Thursday, December 31, 2009

2000s: the decade in books

For the moment at least, most of us still read books that take up physical space. Scanning our libraries to recall a decade’s reading requires movement. We walk from shelf to shelf in search of that terrific title that nearly slipped our minds. I’ve always sensed a kinship between walking, writing, and reading, the steps taken from one word to the next, the meditative spell we’re placed under, the small choices that lead us farther from home, or deeper into story. I’m going to write about my most treasured books of the century’s first decade as I find them, slip them off the shelf, flip through the pages, and remember.

The late W.G. Sebald was very much the walker/writer, crafting unclassifiable books we’ll call novels for ease. He meets a man in Antwerp, an architectural historian concerned “with the shape and the self-contained nature of discreet things.” Their friendship develops over decades of accidental encounters. Slowly we learn Austerlitz’s story. He was an infant refugee on a kindertransport from Czechoslovakia. He was raised by a Calvinist preacher in Wales. Slowly Sebald unravels one of the most singular of Holocaust narratives, an immensely engrossing tale of memories recovered. And Sebald’s prose moves not ponderously but one step at a time, stopping to take note of faces and places, objects, voices, hidden spaces, the palimpsest and residue of history. As you read him you sense that the book could go anywhere, yet in the end it only goes where it was meant to all along.

Here is Where We Meet
Did John Berger ever run into Sebald on one of his walks? It could still happen. In the first chapter of
Here is Where We Meet Berger encounters his mother while wandering through Lisbon—he recognizes her by her walk. She’s been dead for 15 years. Now in his 80s, Berger remains one of literature’s great nomads. Moving from city to city, meeting or remembering people from his past, this is his most visionary writing of the last decade. To read him is to feel as though you're touching something, smelling something. He gives us back the sensual world like few writers can.

The Body Artist
“You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.” Don DeLillo ended the 20th century with a mammoth masterwork. He started the 21st with this compact, fragmentary novella. I for one think it's been vastly under-appreciated. The first part describes a domestic morning with startling clarity, a couple, moving in the same space, sometimes listening to each other, sometimes blinded by routine. Someone dies. Soon after a ghostly visitor appears. The titular protagonist interprets the whole experience into something essentially wordless, yet her performance is hauntingly described through DeLillo’s prose.

Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson’s the patron saint of fuck-ups. He renders lyrical the depths of human folly. This sprawling epic about Americans embroiled in grotesque misadventures at home and abroad is a blackly comic history of Vietnam, among other things. A CIA operative whose uncle is some goofy 20th century Colonel Kurtz; the Houston brothers, familiar from Johnson’s
Angels; a Canadian aid worker and Seventh Day Adventist: these are our sherpas along the mountain. Misunderstandings, dubious ambitions, and fraught friendships forged with Southeast Asians line an unruly tale both hilarious and appalling.

What to make of the posthumous English-language celebrity of Roberto Bolaño, so eerily in keeping with the morbid enigmas buried in his stories?
The Savage Detectives would have been enough to cement his reputation, but then we got this. He wanted this last work divided into five novellas, so as to accumulate more royalties for his children after his death. This request was thankfully denied—I hope his kids are eating well. The colossal power of 2666 lies partly in its sustained tonal focus, which tethers together the stories of adventurous young European scholars, an American journalist, an elusive German novelist, a lonely single father, and a number of disparate Mexicans linked to the murder of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s fictionalized Ciudad Juarez, into a global geometry of trauma, longing, and obsession. It’s one of the most exhausting and harrowing books I’ve ever read. At times I felt nausea. I can’t wait to read it again.

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell’s eloquently structured Russian doll novel cradles within it science fiction, a Grishamesque corporate thriller, and letters, spanning the 19th century to the post-apocalyptic future. Tales within tales, each one read by a character in the next, build upon one another until they pass through the mirror in the book’s centre. The individual narratives are mostly simple to describe, but the book as a whole defies synopsis. Sorry.

