My Year in Books, 2018

springbooksLooking back, I see that I did a lot of rereading in 2018. Some of it was out of necessity (teaching), and some for pleasure. Some of it showed up in the reviews I post here, while some of it was devoted to books I’ve already written about in the last five years. I was glad to have an opportunity to write about some old favorites, like Hamlet:

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

I was also glad to revisit The Crying of Lot 49, Watchmen, and White Noise (all the action in that review is in the footnotes, an old academic trick), to update my sense of Ernest Hemingway and, especially, Gore Vidal.

In my most sustained act of re-reading, a project started in the summer of 2017, I re-immersed myself in the work of Grant Morrison, a comic-book writer I’ve been struggling with since my age was in the single digits, since I was puzzling over the grim psychosexual psychedelia of Arkham Asylum as the cheaply-bound hardcover came apart in my hands in the year 1989. Is he a genius trickster-author, a postmodern prophet, or just a charlatan with an ear for invigorating ad copy? The answer varies from project to project, I think, but the question gets at the true purpose of re-reading, which can feel like such a waste of time when there are so many unread books in the universe: we reread to measure the changes we’ve undergone.

The cliché is that a book changes each time you read it; but, honestly, the book doesn’t change (though it may fall apart). The drama of rereading is rather your encounter with your old self over the selfsame object. Cold pastoral!

I did read a number of books for the first time too, though. It’s hard to discern much of a theme in that haphazard quest for novelty. Much of my fiction reading was devoted to American writing: not only Pynchon, DeLillo, Hemingway, and Vidal, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Jenny Offill, and Lisa Halliday. Even Margaret Atwood—a Canadian novelist, no doubt, but her Handmaid’s Tale, which I finally got around to reading, is in its way an American novel.

As for American nonfiction, I was bemused by or dissatisfied with everyone from Tom Wolfe to Richard Rorty to Maggie Nelson, but Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues came like a shower to our drought-dessicated culture:

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

Likewise, I praised the bold aesthetics of William Giraldi’s American Audacity and the bolder politics of Wesley Yang’s Souls of Yellow Folk, and I also found I still admire Susan Sontag enormously, less for any one text she wrote than for the shape of her mind and life:

I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political, her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion.

These critics bring me out of American literature to the world of criticism and culture at large. I essayed on an unlikely pair of world essayists: Samuel Johnson

Johnson prescribes work as an antidote to what we would call anxiety and depression, and he insists that it is necessary to achievement. He is also canny about how we delude ourselves with busywork without actually accomplishing anything (“no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours”), and about how we propose impossible tasks for ourselves as a form of self-sabotage, excusing our failures by making them inevitable.

—and Theodor Adorno

If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come…

Speaking of Marxist critics, I explained what was wrong with Terry Eagleton, just as earlier in the year I took Adrienne Rich’s landmark collection of polemical poetry, Diving into the Wreck, as an opportunity to explain where and why I differ from the radicals promoted by academe and official activism:

While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.

Which doesn’t let liberalism off the hook, as I explain in my review of Frances Stonor Saunders’s amusing, frightening The Cultural Cold War, nor does it absolve the far right of their ideological depredations, for which see my summer post on QAnon and the literary imagination.

I offer an alternative to these reductive politics that insists instead on the irreducible complexity of great art, an inviolable density of thought and feeling upon which I suggest we model our selves and societies. This is why I wrote both “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” in January—

Bad politics and bad personal behavior may indeed be bad, but from the Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution, public efforts to purify political and moral behavior have often been just as bad if not worse. Another reason to read great books by bad people: as a reminder of what humanity is capable of and a caution against self-righteousness. We could all be bad people and not even know it.

—and “In Praise of Semicolons” in December—

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

Not to mention a comparison of Joyce to Woolf in June.

Speaking of irreducible complexity, then, I went head-to-head with a few monuments this year. Anyone who thinks there is anything like a settled “dead white male canon” that promotes some kind of conservative values should disabuse themselves by taking a look at Goethe’s Faust, especially Part Two:

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. In fact, Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.

