ARFFF ’06

Tags: All reading for fun at Fessenden, our quirky electronic childhoods, the great American elevator inspector novel, I don’t know Dick.

It’s year in review time, Loyal Dozens, that magical time of year when we review the year that went by since the last time it was time to review the year between the times when it’s time to review it. I’ll dispense with such fripperies as the year in movies, music, or current events, but I read a lot of books and every year I like to take some time to record a few that stayed with me, both for their own merits and for vaguely autobiographical purposes. (I try to associate the subjects of books with the places and times where I read them. Even though you can find a copy anywhere, for instance, it’s cool to me that I bought Colson Whitehead’s old weird NYC novel The Intuitionist, along with Ann Douglas’ Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, at the awesome Strand bookstore in Greenwich Village. Or that I read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon while actually en route from Paris to the moon.) This is made easier this year by the LibraryThing account I started last December. Most people use LibraryThing to catalog the books they own, but I use the library so prodigiously that my the set of books I possess bears only a passing resemblance to the set of books that have passed under my eyeballs. Instead, I used LibraryThing to catalog books as I read them, regardless of their provenance. You can, if you care, see all the books I read in 2006 here. But here are some highlights, starting with fiction first.

5. HOW TO BE BAD, by David Bowker. Read April 24-25, 2006, in the maternity ward of Victoria Hospital. This book makes the list in spite of the fact that I have no memory of it–or, to be precise, I remember vividly the night I read it, but I have almost no memory of its contents. I believe it’s an unobjectionable “bookish author stand-in meets sexy bad girl and is drawn into a thrilling demimonde of crime” story, spiced up with a bunch of metatextual references and allusions to the novels of Nick Hornby. (It hadn’t occured to me before reading this how large Hornby’s shadow must loom over Gen-X British authors hoping to break into the lad lit game.) But I can’t remember the name of the main character, or what sort of crimes he gets drawn into, or which combination of he, the sexy bad girl, and/or Nick Hornby live happily ever after. Because I read this book while sitting next to L in the hospital waiting for the Ukelele to be born. Maybe I never got to the end. Maybe I was just a few pages from the thrilling conclusion when the delivery kicked into high gear (the nurse, a laconic Native woman reminiscent of Fleischman’s secretary Marilyn on Northern Exposure, shrugged around midnight and told L, “oh, you could probably start pushing now if you like”) and my life was forever bifurcated into Before and After. The book I had in my hand that night was at once instantly forgotten, and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

4. A BUNCH OF BOOKS, by Philip K. Dick. Read in the feverish post-baby summer, often with crying newborn in arms. Armed with Jonathan Lethem’s essay parsing the good Philip K. Dick novels from the stinkers, I read a lot of Dick in May, June, July, and August: reading Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, and A Scanner Darkly for the first time, and rediscovering Ubik, Radio Free Albemuth, and The Man in the High Castle, which I’d read as a teenager but resented for not being more like Blade Runner. I now have a bunch of ideas for a super keen PKD role-playing game, but the specific mechanics continue to taunt and vex me. The novels made entirely appropriate reading for a summer of sleep deprivation, a crumbling grasp on reality, and the dawning realization that my free will had been broken and my life taken over by an invading alien in diapers and jammies from Baby Gap.

3. THE INTUITIONIST, by Colson Whitehead. Read ostentatiously in a succession of East Village hipster coffee shops because yes, I am (or was before the baby) That Guy. Don’t even bother trying to write the great American elevator inspector novel, folks, because It. Has. Been. Done. Again I defer to Jonathan Lethem: “This splendid novel reads as though a stray line in Pynchon or Millhauser had been meticulously unfolded to reveal an entire world, one of spooky, stylish alternate-Americana, as rich and haunted as our own.” Man, true. Colson Whitehead’s mysterious urban gothic milieu–the city is unnamed, but can only be an alternate New York–is the old weird Harlem to Ben Katchor‘s never-quite-was Lower East Side. And the elevator shafts plunging through the heart of this novel offer the richest, strangest metaphor for race in America since Moby Dick. Oh, OK, smarty, and Ellison’s Invisible Man.

