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      "Language is a social form of barely controlled weeping, a more sophisticated way to cry.”
      —Ben Marcus, Notable American Women


Falling Man. Don DeLillo. 2007. Scribner. Novel. Falling Man feels like White Noise stripped of its sometimes too-easy, too-clever satire, Underworld condensed and shot through with a stark immediacy, The Body Artist complicated and made resonant with a cosmopolitan awareness of an atrocious interconnectivity where “all life had become public,” all actions political. The consequence is bleak, dark, brutal, elegiac, beautiful, and wise in ways previous engagements with 9/11 (Jonathan Foer’s facile Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which also deals with the impact of the attacks on a single family, comes to mind) simply haven’t been. DeLillo’s novel’s title comes both from the actual photo of an anonymous man plunging headfirst from one of the towers, and from the invented performance artist known as The Falling Man. The latter, wearing a suit, tie, and dress shoes, appears unannounced at venues high above the city and throws himself off, coming to dangle upside down in a jerry-rigged harness before swarms of unnerved passersby below.  His function is the same as that of DeLillo’s novel itself: to remind us of something about which we would just as soon try to put out of mind.  He is 9/11 as ongoing spectacle, the rush of appalling memory that can erupt anywhere, anytime.  He is mayhem turned art, art turned mayhem. For my full review of Falling Man in The Quarterly Conversation, please click here.

Sweet Hearts. Melanie Rae Thon. 2001. Houghton Mifflin. Novel. Ostensibly the story of two Montanan delinquents named Cecile and Flint on a sad downward skid told by a deaf mute, "the daughter of a drowned woman," Sweet Hearts is in fact an investigation into what forgiveness means, if it is possible now, if it ever was, how one struggles with the divine in a world that looks like this, how those on the outside of the dominant culture live, love, find death, remember each other, try to save each other when they can't possibly be saved, come to ask: "Where does grief begin?  Does suffering start when another dies, or only when we hear of it?  Imagine our unfathomable innocence."  The rhythms and density of the language are stunning. More stunning still is how, like Faulkner, I want to say, Thon has passed what we used to call the Regional Novel through a complex, enriching, breathtaking innovative narratology that allows us to see the genre afresh.

American Genius: A Comedy. Lynne Tillman. 2006. Soft Skull. Novel. What I think I enjoy most about this book is its extraordinary investigation into the limits of interiority and the lusciousness of torqued language—two areas of experience that prove virtually impossible for any other art form to engage with as fully, as deeply, as resonantly as the novel can. In many ways, American Genius is about a series of lacks. There is no real plot, no real character development, not much forward motion, almost no dialogue. It's even difficult to tease out the setting. The funny, bright, wildly neurotic narrator, Helen (we don't learn her name until the narrative moves into its endgame), may be a patient at some sanatarium, a resident in some New Agey artists' colony, a visitor at some wacky spa. The outlines of the external world are fuzzy at best. What's important, rather, is the movement of her mind, the musicality of her thought, as she obssesses on the pleasure of cotton socks, the vicissitudes of various skin conditions (hers and others'), the Manson killings, the slave trade, Eames chairs, the beloved dog her parents had put to sleep, her dead father, her increasingly unmoored elderly mother, the people surrounding her whose quirks she notes in gossipy detail. What's important, as well, perhaps even more so, are the novel's stunning sentences, which share a great deal with the oceanic language of Woolf, the feverish eye of Bernhard, and which go a good way toward rethinking what a sentence can be, what it can do, and how, through their relentless digressive qualifications that skirt conventional grammar. What a strikingly intelligent, mischievously obsessive, beautifully written book.

Travesty. John Hawkes. 1976. Chatto & Windus. Novel. I've been meaning to read this one, I kid you not, since its appearance in 1976, yet only found myself picking it up for the first time three weeks ago. I've always loved Hawkes's (17 August 1925 – 15 May 1998) dark obsessiveness, elegantly dense prose, and odd European feel (despite the fact that he was born and raised in the U.S.). Travesty takes the form of a 128-page monologue by a man driving his car at high speed at night through the French countryside. Next to him sits his poet-friend, Henri. On the floor of the back seat curls his twentysomething daughter (with whom Henri has had an affair), vomiting. The narrator is on his way to crash into the wall of a farmhouse, and the narrative, such as it is, takes the form of his mad (and not so mad) rants leading up to the inevitable. It's frightening, moving, gorgeously turned stuff, a miniature existential parable about the fiery crash waiting for us all, and it inhabits the same landscape as, say, Ballard and Poe. One reason I decided to pick it up is that it has struck me with force recently how Hawkes's amazing writing is beginning to be forgotten. This is unforgivable. Let me leave you with two quotes by Hawkes about his writing to further whet your appetite: "For me, everything depends on language." "I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained."

The Open Curtain. Brian Evenson. 2006. Coffee House. Novel. In Brian Evenson's new novel, a Mormon teenager named Rudd stumbles across three letters—two from a woman named Anne Korth, and one from his dad who recently committed suicide—that suggest the possibility of a half-brother from a liason between Korth and Rudd’s father. Rudd’s resulting research into that relationship, as well as for a high-school paper he's writing on a nineteenth-century murder of a young woman by the grandson of Brigham Young, unfold into a narrative (as the novel’s title suggests) about deception, hidden things, the dark, blank, blurry spaces in meaning, identity, and, finally, existence itself that give the lie to the inflexible vision at the core of conventional religions that can’t bring themselves to accept, as Rudd realizes, that "nothing came unmixed." Initially, The Open Curtain seems a mimetic departure from Evenson’s earlier avant-gothic fiction. Toward the end of the first of three sections that comprise the novel, however, Rudd begins to experience blackouts and temporal disruptions that unhinge the apparently traditional narrative tactics at play. The second section jarringly changes point of view to Lyndi, a teenager whose parents have been murdered in a gruesome ritual killing in which Rudd seems to be implicated. As Rudd and she move toward marriage, the narrative further disrupts, and by the third section it becomes clear that each movement in its architectonics has essentially troubled and unwritten the preceding one. The final section flickers between realities, histories, and cleaving selves, transforming what at first may have seemed a traditional murder mystery into a mystery of ontology and epistemology, a novel about undoing "realistic" novels, and an extended investigation into the inexorable violence and blindness shot through Mormon culture. We have returned, in other words, to all that makes Evenson's fiction so engaging, accomplished, and consequential. In its impulse to investigate the rich possibility spaces between genres, that fiction transforms and extends our notion of what narrative is and what it can be and do. Its clean, understated, even rationalist prose is in constant tension with its transgressive content, its resonant irony and unexpected umber humor, its unblinking examination of psychological and narratological instability. Evenson's work rhymes with that of very few authors, living or dead. It perhaps shares the fierce and absurd stare of a Kafka, the existential and textual undoings of a Beckett, the critifictional and paraliterary engagement with its materials of a Delany. But at the end of the day it is all its own sprightly menanced thing, and one of the most important projects currently being undertaken.