The best novel I read this year was almost certainly Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Whatever controversies may exist over what Bellow became in his later years, this life-riot and word-riot of a bildungsroman will make you forget them:

Praising and thereby recommending heroism used to be a function of fiction. And not only in the superannuated genres of epic and romance. Certainly not only in the superhero saga, whether devised for throwaway pulp with fantastic enterprise by men of Bellow’s own background or else captured and rebroadcast as narcotizing spectacle by the multinational corporation. But rather in Bellow’s and Balzac’s own field of action, and that of Stendhal and Dickens and Tolstoy and Charlotte Brontë too: the grand old “realist” novel, not that it was ever as realistic as reputed, and never less realistic than in this book.

Let me also put in a word for another Jewish-American novel of the 1950s, one with aesthetic priorities at the opposite pole from Augie‘s: The Assistant, Bernard Malamud’s bleak, moving moral drama, a novel that deserves to be far more widely read than it is.

Speaking of moral and midcentury fiction, I finally read Iris Murdoch this year with The Bell. I was impressed and disturbed in equal measure by her theory and practice of fiction, but what a pleasure to encounter such a formidable philosophical intelligence among novelists, which is perhaps where a philosophical intelligence belongs. I suspect I will be struggling with her thought, even as I am entertained by her dazzling plots, for the rest of my reading life. Coming toward the present, I made the uneasy acquaintance of Gerald Murnane and, by contrast, easily delighted in Anna Burns’s Milkman, a contemporary novel so superb in every way that my cynical heart still can’t believe they gave it the Booker or that it made the American bestseller list.

I began with rereading, so I’ll conclude with some new discoveries. Aside from Burns, Murdoch, and Albert Murray, not to speak of Jens Peter Jacobsen or Anna Kavan, my best finds came in the field of world comics.

I didn’t have time to write about Joann Sfar and The Rabbi’s Cat, but if you think as I do that comics should be as intellectually weighty as prose fiction, as dense with disquisition and as wise with fable, then you might like it. Not for nothing did I discuss Sfar in the company of Malamud. Sfar’s fellow practitioners of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, also delighted me with four volumes of their surreal and beautiful Les Cités obscures series. From Latin America comes José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s vicious but heartfelt classic Marxist noir, Alack Sinner, which I recommend in case you feel any stirrings toward the banal blandishments of “hopepunk.” I also read some manga classics. Moto Hagio’s pioneering boys’ love masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas, allowed me to address our current heated bafflement over sexual ethics, while Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk saga Akira gave me a chance to dilate upon the 1980s as our culture’s lost golden age, both in and out of comics.

Finally, I will put in a word for a new book by an author as old to me as is his occult nemesis Grant Morrison. A little over a week ago, I finished Alan Moore’s latest graphic novel, the Lovecraftian Providence, and while I have so many criticisms of it that I don’t know where to start (nobody picks up a comic book wanting to read that much prose! two scenes of gruesome sexual violence are at least one, maybe two, too many!), I also have not been able to shake its nightmare haze, its disquieting ambiguity over the very nature and purpose of art. Just what is it that we bring into being with these readerly and writerly imaginations of ours? I look forward already to rereading it in a decade or two, to see what I and its author used to think, who we once were.

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My Year in Books, 2017

But let’s start with movies. Ten years ago, the Scottish musician and critic Momus observed that one of the most acclaimed films of 2007, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-Civil-War fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, was morally and politically simplistic and (or because) artistically complacent. He gave ten objections to the film; I will quote the first two:

1. The film bore all the hallmarks of COG screenwriting. COG screenwriting is the opposite of personal vision, the opposite of imagination. It’s screenwriting as taught by “experts” in screenwriting class, a kind of brutal, plot-advancing writing style based around a Centre of Goodness (COG) who wins the audience’s sympathy (usually by pure genetic superiority — ie a very good-looking actor is cast — but also by a series of sufferings overcome throughout the narrative). It takes no prisoners — and no risks. COG screenwriting is the filmic equivalent of modern managerial techniques. It’s brutally efficient — yes, it can and will make you laugh and make you cry — but the difference between a film made by a COG director like Guillermo del Toro and an artist like Jodorowsky or Arrabal is like the difference between a house designed by a Project Manager and one designed by an architect. I will not let del Toro pass for an artist. I’m sorry, critics. He is a cinematic Project Manager.

