, too (and some of her journal entries concerning one of her regular dates, Truett, who was also Howard’s friend, really bring to mind the world of teenage-girl diaries), and she often got fully engrossed in her job and ignored everything else – therefore I sometimes felt that, after all, she probably didn’t see/understand Howard as well as she claims.

And about what else?

About so much more. The book contains the whole life of a small Texas town in the 1930s, and it’s is alive and vibrant with the whole era, environment and background – it’s just there, without any long descriptions, which is amazing; it’s also full of discussions about writing, literature and literary aspirations (and I’ll probably never again look down upon pulp writers paid by the word count, and definitely not on Howard); and (whenever Novalyne Price manages to put her ego aside) it’s also full of beautiful and sensitive descriptions about the things you cannot change, about all that’s fucking tragic in life, about the sense of living at the wrong time in the wrong place.

All in all, it’s a fascinating and nerve-racking book. (If Novalyne Price’s style didn’t get so much on my nerves as it did, it would be simply fascinating.)

Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I often find it difficult to get into worlds that are not the worlds of the roughly here and roughly now – that’s why I’m not much of a sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’m always more interested in humans than in their environments, and I’m way too impatient to read world-building through many-many pages (but not knowing the rules of a given time and place drives me crazy). Anyway, Bacigalupi does a good job with world-building here because reading these stories I could usually figure out quite quickly what kind of setup we’re having here – one where Earth is already beyond redemption; one where humans (and not-fully-humans) live in a shrunken hell almost-destroyed by all kinds of environmental and economic catastrophes; one where humanity conquered death but it seems that perhaps that wasn’t such a great idea – and I was always interested to see how humans and human-like beings live in such a world.

(Still, I can never completely distance myself from the here-and-now, but I don’t mind because this led to interesting ironies and further thoughts here. For instance, one day I was reading one of Bacigalupi’s stories set in a world plagued by water shortage. Then the next day, an ominous-sounding email arrived at my work, saying that new water-filtering machines will be installed in the kitchen. The email warned everyone that on the day the old machines will be removed and the new ones installed, we might have to resort to drinking tap water. Oh the irony. Reading Bacigalupi’s story and then reading this email made me think of how very lucky we are. For multiple reasons, and the fact that we don’t yet filter and treat our water with fancy machines because we must, but just because why not is a pretty damn good reason for feeling lucky, too.)

The settings of the stories is often truly frightening, still, out of all the stories tackling moral questions (and sometimes moralizing a bit) in worlds after a great collapse, my favorites were those which I found the most character-focused. Namely, the following.

The Fluted Girl, where it took me quite long to grasp the rules of the world, but in the end this story evoked in me my favorite feeling that literature can evoke: that shivering, pure bliss, that feeling of standing on the very edge but still having a choice.

Then I liked Pop Squad, which I sometimes found a bit too moralizing, but fortunately the characters were unable to properly explain why they find their own choices morally good, or why they start questioning their choices, and this left enough space for me as a reader to think.

And finally, Pump Six. I found the world here uncannily familiar, which really did scare me: finding the almost completely rotten world of this story – a world which is barely held together anymore and which is running on the last bits of energy left over from an almost forgotten past – so very familiar, while I don’t tend to see the real world like this. This story caused in me the most uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance, which, in the case of literature, is always a great compliment.

All in all, this is a collection I enjoyed – Bacigalupi’s stories have a strong, often suffocating atmosphere, he asks interesting questions, and creates worlds I’d like to know more about. Luckily, I already learned that he also wrote novels set in one or another particular world, which means that I’ll have to look them up. I want to know more than I can learn in my sheltered life about places plagued by water shortage.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

girlinterruptedI liked this book with my mind because it’s written well and vividly, but it didn’t touch my feelings. All right: perhaps it touched them, but not too deeply. I think the reason for this is that I found Girl, Interrupted too fast and episodic (or I found myself too fast in my relation to this book, which is the same).

