Scattered Thoughts on Non-Gaddis Novels Read so far this Year

by Nick

I know, I know, I’ve been busy and behind but I’m convinced almost no one actually reads this thing so there’s no need to apologize or even explain the absence.

I started the year reading Sartre’s Nausea which surprised me with its language and metaphors but it dragged in the second half where Sartre tries explaining some of his philosophical ideas obliquely. Having read some of his philosophy undermined my desire to explore the ideas as he brought them up in the novel. I was still impressed though. I thought it would just be an emotional feeding frenzy for mildly depressed and existential readers without anything else to support it. It also made me want to read Rilke’s novel which Sartre apparently took structural and (some) thematic cues from.

Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection How to Be Alone surprised me. The huge uproar from the David Foster Wallace worshippers in 2011 started to make less and less sense after reading this. One of the topics he comes back to again and again is how to create serious literature that will entice readers while supplying them with the real desire for social change. I also began realizing how close DFW and Franzen were (Wallace is mentioned as a friend who believes that one of fiction’s primary goals should be to end loneliness [who could that be?). I’m sure both of them get something out of writing their works but they both pursue something beyond themselves as well. It’s not as easy as saying the word political or something tired like social change but it is the same kind of serious interaction and exchange that both of those things expect from thoughtful people (or at least people pushing one or both of those topics expect from serious and thoughtful people). Anyway, I don’t think Franzen’s prose are as incredible as DFW’s routinely were but this made me question why everyone and their mother started slinging mud at J.F. He occasionally makes really simple things confusing for no reason too. I found myself editing his sentences in my head to make them clearer.

Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho was a very odd and dark collection of stories and essays. Published in 2003 (Bolaño’s death year) the book reads like a cry for help or some kind of acceptance of his constant health decline. There are a lot of little comments in the more conventionally successful stories that highlight the loneliness of the artist, the question of the work’s lifespan, and how a chronic illness ultimately eats this artist’s capability to create. There’s a kind of surprise in the final pages of having read the work that’s very similar to the reveal in a genre piece like “Police Rat” but it’s also frighteningly intimate and it left me contemplating art’s longevity and what one must abandon to rigorously create anything.

I read Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve comics which were alright. There were a few longer ones that I really liked but they struck me as things that needed time to work on me. A number of stories in the first 3 volumes are hopelessly juvenile but I enjoyed his dark takes on one’s need for emotional connection as well as the bravery in realizing when to move on despite relocation pains.

Asterios Polyp surprised me and blew me away. The thing actually feels like an art object and I loved it. The integration of text with the images delighted me after a few years of exploring comics that draw a line between images and narration/dialogue/words. The whole thing overwhelmed me with maturity and I was happy I spent the hours reading it. Highly recommended.

I enjoyed An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira. A few moments put me in awe and while I like the occasional metaphors and the characters’ foolish devotion to art compelling but I’m not sure there were enough moments for me to be head over heels for it.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story made me lose the rest of the faith I had in David Foster Wallace. Sure he’s a great writer but after reading this I’m convinced that his fiction’s topple because of the way they rely on his personality. His Trojan horse seemed to be his personality and the personable and beneficent nature of that. He’s allowed to be human and I’m not trying to hold him to an absurd standard, but he is. His fiction’s rely on putting forth him as a person and because of that the radical empathy present in the works rings more false after reading this. Then again this made me pick up some of DFW’s essays again so I’m not sure I’ve supremely devalued him. As far as Max’s book goes, pick it up. I enjoyed the writing a ton and occasional wordings give DFW a hint of presence even in the explanations and analyses. If you’re a fan it’s fun and informative stuff that you might never have guessed and at the very least the letters are fun.

I finally went though all of George Saunder’s wonderful CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Read it. That’s all. Every good thing you’ve heard about this book is true and anything someone might have thought was wrong with it is entirely false. It’s hilarious, compelling, and incredibly sad and even upon further scrutiny there’s enough to dig at. I’m still not sure how so little seems like so much.

Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye is pathetic. It was a great waste of time when I had spare minutes at work but this novel offers nothing of any sort. I’m not faulting it because it doesn’t give the reader any hope but because it actually offers the reader nothing more than a novel of adolescent empathy. No sentence impressed me and a number of feel good and encouraging one liners make an appearance which override any consideration I might ever give to this thing.

And lastly I read Less Than Zero. I understand there are stylistic comparisons between this and Ham on Rye but at least this goes somewhere and offers patterns and motifs to trace rather than a bunch of half remembered confessions. I’m not here to say Ellis rings in as a literary heavyweight or anything but the transience and emptiness of so many things and people depicted here captured a lot of what I see on a daily basis. Not that I work with rich people but that same casual nihilism pervades a lot of the people (including myself from time to time) I interact with day-in and day-out. It’s not a perfect book and it’s narrow in scope and yeah, DFW was right about it lacking any real answer to the horrors it levels the reader with. But at least the diagnosis is somewhat accurate. It’s not as accurate as Infinite Jest but it’s got merit.

Most of this is half-assed but at least I put it up rather than letting it sit in the purgatory of the draft folder.