I go back and forth on lists. I understand how meaningless they usually are, and yet I keep a running mental “10 Desert Island Books” list. I usually don’t read the year end lists, and I try to ignore the awards programs and awards announcements, but this year I’ve found myself reading more “Best Books of the Year” lists– I suppose because my novel The Revelator was published this year.
I told myself not to read these lists because they are meaningless, but then I told myself to read these lists because 1) selling books is not meaningless and getting on a few lists could help and 2) my morbid curiosity got the better of me. And when The Revelator was not on any “Best Books” lists I found myself reading the “Best Indie Books” lists and when it was not on those lists I found myself reading the “Most Overlooked Books” lists. And then I found myself reading the lists people I’d never heard of posted on Facebook. And so on. In short, I’ve found the reading of lists experience rather, well, soul-crushing. I mean, I think my book is pretty good. I think it’s fucking fantastic. There’s little like the experience of watching the book you bled into being slowly slide into oblivion, list by list, along with the millions of other books nobody remembers. Yes, the list of those doomed to oblivion is the only list we cannot escape, but we write believing perhaps we have found a loophole–this thing will persist. It’s a delusion, of course. Even Homer will someday finally be reduced to ashes and less than ashes. Our mutual fate is dust, friends.
I do occasionally find myself jotting down a title or two. And then I scour the local shops and libraries for those titles. I’d never heard of John Keene before these lists, for instance, and now I’m obsessed with tracking his books down. Plus, there is something in our nature to list, to categorize, to rank and rate. Maybe it’s about power or ownership. Placing order in a meaningless and chaotic universe. I’m not sure. At any rate, in the spirit of the season, and in the spirit of not hurting anybody’s feelings, here are my 10 favorite books that I read for the first time this year, that were not published this year, in no particular order:
- Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath. What a fantastic collection. Other than Melville I cannot think of another writer, in all the history of writers, who stuns and amazes me once or twice on every page. Plath does so here.
- Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. This is a book beyond genre. It is so mind-bending and inspiring, so poetic and strange and beautiful. I first heard about Lispector about 6 years ago, but at the time finding her books seemed somehow impossible–I had a terrible time tracking anything down. Now that most everything is readily available (although I cannot find anything by her in my town), I’m sure to soon read everything she published.
- Miami by Joan Didion. I’ve only recently fallen in love with Didion’s work. For years I didn’t bother with essays and non-fiction. My peculiar mood. Anyway, this is a tremendous book. It shows so much of the heart of America and it feels somehow timeless, like all of her work.
- Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch. I read many excellent jazz biographies this year and Kansas City Lightning was my favorite. Crouch here describes and portrays the formation of genius better than any writer I can remember.
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Well, this is a stimulating and moving book and a very heartbreaking and timeless book. I’m not sure why I never read it before–in fact, I had not read any Baldwin at all since I read Go Tell It on the Mountain back in ’04 (I loved it–I was obsessed with it–I can’t believe I did not read all of his books right then). I’ll probably read this one again before the year is out.
- The Ice-Shirt by William T. Vollmann. For about five years various friends of mine told me to read Vollmann. “You’ll love him,” they say. “You were born to read him.” I just don’t do well with book suggestions, honestly. I suppose it’s a control issue. A matter of ownership. But finally, one afternoon, I slid this one off the shelf at the Harvard Coop and gasped at how beautiful the first page was. I’m now borderline obsessed with Vollmann.
- Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. So much of my thinking was first shaped by reading Sontag in graduate school. Reading this book it seemed like she had articulated ideas I’d been trying to develop myself for the last few years. I hope next year is the year I finally read everything Sontag published.
- Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers by Pierre Guyotat. This book moldered on my shelf for about three years before I finally picked it up. I’ll admit–the tiny print kept me from investigating earlier. Of course, now I regret all the time we could have shared together–Tomb is simply one of the most stunning novels I’ve ever read–a relentless and brutal fever dream. A book without any limits or borders. Something to aspire to!
- Orlando by Virgina Woolf. Another book I’d been meaning to read for years–probably 15 years, at least. Such a stunning book. As a work of historical fiction, it’s almost without equal. As a novel about writing it probably is without equal (although Melville’s Pierre is there too). For me, very often, my appreciation of a book depends on the beauty of the language and few ever lived who could write as beautifully as Woolf.
- In the Blind by Eugene Marten. It took me a couple years to finally acquire this book. Everything by Marten is stunning. He is one of the few living prose writers I actively admire. His books actually intimidate me.
In the spirit of staying somewhat active on this “blog” here is a section from the “early drafts” file of my long gestating fourth novel. I might work these pages back in at some point.