This is how fast it is: Susanna Kaysen is, at the age of 18, sent to a psychiatric hospital/crazy house/loony bin (choose one), where she then spends about a year and a half, makes friends with some of the other patients, experiences both life and death, sees both unexpected beauty and unexpected tragedies, until finally someone somewhere decides that this was enough, Kaysen is now ready to go back to the world. So be it, then.

Of course – I understand Kaysen’s main problems and doubts, I see the absurdity of life, and I can’t help but contemplate the arbitrary nature of the boundaries between sanity and insanity, especially when I read the description of borderline personality disorder (the illness Kaysen was diagnosed with, whose symptoms and description she copied her from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and I come to the conclusion that I might have BPD, too, only no one noticed it yet.

(I sometimes read the diagnostic criteria of mental disorders, and depending on my mood, I can easily diagnose myself as either suffering from either borderline, bipolar, or major depressive disorder, or something else entirely. And I’m not doubting the reality or the existence of mental disorders – I just want to say what Kaysen herself seems to express: that such diagnoses can be highly arbitrary, and also that a lot of things described in the DSM as symptoms of a disorder seem to me to be completely normal modes of human behavior and reactions to life [but of course it’s possible that I’m really not sane].)

End of parentheses.

So yes – I understand what Kaysen says, it’s only – again! as so often – that I don’t feel that anything’s at stake here. I miss the personal connection with Kaysen, and I don’t feel how and why Kaysen’s mind is in such a disordered shape.

Kaysen also mentioned her, so a comparison with Sylvia Plath was inevitable to me. Plath also used to be a patient in the ward where Kaysen was hospitalized, so now I recalled Plath’s The Bell Jar. And even years after my last re-reading, I could clearly recollect the deeply personal, burning, suffocating atmosphere of that novel, I could relive the feelings of how the protagonist just wanted to crouch in a quiet corner, I could remember the desperate urgency of her question: “how would a sane person behave now?” Compared to all this, I couldn’t feel much while reading Girl, Interrupted. Teenage angst, asshole boyfriends, general misery, and 50 aspirins down the throat? Yes, I believe it. But I don’t feel it.

I read and read, and tried to understand, and I felt like I should have been able to empathize better, but in the end, I really didn’t know just what the hell’s wrong with Susanna Kaysen.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

freshComplaintI once wrote about one of Eugenides’ novels that he’s so good that I’d happily read even his shopping lists. It’s possible I’ll still feel this way about his novels (but there’ll probably be a ten-year gap between two novels again, so I’m not holding my breath), but based on just these short stories, I’m quite content without having access to Eugenides’ shopping list.

These stories are not bad, far from it.

They’re just…

First of all: Fresh Complaint?

When I first noticed, sometime last year, that this book was coming out, my first thought was: “Great! New short stories!” Well – they’re not new. There’s a couple of new(ish) stories here but most of them come from earlier stages of Eugenides’ career and it seems that most (or perhaps all) of them had already been published earlier. Sure, I don’t mind that they’re collected here, after all, I don’t have a subscription and access to 20 years’ worth of back issues of the New Yorker and other magazines, so for me it’s much simpler to read them in this collection, but still – they’re not new.

Also, these stories provide insight into the development of Eugenides’ themes throughout the years, and it’s interesting to see how certain characters and themes that were later developed into full-fledged novels originally started out in short story form. For example, the protagonist of one story is the very same Mitchell who’ll one day become one of the main characters in The Marriage Plot. And there’s another story that features a sexologist researching transgender issues – for a feature-length take on this theme, see Middlesex.

Yes, all this is interesting. Really. In a way. But I always get suspicious when I have to keep convincing myself that something is interesting, so let’s move on to my second concern with these stories.