Half Life. Shelley Jackson. 2006. Harper Collins. Novel. “You know, a blurry identity isn’t as rare in nature as you seem to think,” a friend tells Nora Gray Olney, the fiercely independent 28-eight-year-old bisexual narrator of Shelley Jackson’s brilliantly crazed first novel. “In fact, it’s practically the norm” (73). Much to her chagrin, Nora understands this as well as anyone: she forms half a set of conjoined twins. The other half, Blanche, fell into a perpetual slumber as the result of a childhood trauma, and Nora, who even in the best of times thinks of her sibling as an unnecessary growth, wants nothing to do with her. Citing “irreconcilable differences,” Nora seeks a divorce by decapitation, although she is fully aware this means “that the removed twin will be in a condition nonconductive to life” (4). In Jackson’s mordant alternate universe—a veritable Siamese doppelganger of our own—this situation turns out to be less odd than it at first sounds. Within six years of nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a glum U.S. government, “recognizing the need for a national activity of penance…, had begun bombing itself” (154), thereby giving birth to the Age of American Sadness.  The consequence of the fallout from those nuclear tests is a proliferation of “twofers,” and a culture of liberation surrounding them replete with pride parades, political pamphlets, and such radical organizations as the Togetherists, a new-agey gang that believes conjoined twins signify a post-narcissistic step in our species’ spiritual evolution. Half Life takes the shape of a postmodern parable that explores the body as an unmanageable, amorphous text, and goes on to suggest that every quest for stable identity (or any sort of stable meaning) will fail in the face of an existence that remains wonderfully—if maddeningly, perilously—multiple, fragmented, tenuous, changeable.  The “I,” Nora concludes, possesses “no more substance than the slash between either and or” (433). For her, the world is all both/and. Although Jackson spoofs theoretical gymnastics throughout her novel, Half Life is clearly a theory-savvy book informed by, among others, Derrida’s notion of différance, which holds that at the heart of existence beats, not steady, definable essence, but continual deferral and divergence. Unfortunately, the last fifth of the book strains.  Its structure sags and goes baggy.  Its pace slows to a shuffle. Even its usually gorgeous language flags for patches.  But, in light of the rest, these amount to small quibbles. Comic, smart, and gifted, Half Life is a beautiful investigation into the nature of selfhood and the aesthetics of illuminating unease.

The Exquisite. Laird Hunt. 2006. Coffee House. Novel. Laird Hunt’s wonderfully curious third novel, The Exquisite, is both a response to 9/11 and paean to Manhattan—especially to its seedy, shadowy, cramped, and unhinged Lower East Side, where anything can and does happen.  Set shortly after that rip in reality’s fabric half a decade ago, “when the gaping hole … was still fresh, and the air was still stinging everyone’s eyes” (22), the novel conjures a space that is as much feverscape as city.  It is a zone, as one character comments, “of subtle simulacra, of deceptive surfaces, of glib and phantom shimmerings” (6) that “falls under the rubric of the danse macabre” (134). That guiding metaphor, taken from medieval drama and art featuring Death as a skeleton leading to the grave a procession of those struck down by diverse pestilences, is a stingingly apt one for the mood and people that pervade Hunt’s absurd, haunted world. Henry, the stupendously unreliable narrator, is a two-bit thief in psychological dishabille prone to extended memory lapses. On a foray into an apartment on Eighth Street, whose owner Henry mistakenly believes has just stepped out, he encounters the mysterious, eccentric Aris Kindt, semi-naked in the semi-dark, hooked up to his heart monitor via a tangle of wires. Instead of sounding an alarm, Kindt invites Henry to take any object he wants, leave, and return the following evening for a pleasant dinner. A northern-European émigré, Kindt is a Sebaldian aficionado of herring (“Herring,” he tells Henry, “is God come to us as fish” [7]), country-western music, and Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century painting The Anatomy Lesson that famously depicts the dissection of a man hanged for armed robbery whose name was—wait for it—Aris Kindt.  The contemporary Kindt takes Henry under wing and introduces him to his blurry organization comprised of, among others, a pair of belligerent twin contortionists, a woman known only as “the knockout,” and a tattooist called Tulip. They specialize in creative mock murders paid for by clients numbed and unmoored by what happened on September 11 who want to learn how to be situated in their own bodies and begin to feel something like real emotion again. Clearly we are very much in the same territory as that of Hunt’s first novel, The Impossibly (2001, see below), one of the most imaginatively vibrant to appear since the millennium’s turn. It’s not for nothing that both books’ titles—The Impossibly and The Exquisite—take the form of adjectival constructions that lack corresponding nouns. That is, both announce themselves from the start as fictions about what isn’t there and can’t be known.  The most profound absence at the center of The Exquisite is that one on New York’s skyline.  All of which may make Hunt’s book seem too serious, too concerned with Big Ideas, for its own good.  But nothing could be farther from the truth.  Here is an extraordinarily intelligent, goofy, pained, energetic, gorgeously written work that insists on letting the existential unsteadiness that defines our era shape its very rhythms, warps, textual flexures.