The Ongoing Moment
Geoff Dyer’s best work since his truly sublime jazz chronicle
But Beautiful is a paragon of associational rigour. (Mostly) American photography is his vast subject, though it's wonderful when he makes room for Hiroshi Sugimoto, say. A disciple of Berger, whom he wrote about when very young, Dyer’s guided from image to image by impulses founded in history, biography, art criticism, conjecture, and the labyrinth of magnetic details in the photos themselves that catch his magpie eye.

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami is always fun, always extravagantly imaginative, always sequestering his heroes in some sort of wilderness—that’s usually when the weirdness starts. A teenage runaway and an aging simpleton share a destiny. Guidance is gleaned from cats and rocks. There’s a murder mystery enveloping this coming of age novel, among the most ambitious in Murakami’s oeuvre.

The Fortress of Solitude, Then We Came to the End
They came from Brooklyn, but only the first, Jonathan Lethem’s quasi-fantastical, pop culture-addled, semi-autobiographical epic, is a remembrance of Brooklyn past, a story of interracial friendship founded in music, graffiti, art, comics, and broken families. Oh yeah, and a super-powered ring. Joshua Ferris’ insightful, very funny novel, a terrific debut, written in first-person collective, is actually set in a Chicago advertising agency. It’s about work, but it’s also about fleeting forms of togetherness.

Miracles of Life
J.G. Ballard is the third author in this little library walk to have died sometime in our new century’s first decade. (Oddly enough he had a special kinship with Jean Baudrillard, who also died, back in 2007, and whom I’m still getting around to reading someday. And speaking of kinships, that David Cronenberg chose to adapt Ballard’s
Crash for the screen surely marks one of the most uncannily apt collaborations between two complimentary sensibilities in the history of art.) Whether through science-fiction or merely something like it, Ballard did so much to make us look differently at our minds and bodies, at our memories and our social strategies, at our technologies as extensions of ourselves, at our cities and buildings and boundaries, at our fantasies, perhaps most of all. But his final book was a memoir, and while he published a number of excellent novels in the 2000s, all of them variations on the same, deeply compelling narrative, this memoir somehow seems to me the greater accomplishment. (Is this the case as well with David Thomson? I treasure his writing on film more than almost any other critic, and The Whole Equation is now among my favourite books about Hollywood ever. But Try to Tell the Story, in which he recalls his postwar London childhood and his father's double life, awakens his readers to something altogether different in his prose, something to do with his ability to connect with the sense of loss and wild ambition he writes about with regards to Orson Welles, for example.) From Miracles of Life, I remember especially how he wrote about the corpses he would dissect in medical school as palimpsests of experience, how he wrote about Saskatchewan, where he spent some time in his youth, how he wrote about coping with the loss of his wife and the mother of his children, whom he had to raise on his own while trying to maintain a career as a writer. It’s so strange when writers die. They only existed for most of us on the page, and on the page they live still. Somehow I can still hear Ballard’s voice.

Paul Auster—another Brooklynite!—has been on fire as of late—seven novels in ten years. He works diligently on stories that tumble into other stories, testaments to the fact that every one of us is a storyteller.
Invisible may be the best of his recent work—in any case it’s the latest. (He’s but one of a number of novelists who churned out one solid book after another in the 2000s. I think of so many good ones from César Aira, Cormac McCarthy, Horacio Castellanos Moya, José Saramago… But I’m trying to draw this to a close here.) A man recalls a turning point in his youth, when he met a Satanic scholar and his lovely, younger wife, who endow the youth with knowledge of eros and death. This story, the first part of the book, is sent to an old friend, a professional writer, who then assumes the authorship of what we’re reading, and delves into still more perverse secrets in the first man’s past. Both of these men, the authors of the first and second parts, have much in common with Auster, but these commonalities highlight the trickster in Auster above all. Divided into four parts, Invisible shifts from place to place, from author to author, from first to second to third person, and then to the form of a diary. Some of these shifts seem designed as coping mechanisms; some imply crucial discrepancies. These discrepancies prompt the question: when does the past become fiction? Is it not happening every moment? And is storytelling not the most durable balm against our histories being swallowed into the fog?

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