They called her Albert. They called her “Lad” and “Baby” and when she back talked, “Scamp” and “Imp”; they sang compliments of her rosiness, her sleek stature slight before their own, and wondered not of her smooth cheeks and soft voice beyond calling her “Lovely” and “Beauty” and offering tobacco, coffee, applejack to roughen her tongue and make grow her hairs. They speculated upon her origins: a second son gone into the world to make his fortune, or the boy of once well-to-do man recently bankrupt, for she were too couth to be a rogue, too unworldly to have much known the world, too delicate to have been hardened long under the sun.
These shopkeepers and barbers, these butchers and men like butchers in leather aprons and leather gloves, laboring amidst vats of chemicals, the vapors, the pale row of sopping skins, the chemical muddy yards. These men for whom she fetched glistening gray sausages from street vendors, swept floors and stocked shelves and priced goods. These men like fathers and uncles and brothers.
Their rough English, the variations of accent and usage, these men with names like “Max” and “Harry,” “Teddy” and “Lou,” “Ned” and “Paul” and “Jesse,” “Jack” and “John” and “Jerry.” She was their mascot, their favorite, their beloved, these men who knew her for a boy, these men who knew her not.
Those nights in her room, and the letters she sometimes began: “Dear Mother and Father— As you can see, I am quite alive, and—” before discarding. Now upon her bed, observing the ceiling plaster, water stains patterned like hieroglyphs. So speaks to her now the voice of her mother and father, the stories they must tell: she impregnated by and run off with a peddler, she confronted by strangers in the forest dark. Now in the shadows: Father threshing in his fields and Mother stoking the fire in the stove, and evenings at their mutual prayer, always as it was ever, that world dimly remembered to which she would never return.
When she could tolerate no more the towns she went across the land, a rifle slung across her shoulder, a bowie knife at her hip, beholden to no one. Nights on the prairie drinking corn whisky before fires of her manufacture, the dogs slinking by in the outer dark.
She boarded trains when they slowed, crouched in the shadows, and sometimes across from her sat another wanderer. To them she never spoke, her hand fast to the bone handle at her hip.
And when she tired of land she stowed away on ships, and when she was discovered she wept the story of your cruel father and crueler stepmother, how they lashed and tormented her with their wickedness without end until she fled with no one to watch over her but “God above.” So to a man the sailors admired her for a beautiful youth, while even the captain gave only a slight reprimand so moved was he by her tale, her loveliness. “You must earn your keep, my child,” he said with all the severity he could muster, setting you to potato peeling and deck scrubbing, she was often relieved of the later, for she was beloved by all and none could bear to watch her upon her knees.
So with this crew she went from country to country, from clime to clime. The younger sailors, the ones who in their hammocks at night sang to sweethearts make-believe, called her Lovely or Rosebud or Blossom, while one with pretensions of foreign origins called her _______, and even the rough types who did not care what any thought of them called her Baby Boy or Sweetness, for even the cruelest soul may be touched by a tender sight. The captain alone called her the name she gave, addressing her always in a voice almost pained with adoration, “Albert.”
And long days at sea with these sailors, overhead at their watch or scampering up the rigging like monkeys or fluttering around about deck, with buckets and brushes and mops, singing bawdy songs, their barely-guised innuendos, calling out with laughter, the high constant mirth in those first days. Had this life been something other than what it was perhaps she would have joined them, young and strong and full of humor and cheer, rowdy with vigor and lust. And even those who in the days to come sulked in the shadows or shirked their watch down below or went tottering about, belching and laughing, made too glad by too much drink, seemed something to be. Aye, many hours about the deck she watched, and in her mind she dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.
And when she watched not the sailors she watched the sea. Here the gentle ripples and cavalcades of waves, the churning foam, and here the skin of the seas, a world but a reflection of worlds of infinite depth and mystery: here the blue of cloudless skies, and here the yellowing haze of a coming storm, and here the redness of the falling sun, the astonished velvet of the rising dawn, and here a thousand, thousand stars, bleeding over blackened waters, and those clouded nights when the world becomes a darkness absolute. And when she peered from her watch on high, what now was reflected up, for even then she knew the void within might show greater terrors than even those stars may conceive.
Now this ship moored occasionally along exotic shores. And one island was populated with monolithic figures of men and women, heavy brows and elongated noses, towering and set in rows by the hundreds, ancient and weathered and webbed with mold. When the ship moored at the island she crouched before these statues, sat in the shadows, and when she closed her eyes she watched the eyes of the monolith watching her back, ancient man, nameless and without sense, would he now speak? Silence alone in return. Now from their thatch homes the citizens of this land crept, the mothers holding the children back, the fathers clasping spears and knives of sharpened stone while some carried revolvers and rifles, wearing trousers and shirts as the men from her land. And through their gestures they explained none had carved these statues, for here they had always loomed.