99 Ways to Tell a Story. Matt Madden. 2005. Chamberlain Brothers. Graphic "novel." In 1947, Raymond Queneau—mathematician, poet, fiction writer, and member of the Oulipo group dedicated to using formal constraints imposed on one's own work as a method of generating creativity—published Exercises in Style. He took a simple story and told it in 99 different styles (as a letter, various kinds poems, moral lesson about The Youth of Today, etc.). The narrative itself is wholly unremarkable: a young man gets on a crowded bus, complains about being jostled, and then sits down when a seat becomes available; later, the narrator sees the man who jostled him in another part of town talking to a friend. In 99 Ways to Tell a Story, Matt Madden performs a kind of homage to Queneau by doing the same thing, only in comix. The narrative itself is even more unremarkable than the original: a man who has been working at a computer stands, closes his laptop, and walks to the refrigerator. His wife asks him what time it is from upstairs. He responds 1:15. Then he bends in front of the fridge, looking puzzled, wondering "What the hell was I looking for, anyway?" Madden retells that narrative in a variety of comic-book styles, points of view, settings, angles, with different characters, without one of the two leads, without the refrigerator, as a paranoid religious tract, as an existentialist parable, you name it. The outcome, which sounds like it should dreary as dust, is fascinating, stimulating, and a micro-education in narrativity. One way I know I'm reading a wonderful text is that it makes me want to go out and write, and Madden's does like few I've come across recently.

The Book of Portraiture. Steve Tomasula. 2006. FC2. Novel. Tomasula explores nothing less than the history of representation here, telling five vaguely interrelated stories—that of a desert nomad discovering the use and abuse of an alphabet; the Renaissance artist Diego de Velàzquez and his struggle to rise to power in the court by means of his paintings; a psychoanalyst delving into, as it were, the x-ray portrait of himself and his female client; a group of contemporary digital manipulators caught in a complex (and often wonderfully funny) conspiracy; and, finally, a postmodern artist who paints in DNA. What, Tomasula's fiction asks, does it mean to re-present "reality"? What are its limits, as it moves from sand to canvas to screen to inside our very cells? Embracing the idea of the book itself as wildly gorgeous object of representation, the text contains colored pages, sketches, experiments in layout and typography, etc. One might imagine the whole too cerebral by half, but that's far from the case. Several of the passages—especially one involving the possible drowning of a little girl and her father's panicked attempts to locate her on a beach in the Middle East—are emotionally rich. I can't say enough about this one.

Europeana. Patrik Ourednik. 2005. Dalkey Archive. Novel. An alluringly unusual postmodern historiography, Europeana recounts an absurdist's absurd (if all-too-true) history of Europe in 122 pages by limning in childlike paratactic prose a wealth of atrocities, discoveries, movements, facts, and theories, all from a quirky bird's-eye perspective. The opening two sentences are emblematic of what follows: "The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans." Ourednik, a Czech who has lived in France since 1984, has invented a new cross-genre form: the encyclopedic prose-poem built on painfully funny, painfully accurate non-sequiturs.

Frances Johnson. Stacey Levine. 2006. Clearcut Press. Novel. Imagine an episode of Twin Peaks, only on the page, and you'll have some idea of the slightly off-kilter otherness of the world Levine creates in Frances Johnson. The title character, an eccentric single woman in her late thirties, rides her bike furiously through a Florida town called Munson on whose outskirts a volcano, Sharla, fumes. A strange growth that looks like a cauliflower appears on Frances's thigh. Bushes rustle ominously with mysterious animals in the night. The town doctor longs for a certain kind of chicken-beak oil for a remedy he's working on that will, it seems, cure everything. And when the quirky citizens talk to each other, their diction is as stilted, as vaguely unnerving, as the narrative universe they inhabit. Just as Frances clearly wants nothing so much as to leave Munson, Levine clearly wants nothing so much as to gently, ironically disrupt the assumptions of realism's plots, characters, and discourse. Why she hasn't received more attention is beyond me.

The Tunnel. William Gass. 1995. Dalkey Archive. Novel. Gass put thirty years of his life into this gorgeous, complex, and embittered book about an anti-Semitic, bigoted, existentially sour German scholar who lives in his head in his basement below his blundering overweight wife, trying to write the introduction to his new work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, but ending up alternately composing the meditation we read; digging a tunnel beneath his house, through his life, among his raging thoughts; and inventing the platform, uniforms, armbands, and flags for his very own Party of Disappointed People, of which he is the only member. This is difficult novel of consciousness that privileges language, idea, and emotion over plot, people, and scene. Ah, but what magnificent language, some of the most euphonic in English: "It occurs to me, suddenly, staring at my keys [on my typewriter], considering how their arms leap up and how their formed fists strike the page, that every line has been made by a blow, is a row of bruises, a record of attack—thwack—flurry of lefts—tack—ticktack—tack—another shot to the head—thwack—thump to the mid—thumb to the I—brief pause for the bob and weave of thought—bore in again—rattack tickclack—gun them one after one so they die on the page, with only a trace of the rage that did them down . . ." Be still, my heart.

The 3 a.m. Epiphany. Brian Kiteley. 2005. Writer's Digest Books. Fiction-writing guide. Besides my Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Writing Fiction, and, say, Oulipo's and the surrealists' offerings, there are virtually no fiction-writing textbooks out there that take as their premise that it's essential, as Kiteley says in his excellent collection of uncommon exercises and advice, to "search for material that challenges and changes you as a writer," and to "be ambitious—take on complex intellectual, political, and philosophical problems" in your work, thereby at least making a sincere effort to avoid the most damning criticism of workshops: "that they promote mere competence." Clear, exciting, and energizing—The 3 a.m. Epiphany is the sort of book that makes you want to go out and write, try new things, push narrative's limits.