2. ABSURDISTAN, by Gary Shteyngart. Read November 3-5, 2006 on flight to and from Charlottesville, VA. Well, I ought to put one book on this list that was actually published in 2006. It’s made a couple of best of lists; in fact it tops the NYT‘s (alphabetically-ordered) 100 Notable Books for 2006. “Why praise it first? Just quote from it at random,” said the Times. “Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.” I loved Shteyngart’s debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. I gushed about it, and also tossed in an anecdote about Peter the Great’s “Cabinet of Monsters,” around this time two years ago. Absurdistan covers similar ground–in fact, Shteyngart’s first novel makes an appearance in his second, as the hack work of a poseur named “Jerry Shteynfarb,” who trades on his foreignness to mack on chicks–but the second novel is altogether bigger, sloppier, and richer. It’s the story of Misha Vainberg, bon vivant son of a murdered Russian mobster, whose heart is in New York but whose visa-less body is marooned in a crumbling ex-Soviet republic. Misha thinks and talks in hilarious, off-color stereotypes, and nobody really escapes getting skewered. I have no idea how accurate is Shteyngart’s portrayal of post-Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russians, but I give him the benefit of the doubt; whenever he turns his gaze on subjects I do know, like American post-college slackers, he is funny, incisive, and a little cruel:

Life for young American college graduates is a festive affair. Free of having to support their families, they mostly have gay parties on rooftops where they reflect at length upon their quirky electronic childhoods and sometimes kiss each other on the lips and neck. … At Accidental College, we were taught that our dreams and our beliefs were all that mattered, that the world would eventually sway to our will, fall in step with our goodness, swoon right into our delicious white arms. All those Introduction to Striptease classes (apparently each of our ridiculous bodies had been made perfect in its own way), all those Advanced Memoir seminars, all those symposiums on Overcoming Shyness and Facilitating Self-Expression. And it wasn’t just Accidental College. All over America, the membrane between adulthood and childhood had been eroding, the fantastic and the personal melding into one, adult worries receding into a pink childhood haze. I’ve been to parties in Brooklyn where men and women in their mid-thirties would passionately discuss the fine points of The Little Mermaid or the travails of their favorite superhero. Deep inside, we all wished to have communion with that tiny red-haired underwater bitch.

That sounds about right.

1. MOBY DICK, by Herman Melville. Read, mostly in bed, a few pages at a time, from August through November. This is a funny thing to say about one of the reigning classics of the American canon, but why didn’t anyone tell me Moby Dick was so great? The back cover of my copy, a British paperback edition, studiously undersells it: “Ignored for many years after its first publication … Moby Dick can be read as … a sociological critique of American class and racial prejudices, a philosophical inquiry into the structure of good and evil, and a repository of information about whaling.” Mmm, hard to see why that took a few years to catch fire. But here’s what they don’t tell you: it’s fantastic! First of all, and this was complete news to me, it’s hilarious. Melville leavens everything with these droll, dry asides, ranging from ridicule of racial chauvinism (way ahead of its time for a white American author) to dark laughter at humanity’s folly to fart jokes, plain and simple. Second, it’s filled with buckets of blood and gore. People complain about all the whaling trivia, but as it turns out, nineteenth-century whaling was insanely cool. There were about a hundred hideous ways to get drowned or crushed or maimed on a whaling voyage, and Ishmael catalogs every one with happy pedantry. Like the part where two severed whale heads are lashed to either side of the Pequod’s hull (like Locke and Kant, Ishmael jokes) and then one of the harpooners–Tashtego?–is scraping spermaceti out of one of the skull cavities, and he falls into the huge head, and gets stuck! Inside the head! And then the head falls off the side of the ship, and sinks with him in it! And Queequeg has to dive in after the head and swim down underwater and hack his way through the whale’s skull with a machete to rescue his buddy… That is so hardcore ridiculous awesome. Why isn’t that on the cover? I read this book slowly, a chapter or two in bed most nights between August and November, and still I was bereft when it ended, too soon. Talk about your old, weird America: Melville is the uncut mother lode.

Next Time: Non.