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Reading List
March, 2007

The Golden Gate , Vikram Seth
Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks
Being Dead , Jim Crace
Bright Lights, Big City , Jay McInerney
The Year of Magical Thinking , Joan Didion

"Moments can be monuments to you, if your life is interesting and true ."
- David Berman, Silver Jews, "People"

Unemployment offers you a lot more time to read, and I am loving it. Funemployment. This month, I’ve read three outstanding books and two decent, but unexceptional ones. I purchased both Being Dead by Jim Crace and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth while wandering around Park Slope with RM, more than a little buzzed. Both novels are very much literary exercises, playing with the formal elements of the novel, and both tell sad and poignant little stories about people slightly mis-fit to their worlds. Both are quick reads, neither failed to engage me, but in the end, I cannot heartily recommend either novel. I will try to spend as little time on them as possible.

The Golden Gate is a novel written entirely in verse, approximately six hundred fourteen line stanzas of Ogenin verse. And for such formal verse, it is generally clean, unforced, and witty (with occasional transgressions). That alone warrants consideration.

The Golden Gate relates the story of a love triangle (or quadrangle, depending on how you count) among four Bay Area misfits, their friends, and family, set in the context of Reagan-era boom and cultural weirdness. While Seth manages to characterize both the kookiness and general isolation of life in Northern California, and evokes likable characters, they never quite seem like real people with real lives. Perhaps this is due to the highly stylized verse, perhaps only to the highly stylized characters themselves.

The novel further suffers from the fact that the plot jerks along, plausibly but inexplicably, where people fall in and out of love, do things, and then some of them eventually die for no reason. You could call it “like life,” I suppose. The novel is a fine enough read, if you find yourself in possession of it, and not in possession of another. A better bet would be a twenty-minute perusal to marvel at how adroit Seth is with his verse.

Random, senseless acts of violence as a motivating force in the plot of a novel have always miffed me. Sure they happen in life, and sure they may force us face to face with those deep and textured existential questions about the meaning of this and that, but they always seem too convenient in novels, where nothing is random at all.

Jim Crace’s Being Dead is a novel that is predicated entirely on a random and senseless act of violence – the murder of the unhappily married biologist couple Joseph and Celice, by heavy stone, at the hands of an unnamed vagrant, on the dunes of an isolated bay. From the aftermath of this grim act, the formal play of the novel arcs out in three intertwined tracks – the first traces in reverse the second-by-second minutiae of the day leading up to the couple’s murder; the second, a set of thirty-year old flashbacks set the context for Joseph and Celice’s improbably love and mundane marriage; the final, follows their estranged daughter, Syl, forward into her moments of recognition and then grief in dealing with her parents’ death.

The writing is good, if distinctly British in tone, and Crace has his virtuoso moments, particularly when indulging in a biological precision to describe the death and decomposition of two dead bodies left a week in the sun. The sadness he imbues into the familial loves and life of Joseph, Celice and Syl is touching, but commonly evoked, and not particularly revelatory. Again, another quick, un-taxing read, perhaps good for a holiday on the Cape, but not something that you should feel desperate that you missed, as I thought I did.

Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco is the first non-fiction book that I have read in a few months, and it is brilliant. Given that I’m not privy to either the political or military decision making in this country, I can’t swear by this, but Fiasco reads like a comprehensive analysis of America’s engagement in Iraq, from 2003 to late 2005, documenting the good, the bad, and the ugly (and sadly most of it is bad or ugly).

Ricks, a senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, and prior to that, the Wall Street Journal, surveys the war from its inception, placing it in the historical context of both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 terrorist attacks, through its success and failure, with an incredible level of access to active military personnel, civilians in relevant government agencies, retired military and government officials and academics with insight into our current situation in Iraq.

Ricks tells a history of an engagement driven by the civilian leadership of the current administration, often over the objections of the military leadership, founded on assumptions and principles that have either proven to be wrong or are simply sophistic and inarguable (for example, the habit of Wolfowitz, in his rhetoric, to cast any early opponent of the war in the role of a modern day Chamberlain). More troubling is the complete failure of the highest levels of civilian and military leadership to adequately plan for, resource, and respond to the reality of an Iraqi invasion and occupation, from the outset. While Ricks paints a mixed-bag of the efforts of the on-the-ground forces, with some commanders and units praised where others are damned, at no point does the senior leadership seem adequately prepared to deal with, or even aware, of the severity of the conflict to which they have bound this country.

Given how grave the Iraqi conflict may be to America’s future, Fiasco is a must read. The evidence and analysis that Fiasco provides unfortunately raise more questions than answers. Some of those questions are worth articulating, which I’ll spend some time on later.

As a habit, I generally allow overlaps in what I am reading, such that I may be reading more than one book at a time. This may not be a good practice, but sometimes it is symbiotic. The lucky pairing of Bright Lights, Big City and The Year of Magical Thinking on my recent trip down to New York provided a wonderfully complementary, if heartbreaking, reading experience.