My Amputations. Clarence Major. 1986. Fiction Collective. Novel. Perhaps a wannabe African-American writer and petty thief named Mason Ellis has kidnapped and adopted the persona of a more successful author named Clarence McKay, and begun to give readings and lectures under his name. Perhaps McKay has stolen Ellis's persona. Perhaps they're both parts of the same frazzling mind. However one figures it, this winner of the Western States Book Award is part quest, part postmodern descent into a shadow world, part homage to the likes of Ishmael Reed and William Carlos Williams, part celebration of dense, proto-rap, rhythmic language, and, if one gives oneself over to its disjointed wackiness, all amazing read.

Willful Creatures. Aimee Bender. 2005. Doubleday. Story collection. In most of the fifteen exquisitely freakish stories comprising Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures, the body is a space of mystery, horror, and revelation. A boy with key-shaped fingers spends his life discovering which nine unremarkable doors he can unlock. A couple of pumpkinheads give birth to a boy whose head is an eyeless iron. A guy buys himself a miniature caged man from the pet store for company only to discover the great pleasure to be had in torturing him. In one piece, an ominous clique of high-school girls narrates their hatred for a normal girl in a creepy first-person plural before beating her bloody in the backseat of a car. In another, a woman buries her potato babies alive (they accidentally grew out of normal potatoes that one day appeared in her cast-iron pot) because she finds them a nuisance. Although not all the stories here are as outlandish as these (several more conventional ones focus on fairly predictable backbroke relationships), those you will have trouble forgetting are. That's in part because Bender's use of nameless protagonists and vaguely sketched geographies shade her most effective fictions into things inexplicably large and vigorously resonant: postmodern allegories about, on the one hand, human viciousness and existential menace, and, on the other, the enjoyment of narrative variability and inventive wonder. Her imagination packs all the gleaming surreality of a Magritte painting, her wry tone the poker-faced irony of a Haruki Murakami novel, her furious satire the bite of a Lynda Barry cartoon. Her eye for dream-logic detail and crackling metaphor delights and unsettles. A road running through the desert is "a long dry tongue"; a kiss "an old dead sock"; walnuts scattered on the floor "tiny shriveled lungs with all the air sucked out of them."

My Loose Threads. Dennis Cooper. 2002. Canongate Books. Novel. This extraordinarily disturbing fiction focuses on an unbalanced gay teen named Larry, his incestuous affair with his brother,his broken household, and his neo-Nazi friend Gavin's plans to shoot up a high school Columbine-style. What's riveting is Cooper's ability to tell the narrative so convincingly from the Larry's disjointed, emotionally blank point of view and his raw exploration of contemporary American teen spirit. My Loose Threads goes on the shelf next to Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and Samuel R. Delany's Hogg,

Magic for Beginners. Kelly Link. 2005. Small Beer Press. Short Stories. Chances are you haven't read anything lately as exuberantly eccentric as the ten stories in Kelly Link's second collection, Magic for Beginners, unless you caught the eleven in her first, Stranger Things Happen (2001). New homeowners worry everything they've brought with them from their previous digs—clothes, soap, cat—is haunted, while a legion of ominous rabbits amass in their front yard. An ex-con fixates on devising a Zombie Contingency Plan just in case the undead ever decide to invade the world of the living. A typical episode of a TV show within a TV show takes place entirely "inside the top drawer of a card catalog, in pitch dark, and it's all Morse code with subtitles." Accompanied by Shelley Jackson's quietly creepy illustrations, Link's elliptical, metalogical stories read like fractured fairytales dreamed by Escher. And although in an interview Link cites Eurdora Welty and Tolkien among her influences, her lighter-hearted (and, on occasion, less substantial) fiction bears a closer family resemblance to the playful work of Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and Angela Carter. For Link, as for that postmodern crew, writing functions as a continual act of discovery, a mad accretion of otherness.

The World as I Found It. Bruce Duffy. 1987. Mariner. Fiction. This unfairly overlooked novel, while not especially innovative in form, is a terrifically emotionally rich and intelligent exploration of the intersecting lives of two philosophers who went a long way toward innovating one major trajectory of twentieth-century philosophy: Bertrand Russell, almost a paroday of the British professor at Cambridge, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, his relentlessly severe and intense Austrian student. Both go a good way toward rethinking our relationship to language and how it functions (or fails to function) to reflect the world and the metaphysics beyond it. Duffy not only does a great job of investigating their respective—and often conflicting—perspectives, but also their respective—and often conflicting—characters: Russell, the baggy believer in progressive education and free marriages who can't make a relationship work to save his life; Wittgenstein, the pure thinker who struggles with his homosexuality and refuses to use language to try to articulate the world of metaphysics, thereby in many ways silencing it, but who carries on a lifelong mystical search for something he can't quite name God.

Fiction's Present: Special Issue of Symploke. 2005. Theory. Edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo and R. M. Berry, this is a terrific collection of seventeen essays dedicated to thinking about what innovative fiction is, where it stands now, and where it is likely to go. Contibutors include Samuel R. Delany, Leslie Scalapino, Lidia Yuknavitch, Brian Evenson, Michael Martone, Percival Everett, Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, Carole Maso, and more. A must-read for anyone interested in the fictive edge.

