Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Top 10 books

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #9: It

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Stephen King's It

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction has to be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, and places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that still haunts my dreams the most is Stephen King’s It, perhaps because it seems like such an unlikely candidate for one of America’s greatest popular novels. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small town in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, in which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, imagination, and the melancholy process by which we all leave our childhood selves behind. King has always been the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny King’s roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but like many of the authors on my list, the qualities that drew me to his work on my first encounter aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there. As a horror novel, It no longer scares me much, any more than The Shining does on my twentieth viewing, but its characters and tone—delivered in King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled—have drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it, especially now that I’ve reached the age of its adult protagonists, and I’ve begun the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day. I first read It when I was eleven or twelve, or just a little too young, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the perfect time to discover King. Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, and reading it over again, I’m even more impressed. It is a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with room for excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends many pages exploring its neighborhoods, landmarks, and secrets, until we feel that we could find our own way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a place where you’re still the child you always meant to be.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

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My ten great books #8: Dictionary of the Khazars

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Dictionary of the Khazars

The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. They don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with the sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re prepared to read it on its own terms.

Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can just read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another for more than a decade, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #7: The Westing Game

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Of the hundreds of novels that I must have read between the ages of eight and twelve, the three that have stuck with me the most are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The first two get the lion’s share of love, and not without reason: we like to reward children’s books that leave their youthful readers with valuable lessons. The Phantom Tollbooth, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the best fictional handbook to being alive I’ve ever found, and A Wrinkle in Time contains one of the most moving passages in all of young adult literature, when its protagonist, Meg, realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz. The italics are mine:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

Compared to such peers, The Westing Game might seem like a trifle, “a puzzle mystery,” as it says right there on its paperback cover. As time goes on, though, it’s the one that impresses me the most. It’s every bit the equal of the other two in terms of invention, and it belongs on any short list of the great mystery novels. (A glance at Raskin’s notes only underlines how much care, thought, and sheer cleverness had to go into it at every stage.) If it had been written in French and translated into English—which is impossible to imagine—we might put it on a shelf with the works of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, who founded a movement defined as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Instead, The Westing Game was written by Ellen Raskin, a homegrown genius of a particularly American kind. It’s revealing that she began her career as one of our great commercial illustrators, designing the covers for over a thousand books, including the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. All four of her fantastic novels have a way of talking among themselves, in what Nabokov, another precursor, called “a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another,” and it reflects the sensibility of an artist used to thinking in terms of the relationships of elements on the page. Reading it again recently, I was amazed by how much it accomplishes in fewer than two hundred pages. It invents an ingenious mystery that doubles as an ergodic text for preteens. Unlike most mystery novelists, who give us a series of names that blur together as soon as we put the book down, Raskin creates over a dozen characters whom I remember vividly after the passage of decades. (Every few weeks or so, I seem to mutter to myself, for no particular reason: “Ed Purple-Fruit. Ed Plum.”) The cast is diverse without making a point of it, and everyone is allowed to be smart, foolish, empathetic, obtuse, and funny. Its wit is incredibly sharp and consistent. There are no villains, aside perhaps from Grace Wexler, whose casual racism is skewered so beautifully that it’s easy to undervalue it. Best of all, there’s no implication, as we sometimes get from L’Engle or Juster, that we’re meant to take the story as a moral lesson. The Phantom Tollbooth turns into something like propaganda for curiosity, while The Westing Game achieves much the same goal—it’s impossible to read it without hungering for more puzzles—simply by serving as an example of what a curious mind can create. As a result, it points more emphatically than any other book at the kind of novels I ended up writing and reading as an adult. Unlike the others, it wasn’t trying to change lives. But it sure changed mine.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #6: Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity's Rainbow

If there’s a thread that runs through many of my favorite works of fiction, it’s that they’re often the work of massively erudite authors who are deeply ambivalent—or ironic—about their own learning. Norton Juster of The Phantom Tollbooth and the tireless annotators of the Sherlock Holmes stories seem to be content with knowledge for its own sake, but as for the rest, Borges ends up trapped in his own labyrinth; The Magic Mountain constructs an edifice of ideas on the verge of being blown up by a meaningless war; Proust notices everything but envies those creatures of instinct, like Albertine or Françoise, who can relate to the world in simpler terms. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the ultimate expression of this discomfort, an unbelievably dense, allusive, and omniscient novel about the futility of information itself. No other work of contemporary fiction is so packed with technical lore, references, jokes, and ideas, and its technical virtuosity is staggering. Thomas Pynchon has occasionally been dismissed as a shallow trickster or showoff, but his style is inseparable from his larger concerns. Only by writing the encyclopedic novel to end all others can he qualify himself to sound a deadly serious warning, which is that all the plans, structure, and information in the world can only wither and die in the face of more fundamental truths: death, loneliness, dissolution.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy: limericks, pie fights, burlesque imitations of vaudeville and musical theater, puns of exquisite corniness (the German city of Bad Karma, the Japanese Ensign Morituri), and countless vignettes of incredible beauty, cruelty, and inventiveness. That last word has a way of being applied to works that don’t deserve it, but here, it’s fully justified: Gravity’s Rainbow invents more across its seven hundred pages than any other novel I know—every sentence threatens to fly out of control, only to be restrained by its author’s uncanny mastery of tone—and the effect is both exhilarating and alienating. There aren’t any real characters here, just marionettes with amusing names, and there’s never a sense that this is anything more than a construct of Pynchon’s limitless imagination. (There’s a good case to be made that this was a conscious artistic choice, and that depth of character would only make the novel more unwieldy than it already is.) Like most encyclopedic works, it includes parodies of its own ambitions, like Mitchell Prettyplace’s definitive eighteen-volume study of King Kong, including “exhaustive biographies of everyone connected with the film, extras, grips, lab people,” or Brigadier Pudding’s Things That Can Happen in European Politics, a comprehensive analysis of possible political developments that is constantly overtaken by real events. Despite the occasional glimmer of hope, it’s futile, of course. But on any given page, as we’re swept up by Pynchon’s enormous talent, it doesn’t seem so futile after all.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

To understand the appeal of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not with the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even with the countless inaccessible encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read endlessly. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy. He also underwent prolonged engagements with the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Scheherazade. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of a reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including me, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges comes from an unbroken line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as displays of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the best introduction to Borges, which collects the cream of his work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more we read him, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony that he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His finest works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently factual narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both men with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps the author along with his readers.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2017 at 9:00 am

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