Which is that I think Eugenides is a novelist, not a short story writer. I’m not saying that the longer the better, I happen to like his shortest novel the best, but Eugenides is definitely not a master of spare, succinct, bare-boned storytelling – he’s not one to create a whole world in ten pages. I feel that in his case, it’s much better when he wanders through decades and continents, and goes deep into everything, and to me it doesn’t even matter whether he’s going deep into the habits and aspirations of an idealist arts student; or into the mind of a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder; or into an inexplicably melancholy atmosphere through 250 pages – the result is always much better, more beautiful, more intimate than what he achieves in a 15-page story, where there’s only enough space to lay down the facts but no time to get into the feelings.

Reading these stories, I often felt that Eugenides didn’t go close enough, deep enough. These stories are not heartless, shabbily put together, worthless or dull – but there’s a great distance-keeping and impersonal quality to them. They’re like the echoes of stories I had heard before – distant, quiet, lacking real power. And unlike his novels, I don’t think I’ll remember his stories for long.

10:04 by Ben Lerner

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Ben Lerner’s novel is on the boundary between amazingly smart and irritatingly smart-ass, and it’s sometimes both at the same time.

This fits this meta-novel admirably because – as the narrator also claims – 10:04 plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction not in the usual postmodern way – rather, it shimmers between reality and fiction, and sometimes it feels as if it were simultaneously both. (And of course, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fictitious. But it doesn’t matter – while reading this novel, it really does not.)

The motto of the novel – which also comes up multiple times in the text – is that there might exist a future or a parallel reality that is exactly like the current one, except that it’s completely different. A reality or future where nothing has changed visibly but nothing is the same, either. The narrator-protagonist of the novel (Ben Lerner, in a more or less fictitious – and it’s irrelevant how fictitious – version) explores these alternative realities.

The story takes place roughly at the time when Lerner’s writing this very novel (the novel also includes the story of its own inception), and it’s set in an almost-real reality where a possibly approaching apocalypse seems to loom over everything. At the beginning of the story, Lerner learns that he suffers from a possibly fatal heart condition (this is, again, something invisible from the outside but life-changing from the inside). At the same time, his best female friend decides that she wants a child and approaches Lerner with the idea that he should provide his sperm for this purpose (what will that parallel reality be like where Lerner’s a father? will he really become a father or will he just be a sperm donor? how much does he want the be a father, anyway?). While all this is going on, Lerner leads his usual life as a writer (yes, he writes, this novel, for example, meets people, and also goes to museums and cultural events – and everything affects him and his writing). And of course, it’s not clear whether these things happen to the real Lerner or to his narrator.

Besides all this, the novel is full of philosophical wanderings and short essays about a whole array of topics (how the experience we derive from a work of art is influenced by the circumstances in which we consume an art work; why Lerner wanted to become a poet; how individuals and societies come to terms with dramatic and traumatic events, be they either personal or national tragedies; how we can lead an ethical life; who decides what art is; and so on) and it also contains lots of sometimes morbid, sometimes life-changing episodes, told in an offhand manner, which show how even in real life we’re constantly fluctuating between reality and fiction, and how most things we build our lives on are based solely on an agreement on what to believe – and how, because of this, all of our most basic premises about our life are ultimately fragile and vulnerable.

Just one example: there’s an episode about a woman who built her identity and sense of self around the cultural heritage of her father, who was of Arabic origin. After her father’s death, she learns that she’s in fact a child from her mother’s earlier relationship, and she’s a white American. Consequently, she loses the ground from beneath her feet and she’s not sure anymore who she is. Of course, she can continue to work on preserving her Arabic heritage but it won’t be the same anymore – and indeed, how could it be the same.

This novel is like this – a floating, vibrating, strange text, smart and smart-assy, unfinished and unfinishable, full of indecision and concerns, but it’s still slightly optimistic, which is something I especially like.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías

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I love obsessive writers, such as Javier Marías. Of course, I can’t relate to every writer’s obsessions, but I can relate to Marías’ obsessions with perhaps alarming ease.