And there was a land entirely transfixed by revelry. The noise of merriment, of music and laughter, audible from the shore, and the sailors after long months confined to themselves, drawn by those noises, by the warm glow of city lights. So they bounded from the ship while the captain remained. “Go my boy,” he told you when you turned back. The younger sailors who sang and jogged and laughed as they ran ahead, and the older ones who took their time, walked in near silence, save when they pinched her cheek, her ass, joked at her blush that “tonight you’ll lose that cherry, Baby.” And the noise of the merriment growing and consuming and then exceeding all other noise of man she had ever heard, for the city entire was born up into this motley joy, and into the city her sailors went, and so quickly they were lost into the rest.
Bonfires in the streets lead to what in normal times was called the town square, now the center of an incredible flame, and miscreants roved from building to building, singing ____________, throwing stools, chairs, tables, dressers, carpets, books from out shops and churches and second story windows to the street, for a beast so seething ever required more fuel, and of the man nearest the blaze, perhaps the butcher or the baker or a cobbler in times before the revelry began, now he was the kindler of the blaze alone, and from the heap of furniture and rubbish he stoked the beast, tossed whole chairs and tables into the blaze, and cried out, “I am the king of the flame!” his eyebrows and beards singed to ashy wisps, stinking smoke, char, and he cared little, why, all his flesh and figure would he give unto the flame, for to grow and transform and shift this fire into the monumental was his revelry entire.
And women in bonnets and dresses and men in pantaloons and boots, and men in motley, and men in church attire, and men and women wearing nothing at all, the glistening flab and black hairs, pranced and sang, skipped and frolicked around the enormous circumference of flame, some clasping bouquets of grasses, dead flowers, flowers too protruding their hair, while others sloshed mugs of ale, tin cups of whiskey, and when one passed too close to the seething flame there came perhaps a scream or the mere burst of smoke, the stink of burning hair, cooking flesh.
And priests locked the church doors until drunks hacked them open, splintered them down, and when priests were found the drunks dragged them into the open, forced funnels between their lips and ale down the funnels, and when priests were not found the drunks bowed before the alter, and begged forgiveness of the deities perhaps housed therein.
And nuns within their nunnery, bolted the windows, propped tables over the windows and across the doors, wept and huddled, fondled strung beads and muttered prayers, even as drunks made savage by their lust, pounded at the doors and climbed ladders to the windows, shattered the stained glass, moaned and seethed and brayed into the openings.
And fat merry men straddled atop casks of ale, others dressed as jesters in bells and motley, walking delicately balanced atop those casks, spinning and shuffling, and finally toppling to the mud.
But whatever whiskeys and ales she was offered she declined for she never drank in the company of others, and still she sulked further around the crowds, crept the shadows, and she watched while farmers and milkmaids, hired hands and lonely wives, schoolboys and marms, priests and nuns, wives and other wives and husbands and other husbands, merrily groped and sucked, humped and fucked in the alleyways and in the open, beneath the shadows and under the sun, atop hay bales, rutting and sloshing on piss and shit murky streets, aye, so much moaning and braying and crying out mingled in the general merriment. But toward no lustful man or boy, girl or woman did she make lusty feelings known, though from the shadows she watched with quickened breath, those longings roiling within, and so her teeth ground and your fists clenched, and slowly those emotions she strangled down.
More lands then. More islands radiating steam and bursts of red light. More places of black rock creeping beasts, swirling birds. More lands finally vegetated with palms and ferns and clotted with berries red and blue and black. Her ship moored not where those shores were walked by men and women in loincloth and spear, hunting the shores, hauling the waters crimson with this fish shot through the lungs, this carcass larger than a boat gone belly up for the spear in the eye—
And she walked islands born entire from the depths themselves, worlds of once molten char and cinder now cooled to porous blackened rock. From hillsides the red glow of the underworld, and the stink of sulfur and the blast hiss of steam. What sailor did not wonder of his dead wandering here, but no man or spirit here could subsist, and here alone live those most deathless of beast, great armored lizards, impervious to the heat, scuttled on bellies and trotted on hind legs and lounged greedily in the sun, flicker of slim tongue, ancient gaze cast boatward, while sea birds dove and swooped and circled overhead, immense shadows cast, mad shrieks echoing from the deranged heavens. These populations locked in struggle for a million years, for what is a bird but the lizard improved upon, made light and propelled heavenward, given the gift of song and feather, while the lizard adapts not, dreams not, considers not, but those cold calculations of murder and slaughter and survival it exceeds all the world’s populations in. And sometimes a lizard leaped onto a bird, always the horrid screams, and tore free the throat, the heart, the brain, and sometimes a bird feasted upon a lizard, dashed the armored flesh onto the rocks from a great height. And what is a man but a murderer of what he sets his eyes upon, so now sailors made perverse by hunger chased after lizards, red necks, hissing, brained them with rocks, and shot muskets and rifles at the birds, plummeting limp and heavy, plucked and cleaned them in the sun while the flies swarmed the guts, and roasted the meat on the beach or gifted to the cook flesh in bloody heaps.