Elizabeth Costello. J. M. Coetzee. 2003. Penguin. Fiction. Elizabeth Costello begins by telling the story and obsessions of a contemporary writer in her late sixties by means of a series of lectures she gives and attends. It begins, in other words, in the realm of psychological realism, but a psychological realism slightly tweaked, slightly askew, both by its unusual structuring principle of the lectures as well as a faintly flat prose style and the odd narratorial insertion (the passage of weeks, months, or years, for example, is covered by the abrupt phrase: “We skip” ). In the seventh of eight chapters,however, the novel unexpectedly leaves the universe of logical mimesis and Freudian depth-psychology behind and enters first into a highly textured parable, apparently from the protagonist’s point of view (although her presence drops back decidedly from the meditation) about the relationship between gods and mortals in a variety of mythological iterations, and then, in the final chapter, into a retelling of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” in which Elizabeth rather than Kakfa’s man from the country seeks entrance, not to the law, but to heaven. The novel ends with a postscript that takes the form of a letter from another (or is it somehow the same?) Elizabeth Costello, this one clearly on the verge of madness, written on 9/11 … but in 1603 rather than 2001. Is what we have read, then, really the hallucinations of a seventeenth-century woman? A twentieth-century woman imagining from beyond the grave or on her way to it? Or, more likely, a text not about character and mimesis at all, at the end of the day, but rather about a series of textual and theoretical problems, an investigation of the conditions of its own self-perplexing existence? No wonder that John Banville claimed in The Nation that Coetzee’s book was “curiously unsatisfactory,” that Jonathan Yardley in The New York Times Book Review quipped “Good writers are entitled to bad books [and] in the present instance it can only be said that Coetzee took his entitlement and ran with it,” and that Rebecca Ascher-Walsh in Entertainment Weekly wrote “Few people look forward to sitting through a lecture, no matter how thought-provoking. … More off-putting is that Costello is, at best, difficult.” Since when is textual difficulty a thing to be eschewed?

Cloud Atlas. David Mitchell. 2004. Random House. Novel. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's third novel, is by far his most exhilarating, elegant, and accomplished. That's saying plenty, considering his first, Ghostwritten, snagged the prestigious Rhys Prize in 1999, and his second, number9dream, was short-listed for the Booker in 2001. Ranging across time, space, genres, styles, and characters, Cloud Atlas invites its readers to be as inquisitively ambitious as its author, then pays them back in spades for their efforts. An apt metaphor for its six interlaced plots might be an intricate musical composition or series of Russian nesting dolls. More than three years in the making, it is comprised of eleven novella-length segments. Each of the first five tells a different story that breaks off at a pivotal point (once even in mid-sentence). The sixth is self-contained. The first five are then continued and resolved, although in reverse order, so the book concludes inside the tale with which it began. Varying radically in tone, pacing, and content, each segment nonetheless dovetails in surprising ways with the others, revealing numerous narrative harmonies, echoes, thematic variations, and self-reflexive winks. The initial storyline takes the form of a Melvillean journal by a devout American notary documenting his adventures in the South Pacific in the 1850s. Next follows a collection of deliciously bitchy letters by a young, conniving, bisexual British composer serving as amanuensis for a curmudgeonly has-been in Belgium in the 1930s. Third comes a kitschy thriller about a journalist investigating a murderous conspiracy involving an unsafe nuclear plant in California in the 1970s.The fourth storyline, about a vanity-press publisher locked away in a nursing home against his will in present-day England, is a madcap Nabokovian send-up of pseudo-literary memoirs. The fifth jumps forward into a sterile Orwellian future, adopting the conventions of a slave narrative concerning a Korean clone's insurgency against the ruling "corpocracy" which, in the final tale, collapses centuries later into an anarchic eco-nightmare, a "busted world," described over a campfire by a tribal elder in a patois reminiscent in equal parts of A Clock Orange and Huck Finn.The only constant throughout these fictions is a bleak Nietzschean belief in eternal recurrence and the will to power. Congenitally greedy, people and cultures repeatedly long to dominate other people and cultures. "In an individual," one character comes to understand, "selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction." Such concerns make this Mitchell's first book with an overt social conscience. It is also a narrative about the act of narration, the ability of storytelling to shape our sense of history, civilization, and selfhood. Its involved maximalism serves as temporary antidote to our culture's pervasive, insidious oversimplification of narrative complexity. Its very presence argues our need for stories that challenge us to contemplate how stories are told, by whom, and for what purposes—stories that participate in and stimulate the difficult imagination. After describing his work-in-progress, a sextet also entitled Cloud Atlas, that young British composer above frets: "Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late." No worries for Mitchell. While the spirits of Borges, Calvino, LeGuin, and other pomo luminaries inform the body of this amazing book, at its engaged, ghastly, rascally, funny, demanding, and grim existential heart resides the sheer enchantment of Scheherazade.

Leonardo's Horse. R. M. Berry. 1997. FC2. Fiction. Two plotlines bob and weave in this complex, complicated, linguistically dense, and wholly impressive comicextravaganza. The first one encounters involves the last few hours of Leonardo Da Vinci's life on 2 May 1519, and his struggle coming to terms with how little he actually accomplished of note—including the construction of a huge statue of a horse in Milan that came to nothing. The second, which slowly dawns on one is the (in a sense) dominant narrative, involves the story of R—, an historian stuck in an L.A. traffic jam caused by an AIDS demonstration. R—'s master-project, a study of Leonardo, has also come to nothing, replaced instead by the novel he is writing on the subject, and the one we are reading. In the end, that novel engages with the question of history asunknowable fiction, fiction as unknowable history, and the tales we have to tell ourselves both as individuals and as cultures to keep on keeping on.

American Desert. Percival Everett. 2004. Hyperion. Fiction. Percival Everett's fourteenth novel takes the form of a deliciously outlandish philosophical parable about Ted Street, a failed medievalist at UCLA who is decapitated in an accident on his way to commit suicide. In the middle of his own funeral, Ted inexplicably returns to the world of the living with some pretty strange powers, not the least of which is the ability to tell his own story from an omniscient third-person point of view. Twit-minded reporters descend on this postmodern Lazarus's home like paparazzi on Michael Jackson's courthouse appearances. A religious cult run by an enormous man with sweet-smelling feet believes Ted is the devil and snatches him away from his already-traumatized wife and two children to torture and exterminate him. Clancy Dweedle, a government agent, swoops in to whisk Ted to Area 51, where that U.F.O. thing turns out to be a smokescreen for the place's real business: a horribly botched military project to clone Jesus. Along his episodic anti-quest, dead Ted gradually comes to terms with the bland existence he once led while learning to question the essence of the so-called lives of those around him. Savage and smart, Everett's hyperbolically comic novel is about questions rather than answers as well. Despite its occasionally easy humor and faintly out-of-control final fifty pages, it evinces a strikingly unique vision. With all the satiric bite of a Swiftean moralist outraged by the current state of affairs, from the banal pettiness of academentia and tabloidization of the media to the monstrous deformations of contemporary religion and government, it offers an intriguing critique of what life and lifelessness really mean in this perniciously flawed desert of America.

