I don’t know about you, but I love writing these kinds of things. Why? For many reasons – but one is the chance to see how one’s reading tastes change over time. Because after I scanned the books I mentioned last year, and compiled this list, I concluded that one big difference between the lists was that none of the books from last year were funny, at all – they were, instead, super serious. That’s, of course, fine – we live in some weird, dark, dystopian times (was life ever not weird, dark and dystopian?), but sometimes seriousness doesn’t cut it, and laughter does. (But see Madame Bovary and, with some slight exceptions, Topeka School, below.)
My favorite books this year seemed to fully understand the insanity of our world, but they also did not exactly let the insanity “get them down,” or prevent them from being fabulous, subversive, uncanny, smart and creative. Books that acknowledge and articulate the outrageous suffering at the heart of the world, but do not wallow in it; books that are clear-eyed and idiosyncratic, compassionate and dark, smart and funny. Of course, not all the writers on this list are funny, nor are they all contemporary. But I think, for me, writers like George Saunders and Chelsey Minnis flip a switch, let’s say, and help us to laugh, which the American comedian Milton Berle once called an “instant vacation,” and I guess I feel like Milton Berle would know?
Thus: here is my top-ten (okay, four, because I write way too much) list for this year. It is hopefully satisfying like a good soup, or for that matter a Milton Berleian instant vacation – palm trees waving lazy green hellos, beach chairs with the backs at a good angle, hopefully some good pop music playing, cool breeze, glass of lemonade, book.
- Tenth of December by George Saunders
It seems like a mantra people chant: “Saunders is a necessary voice.” “Have you read George Saunders? He is a necessary voice.” But, when it comes down to it, that chant (I think) is admittedly true. Saunders is a necessary voice, and a voice we need to hear – especially now, but also always. Why? Because Saunders – unlike politicians, Facebook, Google, the world – is not trying to sell you anything, except the idea that underneath all our political, religious, national, etc. layers is just (why do we forget this?)….a regular old human heart: foolish, hilarious, hopeful, dreaming, sad, longing, quixotic. For me, that’s the main reason. But Saunders is also a master of the short story form. For example, he is constantly doing fascinatingly innovative formal things with free indirect discourse, which is a fancy literary term that refers to how an omniscient narrator dips into and out of the consciousness of a character. Saunders is also just amazing with things like story structure, dialogue, syntax, other things, too. His characters talk and think like we do – the rhythm of their speech, the sound/feeling – at least that’s my perception of it – and that is easier said than done. I cannot recommend this book enough (and, in particular, the stories “Victory Lap,” which opens the book, “Home,” near the end, about a soldier returning home with PTSD, and “Tenth of December,” the final story, which is a masterpiece).
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I’m not sure this is still happening (I’m guessing it is…?) but for awhile people were talking about the word “relatable” in the context of reading – it was a kind of buzzword used by readers who wanted literature to reflect themselves, to be relatable. And if it wasn’t relatable, for whatever reason, then, well, it just kind of sucked. Ira Glass, the usually smart and canny host of the NPR radio show “This American Life,” even at one point in 2014 claimed that King Lear “sucked” (?!), because it wasn’t…relatable. But of course, this criteria, at least to my mind, is ridiculous. It is important to see ourselves reflected in the books we read, for sure. But sometimes we should also stretch ourselves, leave what we are comfortable with, and relate to aspects of a book that are not immediately familiar, that question our assumptions, familiar concepts and understandings. Why am I saying this? Well, I kind of suspect that many of the characters in Madame Bovary – a book which I fell in love with this year, when we read it for our Classics Book Club – would also latch onto the concept of relatability, and use it as a cudgel to exclude anything that hovered slightly beyond their worldviews. Madame Bovary itself is relatable, I guess, but it is also very subversive and therefore relevant – timely and timeless (Lear is, too). Bovary exposes the hypocrisy of our conventional society – the tired mores and sayings we use to squelch what we actually think and feel; the oftentimes preposterousness of our attachments, blindspots, blueprints, groupthinks, denials. Madame Bovary is not really a funny book, like Tenth of December, but in other ways it does participate in much of what Tenth does well, though with more acerbity – showing us aspects of society that do not promote our actual freedom and creativity, in order to show us aspects that do. Emma Bovary, for example – I found her absolutely insufferable, a hard-to-empathize-with Quixote, ungrounded and without a modicum of common sense. But isn’t that the whole point? We care about these characters, even though they are ridiculous, because they are so representationally convincing. Flaubert for the win.