2. The film’s moral universe is one that was decided by the events of the 1930s — the once-and-for-all template, apparently, for all clear moral distinctions. There’s a Manichean division — hammered home to us by means of graphic depictions of brutal violence — between the good characters (Jews, resistants, children) and the bad ones (cartoon Spanish Nazis). Needless to say, in an age when the worst politics trades on exactly this sort of Manichean division, this is in itself a problem. The film teaches us to hate the baddies (its own violence-justifying “Axis of Evil”) and long for their deaths, “richly deserved”. In other words, the film brutalizes its audience (in a way that, for instance, the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki has resolutely refused to do, to his enormous credit) by making us long for certain human deaths. The film becomes, in its own way, totalitarian for this reason, although it doesn’t seem to realize it.

Momus’s decade-old critique comes back to me at the end of 2017 because I recently saw del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a film that is if anything cruder than Pan’s Labyrinth. Depicting a cartoonishly oppressive past—in one scene, a straight white diner worker berates a gay man and then literally leaps to his feet to eject some black customers while he’s at it—the film uses its fairy tale armature as an excuse to arrange easy moral and political binaries that at first seem in line with contemporary liberal thought. The villain is another straight white man, inexplicably and totally malign, and the heroes are all outsiders (female, disabled, queer, and/or black). But uncritical stereotype replicates like a virus irrespective of good intentions, and The Shape of Water has some of the direst clichés of race, gender, and sexuality I’ve seen in a supposedly artistic film, from the repressed whimsical mute white girl (Amélie by way of The Piano) to the sassy black girlfriend (I would allude to The Help, but del Toro makes The Help look like Quicksand).

A film I did like in 2017, one no less monster-ridden than del Toro’s, is Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. I smuggled an essay on it into what was nominally a review of César Aira’s extraordinary novel, Ema, the Captive, since I saw both narratives purposefully manipulating myths and stereotypes toward the end of befuddled sublimity rather than moral clarity:

I went to see Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant this weekend; I was surprised to discover that its villain, aside from various iterations of H. R. Giger’s monstrous xenophallus, was Oscar Wilde: or rather, David, self-named for Michelangelo’s sculpture, an android become an omni-cultured aesthete, cultivator of monstrous lifeforms for their own sakes, explicitly queer seducer. Condemning nature and himself artificial, spawning new life not through insemination but through the ideological organization of organic matter (including the forced insemination of others and the gender-disordering conversion of men into mothers, i.e., incubators for the aliens of the title), the film’s antagonist is a flagrant allusion to the Wilde archetype: the Platonic idealist as dandiacal aesthete, sexual antinomian, threat to public order, and, eventually, martyr.

[…]

Though Aira wrote [Ema, the Captive], according to its subscription, the year before the first Alien film’s release, this coincidence is not exactly an accident, as both the avant-garde novel and the pop-culture film franchise are playing variations on the same coupling of narrative genres: the imperial romance with the gothic romance. Both narratives show colonizing missions derailed by inhuman assault. The difference is that Aira’s audience is a minuscule fraction of Scott’s, so he is allowed his indifference to public life—allowed, that is, to openly side with the inhuman.

The piece on Alien/Aira is my favorite of my own essays of the year.

Why, anyway, is complexity important? Why should artists be allowed to “side with the inhuman”? Why not sit back and enjoy a rousing tale of good vs. evil? Momus, recall, was writing at the end of the Bush era, when an aggressive war that claimed millions of casualties was launched with the stated aim of fighting evil. That war’s devisers have by and large been rehabilitated in American public life, their worldview now seen as progressive, if slightly errant, and mainly on the right side of history. (On this topic, see Jackson Lears in the most recent London Review of Books.) 

While the most successful piece I wrote this year—it was quoted in the Washington Post; though, in a sign of the times, Facebook drove far, far more traffic—argued for aesthetic criticism as opposed to political criticism, aesthetic criticism itself bears a politics. It is a politics of circumspection and ambiguity, a suspicion of action, even a deferral of judgment. The politics of no-politics, the comrades used to call it, and no, it will never be popular; it doesn’t have to be, so long as it is at least able to inform popular or activist or pragmatic politics. This used to be the job of the arts and humanities: not job preparation or ideological indoctrination, but training in, for lack of a better word, irony. “Negative capability,” as the poet called it.