In a cave before the waters she found a man hunched in the darkness, his pale loose flesh, toothless mouth and unintelligible gibbering. Upon his skull a tricorne hat stitched from lizard skins, and likewise crafted a kind of vest stiffly draped over his shoulders and breast, and a pair of what counted for shoes, although he wore no trousers, perhaps the cut proved too difficult, or perhaps he once swaggered about this isle, lorded over the lower beasts, suited neck to toe in lizard leather. How they must have feared him in his salad days, the iguana king, romping and murdering and issuing proclamations onto the thorny masses, before the outfit deteriorated, aye, before his mind gave way. But all that was long done. Now his final hours seemed to play out, babbling and drooling in his defilement, fondling his lifeless prick, fallen onto tufts of white.
To this man she crouched, brushed the filth from his brow, his beard, while he cowered like an animal terrified. “You have been a man all your days,” she wondered, “and still you came to this?”
Earlier today I read this essay and it inspired me to jot some quick ideas. It’s a rather interesting essay, and it connected with a few things I’ve mulled for some time. I wrote the below to write it and I’m posting it because I probably should use this space more, since I’m paying for it. It’s not particularly carefully written or edited. Anyway, my thoughts are below, if you are curious to read them:
My parents did not have careers—they had jobs and sometimes they did not have jobs. Sometimes my father had a better job and things were looking up, and then that job would be terminated during one recession or another. My parents fought bitterly, frequently, over money, the lack of money, and their fears and frustrations, often stemming from money. My parents did not go to college. We did not take trips or vacations. Sometimes I tell people that I still haven’t been out of this country and they look at me with shock, but the truth is, growing up we didn’t even leave the state. My mother sometimes talked about the time she went to Chicago in the early 70s or when she went to Philadelphia to go to the art museum or to the Twin Cities to see a concert, and to hear it seemed like it all took place in a dream. A rare Sunday treat was a drive in the country. So, no, it would never have occurred to us to go to the symphony or to an art museum or the theater. The suggestion would have been laughable to my father. If it had occurred to me to ask to do such a thing, I would have been laughed out of the room. My mother would have said, “If you’ve got the money, honey.”
Going to college never occurred to me, either. A guidance counselor pleaded with me my senior year to apply to the two-year school in town and I looked at him like he was an alien. We didn’t even have a working telephone in my house. I had no idea you could get things like grants and loans and after he told me I could get assistance I still said absolutely not. It was just unthinkable—the very concept was too strange, too intimidating. Eventually I did go to that two-year school and going to classes seemed almost surreal—I couldn’t believe I was actually in college. I felt very accomplished.
The essay I linked mentions internships and things of that nature—I don’t even think I knew what an internship was until I was in graduate school. I would have never tried to get one—I wouldn’t have known where to begin. As I neared the end of my MFA program I searched the help wanted pages for janitorial work, factory jobs, jobs washing dishes. It was the only kind of work I’d had before, and it was the only kind of work I could see myself doing. My wife, Karissa, made me apply for teaching positions—I became physically ill writing the letters of application. I cried in frustration, because the idea of that kind of work was as unthinkable as going to college had been years before. Who was I to apply for these jobs? I felt like even thinking about applying was somehow inappropriate. I felt almost mortally ashamed even sending them.
But here’s the truth: it never occurred to me I couldn’t be a writer. From the age of seven on, I’ve only thought about becoming a writer. And to me the task of becoming a writer meant writing every day, and reading every day, and pushing myself everyday to become great. Where did this idea come from? I’m not sure. I just always wrote, always wanted to create, and I never wanted to do anything else. In school, I rarely turned in homework, hardly ever knew what was going on in class, most often didn’t leave the house in the evenings, because to me being a writer meant writing and reading and that was all I knew. I had a panic attack in the fifth grade while worrying if I was good enough. A great-aunt once asked me what I wanted to do in life and when I said, “Write,” she said, “That is fine, but what about money? Look to computers—computers are the future.” She was right, but I didn’t care. A writer came to our career day in middle school, and he openly told us to abandon our dreams. Other people, later, told me in their way to do something else, anything else.