3. The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner
It’s a commonplace in psychoanalysis to say something like, “if you don’t become conscious of your parents – strengths and weaknesses – then you are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” In Ben Lerner’s Topeka School, which is – I don’t even know what to call it without sounding redundant – an “autobiographical novel”(?), this adage is taken to a fascinating and far extreme. How so? Lerner’s book, I would argue, is about ventriloquism, in a way – in the sense of both channeling and creating voices – but ventriloquism in the service of art, and therefore in the service of individuation. Because what Lerner does is not only fictionalize his life, which is what we all do, whether on the written page or in the more private theater of our minds, but he actually speaks the voices of his (fictional) parents. Meaning, there are sections of the book written in the first-person (“I), and the “I” that is speaking in those sections are either Lerner’s fictional Mom (Harriet Lerner in real life, a best-selling clinical psychologist) or fictional Dad (also a psychologist – both parents worked for the Menninger Foundation, a famous clinic, sanatorium, and school of psychiatry that was located in Topeka, Kansas). This is, to my mind, is really really interesting to think about. What does it mean to not only write in the voice of one’s Mom, but to actually do it well, to pull it off? To me, it seems like the writer would need to have an almost preternaturally exquisite or fine-tuned ear, a very deep and subtle sense of the cognitive music of another human being’s way of talking, feeling and thinking. And Lerner, if this needs to be said at this point, does. When he writes in, through, within the voices of his parents, it is both a deep homage and, to be honest, a rather sly and interesting form of separation or individuation, by which I mean he is inhabiting their voices, exploring their reverberations and contours, but, of course, in reality inhabiting and creating his own, of which the novel is the fruit, the “earned achievement.” (The section written about Adam Gordon, Lerner’s fictional alter-ego, are written in the third person, which is also interesting for lots of reasons.*)
The Topeka School is the third novel in a trilogy of novels – Leaving the Atocha Station was published in 2011, and 10:04 in 2014 – all of which are challenging in interesting ways and also wonderful. All three revolve around Adam Gordon at different periods and crises in his life (though the first two are written in the first person). But Lerner is also a really talented poet – he published three books of poetry before turning to novel-writing – and I think it is the poet in him that is able to pull off this astonishing act of voice-channeling/creation. The Topeka School is interesting for lots of other reasons as well – there are fascinating and really perceptive passages that explore the relationship between whiteness, adolescence, privilege and violence, and the book is bursting with marvelously interesting and creative experiments in language, meaning and structure. Last but not least, (and this is a more personal reason for loving the book), Lerner not only writes poetry well, but he writes about poetry well. There are really great passages in all three of his novels where Adam Gordon thinks about and explores the meaning of lots of great American poets in fun ways – Whitman, Ashbery, Dickinson, Robert Creeley. I really recommend this book.
*When I wrote this review, I hadn’t finished the book – I think I had one section left. Therefore, word to the wise: do not do this, ever! Because in the last section of the book, contra my point about Adam writing only in the third-person in Topeka, he does write in the first-person, in the section that ends the novel. This, too, like pretty much everything else in the novel, is a fascinating move – formally and otherwise. Why? Because, through the decision to write in the first-person in the last section, it as though Lerner, through Adam, is moving away from the cool objective third-person and more towards owning, even accepting, his own first-person experience. Which is a powerful thing.
4. Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis
Poemland, the fourth book of poems by Chelsey Minnis, was published in 2009, but it feels wonderfully contemporary. It is also, like Saunders, both smart and funny. To be honest, I”ve never before in my life encountered poems like Minnis’s, who achieves a very complex tone that manages to be very giddy and very dark. The book is composed of very short sections – four or five pages a piece, say, separated by a page of mostly black – and, on each page there will be about four to six shortish lines or sentences, separated by white space, and often ending (each line or sentence) with an ellipses or exclamation mark. Weirdly enough, these punctuation marks get at the heart of what Minnis pulls off. Because through ellipses and exclamation points, she opens up whole new regions of irony, feeling, and innuendo. One of the famous chestnuts of criticism, though always relevant and true, is the idea that a writer should know what to say and, maybe even more importantly, what to leave unsaid. Minnis seems fascinated by the unsaid, by white space and the lack thereof, by the proverbial iceberg of feeling that is tickled and activated by really just about anything – ellipses, say, which are literally just three dots in succession, (…). In two earlier books, Zirconia (2001) and Bad, Bad (2007), Minnis pushes the possibilities of the elliptical to an extreme, so that an entire poem is made up of a few (interesting, funny, provocative, weird) words or phrases, but in-between and connecting (disconnecting?) these words are just a series of periods, basically a kind of prolonged ellipses. Sometimes a whole page will be ellipses, with a few words.
How do we read these kinds of poems? To my mind, these earlier poems, with the strings of periods, suggest a kind of suggestive, even at times sexual, static – it’s like an ironic, pregnant pause, that reminds me of the work of a comedian like Sarah Silverman, her persona on stage, how she creates a kind of aura about her that revels in filler words like “um….” or “uh…..” In that sense, Minnis’ ellipses in the earlier books actually signify a form of (ironic) thinking, even waiting, while also playing hilariously with the idea of the “dumb girl,” twirling her hair, say. In interesting ways her poems also play with Whitman, because Whitman in “Song of Myself” also uses ellipses in very suggestive and interesting ways. (Minnis’ earlier poems also remind me, though I think they are more perverse, of the poetic form of erasures (where a poet will literally erase certain words, often in found texts, but leave other words in), and the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument. In all three kinds of texts, there can be a really interesting tension between verbal and non-verbal forms.
But all this talk about formal stuff is possibly leaving out the pleasures of reading Minnis. And Minnis is fun because she is genuinely funny. Yet her funniness (said the librarian seriously) is not without its cunning. It’s been pointed out millions of times, but comedy works because there is often a kind of violence beneath the surface – a pushing of boundaries and taboos, let’s say – and this violence provokes us into laughter because, in a way, it makes us uncomfortable, makes us feel the incongruity, the vast gaping spaces, between what we think and what we say. Think of the slapstick in The Three Stooges, or how we laugh at Malvolio as he suffers in Twelfth Night. I am reading Don Quixote right now for a book discussion, and there are scenes of very intense violence inflicted on Quixote and Sancho Panza. But often these scenes are, in an admittedly disturbing and enjoyable way, incredibly funny – I’m thinking of one where Sancho Panza is wrapped in a blanket and thrown around like a football. These scenes are both hilarious and heartbreaking – hilariously heartbreaking, heartbreakingly hilarious? Minnis, in the poems I’ve read of hers from Zirconia and Poemland, is profoundly aware of the rich, ambivalent hues of our feeling worlds, our idiosyncratic, to use her phrase, “poemlands.” Her comedy, like all good comedy, is cathartic – she knows that when we are genuinely laughing, there is always something else going on, which I think is probably that our own need for pushing boundaries is being assuaged, mollified, satisfied, and maybe most importantly, encouraged. Because Minnis is fully cognizant of this dynamic, she exploits it to really great effect. Her poems are both excruciating and delightful. Much, much recommended, especially for poetry lovers.
Thanks for reading! And Happy New Years!