Here are two takes on the question, “What was the best thing you read in 2012?”
Up for Grabs
By Scott Dickensheets
The best book I read last year was a book of poetry. I have no idea how that happened. I mean, for 50 years I barely touch the stuff, and then almost always in school; otherwise, I don’t know many people who read or even give a damn about it. Of the little I do read, I’m never in danger of understanding it. Not its occluded meanings or opaque symbolism — wtf with the white chickens and red wheelbarrow, William Carlos Williams? — and, while we’re at it, why am I irritated by the twee poesy of the name “William Carlos Williams”? — not its aura of silkworm delicacy, and certainly not the idea that it’s some kind of purer, more piercing mode of expression. I suppose my mind is too A —> B —> C for that.
But I said almost always in school. An exception: A few years ago, suckered by the title “Alien vs. Predator” atop a stack of lines in The New Yorker, I read, loved and understood not a word of my first poem by Michael Robbins. Sample line: “Where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?” And, “I translate the Bible into velociraptor.”
Since I didn’t get it, I can’t say my mind was blown; that implies a cataclysm of clarity. But it was tickled. I’ll take a whale on stilts over a chicken with a wheelbarrow every time — if they’re both unintelligible, I know which sounds more fun. The poem is full of lines like that. Say them yourself:
“That elk is such a dick.”
“Hell, if you slit monkeys for a living, you’d pray to me too.”
“I’d eat your bra — point being — in a heartbeat.”
They fizz in your mouth like Pop Rocks, don’t they? Sure, I could probably translate those lines into velociraptor before I could tell you what they mean. I can’t even grasp how they could mean: “He’s a space tree making a ski and a little foam chiropractor”? Where do you insert the key to unlock that? And yet I could sense the deep lurk of something new and possibly important — to me, at least — under those zippy lines. I reread the poem often. (Besotted, I actually wrote a poem in the Robbins mode. Unheard of!) I followed a blog Robbins contributed to, in case he dropped any clues to his sensibility. He didn’t.
This May, half past Treyvon and a quarter to Aurora, with the election getting ugly and Newtown still far beyond our imagination — I don’t need to tell you what a genuinely horrifying year 2012 was, and more about that in a minute — Robbins finally released Alien vs. Predator, the whole collection. Dozens of poems like the title piece. Each dizzied with its wily non sequiturs, repurposed song lyrics, pop culture references and headlong, zeitgeisty energy.
I read it three times.
I can’t stress this enough: I still don’t get it. Despite a polar bear plunge into poetry — post-Robbins I read Terrance Hayes, Bob Hikok, Karen Finneyfrock, Philip Levine and others — I’m no less the hopeless newb, forever confounded by poetry’s reluctance to just say what the fuck it means. What a virtue that would be in these foul times! (Of course, some poets are more translucent than others, Levine, for example.) Yes, sure, I found little internal rhyme schemes in Robbins’ poems, and there’s meaning of some kind, or perhaps just a stance toward the world, to be divined in the cadences, in the mad spazz of the phrasing — but after three readings, that elk is still such a dick and I still can’t tell you what’s up with that. Clearly I ain’t about to blow your mind, either.
So I’m not sure why this thing lit up the ganglions; I mean, the workings of my mind are as inscrutable as anyone’s, even — maybe especially — to me. That’s probably some of what I like about the book: I sense there’s some there there, but I don’t know where. I do love a tease.
More important, though, in nearly every way that mattered, 2012 seriously sucked. Not always, or even often, for me personally: I lost no one in Newtown, Aurora or the other rampage sites — as one smug dick assured me on Facebook, “There’s nothing to process; it didn’t happen to you.” But it did happen to my country, in my time, and there’s such a thing as a psychological blast radius. So there was something to process. From the shootings to the vile slither of corporate money through our already ruined politics, to the income gap, to the daily assaults on the stability of truth and meaning, to, finally, the staggering fault lines between so many of us that were exposed by these deep shifts. I have an uncle who commanded me never to speak to him again because I pushed back against his paranoid anti-Obama ranting. (Dude, my pleasure.) It left me with an unease I couldn’t shake. These days, what doesn’t seem up for grabs?
So maybe, for me, Alien vs. Predator was the right book for these very wrong times, aggregations of atomized meaning — tantalizingly close to saying something new and illuminating, frustratingly refusing to give it up — for this disintegrating moment. And somehow, unless I’m totally full of shit on this, and I could be, a sense of reversed polarity: As the centrifugal forces of 2012 spun us farther away from real understanding, these poems seemed like one small bit-torrent rush toward meaning, scraps and fragments pulled in from everywhere in an attempt to piece together a new energy, a pastiche worldview — and some good, loopy fun, and I suspect that’s what finally sealed it for me.
