I took a brief hiatus from writing these reviews in August and September. During that break, I read Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, a 1979 novel sometimes cited as its author’s masterpiece, and not only because it is his longest single work. Influenced by Ulysses, Herzog, and Henry Miller, Suttree is a plotless, ribald, melancholy city novel: it narrates the wanderings of its eponymous hero, a slumming intellectual, through the underworld of Knoxville, TN, in the 1950s.
During the 10 or so days it took me to read the book, written as it is in McCarthy’s densest and most allusive style, I often thought with pleasure of not having to write about it. It represents with unembarrassed precision how a man of Suttree’s class and temperament, in his time and place, would have thought about race and gender, and this mimesis—foundational to the art of the novel—seemed to me to need no apology, and so I was relieved not to have to waste my time apologizing for it. The same goes for the novel’s “flaws” of construction, the way it muffles its hero’s journey in a pall of decadent rhetoric, a high style that almost hides the goings-on behind an arras of words, words, words.
If our times emphasize sociopolitical themes in literature to the exclusion of all other values, the same zeitgeist makes a cognate formal demand—sometimes cloaked as the aestheticism of popular entertainment—for legible storytelling, credible motivations. Yet any protagonist can experience katabasis and anabasis, any white male midcentury Southerner could be portrayed in fiction as sexist or racist. It’s a rare novel, though, that projects the world Suttree does, that lives so long on the elegiac rhetoric of a high culture in ruins. The plot and the politics are worth noting, but the language—and the heterocosm the language conjures, and its transfiguration in turn of our own cosmos—is the only reason to read Suttree or to care enough even to observe that the story might have come clearer or that the author/protagonist’s palpable fear and hatred of female sexuality is insalubrious. And then there’s the ending, a newfound favorite, up there with Middlemarch and Gatsby, Underworld and Paradise:
Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.
I am currently reading—I will not finish before the New Year—John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich, a novel dissimilar in its tone and milieu from Suttree, its near contemporary, but one with the same virtues and flaws. I haven’t decided if I will write about it yet, because I am preemptively exhausted by the polemics needed to make any case for its defense. How good is Updike? We are still deciding. Patricia Lockwood, a faster reader than I am, reconsiders the question in a recent London Review article:
And so, nearly deranged by the time I had commando-crawled my way to the 1980s, I started making notes like ‘DRINK COLD CUM IN HELL’ and ‘I’M GLAD THAT GOD KILLED YOU.’ I read on and on, waiting for him to become as good as he had been as a boy.
I have always thought the virtue of the critic was unflappable worldliness, a cosmopolitan inability to be surprised, as if shock that other people dared to think or live differently would be beneath the critical intellect in its striving to feel at home everywhere, or nowhere. So Lockwood’s boasting of her half-articulate and sputtering bafflement, in the tone (though more vulgar) of some comic blowhard minor player in an E. M. Forster novel who exclaims over the inadequate amenities of Italy or India, motivates me to do better. Who wants to live, though, in opposition? As Updike (like McCarthy) knows, the best use of the writer’s talent is to praise the world in its awful grandeur and evanescence:
Then he sees it, behind the barn, where the woods are encroaching upon what had once been a cleared space, sumac and cedar in the lead: the tilted yellow shell of a school bus. Its wheels and windows are gone and the snub hood of its cab has been torn away to reveal a hollow space where an engine was cannibalized; but like a sunken galleon it testifies to an empire, a fleet of buses whose proprietor has died, his widow left with an illegitimate daughter to raise. The land under Rabbit seems to move, with the addition of yet another citizen to the subterrain of the dead.
The novelist’s imagination, like Molly Bloom, says Yes. I finished writing a novel, The Class of 2000, in 2019, and announced it on this very site. I prefaced the announcement with a manifesto on fiction-writing, and ended it with a sample of the book—the chapter likeliest to make the incredulous reader order me in the margin what to drink when I am in hell.
I reminded readers of my previous novel, Portraits and Ashes, in the post that announced my hiatus, and provided a chapter of that one too, the chapter most akin to McCarthy or Updike in the sweep of its elegy for all our lost promises—except that I, if we’re being honest, can write better female characters than those two. Rounding out the year in fiction, the short story I thought would get me #canceled at last, “White Girl,” was republished by Expat Press: you can read my reflections on the story here and the text itself here. These were 2019’s testimonies to my yes-saying.
For the critic, though, it’s different: the critic says, with Susan Sontag (about whom more in a moment), “All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.” This doesn’t mean writing negative reviews, and I mostly didn’t bother with that this year. (Two memorable exceptions occurred when I couldn’t resist tearing into two mavens of middlebrow comics, Nick Drnaso and Jason Lutes.)
Nay-saying means using literature as the fulcrum for a critique of society. My main critique in 2019, reiterated too often, was that critique itself—call it bohemia or the avant-garde—has become so mainstreamed and so diluted that the rise of often alarming alternatives is all but inevitable. I said this in essays on authors as diverse as Samuel R. Delany, Robert Lowell, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. I hope this won’t be taken as an endorsement of those alternatives—what do I endorse? my fiction gives a better hint than my criticism—only an explanation of their provenance and a warning about their possible triumph. A clue to my ultimate values, though, might be found by reading the conclusion to my review of Stone’s Trial of Socrates half against the grain and the conclusion to my review of Spahr’s Du Bois’s Telegram in dead earnest. I could spell it out more than that, but then it would be false, just as the proverbial butterfly, once transfixed, is dead.
An extensive tour through my 2019 reading and reviews would be redundant since you have the archives (and the REVIEW INDEX) at your fingertips. I will say in summary that the main if inadvertent reading theme of 2019 was the fiction of the mid-20th-century, everybody from Isherwood and Greene and Murdoch and Vidal to Hammett and Nabokov and Didion and Adler.
Also a reconsideration of literary biography, culminating (after visits to the tombs of Hawthorne and Joyce) with my skepticism about one of the books of 2019 (though not one of mine), Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work, an enthrallingly revelatory but ultimately unpleasant exercise in debunking. (On debunking as a pernicious critical habit, one serving the most destructive forces in our culture, see also my review of Franco Moretti.)
The greatest literature enchants and disenchants at once, and is murdered by the critic who views only the negative half of the gesture as legitimate. Ask the poets: ask Elizabeth Bishop; ask Les Murray. Or consider the best novels I read this year, from Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Butler’s Kindred at the start, to Didion’s Play It as It Lays and Kipling’s Kim and Austen’s Emma and Melville’s Confidence-Man in the middle, to Morrison’s Beloved and Pynchon’s V. at the end. (And just for the fun of it, don’t miss my Halloween-season takes on everybody’s favorite late-Victorian horror classics: Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
Every further experience is a pain and a pleasure, the terror and the ecstasy of newness, the beauty of the moment and the horror that every moment is one nearer death. The highest art says Yes and No simultaneously and in one voice—just what we should say to a new year and a new decade. Happy 2020!
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