Marías is a writer fascinated by language and all the surrounding phenomena (that things are un-sayable, untranslatable, inexplicable, inexpressible, and that whatever we say and mean, it will never mean the same to another person, and everyone is locked inside their own language, and still we try to express and explain what we mean even if the result is unsatisfactory, because telling and expressing [and listening, too]) is always much more interesting than living alone and quiet in a caves, we don’t live in caves anyway, we live on archipelagos, enchanted by 400-year-old words and by their modern interpretations, and that water these words what can they do what can they do, they can – somehow – enable us to express ourselves and understand someone else); and he’s fascinated by the past, the present, and the future (the past-present-future of his characters and everything that comes with the past-present-future: There was; There wasn’t; There is; I imagine there is; I pretend there is even though there isn’t; There could have been; I wish there had been; I wish there hadn’t been but there was; There will be; There won’t be; I hope there’ll be or I hope there won’t be; I wish there was); and with never-ending curiosity he examines (again and again, throughout multiple novels) the layers and connections of pretenses, realities, falsehoods, roles, games, and truths that make up a life, and he always has something new to say.

And I always feel immediately at home in his work, because I feel that what Marías is doing only looks like a sprawling, repetitive, over-complicated and over-complicating and overwhelming and fascinating and infuriating and beautiful mess of random unconnected details – reading him is surprisingly easy because (sometimes) life feels (can feel) exactly like this.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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I once read the claim – which is most probably impossible to back up with statistical data – that at least 99% of our thoughts isn’t suitable for public consumption – not necessarily because of their content (though I guess that can be a serious reason, too, for not publicizing them) but rather because of their form (or lack thereof).

Sure, stream of consciousness, we all know what that is – wandering among free associations, memories and random thoughts in no way related to anything else – but this novel takes this to the next level and illustrates that what goes on in our mind isn’t always expressible through language.

So how does it work as a novel (which, after all, usually consists of language)? McBride’s method of choice is that she expresses the narrator-protagonist’s thoughts using a language that ignores everything we know about typical word order, sentence structure and sentence boundaries. Here’s a sample:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Exhausting, right?

It most definitely is; in the last couple of years I picked up this book a couple of times but I always gave up reading after three lines or so.

But now the time has come to finally read it, and I found I could get used to this style – after about 30 pages it seems quite plausible that it’s possible to write like this and it’s also possible to understand the writing. What’s more: it’s possible to be immersed in this style and forget about everything else – the novel’s unsettled and unsettling, feverish and intimate style – which expresses the narrator’s most chaotic, most ambiguous, most tender and most cruel thoughts simultaneously – is often beautiful and possesses a musical, poetic rhythm which completely envelops me. And even though it’s a deeply unpleasant experience to be this close to someone’s mind, be this deep inside someone’s mind – I couldn’t stand it for long stretches and reading this slim novel took me 4 days – the writing is strong and powerful, no doubt.

So much for the style – but what is the novel about?

It is set somewhere in a corner of Ireland, and includes several themes often found in Irish literature: Catholicism and rebellion against it; desolation; neglect; violence, unhealthy family and sexual relationships; and so on.

The story is centered around the relationship between the narrator and her older brother. Due to a childhood brain tumor, the boy is slightly disabled, has poor eyesight and below-average mental abilities, and the girl spends her whole life in the shadow of her brother. As a child, she tries to shield her brother from the cruelties of the world, and when she grows up, she runs away from home and tries to build herself a personality that’s separate from her brother, using very drastic methods which only help for a while.

And even though the girl has excellent mental faculties, that doesn’t diminish the chaos in her mind and doesn’t allow her to cope with the difficulties of her life any better (and she has much to cope with). The story itself is brutal, and told in this style it’s even more so. Reading this novel is about as uncomfortable as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy or Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. (There are also thematic similarities between these works.)

Recommended for emotionally extremely well-balanced periods – otherwise it might just be too hard to bear.