Ugh, 2014 — who needed dystopian literature when you had Google news alerts? It seemed every day bagged and hashtagged more evidence of our decline, from Bundy Ranch and broiling Ferguson to the Ray Rice elevator videos and a smug Dick Cheney cheerleading for torture. (Surely the Germans have a word meaning “face that needs to be rectally fed.”) Mass shootings. Killer cops and, in briefly grieving Vegas and in conflicted New York, cop-killers. A vapor-locked Congress. A gasping planet. Journalism meltdown. Sharknado 2. An excess of Kardashians. In the same week in November, my cat died and the Republicans won, and with a very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground. I mean, who needs North Korea when we’re our own worst malware? “How,” Charles Bowden asked, in the most urgent, penetrating sentence I read all year (from Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing), “can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?” He didn’t mean it as a rhetorical question, but there’s no answer I can think of. I’ll bet Dick Cheney knows.
How’s a guy supposed to read with all that racket? For me, at least, 2014 was often about keeping it all at bay, at least temporarily, which how I found myself happily buried alive in Thomas Pynchon’s delirious techno fable, Bleeding Edge. What a balm those whiz-bang sentences were! Marvels of tensile construction, their performative bounce a source of pure aesthetic joy. The narrative was a typically overstuffed Pynchon checklist: curious seeker, mysterious characters, murky conspiracies, blooming paranoias, hinted-at secret worlds, red herrings, silly names. Its hyperlinked plotlines were in keeping with the book’s setting and motif, Internet culture circa (wink, wink) early September 2001. Pynchon’s conspiracies and ambient anxieties managed to harmonize with, not exacerbate, my own bummer vibes; immersed in his book, I experienced the headlines as a distant clatter, like hail on the roof. I can’t swear it’s a great book, but it was great when I wanted it to be.
Bits of Chris Abani’s novel The Secret History of Las Vegas stick with me like splinters. I didn’t enjoy the book very much — I found the writing largely affectless in its attempt to achieve a literary lyricism (cue an eye roll at the un-quote-marked dialogue); the characters never quite rounded out for me; and its riffs on the meanings of Las Vegas aren’t particularly deep if you’re a lifer. But Abani threaded his narrative (which conjoined apartheid South Africa with Southern Nevada) through some disturbing themes — moral disfigurement; torture; trust and betrayal; the deadly weight of history; the deadly banality of bureaucracy — in ways that enlarged on Bowden’s question. I found myself thinking it about long after I was done reading. Does that make it a good book after all?
I also snacked on Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel, one of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone numbers, and, I think, two David Baldaccis; as with counting carbs, I’m not particularly exact because it doesn’t particularly matter.
This was the year Dave Hickey took to Facebook, and for a while his posts were the best reading in my newsfeed, shortish but pointed (if irritatingly typo-ridden) thesis pieces about art and life that treated social media as a worthy sparring partner. But social media wasn’t up to it, and eventually it was mostly Dave goading his readers about their shortcomings (“This wall is a dog whistle for Asberger’s syndrome. Time out, take your meds”). Meanwhile, James Wolcott’s column in Vanity Fair continued its long arc of diminishing returns, at least in my eyes, the prose as sparkling as ever but stretched across emptier spaces, summaries and descriptions too often replacing the bracing thought. Then, for The New Republic, he uncorked a terrific sorta-takedown of Lena Dunham’s essay collection, Not That Kind of a Girl. Regaining his championship form, Wolcott matched his acerbic, jazz-hands style to a forensic critical assessment of a book everyone was talking about. I don’t have an opinion about Dunham myself, but what I enjoyed was seeing a sharp mind unafraid to make strong judgments in unapologetically vigorous prose. What made it better was that he backed it up with a nuanced, sympathetic take on Dunham herself and her career; turned out this was not a simple hatchet job. Maggie Nelson took the opposite approach in her review of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 in the Los Angeles Review of Books: She raved, adroitly and with piercing intelligence — a model of critical appreciation I’d give a lot to be able to pull off myself. Also at LARB, Joseph Giovannini’s architecture criticism set high standards of reasoning, clarity and passion, whether he was attacking an LA museum or celebrating Frank Gehry. Because I’m not above the lowbrow — see Baldacci, etc. — I read some celebrity profiles in 2014. Andrew Corsello’s zingy, interpretive take on Louis C.K. for GQ was my favorite, though it had its detractors, including Wolcott (in his Kindle single King Louie). Also worth a read: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on comedian Doug Stanhope in Harper’s. Best unpublished essay about poop I read all year: Joe Langdon‘s. (Thanks for letting me read it, Joe.) But my hands-down favorite periodical reading all year came under James Parker’s byline in The Atlantic. He’s got the jumpin’ prose I love, applied to a smart generalist’s curiosities: “stuff”-based reality TV, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix. Always, Parker looks for the long tail, the rich context, the surprise connection. When he calls Naked Lunch “the truest successor to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,” you sit back and think, Well, there’s a pathway I didn’t imagine existed.
I wish he’d come out with a collection. 2014 was a great year for essay collections. No book this year took my head off more cleanly than The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It came out in April and Bowden died in August, so I suppose it’s possible he encountered the book before departure, and perhaps saw in it some stirrings of an answer to his question: that is, an understanding of the uses and abuses of empathy; an openness to the world; a precise and unflinching attention to the traffic between her inner life of memory and emotion and the exterior world she reports on and researches. To me, a necessary book.
Other essay collections that were nearly as vital, if for different reasons: Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio, More Curious, by Sean Wilsey, The Fame Lunches, by Daphne Merkin. The first two, especially, showed the flexibility of the essay form, its ability to dwell on the small details, the meandering thought — when D’Ambrosio shows up to cover a hostage situation in Seattle, what you learn from the piece has little to do with the crime and more to do with the modern existential condition. More conventional in form, Merkin’s book was just enjoyable to spend time with, even the confessional stuff I don’t normally tumble for.
I wanted to finish Lynn Tillman’s essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, and I still might. I wanted to finish Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, and I still might; I wanted to finish James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, and I still might; I wanted to finish Hilton Als’ essay collection White Girls, and I still might. I wanted to finish Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, but let’s be real — my appetite for fin de siecle Viennese literary politics is more limited than I assumed.
The small amount of poetry I read this year was still, for me, an unprecedented amount of poetry. Why the uptick? Wish I knew. At times my brain is like a truffle-sniffing pig, rooting out strange delights it’s only caught a scent of, and there I am, leashed behind and dragged helplessly along. Erin Bilieu’s collection Slant Six was a favorite. “The Rapture came / and went without incident, / but I put off folding my laundry, / just in case.” Necessary whimsy, that. So too parts of Michael Robbins’ The Second Sex: “The womb’s a fine and private place / or am I thinking of a doughnut?” But, Robbins being Robbins, shit can get suddenly real. “The United States of Fuck You Too / is what you’re about to receive. / You can shoot all the kids you like, / but you can never leave.”
That’s poetry, I guess, sending you right back to real life without due process, the way Tony Hoagland did for me in Donkey Gospel: “We gaze into the night / as if remembering the bright unbroken planet / we once came from / to which we will never / be permitted to return. / We are amazed how hurt we are.” He doesn’t mention Dick Cheney, but that’s okay — I auto-fill.
Ball’s in your court, 2015.
Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Desert Companion magazine, a frequent contributor to Vegas magazine and has edited four volumes of the annual Las Vegas Writes anthology series, most recently Lost and Found in Las Vegas (2014). He hopes one day to become an obscure essayist.