I lived in the woods for a year after graduation, trying to write a novel, and then I did apply to that two-year college, because I heard they had a literary magazine and a creative writing class, and I knew I had to get better at writing. I was terrified and uncomfortable and had no idea what I was doing, but I found the people to help me do the things I needed to do– like apply to the school and take the correct tests and apply for financial aid. Two years later I transferred to a four-year school based on no other information than they had a creative writing program. I didn’t know anything else about the school. I had no other reason for going there or continuing with my education. I went to grad school not because I thought I was smart enough or good enough to go to grad school, but because I had heard, somewhere, about creative writing programs, and the idea just sounded fascinating to me—an entire education devoted to becoming a great writer. Never mind going to New York, making important connections, finding high paying jobs in publishing, traveling to Paris—any of those things would have been entirely outside of my thinking.
If I had not gotten into that two-year school, if I’d stayed at the plastics factory I worked at in northern Wisconsin, or found a different job, washing dishes, maybe, as I did after college, I would have kept writing. If I could get away with not having a job for a time, and just write, I would do that too. I would eat nothing but bread. I’d freeze. Who knows what would have happened to me, but I would have never stopped writing. I would have rather died than not write.
My point is this: if you need to write, then you must and you will. An older writer who mentored me for a few years told me after I got my first teaching job, “Cut corners. Be selfish. You’re a writer Rob, not a teacher. Never forget that.” And if you try to suppress these feelings then you will hate your life, and you will hate yourself, and you will look at the rest of your life like some vast horrible expanse, until finally again you begin to write.
Yet, the truth is, I’ve recently admitted to myself, that most everybody who told me I wouldn’t be a writer when I was 10 or 11 or 15 or 20, was correct. Absolutely, they were right. I write and am devoted to writing, but I am not a “writer” in the way I was determined to be all those years ago. Not even close.
The truth is, ever since I turned thirty-five, a year and a half ago, I’ve wondered about some of these choices. I thought about quitting writing, even, a couple years ago, so that I could devote myself to learning an occupation or what they call a trade. But then I thought about how I would have to live another thirty, forty, maybe fifty years not writing, and I just couldn’t bear the thought.
I’ve regretted, in some way, an upbringing that led me to what I do now— cobble together low paying part time positions, read, and devote the rest of my time to writing novels. I’ve thought about my parents, and how they did not have careers, and I think about myself, and how I am nearing middle age and yet I have actively only one career ambition, and that is writing novels that are called, on the occasion when someone stops to call my work anything, “eccentric,” “disturbing,” “not for everybody,” “experimental.” More than a few times well meaning, and apparently concerned, co-workers and acquaintances have wondered about my writing—“Who is the audience for this?” I believe they think I’m wasting my time. They have, politely, respectfully, suggested as much. But this is the writing that fulfills me and keeps me waking up in the morning, and I wouldn’t write any other way. I’ve tried, I have, and I wasn’t happy.
I usually say that I do not write with an audience in mind. That is mostly true. But the linked essay did remind me that, in a way, I do have someone in mind when I write. The truth is, there are a million books that are written the way they want you to write. Some people enjoy those books. Some people grow up wanting to write those books. Those books speak to those people. They never spoke to me. I never felt more alone than when I read those books. (And I’m never more alone now than when I’m in the same room as the authors of those books.) I had to find another kind of book, and when I found that book, usually written by someone who died unknown, or obscure, or broke, or young, or famous for having been, for most of their life, “neglected,” it made me glad to be alive. It confirmed something to me about what I felt and believed in and about the life I wanted to live. It gave me the courage to try to write the thing I saw in my mind. I can only write the book only I can write. And so if there is any audience I write for, it is for my younger self, and for those like me who feel alone and unfulfilled before the books that fulfill so many others.
Finally, the truth is there are already too many books, and if anything, fewer books should be published each year, and fewer writers should be published each year. We could do without most of this. Most of these books are the same as the other books anyway. We need people willing to do something different, no matter what it means to their “career”—we need writers who believe it is necessary to do something different.
A few things have gone up in the last few days. First, I wrote about Moby-Dick and Melville’s importance to me for The Next Best Book Blog and that can be found here.
Finally, I wrote about the five films I consider most significant to me for Enclave, and that list is located here.
Good morning! In case you are looking for something to read I have a Self-Interview and an excerpt from The Revelator up at The Nervous Breakdown. And Electric Literature has a conversation between Tobias Carroll and me.