Vanishing Point. David Markson. 2004. Shoemaker & Hoard. Fiction. While not as utterly dazzling as Markson's tour de force, Wittgenstein's Mistress, which everyone interested in avant-garde fiction should read (seriously), Vanishing Point is still an extraordinary, exciting "novel" whose structuring principle is the collage. A nameless author has gathered notes in a shoebox for a book he intends to write, but never does. What one discovers on the page are the shards of the almost-text, along with the rare comment on his project by the author. Slowly, one begins to infer a narrative through the obsessions revealed by the choice of those shards, comprised as they are of odd art-historical, musical, and literary facts, quotes and observations about aging, statements on aesthetics, and, toward the end, decontextualized scenelets. The effect is brilliant, musical, intellectually engaging, and, perhaps unexpectedly, moving as mortality itself.

Concrete. Thomas Bernhard. 1982. Phoenix. Fiction. People have been recommending the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's work to me for years (he died in 1989, having won most of Europe's most prestigious literary awards), but only recently have I gotten around to sampling it, and I'm here to tell you what a tremendous treat it has proved to be. If you can imagine a cross between Dostoevsky's crazed, ranting, anti-social Underground Man, and Beckett's propensity for one-paragraph-longdarkly comic innovative novellas of consciousness, you have some a sense of what Concrete feels like. One doesn't read it for plot so much as one does for character, style, and the success of authorial imagination. Rudolf, a failed musicologist, writes for 156 pages about how he can't write his his great monograph (apparently his only monograph, as well) about composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy, along the way releasing whitehot vitriol against hisentreprenurial sister, the various illnesses he may or may not be suffering from, and the love-hate relationship he maintains with travel—all of which leads up to a revelation that is at once surprising, bleak, and deeply satisfying.

The Middle Mind. Curtis White. 2003. HarperSanFrancisco. Nonfiction. This extraordinarily passionate, provocative and merciless critique of contemporary American consciousness argues that the stories our dominant politics, academentia, and entertainment media have fed us since, roughly, the second half of the 20th century have effectively prevented most of us from thinking for ourselves. The result is that the" middle mind" has triumphed—one "utterly lacking context, illiterate, illiberal, narcissistic, and empty of useful information." The only real hope, White believes, is a reinvigoration of the imagination, a rediscovery and endorsement of intellectual and creative possibility spaces where we can begin to explore worlds other than the one we currently find ourselves living in. While utopian in vision (it's a late outrider of the Frankfurt School á là Adorno), and while nothing radically new in thought, The Middle Mind functions as an important act of reminding, while recalling one of my favorite quotes by Ronald Sukenick: "If you don't use your own imagination, someone else is going to use it for you." If The Middle Mind interests you, you might also want to check out White's killer end-of-the-millennium novel, Reqiem; see my comments on it below.

Pattern Recognition. William Gibson. 2003. Berkley. Novel. I came to this one late in the year it was published and approached it warily because, honestly, I had begun feeling Gibson had ceased exploring new and interesting roads in his fiction. He seemed content to just keep doing Gibson—i.e., fast-paced SF novels set in near-future worlds that rehashed the same old cyber-thematics. So reading Pattern Recognition was a happy surprise. With this novel he has moved away from science fiction, at least for a while, and yet set his narrative in a contemporary, post-9/11 London, Tokyo, and Moscow that are hauntingly strange, defamiliarized to the point where it feels like we're seeing them through an warped and deeply revealing lens. The plot revolves around Cayce Pollard, an American woman whose job is to troll streets sensing the next fashion trend and then feeding it to corporations so they can benefit from it. She also becomes involved in a cult built around shards of a mysterious film that has begun appearing on the internet, and soon is on the trail of the filmmaker responsible. While I found the last fifty pages too committed to tying up loose ends, and the film itself much less imaginative than it could have and should have been, I thoroughly enjoyed Gibson's extraordinary eye for cultural detail; Cayce is, after all, in many ways his alter ego. Too, I found Pattern Recognition one of the most powerful engagements with 9/11 in fiction to date, shot through with the heartbreaking awareness that we are all, like Cayce, weeping for our century, "though whether the one past or the one present she doesn't know." This is Gibson's best novel in years.

Oryx and Crake. Margaret Atwood. 2003. Anchor. Novel. "Science fiction," Samuel R. Delany once wrote, "is a tool to help you think," and Margaret Atwood's stunning new novel (possibly her best since The Handmaid’'sTale) wants us to think about the implications of bioengineering and, by implication, what it means to be human. In a near future where sunshine is poison, the weather's gone crazy, and botched genetic experiments roam the blasted landscape and trashed-out safe compounds the rich once inhabited, Snowman (née Jimmy) believes he may be the last Homo sapiens on earth. He lives with a small tribe of childlike mutants engineered for beauty and social harmony by his boyhood friend, the wildly bright and amoral Crake, in the wake of a hemorrhagic plague designed to euthanize humankind so nature can (with a little help) get things right. Slowly unraveling, Snowman drifts through this post-apocalyptic world hearing voices from his past and remembering his unhappy childhood in those compounds, his conflicted relationship with Crake, and his obsession with Oryx, a child prostitute he discovered one day on a kiddie-porn website who, through a series of implausible coincidences, follows him through life. This psychologically rich, philosophically dark, acidically satiric, and spiritually despairing novel challenges us repeatedly to contemplate the possibility raised by one of Snowman's former acquaintances: "Maybe there weren't any solutions. Human society … was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble." No wonder Atwood explains her religion, Pessimistic Pantheism, as the belief that "God is everywhere, but losing."

VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Steve Tomasula. Art & Design by Stephen Farrell. 2003. University of Chicago Press. Collage novel. This gorgeous book is a must-read for anyone interested in notions of textual collage and exploration of the technological reality of the page. The comic narrative concerns a guy living in a (literally) two-dimensional suburban world who is struggling over whether or not to get a vasectomy, but it's the form of the narrative—i.e., the body of the text about the text of the body—that makes this novel an unforgettably unique pleasure. Tomasula's followup, IN & OZ, is a less ambitious, but still very worthwhile, entre'acte performance about two districts in a bifurcated city: one, IN, a world of manual laborers and a river so polluted it sometimes catches fire; the other, OZ, a world of gleaming skyscrapers and commodified art and desire. You might want to think about reading IN & OZ as a critifictional gloss on VAS and a meditation on the role of art in our culture of late capitalism.

Letters to Wendy's. Joe Wenderoth. 2000. Verse Press. Novel. In this funny, bitter, and bright epistolary critique of American commercialism, desire, and sanity, an unnamed and deliciously unstable narrator composes a series of very short (most five-to-seven sentences in length) letters over the course of a year to Wendy's, the fastfood chain, and to Wendy, female icon of U.S. consumerism, whom he wants to ravage. Along the way, he meditates upon the nature of the Frosty, our culture of commodification, and the pleasures of porn, while slowly if relentlessly unraveling. This is a wonderful, wholly original, MIG-fast read from a small press usually associated with poetry.

Real to Reel. Lidia Yuknavitch. 2003. FC2. Short story collection. I picked up this collection in part because I know Lidia, and in part because the title suggested its obsessions harmonized well with those in my novel Girl Imagined by Chance, and, boy, did I hit the jackpot. What I discovered was a group of ten formalistically and thematically experimental fictions that revealed a richly photographic and filmic imagination at work. My favorite, I think, is the novella that completes the whole—a multi-perspective, beautifully lyrical collage of fragments associated with a photographer sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Lidia's project in many ways is an extension of Kathy Acker's, both in its impulse to innovate and its impulse to transgress traditional cultural boundaries. If you enjoy this work, you should seriously consider picking up her first two collections: Her Other Mouth and Liberty's Excess.

The Cave. José Saramago. 2002. Harcourt. Novel. Cipriano Algor, protagonist of Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago's extraordinary magical-realist parable, is a widowed sixty-four-year-old potter living with his daughter, Marta, and son-in-law, Marçal, in a modest house in an unnamed village in an unnamed land. One day he drives into the heart of the city (known only as The Center) to deliver his goods, only to discover he's number thirteen at the loading dock. Things go bad in a flash. Officials out of some Kafka novel inform him his earthenware crockery is no longer selling. Consumers have opted for cheaper, lighter, more resilient faux-pottery instead. Cipriano returns home to explain his misfortune to Marta and Marçal. The trio decides to make clay figurines in an attempt to replace their defunct crockery business, but the project sprawls into a comic mess. Cipriano, Marta, and Marçal realize it's time to give up their old ways and move to The Center where Marçal works as a security guard. A forty-eight-story hermetically sealed Mall of America on steroids, The Center is a Borgesian complex honeycombed with apartments, virtual-reality rides, myriad arcades, and even "himalayas complete with everest, an amazon river complete with indians." Everywhere are enormous posters reminding residents "WE WOULD SELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED, BUT WE WOULD PREFER YOU TO NEED WHAT WE HAVE TO SELL." Both the novel's title and its epigraph from The Republic suggest what Saramago is up to here: the creation of a densely textured, wonderfully resonant reworking of Plato's allegory of the cave. In the original, prisoners in an underground chamber are shackled so they can't turn around. Behind them are puppeteers, behind the puppeteers a large fire. The puppeteers dazzle the prisoners with shadows they cast on the cave wall. The prisoners believe they are seeing reality when in fact they are watching a vapid lightshow. In Saramago's version, told by an impish, digressive omniscience in luscious run-on sentences, the natural world has been replaced by the artificial. Utility, efficiency, and marketing have swamped beauty, authenticity, and humanity. And for Saramago, a political moralist and to this day a card-carrying Communist, we have all become prisoners shackled to our seats before the spectacle of distraction called late-stage capitalism.

Ignorance. Milan Kundera. 2002. Harper Collins. Novel. The fictions of Franco-Czech Milan Kundera, which include the gorgeous Unbearable Lightness of Being and Book of Laughter and Forgetting, keep best company with those of such Central European heavyweights as Kafka, Robert Musil, and, more recently, Milorad Pavic. They grow out of a modernist tradition either unaware of or uninterested in the American one defined by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dos Passos. The outcome is what Kundera dubs the Novel of Meditation: part essay, part fiction; less attracted to conventional character and plot mechanics than adventurous form and idea; more attracted to reflective journey than arrival. For some, this can initially smack of the coolly abstract and cerebral. Hang in there, though, and the emotional and intellectual payoff is simply extraordinary. Ignorance is told by a first-person (yet weirdly omniscient) narrator uninvolved in the narrative’s events, except to the extent he employs them as springboards into contemplations about twentieth-century history, the nature of travel and nostalgia, The Odyssey (according to him, Odysseus was our culture's supreme adventurer and nostalgic), the slippage of memory, and the shakiness of identity. The events themselves concern Irena, a middle-aged woman who with her husband fled Czechoslovakia in 1969 in the hopes of a better life in Paris. Soon, however, she discovers herself a widow with almost no money trying to raise two daughters on her own. After Communism commences its evaporation in 1989, Irena flies back to her homeland for what she considers her Great Return. Yet she is shocked to discover how little connection she feels with the place. On her way over, she meets a Czech man she believes to be her childhood sweetheart. He doesn't recognize Irena, but plays the role assigned him in order to avoid seeming impolite to a stranger. With that, the couple drifts toward something that might or might not be called love. The structure and subject of Ignorance's elegant meditation, then, is inbetweenness. Formally, it is fiction and nonfiction, fairy tale and memoir, love story and political tract. Thematically, it is all about the state of the perpetual émigré in space and time. Fiercely intelligent and quietly melancholy, it reveals itself as the work of a writer now in his early seventies painfully, richly aware of the late afternoon shadows lengthening.