Though I didn’t plan it as an antidote to the social climate, I read a lot of lyric poetry this year: John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virgil, Claudia Rankine. And two epic poems: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Derek Walcott’s Omeros.

Walcott, who died in 2017, exemplifies the difficult question of what to do with the beautiful art when the artist’s behavior was ugly. My thesis on that question will displease some, but I think it will prove durable as moralism falls short of answering every cultural question:

And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize not only our ideals but also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but not quite certainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.

In Dante, who lived so long ago and in such a different place that it hardly seems worthwhile to criticize his morality or politics (you might as well criticize him for not having had a smartphone), I found a politically and spiritually totalizing imagination complicated by the will to poetry:

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

I spent an appalling amount of the summer reading a prose epic (or mock-epic) that speaks uncannily to the paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that characterizes so much of the American imagination today, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: 

Pynchon emphasizes that we common people are also, in a sense, Them: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion; our own manias and psychoses, our own dreams and desires, draw us into the quest for power that puts us in Their hands.

Another perverse American classic I read and will remember was Melville’s beautifully bizarre Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, whose subtitle states my whole agenda:

Pierre is a domestic, sexual Moby-Dick; it shows that you do not need to be at sea to find yourself shipwrecked on your own reckless journey toward the reality you intuit behind reality.

Other great novels were read or re-read and will have to go unmentioned, though re-readings of The Scarlet Letter, My Ántonia, Quicksand, The Ghost Writer, and Paradise stood out. Speaking of novelists, I was pleased that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize and not even too displeased that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker. For more, you could always see the review index.

If it is not too much of a sin to be pleased with oneself (Dante understands that he will spend time on Mount Purgatory for pride), I enjoyed writing an unofficial trilogy of essays this summer on Angela Nagle, Grant Morrison, and Boris Groys. By reading these three very different writers together, I began to understand more about the central dynamic of western art: rebellion against anything that seems official, established, middlebrow, and boring. Nagle, for all the controversy occasioned by her book, grasps this better than anyone, even if I question her belief, in this hour of reactionary rebellion, that old-fashioned Marxist politics offers much of any solution:

Readers of my essays on writers as various as Georges Bataille, Boris Groys, and Grant Morrison will know that I sympathize with [Nagle’s] downgrading of the avant-garde and the counterculture. Yet the revivified Marxism for which Nagle stands has never shown sufficient psychological awareness of the human necessity for revolt expressed by the ideology of transgression. In seeking to eliminate transgression as a cultural ideal in the name of collective peace and freedom, Marxism and related traditions (Nagle seems likewise drawn to a second-wave-style feminism) have often created the kind of repression that makes someone like Bataille look more convincing than perhaps he should.

How to express what Whitman praised as our “latent right of insurrection” without destroying the world, rebelling against life itself? For answers to that difficult question, I had to leave the realm of criticism: 2017 was the year I ventured upon independently publishing a literary novel, Portraits and Ashes. In that book, I entangle a cast of characters from murderous avant-garde artists to militantly normal suburbanites in a plot about art and apocalypse. A paragraph, to whet your appetite:

At first, she’d tried to write poetry, but she found soon enough that she lacked the strength to strip words of their merely descriptive function, to transform them into events in their own right rather than just labels for events. She wanted to make something happen, not chatter about something that had happened. When she reached high school, she turned to sculpture. Her art teachers recognized her talent and seriousness and allowed her to use what materials she wanted and to sculpt during study hall and lunch and the hour after school. A gallery of men and women, a veritable town full of people, emerged, moist as newborns, from her labor, before she fed them into the kiln’s fortifying fire: naturalistically detailed and geometrically abstract, nude and clothed, suffering, luxuriating, reclining, leaping, dancing, singing. She liked to work in wet clay, to feel the body she intuited taking shape beneath her hands. It made her feel as if she had chanced upon a person in the dark and were palpating him or her for vital information with her sensitive fingers. She won awards; she received a scholarship to the most prestigious art college in the state; she came in second for Most Likely to Succeed in the senior yearbook but won Most Unique.

If you wish in any way to support my work, I would urge you to buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes (or even just pledge to review it publicly in exchange for a free ebook). I hope 2018 contains more reading, more writing, more complexities, and more ambiguities. Happy New Year and thanks for your time!