Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Summer reading: just the tip of the iceberg

Opportunity of a lifetime, folks: Who wants to read a tepid review of a book I've already decided against assigning in class next year? 

What, no one wants to read that review? Good thing, because I don't want to write it.

Summer is when I catch up on all the books I haven't had time for during the semester, but so far, most of the stuff I've been plowing through has been, um, adequate at best. Occasionally interesting, moderately significant, possibly suitable for use in a footnote, but I could sum up the bulk of my reading so far this summer in a single word: Meh.

Which makes the highlights shine all the brighter. Here are two books that have made me want to grab people by the sleeve and say, "You've got to read this!"

Outline by Rachel Cusk, a novel featuring an almost nonexistent plot: a woman goes to Athens to lead a writing workshop and talks to a bunch of people--or, more accurately, listens as they tell their stories. The writing is hypnotic, the voices seeming to arrive from a great distance but striking close to the heart; Cusk's unadorned prose takes a leaf from W.G. Sebald and hums with the subterranean pain Sebald specialized in. 

At one point the narrator confides that she had not noticed a friend's floundering "any more than the mountain notices the climber that loses his footing and falls down one of its ravines." In fact, she continues, "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of."

But later another character claims that compassion is not enough, for even the most attentive and loving people can urge others into impossible situations: "Perhaps, he said, we are all like animals in the zoo, and once we see that one of us has got out of the enclosure we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost."

Outline brings together a menagerie of such lost people, providing only the vaguest outline of the great loss that lies at the center. For the rest of the story, I'll have to read the sequel, Transit.

And speaking of lost people: I have to confess that I gobbled down the entire 514 pages of David Sedaris's Theft by Finding over a 48-hour span. I don't know whether these excerpts from Sedaris's diaries (from 1977-2002) are more like a bag of Lay's potato chips (no one can eat just one!) or like a multi-car pileup that won't let you look away. The entries are occasionally tedious and at times I wanted to take Sedaris by the shoulders and urge him to for heaven's sake just grow up, but what an amazing book. 

I'm not saying it's gorgeously written or an instant classic or socially redeeming or anything like that, but this book will be enjoyed by the kind of person who enjoys this kind of book. And I am not ashamed to be that kind of person. (Well, maybe a little.) 

Sedaris's keen observing eye focuses on mundane details of daily life--the fluctuating price of chicken parts, the very specific and sometimes bizarre demands of urban beggars, the endearing or embarrassing foibles of his friends and family members--but the cumulative effect reveals the immense effort required to create a coherent life from the disparate and ill-matched parts we're born with. Becoming a self-sustaining adult requires a massive amount of hard work, some of it for minimum wage and some in the company of reprehensible people, but the work itself is suffused with dignity, even if you sometimes have to shove a bucket of chicken parts out of the way to see it.

In the introduction, Sedaris comments on the interaction between living and writing: "In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it." And if someone with as keen an eye as David Sedaris sits down and writes about his world, I for one am going to read it.

In Outline Rachel Cusk maintains exquisite control--there is not an ill-chosen word, not a clumsy line, and every ounce of pain lies submerged like the hidden bulk of an iceberg. David Sedaris, on the other hand, hefts the iceberg out of the water and slaps you across the face with it--or he intends to slap you but instead slips and falls and comes up gasping, and then he turns the whole thing into a funny story. 

I can't imagine two more different writers, but what can I say? I like my icebergs both ways.

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