Ulysses. James Joyce. 1922. Random House. Edited by Hans Walter Gabler. Novel written (according to Joyce) "in cooperation" with Homer's Odyssey. It's been a good ten years since I last re-read this one which, along with the likes of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Wallace's Infinite Jest, DeLillo's Underworld, and, most recently, Danielewski's House of Leaves, really is one of the great innovative encyclopedic novels of the last hundred years or so. This investigation of three lives (Stephen's, Bloom's, Molly's) as they live 16 June, 1904, is super challenging, especially because Joyce adopts a wholly new style and form for each of the book's eighteen chapters, so the reader continuously has to relearn the narratological rules as he or she proceeds. And, honestly, some of the chapters are more fun to talk about than to actually read. But when they work—and they work quite often: I'm thinking of the Hades chapter, where Bloom attends Dignam's funeral; the Nausicaa chapter, where lame Gerty MacDowell sits and thinks on Sandymount Strand while Bloom masturbates; the Circe chapter, where German expressionist drama collides with French surrealism in the brothel of the mind; and, of course, the Penelope chapter, where Molly's stream-of-consciousness language is all liquid and light and eight sentences over forty pages—when they work, they are simply, movingly, technically splendid. A quick note on the text, by the way: the first legally printed edition in any English-speaking country appeared in 1934 (the book was considered pornography until then and banned)—with, alas, over 5000 errors in it (an average of seven per printed page) that were then passed down from edition to subsequent edition. Gabler has done an extraordinary job restoring the text to something in the neighborhood of what Joyce intended. So if you're serious about experimental fiction, and you only plan to read one sprawling experimental novel this year, Ulysses should be it.

Melancholy of Anatomy. Shelley Jackson. 2002. Anchor Books. Short stories. The extraordinarily bizarre and extraordinarily beautiful worlds in Jackson's first print collection of short fiction (she gained her reputation in the nineties for two fabulous hypertexts, Patchwork Girl and My Body) are swamped with suet, blood, guts, gametes, and the odd sex machine. Nerves are grown in a midwestern field as wheat might be and then harvested to make nerve guitars and nerve dolls. Once a month, menstrual blood flows through the pipes below London as the city experiences its period. It rains sleep. A lonely lover swims through the fat collecting in her houses. In each of these thirteen pieces, Jackson explores through gorgeous language the embodiment of the universe and teaches us again and again what story can be and what it means to inhabit the flesh. Her literary parentage includes Angela Carter, Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, and Franz Kafka. With relatives like that, how can you go wrong?

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Geoff Dyer. 1997. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Nonfiction. This sharp, comic, brilliantly neurotic genre-blurring critifiction is about Dyer's attempt and failure to write a serious study of D. H. Lawrence. What he and the reader soon realize is that that study is less something that can ever be realized than it is a metaphor for the various works we all perform in order to shape, order, and pass our lives. Consequently, Out of Sheer becomes more about Dyer than Lawrence, more and more about what Dyer will do not to write about the man who made him want to become a writer, and more and more and more a meditation on infinitely deferred desire, the importance of process over product, and how every piece of criticism at the end of the day is really a piece of fictive spiritual autobiography.

Notable American Women. Ben Marcus. 2002. Vintage Contemporaries. Novel. A character named Ben Marcus has just had his house taken over by a cult of women dedicated to the abolition of sound and motion called The Silentists. His father is imprisoned in an unground cell in a field behind the family farmhouse in Ohio. And then things start turning really weird. In one sense, NAW can be read as social satire: an investigation and critique of our puritanical Prozac nation. In another, it can be read as an extended metaphor for the dysfunction known as family, how each member will always hunt and haunt the others. It is not for nothing that Ben’s mother defines to raise (as in to parent) as “to flay off skin and insert another body inside the pelt." NAW is also both an homage to language and a disquisition on its limitations. Marcus’s surprising sentences are less written than engineered, and his obsessively self-conscious insertion of abstract dissonance into them defamiliarizes our engagement with words, text, and world. Consequently, NAW can also be read as a poetics of reading and, therefore, of constructing our own and others’ gender and identity, of making meaning, sentence by sentence, of an oblique, over-determined universe rife with linguistic slippages and sputters. However you read it, what you'll find is something exciting, unsettling, and, most of all, beautiful.

Requiem. Curtis White. 2001. Dalkey Archive. Novel. Hugely funny, ecstatically ribald, and wholly grim, this is White's requiem for the species. An extended narrative pastiche of pla(y)giarized biblical stories, the e-epistolary exchange between a deranged professor and the host of a bestiality site, wacky letters to the editor of a small-town newspaper, poems, plays, retellings of Mozart's, Schumann's, Chopin's, and Brahm's lives, confessions by a murder and a guy who thinks of himself as The Modern Prophet, among others, it reminds us again and again that "one way of thinking about music, which is note after note, is that it is an anxious response to this decay [of each musical tone]. The decay gets covered over by the next note, as if we hadn't the courage just to listen to one note and understand it deeply, right into the ground.... Nothing speaks more directly to the pathos of lost time.

The Impossibly. Laird Hunt. 2001. Coffee House Press. Novel. You know how every once in a really long time you discover a novel unlike anything you've ever read? Hunt's first is one of them. Innovative, comic, bizarre, and beautiful, it reads as if Barthelme were channeling Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Ben Marcus, and reruns of Get Smart. Somewhere in a northern European city, an unhinged, unnamed narrator works for an ominous concern called "the organization." Whatever it does, it surely isn't pretty. When the narrator fumbles a job by putting the wrong address on a package, he is "disaffirmed." The organization afflicts him, and he unravels lightheartedly, suffering memory lapses, clubings, and a sort of existential aphasia as he drifts through an increasingly shadowy universe flickering with potential violence and madness where no one's identity—let alone "reality" itself—is constant. Meticulously imprecise and contradictory, The Impossibly is an extraordinary novel of interstices, non-sequiturs, and not knowing.