Saturday, February 20, 2016

Prelim Reading List: the Good, the Bad, and the Ones You Can Skip

I'm a little more than 2/3 of the way through my prelim reading list, and I have some winners:
1) Willa Cather's My Antonia. More charming than if Downton Abbey took place on the American Frontier. I'd recommend this book to literally anyone, and I'm trying to steal as much of its effortless warmth as I can for my own work. In a world of Big Important Books that try so hard to make you feel how serious they are (or to hide all of their emotionality under too-cool disdain for the reader), Cather lets you fall in love with the eponymous Antonia right alongside the narrator. A must-read and criminally under-appreciated book.
2) Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: I'd (stupidly) avoided reading this for the longest time because it's such a critical darling, but I was very wrong. I mean, to be fair, this is the book that gets touted with a straight-face as "one of the greatest war novels of all time" (because, you know, no one else has ever written novels about war that were worth a damn), so you can understand my hesitation. I'd read the short story that the book is named after, of course, and I found it to fall roughly into the same gimmicky, so-so cadence that sometimes sinks other literary writers for me. But I read the entire thing, and it absolutely lives up to the hype. I don't want to ruin it by going into detail, but if you haven't read this thing yet (or maybe I was the only person left on earth who hadn't) you should do so, immediately.
3) Super Sad True Love Story, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Oryx and Crake: I've read and talked about these books before on this blog, so I won't bother re-explaining in detail why they're great, but this time around, read in a sequence, they represent to me a remarkably cogent set of work that addresses the post-9/11 despair and resignation of the 20-aughts. There's paranoia, but it's a savvy paranoia, there's malaise, but it's a malaise whose satire lashes out at everyone, there's a disappointment, but it's a disappointment that feels indignant when it comes down to questions of who has what and why. These novels are quietly accusatory, and they succeed to the extent that they implicate the reader in a system of failures that encompass the sharp break that 9/11 caused between the twentieth and twenty-first century American ways of life. Unsurprisingly, age and generational-transfer have a lot to do with why these books feel so immediate, a dynamic that continues to be the lasting legacy of my generation's inaugural trauma.
I have some books you can safely skip
1) Joseph Heller's Catch-22: "His mother was a Daughter of the Revolution and his father was a Son of a Bitch." Re-mix and repeat this same funny-in-a-vaguely-paternalistic/mysogynistic way WWII-era joke again and again and again for 400 pages. Yawn. A lot of the same schtick as Kurt Vonnegut, but if you've read Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22 will feel like an also-ran.
2) Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm: "Shucks Frankie, I need a fix really bad..." Probably cutting edge for its time, but seems far too naive now to connect properly, especially alongside Richard Wright, Upton Sinclair, and other writers who took on the grittier parts of early 20th century Chicago.
3) Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Louis Rey: A really neat premise, and some good moments, for sure, but it's easy to see why this has faded in importance over the years. It's a whole bunch of neat aesthetic ideas crammed into a book that feels positively ancient, despite being released at the very tail end of American Naturalism (almost 30 years after My Antonia). Worth it to see how well a frame narrative can work in a story cycle, but underwhelming in most other ways.
4) Saul Bellow's Herzog: I'm still grinding my way through this. It's only 500-ish pages long, but it's so deliberately aimless and glacially self-congratulatory that it might as well be 50,000 pages long. Like Heller, Bellow makes what I'm discovering is the common, American-mid-century mistake: thinking that one's prose is clever enough to sustain a length that it just can't. It's the literary equivalent of those masturbatory prog-rock guitar solos. Go home, Herzog, you're drunk.
And I also have some concerns:
1) Philip K. Dick. For real, you guys? I've largely avoided his work for most of my career because I just wasn't all that drawn to the themes of his stories, but I'm three chapters into Ubik right now, and good lord is it terrible. I mean, to be fair I'm on a four-month binge of a hundred books, including Nabokov and Steinbeck and some truly legendary writers, but is this a common reaction to PKD? Because I've heard a lot of glowing talk about him over the years (you know who you are), and I think you, my misguided friends, should take a second, much harder look at the object of your fandom. And speaking of vastly overrated authors...
2) Thomas Pynchon is insufferable. Full stop. I gave up about halfway through Gravity's Rainbow, even with the annotated critical edition and an audio version to listen to again to try and keep up with whatever the hell it was about, and I held my nose through several painful hours of The Crying of Lot 49 as a sort of hellish consolation prize, convinced by the end that Pynchon may have done more to hurt the reputation of sci-fi than to help it, despite being mentioned in more critical articles than almost any author I can think of. What on earth is this guy's appeal? I jumped at the sweet release of hand-scrubbing my kitchen floor to escape him.
3) William Gibson... gets a pass this time around because Pattern Recognition was actually pretty good by comparison. Not amazing, not "this guy is the beating heart of literary-minded sci-fi," but a solidly OK post-9/11 novel; not as self-cannibalizing as I feared it would be and not anywhere near as puzzlingly off-putting as Pynchon or Dick.

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