Bright Lights, Big City actually works a lot like the cocaine (or Bolivian Marching Powder) that fuels its protagonist. At first, I didn’t like it. But I decided to stick with it, and after awhile, it was alright. Soon, it was actually pretty fun. And then, sort of out of nowhere, I felt like I was punched in the stomach, all the wind was knocked out of my sails. I crashed. And I was left emotionally worn through, a little dazed, crying for no reason. Metaphorically.

Having lived in New York for six years, it’s always a little funny to read the drugs-booze-and-glamour soaked tales of midtown bankers, publishers, and adverstising people. It’s an orbit I’ve mostly skirted, toiling away in the post-boom wash of Silicon Alley, then retreating to the easy slackness of Brooklyn nights. But I’ve seen it, sometimes been it, certainly know enough to know enough.

Jay McInerney tells the story of an unnamed protagonist, initially only vaguely likable, working, and frustrated, in the fact-checking bowels of a prominent New York literary magazine, married to and then abandoned by a vapid, but gorgeous model from the Midwest, going out dancing at night, drinking and getting high, meeting Pat Benetar-lite girls, and generally trying to figure out what the fuck he is doing with himself while being dragged from party to party by his dangerously bon vivant buddy Tad Allagash.

On the razor edge of keeping his shit together, our hero binges and crashes his way through a horrible few days, in the process losing his job, embarrassing himself with a kind, co-worker, embarrassing himself for his worthless ex in front of the New York fashion world, embarrassing himself at a party, embarrassing himself in front of his brother, finally waking up in time to sucker punch the reader into realizing how precious and beautiful life is, and how often we fail to be honest and true with the ones we love. Or at least that’s what I got from it.

McInerney writing is clean, direct, and generally fun. He conjures up a few great, antic moments and certainly sets that ridiculous early 80s New York scene, not to mention showing great taste in quoting the Talking Heads’ "Cross-Eyed and Painless."  If you want a fun, but potentially devastating read, Bright Lights, Big City is a worth a run out.

The Year of Magical Thinking is mostly about death, grief, and coping. It is also about the mystery of love and the richness of life, and how we live it, right or wrong. Joan Didion is a writer whom I really like. Aside from her iconic and sexy status as one of the chroniclers of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and so on, I find her prose to be phenomenal. Her writing has the weight of a feather, but the impact of a stone. When it hits you, it hits you hard.

Written in the wake of the death of John Dunne, Didion’s husband, and the hospitalization of Quintana Roo Dunne (who died young, after the publication of the book). Most of the memoir focuses on Didion’s attempts to understand the death of her husband, to understand her life without her husband of forty years, and documents the year following his death, in which her life was clouded in grief, loss, and uncertainty.

In the memoir, Didion tells of her efforts to probe the medical specifics of John’s death and Quintana’s hospitalization, her badgering of doctor’s, paramedics, nurses, her efforts to exert control and influence over her situation through technical understanding. She relates the physical and emotional symptoms of her grief, exploring clinical and common sense salves to a soul at sea. She puts her grief in the context of her personal literary life. She portrays her life as an empty vessel, wading through the days and nights of her widowed life, only to periodically struggle and thrash against the current of grief, realizing finally that she cannot reverse time, cannot bring the dead back to life, and has to try, only, to understand how to live.

Didion’s treatment of grief and loss are heartbreaking and haunting. Her prose, as always is, simple and exacting. But the powerful moments, for me, in the Year of Magical Thinking were not her meditations on death, but her meditations on life.

As grief and loss dislocated Didion from the rhythms of her previous life, she describes what she calls vortexes – moments, objects, senses in her current life that transport her to moments in her past; a hotel in Los Angeles where she is staying while her daughter is hospitalized for the second time opens vistas into her years spent in LA; an elevator in Madison Square Garden reveals an evening a year before when she and John decided to make a trip to Paris, a trip that he thought might be his last; a fleeting thought about a couple they’d only twice met in Indonesia leading to John’s notebook, and his and her notions about how they did and didn’t live their lives as well as they might.

Through these vortexes, we get a portrait of a marriage, of two lives lived together as one, and two lives lived quite richly. As always, we only have the smallest glimpse into these lives, but in the end, its these lives which form the context of Didion’s grief. We only grieve for those that we will miss. We grieve not for the dead alone, and not for their memory along, but for their lives, with us, and who we are with them. And eventually, grief brings us to a point where we must live without them. As Didion writes:

 

I did not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of John at the instant ofh is death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, John alive, will become more remote, even “mudgy,” softened, transmuted into whatever best serves my life without him. In fact this is already beginning to happen. All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner, is it the day a year ago we flew to Honolulu after Quintana’s wedding, is it the day a year ago we flew back from Paris, is it the day. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead.

I was crossing Lexington Avenue when this occurred to me.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.