I’m not saying Robbins is the only poet who does these things; I’m not saying that of those who do, he’s the best. As should be clear, I sure as hell wouldn’t know. But he’s the best I read last year.
A novel idea
By Geoff Schumacher
I read 45 books in 2012, and a bunch of them were really good. But if I had to pick one as my “best read,” it would be John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, a book so big and heavy that calling it a “doorstop” would be an insult.
Sutherland, a Brit who has spent a lot of time in the States, embarked on a ridiculously audacious task: to write a history of the novel by profiling its best and best-selling practitioners through time. But, being just one mortal human, he knew he had to set some parameters, and so he limited his scope to novelists writing in English. This, certainly, leaves out a lot of novelistic history — a few French, Spanish and Russian scribes, for starters — but Sutherland nonetheless had to read more novels than most individuals have done . . . ever.
In the end, Sutherland’s achievement is encapsulated in the subtitle: “A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.” Of course, your first question is, why 294? Why not go ahead and profile an even 300 scriveners? Sutherland answers this question, sort of, in his brief preface: “Isn’t this book big enough?”
A fair point: Even six novelists short of 300, it’s 797 pages not including the index.
Sutherland acknowledges his “story of fiction” is “almost as idiosyncratic as the subject itself.” With so many novels published over the past 400 years, especially over the past century, it would be impossible for Sutherland to read them all, let alone ponder their historical significance. “A single book and one person’s reading career (however obsessive) cannot contain or cover this richest of literary fields,” he writes.
And yet Sutherland manages to cover a great deal in this book. He hits all the major genres, and he doesn’t discriminate: The good, bad and ugly of the novel are all represented with equal vigor. Sutherland notes often that the literary classics still in print today are not necessarily the books that the masses were reading in their day.
But the reason this book is such an engrossing read — why it should not be regarded as a musty encyclopedia — is Sutherland’s obsession with the childhood traumas, destructive vices and aberrant sex lives of the novelists he profiles. If one of his subjects was a drunk, you’re going to hear all the gritty details. Even more attention is devoted to each writer’s sexual preference, prowess (or lack thereof) and dangerous liaisons. Sutherland is a relentless gossip, a predilection to which he tries to give legitimacy by his genuine belief that “literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating.” Regardless of what the novelists themselves would say, Sutherland sees deep connections between novelists’ personal lives and the fiction they write. At times, this feels like a bit of a stretch, but Sutherland pursues these connections with such relish and confidence that you can’t help but to be entertained and, often, persuaded.
Sutherland starts with John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress in the seventeenth century, and ends with Rana Dasgupta, best known for Tokyo Cancelled, published in 2005. In between, he gives roughly one and a half to three pages to the 292 others.
He hits most of the big British and American names of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Henry Fielding, Walter Scott, Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. He does a particularly thorough job covering nineteenth century female novelists, who sold a ton of books during the Victorian era while guys like Herman Melville struggled to find an audience.
The twentieth century is covered admirably, although there’s a handful of big names who are curiously omitted. For one example, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, is mentioned several times in profiles of other authors, but he doesn’t merit one of his own. If I had to guess, it’s because Tolkien’s personal life was rather boring — no brain-mushing vices, no sexual misadventures that we know of. Rest assured, if Tolkien had had a thing for little people with hairy feet, he’d have been in the book.
Neither does Sutherland dwell long on Ernest Hemingway. Although Hemingway technically is among the 294 lives, he is written about only in the context of his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although Hemingway had plenty of adventures, I suspect Sutherland passed on a full profile because he felt more than enough already has been written about the big fella.
As Sutherland gets closer to the present, his omissions become a little more difficult to understand. He writes about Alice Sebold but has nothing on David Foster Wallace? He profiles Bret Easton Ellis but not Michael Chabon? Fantasy writer Robert Jordan but not Games of Thrones guru George R.R. Martin? And how do you ignore one of novel writing’s all-time mystery men, Thomas Pynchon? At various times while reading the book, I pondered what six novelists he could have added to fill the gaps and hit the magic 300.
Throughout the book, I jotted down a handful of novels I learned about and now want to read. One that I picked up recently is Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was turned into an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Two others: sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants and Lost Generation expat Louis Bromfield’s The Farm.
Having read Lives of the Novelists, I now possess a great store of knowledge about the careers and sex lives of writers over the past three centuries. I don’t know if this will ever be useful to me, but the same could be said of just about anything we read except an instruction manual. But I do know this: If Sutherland’s approach to literature were applied to high school English classes, they would be a lot more interesting, and we’d have a more literate populace as a result.