Recent Reading: April

Another summary post, for now:

  • In March I read Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women, which I liked, mostly. I’ve been talking about Ben Marcus a lot with a friend who has been curious about Marcus and his ideas about experimental fiction, and I thought I’d try his one book that was currently available in the library. I’m looking forward to reading his most recent novel The Flame Alphabet when the hold comes in. But for now, Notable American Women was strange in a very interesting way. It’s about a cult of women in Ohio who try to cut language and movement out of their lives as much as possible. They basically try to shut themselves down entirely, removing themselves from engagement with the world. The main character is named Ben Marcus (I don’t get why experimental writers so often name their characters after themselves. It surely was a good idea the first time or so someone did it, but to be doing it still??), and he lives in this cult, trying to find his place in it and to figure out how to relate to his distant mother, and his father, who appears to be buried in the front yard. I liked the first part of the novel very much, which takes the form of a letter from the father to the reader, and the last part is also great, in the form of a letter from his mother. The middle describes the rules and procedures of the cult, and it’s strange — strangely fascinating at times and at times a little dull. All in all, it’s a memorable take on language, power, and family relationships.
  • Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water: A Memoir was a harrowing read. A friend asked me what it’s about, and I started to describe it — her difficult childhood, her rebellion, her struggles with addiction, her complex relationship with sexuality, her redemption through writing — and it all sounded so cliche. But that’s not how the book felt, largely because the writing is powerful and the story isn’t told in chronological order. It’s told in a loose, impressionistic, associative way, and the sentences move into poetic territory at times and at times collapse in on themselves. Mostly, I liked this. There is something compelling about Yuknavitch’s persona, something I liked about her, even though she practically dares you not to like her. At times the aggression of the writing was too much for me and at times the persona was just too prickly for me to handle. But there is a power in this book that made it hard to put down.
  • I don’t remember where I heard about Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I’m glad I paid attention to wherever it was, because I loved this book. It’s a short meditation on the color blue, written in brief numbered sections that look at “blue” philosophically, biologically, poetically, autobiographically, sociologically, and probably in other ways as well. It’s also the story of a breakup and the suffering that came with it. As always with a book like this, my enjoyment of it comes down to the persona, and in this case, I loved her, especially for her emotional rawness and sexual frankness mixed with a careful, philosophical thoughtfulness. There’s a confessional quality to the book that works beautifully because of the way it’s part of a larger context of ideas.
  • David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is basically a transcript of a multi-day interview Lipsky did with David Foster Wallace in 1996, just after the publication of Infinite Jest. Lipsky has written an introduction to the transcript, and has also inserted short explanations and commentary into the dialogue, but mostly it’s just the two of them talking, complete with sentences that trail off into nothingness and awkward transitions between topics that probably didn’t seem awkward at the time. Their conversations are interesting, for the most part, many of them about the process of writing Infinite Jest and Wallace’s attempts to make sense of his new-found fame and success. He was desperately worried about getting so caught up in the whirl of publicity that he would come to rely on it. You can see him both enjoying the attention of the interviewer and waiting eagerly for it all to be over, so he could get back to his normal quiet writing life. Lipsky’s book was published after Wallace’s death, and much of what Wallace says about suffering takes on a new meaning in that light. I don’t think this book would be that interesting for anyone not familiar with Wallace, and probably it’s best to have read Infinite Jest first, to understand a lot of the references in their conversations. I stumbled now and then over places where the conversation bordered on incoherence, but mostly I found the book absorbing, and I loved the insights into Wallace’s character and his writing.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Recent Reading: April

  1. I have never heard of Maggie Nelson, her book seems fascinating & original – thank you for the introduction!

  2. I think you would like her very much Sigrun. She’s definitely original, and she’s also an academic type, so the quality of thought is strong.

  3. I agree with Sigrun: Nelson’s book seems fascinating & original. I’ve added it to my lists of books to read.

  4. Heather

    I keep reading about The Flame Alphabet in various places but haven’t yet decided if I want to read it or not. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

    And oh, I agree, Bluets is so so so good! I’m not sure if you heard it from me or elsewhere, but yeah, I loved it. I borrowed it from a friend then had to go buy a copy of my own. Mmm.

  5. “I don’t get why experimental writers so often name their characters after themselves.” Interesting that you noted that. I’ve started reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, and to my amusement, the name Paul Auster is mentioned in there. Glad you’re back for a little bit. Even though you don’t post regularly, I’ve enjoyed your discussion on your reading. Hope you’ll write a review on Helen Dewitt’s The Last Samurai when you finish. ;)

  6. I’ve noted the Bluets books; that sounds really lovely. I’d like to read more of Ben Marcus as well, but am timing it for later this summer or in the fall. I’ve had several interesting conversations about experimental lit lately and I enjoy looking more at these kinds of texts. (The name thing is really annoying – why do they do it? Houellebecq does this as well, both overtly and a little more discreetly, but I don’t see how it brings anything to the text but remind the reader constantly who the author is).

  7. Anne — I hope you like it!

    Heather — I probably did hear about it from you. In which case, thank you! I’m still waiting on The Flame Alphabet from the library, but hopefully it will be here soon.

    Arti — thank you! I’m enjoying The Last Samurai a lot so far, and am about halfway through.

    Michelle — it’s weird that it’s so widespread. It’s a trope, a cliche, obviously, which is a reason for experimental writers NOT to do it, right? It’s too common! I get the impulse to break down the fictionality of the text, but find another way to make that point if that’s what you want to do!

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